Archive for the Virtues Category

Jessica Stern

Until a few years ago, America seemed relatively resistant to the kind of homegrown Islamist terrorism that has plagued Europe for the last decade. Terrorism experts attribute the resilience of American Muslims to their greater integration into society. In Europe, immigrant populations tend to cluster—with Algerians settling in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in the Netherlands, and so on, making it easier for ethno-religious groups to remain isolated, spending time only with others like themselves.

Many Muslim immigrants in Europe arrived as unskilled guest workers, and changes in the labor market have made it hard for them to find jobs. Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans. Thus, Muslim immigrants in Europe are often impoverished. For example, 10 percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line—meanwhile, 59 percent of Belgium Turks and 56 percent of Belgium Moroccan are living in poverty.

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Victor Davis Hanson

Paralytic Western Society

It is fascinating to see how postmodern Western societies react to wide-scale rioting, looting, and thuggery aimed at innocents. In Britain, politicians contemplate the use of water cannons as if they were nuclear weapons; and here the mayor of Philadelphia calls on rappers to appeal to youth to help ease the flash-mobbing that has a clear racial component to it (is the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division investigating?). His appeal is perhaps understandable, but many of the themes of rap music — violence against the police, racial chauvinism, and nihilism—may well be some of the cultural catalysts behind the flash violence, though to suggest as much would be seen as more racist than the racist profiling used by the flash beaters. All these incidents are symptomatic of a general breakdown and loss of confidence in Western society. Such urban violence was of course a constant in 19th- and 20th-century Europe and America, but now it is deeply embedded within modern sociology and no longer seen quite as criminality.

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Victor Davis Hanson

A Tottering Technocracy

We are witnessing a widespread crisis of faith in our progressive guardians of the last 30 years. These are the blue-chip, university-certified elite, employed by universities, government, and big-money private foundations and financial-services companies. The best recent examples are sorts like Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, Robert Rubin, Steven Chu, and Timothy Geithner. Politicians like John Kerry, John Edwards, and Al Gore all share certain common characteristics of this Western technocracy: proper legal or academic credentials, ample service in elected or appointed government office, unabashed progressive politics, and a free pass to enjoy ample personal wealth without any perceived contradiction with their loud share-the-wealth egalitarian politics.

The house of a John Kerry, the plane of an Al Gore, or, in the European case, the suits of a Dominique Strauss-Kahn are no different from those of the CEOs and entrepreneurs who were as privately courted as they were publicly chastised. These elites were mostly immune from charges of hypocrisy or character flaws, by virtue of their background and their well-meaning liberalism.

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William Damon

American Amnesia

The New York Times headline from May could not have been more compelling: "Failing grades on civics exam called a ‘crisis.‘" The accompanying story reported bleak news from the latest National Assessment of Student Progress (widely known as the "nation’s report card"). Among our present crop of high school seniors, only one in four scored at least "proficient" in knowledge of U. S. citizenship. Of all the academic subjects tested, civics and the closely linked subject of history came in last: "a smaller proportion of fourth and eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in civics than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005, except history, American students’ worst subject."

Not surprisingly, the story drew appalled reactions from public figures such as Sandra Day O’Conner ("we have a crisis on our hands"). Charles Quigley, a civics educator, noted that "the results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is on the decline." He declared that in the U.S. today, "civic education is facing a real ‘civic recession.’" Yet within a week, despite the perception of crisis among those who were paying attention, the story vanished from sight. This may be the most alarming part of the crisis—our society’s seeming lack of awareness of the grave threat that civic ignorance among our youth poses to the future of our democracy.

Continue reading William Damon in Defining Ideas

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Bruce Thornton

Sneering at America

In 1941 George Orwell observed, “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.” What Orwell saw as a fashion of the elite has now become widespread in America, where the media, popular culture, and academics have made sneering on one’s own country a sign of cosmopolitan sophistication and intellectual superiority.

This reflexive disdain for anyone showing affectionate pride in the United States has enabled the sort of behavior that recently took place in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl at the Gold Cup soccer finals between America and Mexico. The 90,000 spectators were overwhelmingly Mexican, and they lustily booed the American team and waved Mexican flags. Even the terminally liberal Los Angeles Times wondered, “In what other country would the visitors have home-field advantage?” One fan interviewed about this behavior displayed a bizarre cognitive and moral dissonance: “I love this country, it has given me everything that I have, and I’m proud to be part of it. But yet, I didn’t have a choice to come here, I was born in Mexico, and that is where my heart will always be.”

Immigrants always have been tempted to maintain dual loyalties, so such myopic ingratitude is unexceptional. In the past, though, it was usually downplayed to avoid a backlash from insulted Americans who felt no compunction in telling immigrants bragging about their countries of origin to catch the next boat back. What is new and different these days is the climate that makes some immigrants assume not just that they have a right publicly to indulge such behavior with impunity, but that any protest is itself a sign of xenophobic jingoism, if not outright racism. This climate is a consequence of the psychological freak Orwell identified, and ultimately derives from left-wing ideology. For those of a Marxist bent, America has always been the great enemy––not just for its alleged oppression, inequality, and exploitation, but for the spectacular success of its liberal democracy and free-market capitalism in giving freedom and opportunity to millions of people. For the left, to champion America is to cheer for the country that definitively repudiated leftist claims to possess a superior political-economic order.

Related to this network of ideas is multiculturalism, which grafts identity politics––the notion that identity is predicated on collective grievances that one possesses by virtue of being a member of a historically victimized ethnic group––onto the old Leninist demonization of Western imperialism and colonialism. To the multiculturalist, the white Euro-American is always guilty, his crimes the consequence of a uniquely oppressive culture and history manifested in colonialism, imperialism, racism, and irrational fear of the dark-skinned “other.” Any display of pride in Western culture is unseemly and insensitive, if not racist or bigoted, even as the victim “of color” is encouraged to indulge such chauvinism, since his culture has been victimized by Western crimes and hence is superior and worthy of celebration.

It is incoherent ideas such as these––like all bad ideas, false to human reality and repudiated by history––that account for this elevation of contempt for one’s own country into a mark of superiority and sophistication. And the consequences of such disaffection are much more serious than just the bad manners and ingratitude displayed in the Rose Bowl. As Orwell pointed out about the roots of England’s feckless foreign policy before the war, the “sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. It would have been harmful even if we had been living in the squashy League of Nations universe that these people imagined. In the age of Fuhrers and bombing planes it was a disaster.” This danger is just a real today, and has been worsened by the institutionalizing of such “sniggering” in our media and schools, and by a President who dismisses American exceptionalism and centers his foreign policy on apologizing for America’s alleged imperfections and crimes.

A people faced with a passionate enemy like terrorist jihadists will find their resolve weakened if they lack a passionate loyalty to the core principles and beliefs that their way of life expresses, and an equally passionate confidence that their country, flaws and all, is essentially good and so worth fighting and dying for. But what Churchill in 1933 called the “mood of unwarrantable self-abasement” he saw among British intellectuals undermines that loyalty and confidence, and creates “defeatist doctrines” such as appeasement. If dangerous then, how much more insidious and deadly such fashionable “self-abasement” is today, when it is widely considered to be the mark of intellectual sophistication to view with indifference or even approval those who disrespect America even as they enjoy its freedom and opportunity.

(photo credit: Jen)

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Bruce Thornton

The post-mortem revelations of Osama bin Laden’s daily habits have confirmed the orthodox narrative about the al Qaeda chief. Rather than a traditionalist conservative Muslim, bin Laden has been caricatured as a mentally unstable fringe figure, a narcissistic megalomaniac who “highjacked” Islamic doctrine in order to prey on Muslims traumatized by a lack of economic or political opportunity. Learning that bin Laden enjoyed Coke, watched porn, and was vain about his appearance seemingly confirms that assessment. Yet this kind of thinking reveals more about our own cultural myopia, the way we reduce all human behavior to our own categories and assumptions.

Unfortunately, this mistake leads to our misunderstanding the tactics and strategy of the jihadists. A recent example of this phenomenon is Bret Stephens’ column in The Wall Street Journal about bin Laden’s references to MIT linguist and radical crank Noam Chomsky. Most of the column is an astute dissection of Chomsky’s political rants, which Stephens correctly notes function as pop-cultural commodities and fashion markers for the badly educated young with épater le bourgeois pretensions.

The problem comes with Stephens’ ruminations on why bin Laden would find Chomsky appealing. As a “wannabe philosopher,” bin Laden sought “the imprimatur of someone he supposes to be a real philosopher” who could provide him an “intellectual architecture for his hatred of the United States.” Chomsky’s academic position and celebrity “could only have sustained bin Laden in the conceit that his thinking was on a high plane.” An analysis such as this, focused as it is on bin Laden’s personal psychology and pathologies, misses how shrewdly the jihadists have taken the measure of the West and its left-wing elites, whose guilt and self-loathing make them important allies in undermining our morale.

The usefulness of leftist ideology for jihadists was obvious from the beginning in the work of Sayyid Qutb, “al Qaeda’s intellectual godfather,” according to Lee Smith. Qutb found in communism’s clichés about industrial capitalism’s alienation and dehumanization an idiom of indictment that could resonate with left-wing Western intellectuals. “Look at this capitalism with its monopolies, its usury, at this individual freedom,” Qutb wrote, “devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under force of law; at this materialistic attitude which deadens the spirit.” So too the Iranian Islamist Ali Shari’ati, who translated into Persian Frantz Fanon’s 1963 The Wretched of the Earth, one of the most important anti-colonial, anti-Western tracts. Shari’ati and other Iranians adapted the Marxian notion of “false consciousness,” the device by which capitalism fools the proletariat into ignoring their own true interests and obscures the oppressive reality of socio-economic institutions, and called it “Westoxification,” the mind-addling allure of Western commodities and ideas that seduces Muslims from the true faith. The Ayatollah Khomeini, architect of the first Islamic state, likewise adorned his sermons and speeches with anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and Third World revolutionary rhetoric sure to delight European Marxists like Michel Foucault, who indeed celebrated Khomeini as a revolutionary hero.

Today’s jihadists employ the same tactic, linking their theologically inspired hatred of the West to left-wing indictments of the uniquely oppressive and exploitative nature of capitalism, creating what David Horowitz calls the “unholy alliance.” Thus when bin Laden was communicating to Americans, he sounded all these old shibboleths of leftist theory. In 2002, for example, he exhorted Iraqis not to fight for “capitalists, the lords of usury, and arms and oil dealers.” That same year he chided Americans for failing to sign the Kyoto agreements “so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries,” and criticized our law as “the law of the rich and wealthy people.” In an address to American soldiers in 2003, bin Laden told our troops that they were “spilling [their] blood to swell the bank accounts of the White House gang and their fellow arms dealers and the proprietors of great companies.” And before the 2004 election, he warned Americans not to support a war begun “to give business to their [the Bush administration’s] various corporations.” All these statements are indistinguishable from those made over the years by Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Robert Fisk, William Blum, or thousands of college professors, pundits, and editorial writers.

That similarity is not accidental, for bin Laden, like Qutb and Khomeini, was seeking allies among an influential class of Americans who could shape public opinion and thus change U.S. policy. For when speaking to Muslims, bin Laden and his theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri focused not on these left-wing clichés, but on Islamic theology. As Raymond Ibrahim points out, bin Laden and Zawahiri “argue to Muslims that Muslims should battle the West because it is the infidel.”

Bin Laden didn’t need Chomsky or anybody else to provide him with an “intellectual architecture for his hatred of the West” or to validate his own thinking. He could find all the “architecture” and support he needed in the Koran and 14-centuries of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. His references to Chomsky and other leftist fellow-travelers of jihadism were, like the jihadists terrorist attacks, tactical, a device for advancing the long-term strategy of defeating the West by eroding our will to fight and exposing the weakness at the center of our civilization––the suicidal self-loathing and failure of nerve that, to paraphrase Lenin, will provide the jihadists with the rope they will use to hang us.

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Clifford Orwin

In our previous segment we discussed the political backdrop of George W. Bush’s project of "compassionate conservatism" and promised that in this installment we would explore the intellectual one. The intellectual sources of the notion, just like the political ones, were complex and varied. Two among them stand out, however, because Bush himself has testified to their primacy for him. These were the very different writings of Myron Magnet, on the one hand, and Marvin Olasky, on the other. These represented the two poles of "compassionate conservatism," and between them they reveal the tensions that would continue to haunt the project.

Myron Magnet and the Cruel Compassion of the Welfare State

The first of these books that shaped Bush’s thinking emerged from a wholly secularist milieu. It was Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare (1993), which Bush would tell the Wall Street Journal was the most important book he had ever read, after the Bible.

Magnet, a professor of English at Columbia, had moved from studying Charles Dickens’s portrayal of poverty to writing essays in Fortune and City Journal. Dream had arisen from these essays. A powerful critique of the welfare state, it updated arguments made by so-called "neoconservatives" ever since the mid-1960’s. Magnet didn’t question the sincerity of liberal compassion. He insisted, however, that its crowning achievement, the full-blown welfare state of Lyndon Johnson’s "Great Society," had both failed and corrupted the very poor whom it aimed to help.

Continue reading Clifford Orwin at our sister site Defining Ideas

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William Damon

Political knowledge and interest among the young has been in decline for fifty years. Although some of today’s young are active in civic and political affairs, there are huge gaps in the interest and participation of the broader youth population. Such gaps can be found in voting patterns, political knowledge, aspirations to civic leadership, and attitudes towards public life.

Even in the highly charged 2008 presidential election, only 52% of 18-24 year-olds voted, a mere 4% increase over 2004 and on the low end of trends since 1972 (when 18-year-olds were first granted the vote). Our own research on youth purpose has found that only a tiny fraction of young Americans now aspires to political leadership. What’s more, young people’s attitudes about our democracy are often marked by skepticism, distrust, and lack of interest. Of special concern is that disadvantaged and culturally marginalized populations of youth often express the highest degrees of alienation and disaffection.

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Jessica Stern

Muslims in America

Congressman Peter King has had quite a lot to say about Muslims in America—much of it seemingly inflammatory.

The congressman is right about the growing threat of violent Muslim extremism. The problem is he mischaracterizes the source. American mosques are not at the heart of the threat any more than is the Muslim community. Just as there is a difference between those who oppose abortion on religious grounds and those who target and kill abortion providers, there is a difference between the Muslim community and Muslim terrorists. But it is also wrong to claim, as some have suggested, that because they are greater in number and commit more crimes, white-supremacist and antigovernment groups pose more of a threat to national security than do Muslim extremists. Indeed, it is precisely because the threat of violent Muslim extremism is so serious that Mr. King’s rhetoric is so dangerous.

Read Jessica Stern in The National Interest

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