Our longtime Capitol Ideas columnist looks back.
THE CUBAN MISSLE CRISIS erupted soon after I arrived in America. I was teaching at an excellent school in Virginia, Woodberry Forest, which still flourishes today. The forcible integration of Ole Miss took place at about the same time. But like most young people, I took little notice of politics, whether in Washington, Cuba, or Mississippi.
I now realize that the missile threat was serious, more so than we knew at the time. By comparison, today’s scares, most of them masquerading as science, should be seen as campaigns to increase funding for various government agencies. Man-made global warming is only the best-known example.
By 1965, I had moved to New Orleans, which had been my original reason for coming to America. I was politically awake to the extent that, driving south on vacations in my used car through Georgia and Alabama, I hoped no one would mistake me for some sort of “freedom rider.” Civil rights were the last thing on my mind.
My interest was in traditional New Orleans jazz, as exemplified by musicians like Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. My biography of Lewis was published by the University of California, and I made some recordings of the era’s surviving musicians, since reissued on CD. But sadly my interest in this art form coincided with its abrupt decline. There are still good reasons to visit New Orleans, but local jazz isn’t one of them. My politically incorrect thought: All the best black music in this country, and there was a lot of it, was created in the era of segregation.
When I later saw what happened to American popular music—tumbling from ragtime to the idiocies of rap in less than a century—I have been dogged by a sense of decline. Classical music, ditto: Bach to Bartok. Where’s the improvement? It’s all downhill. Perhaps that helps explain why I don’t believe in evolution. Things don’t evolve; they peak quickly and inconspicuously, then they fall apart. When I left England in 1962, it was already declining and had been doing so for decades. I have the same concern about America today—who doesn’t after the recent election? It’s hard to say how these things should be measured, but government’s share of national production gives a rough estimate. National decline seems to be the equivalent of organic aging.
After a few years in New Orleans, I started working for an “alternative” newspaper. I had found my métier. You go to an event, write down what people say, and with any luck you can earn a living. I became an American citizen at the same time and learned to drop the condescension that so many Brits adopt toward the United States. I also noticed the automatic anti-Americanism of the liberals. Watergate! Everyone was saying what a crisis it was. If so, why were they so gleeful? Ditto America’s defeat in Vietnam. They quietly relished that, too.
Liberals adopt a perpetual fault-finding mode about their own country. For a while I kept quiet about this, lest I sound like a right-winger. Maybe, I now think, a quota of liberals should be exiled for two years to see how they like it somewhere else. Come to think of it, Peace Corps volunteers agree. Driven by idealism, with very little sense of how their own country works, they go abroad to instruct others. Some, in their naivete, undoubtedly do learn something. In 2011, an investigation by 20/20 found that over 1,000 young American women had been sexually assaulted while serving as Peace Corps volunteers abroad.
Like welfare, foreign aid hurts those who receive it, and I’m always glad to read that a country has rid itself of the Agency for International Development. Howard Phillips, appointed by President Nixon to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, promptly attempted to shut it down, and Howie and I have been friends ever since.
Nixon, incidentally, is the only president I met, and I did so three times. It was while he was trying to rehabilitate himself after his resignation. On one occasion I asked him what he remembered about the Hiss-Chambers case. “Not much,” he said. Once he had known a lot, and he emerges as a hero in Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness (1952). But Nixon could credibly plead major distractions in the interim!
RECENTLY I FINISHED READING WITNESS—way too long at 800 pages—and then his Cold Friday, posthumously published. Chambers is a man after my own heart—even more of a pessimist than I am. A skilled writer, he had many bylines in Time and Life before testifying against Alger Hiss in 1948. Both Hiss and Chambers had been in the Communist underground in the 1930s. Hiss, convicted of perjury, spent the rest of his life denying what he had once lived for: the Communist cause. By the time he died, in 1996, he had lived long enough to see the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What of Communism today? As a party program with satellite countries, millions of “apparatchiks,” and a queen bee in the Kremlin, it is dead. But American-style liberalism is its remnant and it lives on in its dishonest way. Chambers was surprised by the widespread support for Hiss among intellectuals and within the U.S. press corps, even though few of them were ever members of the Communist Party. He saw that the winds of fashionable opinion were against him. Progressive dreams had far more appeal than free-market realities, as they still do today.
What do modern leftism (American liberalism) and communism have in common? Both are godless and egalitarian, but liberalism has “evolved.”
Communists wanted to kill off capitalism, for example, but liberals know it must be preserved—in a highly taxed and regulated form. It must be permitted to create sufficient wealth to redistribute to favored groups—single mothers, minorities, college professors—if the system is to keep Democrats in office. Liberals want market outcomes to be “predictable.” Appeals to envy and blame heaped on the rich can also be used as a bludgeon, as Obama has shown.
The liberals do follow the Communists in aspiring to crush “organized religion”—Christianity in particular. A book that influenced me was The Socialist Phenomenon (1979), by Igor Shafarevich, a Russian mathematician and a friend of Solzhenitsyn’s. Socialism began as a Christian heresy, he points out, and it has three primary goals: the destruction of private property, the family, and religion. If achieved, this would ensure that everyone will be dependent on the state or the ruling power.
The liberal-left, who in some ways constitute our intelligentsia, are never reliably in power in a democracy. It frustrates them that they must submit to majority rule. Hence the importance they attach to the Supreme Court, a tribunal where five votes can enforce the things they most care about. Unrestricted access to abortion is probably their top issue today, and has been for some time.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online