Washington — There is a habit of mind, among pundits and TV’s talking heads, of apprising Americans of how they “feel” or what they “think” about this or that. Frankly, when I hear one of these mind readers making such a presumptuous asseveration, I reach for the remote and opt for silence. How about you? Do you feel an urge to rebel when, say, the marmoreal Dan Rather solemnizes “Today, Americans as a people, are feeling [fill in the blank]”? The other day I heard the goggle-eyed Larry King intone that September 11 changed us Americans “forever.” I wondered if his equivalent, speaking to a radio audience in 1941, ever said anything like that. I also wondered what precisely Larry meant.
It is unlikely that any event, no matter how momentous or tragic, can change the essential qualities of a people. Thomas Jefferson, the authors of the Federalist Papers and other wise American scribes, during the first decades of our history, occasionally referred to “the genius of the people.” By this they meant the fundamental values and characteristics of the Americans of their time. They thought the “genius” unique to our shores and our experience. Every nation’s people have a genius, and those who wrote our Constitution and early laws did not think that genius was a plastic or ephemeral thing. They would doubt Larry King’s easy pronouncement that Americans are fundamentally different today from what we were anterior to September 11.
I know that among public figures it is common to claim that after the tragedy of September we as a people “will never be the same” or some variation thereof. I have tried to discover the origin of this cliché and the best I can do is trace it back to a Washington Post story dated September 28, 2001. The story quotes Attorney General John Ashcroft as he put down the telephone after receiving word of the attacks on the World Trade Center. To those seated around him he said, “Our world has changed forever.” From there it is a short journey to Larry King’s formulation that Americans have changed forever.
The sentiment is doubtless well-intentioned, but what does it mean? It means there is a new patriotism in the land, which is all to the good, but there has always been a love of country in the land. The problem has been that throughout the Twentieth Century it was chic to snicker at that patriotism. I have just finished reading an advanced copy of a biography of the critic and wit, H. L. Mencken. He was famous for snickering at American patriotism, as the book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, by Terry Teachout, makes clear. What is even clearer is that many significant literary figures of the first half of the Century applauded his snipes at patriotism, and even more, his disparagement of America.
There was an energetic anti-Americanism then. It was relatively harmless until evil people exploited it for their own propaganda purposes, for instance the Nazis, the Communists, and more recently the Islamicists. Long before September 11 and the Islamicists’ hate-America chants I tired of this anti-Americanism. When it comported with the anti-American propaganda of the KGB and its dupes it was no longer amusing, and those who continued to espouse it were either very stupid or nihilists. A laugh or two at some American excess is one thing, but to portray America as a malign civilization is just the opposite of the truth.
Today America is the good country that it has always striven to be. Its faults should surprise no one, and its virtues — given the dark side of human history — are amazing. In as much as America has changed since September it is a reversion to certain qualities of the past. As I have said there is a return to patriotism. There is also a return to citizenship, to the idea of the good citizen. That is even more beneficial than patriotism.
During the 1990s, when some politicians lied in office with impunity and we now know some accountants and corporate executives deceived the public, some of us called for a return to the study of civics, which is to say the study of the rights and responsibilities of the good citizen. The study of civics is not returning to the classrooms, busy as they are with sex education classes, anger management seminars, and other conscience-raising bilge. Yet an awareness of the responsibilities of citizenship seems to be spreading through the land. As American citizenship stresses freedom and responsibility, that seriousness about citizenship will only make for a freer America. If that is the great change of which Larry speaks, I am for it; but it is not all that new.