Capitol Ideas

Fifty Years in America

Our longtime Capitol Ideas columnist looks back.

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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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.

In some ways, present-day liberalism is far more radical than Communism ever was. Consider, for example, the current pretense that there are no real differences between the sexes, or that same-sex marriage is a desirable policy goal. Communists entertained no such delusions.

But there have also been opposing trends since the Hiss days. Blue-collar workers, once known as the working class, have shown they are not revolutionists. They aspire to join the middle class, not overthrow it. Think “Reagan Democrats.” It’s intellectuals who are, and always have been, the core of the revolutionary party.

Another change is that market forces, despite the liberals’ regulatory zeal, are far stronger than they were in 1962. The world’s two most populous countries, China and India, are becoming market economies, and we should no more fear their growing wealth than we did Japan’s after World War II. Regulatory agencies, including the EPA (a Nixon creation!), may hamstring the U.S. If so, China will move ahead all the faster. Don’t think of China as “Communist” either. True, that’s what their government calls itself, but they seem to be pulling off the unprecedented feat of both staying in power and encouraging capitalism. Taiwan may be the mainland’s undeclared model. China is not our enemy, and the same goes for Russia.

In Europe there’s a comparable lesson. Bond markets are now more powerful than politicians, despite the best efforts of the IMF. This frustrates the intelligentsia, who want Europe to submit to their foolish Euro-diktat. It won’t work. Europe is fragmenting, not uniting. Its countries are subdividing and will continue to do so. The EU is emerging as one of the great planning disasters engineered by the postwar ruling class.

Technology meanwhile is ushering in huge changes. I am thinking of the digital world, the Internet in particular. It is so recent that predictions about it are hazardous. But its major effect will be to decentralize power. This is already happening, and the mainstream media can tell you about it. But they would rather not. Their semi-monopolistic mainstream is dividing into a thousand rivulets. Television is finally waning. The stock price of the Washington Post has fallen by two-thirds, while that of the New York Times is down to one-sixth of its peak a decade ago.

Technology they cannot stop, but conservatives they can. “Media bias” seems to be stronger than ever. When the Dow fell 313 points immediately after the election, what was not responsible? Obama’s win. Reuters was particularly bad. The sharp market decline was attributed to the fiscal cliff, which we have known about for months. The underlying philosophy is that a faltering economy must not be attributed to Obama’s policies. It’s a gross anomaly for a free press to constantly advocate the expansion of government power. Why do they? Because it suits the pretensions of journalists, who see themselves as the custodians of righteousness. Also, their “free press” exemption expands their own power relative to the dwindling private sector. Notice the word “sector,” by the way, implying something cordoned off.

Another huge development has been the revival of Islam. What are we to make of that? Islam today probably threatens us as much as international Communism once did, but with this big difference: The intellectuals, who often secretly admired Communism, loathe Islam. They are afraid—rationally afraid—of those who are willing to die for what they believe.

Whittaker Chambers identified Communism’s great strength as the recovery of faith abandoned by many Christians and Jews. But liberals today have no such faith. Many believe little more than that we should make women equal to men and make amends to the planet by ceasing to reproduce. Meanwhile we should feel free to enjoy ourselves by treating sex as fun without consequences. But these ignoble causes are not things liberals will die for and the Islamists probably know this.

Hilaire Belloc wrote in his book The Great Heresies that “in Faith we have fallen inferior to [Islam].” That is far truer today than when he wrote it in 1938. He also saw Islam as a faith that was determined to destroy the Catholic Church. Today, the progressives aim to placate Islam at every turn. The latest notion, to install democracy in overwhelmingly Muslim countries, makes no sense. The Arab Spring is already turning into Islamic winter.

The restoration of Israel, in what the Islamists regard as their own land, has turned Islam from a somnolent to a fiercely crusading faith. Today it is Israel that Islamists really want to destroy, and many secular leftists both here and in Europe quietly feel the same way.

My guess is that over the next 50 years, the rise of China and the fate of a beleaguered Israel will dominate the news—but don’t ask me how it will turn out.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).