William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, candidate for President in 2000 in the Republican primaries, has written an intemperate little book called Why We Fight. Using the horror of 9/11, the book crackles with protestations of his patriotism as he lobs shells at those who do not share his views. Apparently Bennett had no moral choice but to write what he had to say in order to save the Republic. “I sensed in my bones that if we could not find a way to justify our patriotic instincts, and to answer the arguments of those who did not share them, we would be undone.”
If Bennett had his way, those who did not hold his views would be dealt with very harshly indeed. He leaves it to the reader to guess what he would do with those he views as “unpatriotic.” But there are ample clues. Civil liberties are not his concern, neither in this book, as he makes clear, nor for that matter anywhere else. He states that he is for military tribunals “and the detention of suspects within our own borders for questioning.” For how long Bennett does not say. Nor does he tell us whether there is the same standard for a non-American as for an American citizen. Until recently there were hundreds being held in detention, sanctioned by an act of Congress that gives the Bush Administration virtual carte blanche in handling suspects without warrants, and perhaps even without recourse to the regular court system. (Most of the detainees have been quietly deported.) This exercise of power is a complement to Administration foreign policy, as it is apparently prepared to intervene in or invade nations even if there is no evidence that they are involved in terrorism or backing terrorists. The domestic implications are spelled out well by Bennett, but none of it bothers him. His gravamen against the left and those who disagree with him–members of the “peace party,” as he calls his adversaries–is that they “have caused damage, and they [you] need to be held to account.” Nation editors and thinkers like Eric Foner, Richard Falk, Katha Pollitt and Jonathan Schell, take heed. They are not alone as enemies of Bennett–New York Times editors, Harvard (Bennett is an ungrateful alum) and assorted scholars, Noam Chomsky, students and the professoriate generally should watch out. They are targets in Bennett’s campaign for an inquisition, twenty-first-century style. He is concerned that “the Foners of the United States” have led a minority of Americans away from being true believers. As Bennett so indelicately puts it, “A vast relearning has to take place,” undertaken by everyone, especially “educators, and at every level.” “The defect” in our education and morals “can only be redressed by the reinstatement of a thorough and honest study of our history, undistorted by the lens of political correctness and pseudosophisticated relativism.” In other words, there has to be a moral cleansing in America.
The word “reinstatement” does not tell us what Bennett is attempting to reinstate, though. From Why We Fight we learn of Bennett’s deep distress at American education, where his notions of American history seem less persuasive than they were in the days when nineteenth-century historians acted as propaganda instruments for war, racism and America’s imperial superiority. Those were the days when “a vast relearning” was not necessary. He quotes approvingly Professor Donald Kagan, the Yale historian, who tells us that those who do not hold to their definition of patriotism and their reading of history suffer from “failures of character [emphasis added by Bennett], made by privileged people who enjoy the full benefits offered by the country they deride and detest, its opportunities, its freedom, its riches, but who lack the basic decency to pay it the allegiance and respect that honor demands.” Bennett does concede at one point that while it is incumbent on those who hew to the Kagan version of truth to point out the despicable behavior of the naysayers, we must also “[respect] their right to be irresponsible and even subversive of our safety.”