Seeking an escape from our predicament through further expansion points toward bankruptcy and the dismantling of what remains of the American republic. Genuine pragmatism-and the beginning of wisdom-lies in paying less attention to “the way that they live” and more attention to the way we do. Ultimately, conditions within American society determine the prospects of American liberty. As early multiculturalist Randolph Bourne observed nearly a century ago, ensuring that authentic freedom will flourish at home demands that we attend in the first instance to “cultivating our own garden.” This does not imply assuming a posture of isolationism, although neoconservative and neoliberal proponents of the global “war on terror” will be quick to level that charge. Let us spare no effort to track down those who attacked us on 9/11, beginning with Osama bin Laden, still at large more than five years later. But let us give up once and for all any pretensions about an “indispensable nation” summoned to exercise “benign global hegemony” in the midst of a uniquely opportune “unipolar moment.” For too long now these narcissistic and fallacious claims, the source of the pretensions expressed by President Bush since September 2001, have polluted our discussion of foreign policy, and thereby prevented us from seeing ourselves as we are. Cultivating our own garden begins with taking stock of ourselves. Thoughtful critics have for decades been calling for just such a critical self-examination. Among the very first canaries to venture into the deteriorating mineshaft of postwar American culture was the writer Flannery O’Connor. “If you live today,” she observed with characteristic bluntness a half-century ago, “you breathe in nihilism.” O’Connor correctly diagnosed the disease and other observers bore witness to its implications. Her fellow Southerner Walker Percy wondered if freedom American-style was not simply becoming the “last and inalienable possession in a sick society.” The social critic Christopher Lasch derided “the ideology of progress” manipulated by elites contemptuous of the ethnic, social, and religious traditions to which ordinary folk subscribed. Lasch foresaw an impending “dark night of the soul.” From his vantage point, Robert Nisbet detected the onset of what he called “a twilight age,” marked by “a sense of cultural decay, erosion of institutions…and constantly increasing centralization-and militarization-of power.” In such an age, he warned, “representative and liberal institutions of government slip into patterns ever more imperial in character….Over everything hangs the specter of war.” Towering above them all was Pope John Paul II who, in a message clearly directed toward Americans, pointedly cautioned that a democracy bereft of values “easily turns into a thinly disguised totalitarianism.” Our own self-induced confusion about freedom, reflected in our debased culture and our disordered economy, increases our susceptibility to this totalitarian temptation even as it deadens our awareness of the danger it poses. Escaping its clutches will require something more than presidents intoning clichés about America’s historic mission while launching crusades against oil-rich tyrants on the other side of the globe.
We are in difficult straits and neither arms (already fully committed) nor treasure (just about used up) will get us out. Our corrupt age requires reformation. Shedding or at least discrediting the spurious conceptions of freedom to which Americans have lately fallen prey qualifies as a large task. Still, when compared to the megalomania of those who under the guise of “eliminating tyranny” are intent on remaking the entire Islamic world, the restoration of our own culture appears to be a positively modest goal. At the end of the day, as William Pfaff has observed, “The only thing we can remake is ourselves.” And who knows? Should we, as a consequence of such a reformation, actually live up to our professed ideals-restoring to American freedom something of the respect that it once commanded-we may yet become, in some small way, a model worthy of emulation.