There is something about the concept of a nation "losing" that conjures up pictures - a shredded flag lying on a desolate battlefield, a surrender ceremony aboard a gray battleship, two generals sitting at a small table at Appomattox. We think of losing as something that occurs violently, and at the end of a long, bloody struggle.
But what if there is no violence, no blood, no visible struggle, no riveting pictures? After all, Arnold Toynbee reminded us that civilizations aren't murdered, they commit suicide. Suicide is usually quiet.
Americans boast that no foreign enemy can defeat us, that no foe will charge in and rob us of our freedoms. No matter what the challenge, we have enough patriots who will drop everything and defend the country. The response to 9-11 showed that. But 9-11 occurred almost eight years ago. In the interim, other trends have begun to emerge in the United States, and they raise a question: Will America, if it doesn't lose its freedoms, simply give them up? It seems an odd notion - Americans giving up their freedoms. But consider the ways it can happen, and, in some circumstances, already is happening:
1. Freedom as a dirty word. Why do we assume that everyone in America loves freedom, or even the idea of it? Most Americans think of freedom as something that is good. But on college campuses all over America there are people teaching a very different creed - that our way is only one of many, no better than any other, and probably worse. The very notion of fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech is not only under threat, it is often ridiculed. While foreign dictators and violators of human rights, or their disciples, can be invited to speak on our campuses without incident, speakers advancing traditional American notions of freedom are often shouted down, or require bodyguards. The conservative writer, David Horowitz, recounts this incident in a recent Wall Street Journal piece:
I arrived in Austin, Texas, one evening recently to give a speech about academic freedom at the university there. Entering the hall where I was to give my speech, I was greeted -- if that's the word -- by a raucous protest organized by a professor and self-styled Bolshevik, Dana Cloud. Forty protesters hoisted placards high in the air and robotically chanted "Down With Horowitz," "Racist Go Home," and "No More Witch-hunts."
Horowitz was fortunate. In this case the university had people on hand to protect his right to speak. But he comments:
I don't know of a single leftist speaker among the thousands who visit campuses every term who has been obstructed or attacked by conservative students, who are too decent and too tolerant to do that. The entire evening in Texas reminded me of the late Orianna Fallaci's observation that what we are facing in the post-9/11 world is not a "clash of civilizations," but a clash of civilization versus barbarism.
Many colleges have tried to impose speech codes to protect students against "hate speech," a term that has come to mean virtually anything, but is almost always applied to suppress the speech of those on the right. A few years ago, a distinguished civil-liberties lawyer worried aloud about the example this sets for students. What will their view of freedom be 20 years from now, when they are running things, if an example of suppression was set for them when they went to college? How will they defend freedom when it was suppressed so easily, and by people they were taught to respect? And did they buy into the idea of suppression as something good?
Speech codes are often justified on grounds of "harmony" - that they help create a more harmonious society. And, indeed, society is remarkably harmonious when no one is permitted to dissent. It is not a harmony that free men and women can accept. But if the example of restricting speech is set in our educational system, it will infect the society.
2. New immigrant values. America, the clichÃ© goes, is an immigrant society. But ideas about immigration have changed, and for the worse. At one time the immigrant came to America to become an American. If an immigrant family came to New York, its children were educated in schools influenced by the educator, Julia Richman, who insisted that newcomers could learn as well as anyone, but that they had to learn American values and traditions of liberty. Yes, it is true that the so-called melting pot had trouble melting, and that immigrants often remained in ethnic enclaves, but by the second and third generation those enclaves were weakening, and the children of immigrants were becoming full-fledged Americans.
The attitudes toward immigration of some American elites have, however, been stood on their head. Now, under the rubric of multiculturalism, we are told that immigrants should keep their "original cultures." After all, who are we to dictate to people from other traditions? This suspension of critical evaluation has played out most effectively in Europe, where the experience should serve as a warning to us. In recent decades, millions have immigrated to Europe from societies in which fundamental freedoms are absent, held in contempt, or even criminalized. As immigrants arrived in Europe, a "modern" European elite refused to instruct them, to assimilate them, or to insist that they live by Western values. The result has been a breakdown of those values in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden, where the new immigrants are free to express the most vile bigotry, but any criticism of them is often classified as hate speech, punishable by law. And there are people, like the Dutch parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, who are being punished, and may be imprisoned. It is an Orwellian nightmare - free societies inviting in those who would destroy that very freedom, and enthusiastically helping them to do it.
3. The celebrity culture. Celebrities often have more impact on children than do parents or teachers. The rise of professional sports and big-time show business in the 20th century helped to create the celebrity culture. In earlier decades, however, celebrities were supposed to be role models for the young, teaching and living the traditional values. We were often told that they did, even when they didn't. Babe Ruth was not a model citizen, but the impact of his celebrity was so great that the media told kids that he was, lest newspapers be accused of undermining society.
The 1960s changed the celebrity culture. Celebrities from that time forward felt a freedom they had never been permitted earlier. Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and openly sided with America's enemy. She came home and won an Oscar for "Klute." Walter Cronkite, part of the new group of celebrity TV journalists, went to Vietnam was well, in 1968, and declared the war unwinnable, ironically after the U.S. had actually just won the Tet Offensive.. President Lyndon Johnson remarked at the time that if had lost "Walter," he had lost the country.
Celebrities today speak out on any and all subjects. And, of course, they are free to do so. But, increasingly, many have been harshly critical of their own country. Danny Glover visits Hugo Chavez and fawns over him. Sean Penn does the same. President Bush was denounced regularly, and viciously, by stars, like the Dixie Chicks, with a strong following among the young.
The issue is not whether we agree or disagree with their political views, but, rather, that celebrities often are uninformed, emotional, and create a moral equivalence between democracies and dictatorships. They denounce a policy, but rarely remind their young fans that their right to denounce it is a fundamental freedom worth defending. They may mock a church's teaching, but never mention that freedom of religion is fundamental to a free society. An actress, just a few days ago, announced on MSNBC that last week's "tea party" protesters were all racists.
In the mind of a young person, who may have been taught very little history, a celebrity's statement, or website, or magazine interview, is all the "politics" they know. Many young people get their "news" from late-night comedians or from "The Daily Show," with Jon Stewart. The danger is not that they may oppose something their parents favor, but that they will start to see the world as gray, with one political system as good as any other.
We surely do not wish to deal with this problem through censorship. We can hardly stand for freedom of speech, then violate it ourselves. But we have yet to come up with a way, consistent with our traditions of freedom, to counter the negative aspects of the celebrity culture. I suspect that a return to more attentive parenting and more accountable schools can be part of the solution, even if his is a long struggle. But it is one that we must wage, for the survival of the nation may depend on it.