Bennett’s Pledge of Allegiance

Bennett’s Pledge of Allegiance



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.”

There are other views of patriotism, of course. One was promulgated by the leading American philosopher John Dewey, an independent thinker not given either to religions or secular religions, namely Communism. He surely would have been measured for a Soviet gulag. But he would also have been on Bennett’s enemies list for his belief that scoundrels too often fly the flag of patriotism and nationalist triumphalism:

On the side in which public spirit is popularly known as patriotism this widening of the area of interest has been accompanied by increased exclusiveness, by suspicion, fear, jealousy, often hatred, of other nations…. The self interest of the dynastic and military class persistently keeps the spark of fear and animosity alive in order that it may, upon occasion, be fanned into the flames of war. A definite technique has grown by which the mass of citizens are led to identify love of one’s own country with readiness to regard other nations as enemies…. And in many cases, it is becoming clear that particular economic interests hide behind patriotism in order to serve themselves. So far has this feeling gone that on one side there is a definite attempt to attach the stigma of “unpatriotic” to everything designated international; to cultivate that kind of “hundred percent Americanism” which signifies practically suspicion and jealousy of everything foreign.

In other words, Americanism can serve as a code word for “contempt of other peoples,” Dewey concluded.

The disinterested observer must wonder whether it is inaccurate to note the emergence of dynastic classes whose political power is linked to the intelligence community, the military and big business. It would be absurd to deny at this point that there are classes and groups that profit from war and military preparedness. It is equally naïve to believe that the constitutional contract of civil liberties is so strong that prosecutors, local police, freewheeling inquisitors and others will not spy and inform on and harass the different and the dissident. War mobilization is the perfect cover story for such abuses. The problem is made worse because legal and structural changes in governing and consciousness are legitimized through law, for example in the USA Patriot Act. That is to say, the legacy of Bush will live long after he returns to Crawford, Texas.

But what about the doubter? What about today’s or next year’s or next decade’s “little guy,” a man like Winston in Orwell’s 1984, who didn’t go along or know how to because the contradictions were so profound between the stories that were given from one year to the next that he knew enough not to believe in this year’s lies? Suppose he wondered why Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was our friend one year and the next we helped overthrow him, or why the hapless former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, a man once on the CIA payroll, became the occasion for our invasion of Panama, ostensibly because of his involvement with drug payoffs? The results were much destruction and the death of several hundred Panamanians. Bennett’s defense of violence takes on frightening characteristics. Somehow he believes that, quoting Orwell favorably, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” He goes on to wrap himself in the comfort of the armed forces. But surely he can’t mean this about Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, etc. Violence was not being committed there on behalf of those who objected here. Indeed, it is a stretch to imply that these actions did anything for the American people.

Imagine the naïve citizen who doesn’t understand hypocrisy and strategies of evasion, contradiction or double standards. That person might wonder why we went to war in Afghanistan when the perpetrators of the 9/11 destruction were for the most part Saudis. Referring to Augustine and Jean Bethke Elshtain, Bennett claims that “not resorting to force leads to evils far greater than the one we oppose.” But surely it would be nice to know who the enemy is, and drop the bombs on the correct culprit. Whether the naïve person who holds such views and then organizes others to express their doubts should be held without bail as a suspect is unclear from the Bennett text. What is clear is that doubters should be shunned and punished. They are raining on Bennett’s “war party” (his term), a parade in which he is a proud adjutant.

Bennett’s animus toward his fellow Americans is unforgiving especially in reference to those who were part of the movements of the 1960s, which had the effect of concretizing ideals into practice–and at no small cost. Perhaps his anger against the movement members was that they employed nonviolence and used or stumbled into a social method that broke “facts” open and found values that contradicted the stated democratic ideals of inclusivity, equality and sheer decency. It is no wonder that this social method is one that helps ourselves and the young demystify events, their causes and implications. His disdain for the peace party goes back to the Vietnam War. At that time, the peace party, made up of the flaccid and pusillanimous, didn’t support the “bomb them back to the Stone Age” position of Gen. Curtis LeMay. Bennett, the angry moralist, remains upset that the LeMay position didn’t get much of a hearing, although the general ran for Vice President with George Wallace, and the tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam by the United States was greater than the amount dropped in World War II. As Bennett opines, it was the Gandhian nonviolence people of the peace party who subverted an American victory in Vietnam because “those among us who espoused the LeMay position were scarcely to be heard from.” His argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of the German generals and the right during the Weimar Republic who claimed that the Germans lost World War I because they were “stabbed in the back” by the left.

As a good Republican, Bennett bristles at those who might doubt the motives and methods of the Bush Administration. After all, how could anyone doubt those patriots who took power under questionable circumstances, who had already used every sleazy trick to get one of their fellow rightists onto the Supreme Court and vault into the White House a man who’d lost the popular vote, installed as it were, by a 5-to-4 decision of the Supreme Court? Because Bennett is a dogmatic man he is not burdened with self-doubt but has a surfeit of faith. (Bennett lets us know that he is a religious man, a Catholic who has no doubts about his faith and his belief in the Catholic Church, its teaching and activities. It is his kind of faith, religion itself, which he understands to be the backbone of America, much the way other believers throughout the world, such as Osama bin Laden, perhaps, link their faith to their political judgments.)

To Bennett, 9/11 was a moment of clarity between good and evil. “Good was distinguished from evil, truth from falsehood.” But there was more to the question. He was concerned that some said the United States helped bring the disaster about through its foreign and military policies. After all, the skeptics wondered, didn’t the United States train and militarily assist the radical fundamentalists against the Soviet Union? And then didn’t our assets turn against the United States when Afghanistan was left a broken nation? And did the United States overstay its welcome in Saudi Arabia, whose people include chief backers of the radical fundamentalists? These were not idle questions, nor was it idle and unpatriotic to analyze from top to bottom the ethos of American invulnerability. The United States had placed its faith in a forward defense. But on that terrible day, the idea of fighting wars on other people’s territory was severely damaged. Wouldn’t these questions suggest a comprehensive review of American foreign policy? But Bennett the purist claims that he is not interested in policy. He is interested in right and wrong, good and evil. Bennett, the consummate Washington insider, is not one, apparently, to get his hands dirty with the realities of policy-making and everyday life–i.e., what to do–although working through his principles would have horrendous consequences for a democratic society.

The reader may ask whether there is anything about which Bennett and I agree. And here the answer is yes. Certainly the assault on American cities was an atrocious attack by a gang of zealots. On why they thought to undertake their suicide mission Bennett and I disagree. Perhaps the perpetrators wanted to give the United States a lesson in cost-benefit analysis to show that all the high-tech military equipment in the world does not make the United States invulnerable. (Indeed, because of the interconnectedness of our communications system, the United States is as vulnerable as any Third World country.) The zealots may have been imbued with an anti-Western spirit that has rankled for over a thousand years and finally erupted against the United States, paradoxically for the same reason Bennett has had grave questions about American society: its relativism, sensuality, individuality and lack of religious discipline. Relativism has acquired a vulgar connotation, and Bennett uses its burlesqued meaning as a stick against nonbelievers and the peace party. He compares Stanley Fish, the dean of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago, a leader of the postmodernist school of literary theory, to mass murderer Charles Manson, who said that he thought no man could really know and represent another, “to communicate one reality through another, and into another, reality.”

“Stanley Fish himself could hardly have put it better,” writes Bennett:

Do we, then, have no independent and objective standard for determining why Professor Fish should be allowed to teach at a prestigious institution of higher learning while Charles Manson should languish in prison just because he followed a doctrine he shares with Professor Fish to its logical conclusion–the conclusion that since everything is relative, everything can be justified and all is permitted.

One does not have to be a postmodernist, which I am not, to be deeply offended by Bennett’s comment. Bennett picks up on Leszek Kolakowski’s views that to follow principles to their logical conclusion can lead to disaster. But Bennett overlooks a fundamental truth. The question is how to determine an “independent and objective standard,” what goes into that judgment and who decides what that standard is. By analyzing this set of questions we learn our own weaknesses, that of the standard setters and those who seek to impute their values into an objective reality. We can analyze and judge, from our perspective, actions and behaviors. People can then choose between Fish and Manson.

Right and wrong may come from God or moral sentiments, which the philosophers Francis Hutcheson and David Hume spoke of. These sentiments, better stated as capacities that people have, may be degraded by social roles, institutions, laws, poor upbringing, whatever causes a person to turn toward the pathological. Obviously, if one believes in the Enlightenment and historical progress, ways of acting do emerge that are acceptable as against actions that are no longer acceptable either as a result of social agreement or because there are moral sentiments that make their way through historical struggle. Bennett, who appears to be all over the map philosophically, does hold as a constant his belief in Plato, who in turn held tightly to the idea of an antidemocratic society, one based on hierarchy and strict class lines. Plato, according to Bennett, disposed of the relativism that his apostle now sees as the cause of our decay. But what exactly is relativism? Bennett also quotes approvingly Abelard’s dialectical idea of sic and non (the debate surrounding opposite propositions) as being the probable “basis of all learning itself…of our very outlook on the world.” But Abelard’s method can be read two ways. One is that the questions undertaken invariably lead to the same question expressed in new ways (aporia), or it is a method that is supposed to give the right answer expressed by a church that defines what reason and faith are.

Relativism is really a special form of democratic skepticism that encourages us to examine and extend our inquiry beyond the appearance of an event even in the case of recognizable and accepted facts. The relativist points out that the fact can be seen from different vantage points, and, more important, that a fact has within itself an entire story that can and should be explored. Now the question is, how does this apply to 9/11?

First, there is the fact of its occurrence. In a policy sense it becomes critical for us to understand how and why the event occurred, what the implications are, what its immediate causes were. For its various flaws, relativism is an attempt to move to a coherent, if invariably incomplete picture of what happened and what lay behind the event. It is the only way we can learn what to do. It takes a dim view of professed views of what is “good” and “evil” not because they don’t exist but because ideas of an absolutist nature that are put into practice can lead to the most horrendous consequences. It is why law, including international law, is so important, for it imposes boundaries even for the protection of the evildoer. In policy terms, matters of good and evil are transposed into causes, consequences and manageable categories for people who cannot know the whole truth, and for people who seek a means of understanding rather than mere retaliation or dogma.

This form of analysis leads to certain conclusions. The first is that 9/11 almost immediately became a social and political question of what to do. It was a moral question for those caught between their pacifist beliefs and their concern for justice for their fellow citizens. For Bennett that terrible day was the moment not only to get mad (angry) in his terms but to get even. Bennett is obsessed with the idea that there is not enough anger in American society. We are all caught in this unmanly process of Roger Fisher and William Ury’s ideas of “getting to yes,” that is, finding avenues of agreement between people, states and groups. If this formulation does not have value then humanity cannot escape the vise of dominator/dominated. Nor can it find ways of controlling and sublimating anger, violence and rage. Nor will humanity be able to escape forever the further use of nuclear weapons.

There is a smidgen of truth to Dean Rusk’s and Bennett’s idea that the American people have to be pulled kicking and screaming into war. But this belies the work of a state that has been involved, depending on one’s count, in more than 150 interventions and wars since its founding. Only someone given to deceiving himself would not recognize the American state as a warrior state. There are many reasons Bennett chooses not to see this reality–that is to say, in Bennett’s history book there are many blank pages. Thus, the United States made continuous war on Indians for the better part of a hundred years, always with its eye on the prize: to take as much land as it could from them. The Mexican-American war can hardly be seen in a different light. This is an old story told well and critically by historians–a story Bennett would sugarcoat for the young, with claims of an American destiny. Is that what the “vast relearning” is to be about? Whether the United States had high moral purpose or crass economic motives in employing violence and deceit does not change the reality about the means used.

It should go without saying that there is a matter of supreme importance for Bennett with which I do agree. It is that there is no place for anti-Semitism in twenty-first-century civilization–whether it comes as the virulent form that has erupted among too many in Muslim nations or whether it exists as a residue in American politics (peace to the memory of Richard Nixon). But it’s there, whether in the Middle East, Europe or in American politics.

This anti-Semitism does not excuse Israel’s foreign and military policies, which put at risk the state of Israel, in my view; but Bennett is among the staunchest of Israel’s supporters. He says there is “an understanding, almost religious in nature, that to our two nations above all others has been entrusted the fate of liberty in the world.” There is a consistency in his view. He wants no appeasement toward the Palestinians, seeking their subjugation and cautioning the Bush Administration; I suppose that weak fellow General Powell had better watch his step in his concern to temper this ugly war. Or maybe it’s his back.

Here the prudent analyst might have learned something from Vietnam. There was much pressure to remove the corrupt and seemingly feckless Diem from his position. And after he was removed, with American backing, the leadership structure of South Vietnam ended in turmoil. We may expect the same to occur if the Israelis, with American concurrence, manage to force into place among the Palestinians a Middle East version of a puppet leader. Bennett’s view of American foreign policy demands that we look only at the depredations of Osama, Palestinian terrorists and certain nations on his enemies list. He claims that he is interested in objectivity, but he is unprepared or unwilling to look at those issues that may or may not have salience. This has little to do with good and evil, except as those words are used to obfuscate. The moral asymmetry he assumes should be surrendered, so that the universal standards Bennett says he is for can be applied to the United States as well.

Another place of agreement between us is in Bennett’s recognition that through enormous struggle, the United States has sought to concretize its shifting ideals of freedom and racial and economic justice into the reality of everyday life. There are some exceptions, but there is little to suggest that those who hold Bennett’s views were the ones who were part of the movements that changed the face of this nation into one that others throughout the world admire for its freedoms. These struggles were paid for dearly by the various social movements so the likes of Bennett and me could live in relative comfort. It was not the right–whether the ultramontane elements of Catholic hierarchy, Judge Gary, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, Antonin Scalia, the George Bushes or William F. Buckley–that made this nation one that championed “intellectual, moral and political freedom,” to use the philosopher A.E. Murphy’s phrase.

But back to “why we fight” in international terms: Being a believing Catholic, Bennett is concerned that “just war” be recognized as a doctrine that has modern utility; one applicable to American reprisals. As ironic as it may appear, “just war” is a weak reed to hang from in order to support a war without end. Just war is predicated on struggles between nations; it is not a struggle between a gang and a nation. A just war has a beginning, middle and end, and it is not supposed to do more damage than the original harm. Bennett argues that the opinions of others (sometimes good to have) should in no way deter any unilateral action the United States cares to take–that is to say, those who control the reins of power. Bennett has thus adopted just war as his rationalization for militarism.

One last word. An American-initiated alternative must be offered to that part of the world that is writhing in pain. It is one that gets rid of weapons of mass destruction through general disarmament. (This includes our own.) It is one that supports the pacific settlements of disputes. This does not mean the fashioning of imperial law but of expanding international law. That the United States does not support the International Criminal Court and has pulled out of various international treaties is not a good sign for the United States or the world’s future. The alternative includes international economic rights, the buildup of regional forces to act under the aegis of the UN Security Council, massive health and economic assistance, and a system that makes clear that intelligence is a feature of a free society–it is public property, not that of the few or of the state. The alternative recognizes and supports claims of plural cultures without undercutting in any way the ideals and struggles that have defined human rights in the United States, namely women’s rights, civil liberties, civil rights, labor rights, gender rights, environmental rights. It recognizes that education, housing, religion, free inquiry and health are rights to be expanded and cherished. This charge is not likely to be fulfilled by calls for wars without end and claims of patriotism meant to mystify, and worse.

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