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Obama and the Burden of History

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Obama and the Burden of History

The president hastens—and embodies—American decline. November 7, 2012

“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith calmly reassured a friend who despaired that the American defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in the Revolutionary War meant that Britain was finished. A great deal of ruin, no doubt—but not unlimited. Pondering President Obama’s reelection, I can’t help remembering that in the course of my adult life, the Britain I first knew half a century ago has run through its allotment of ruin and is now almost unrecognizably transformed from the stiff-upper-lip, never-say-die redoubt of fair play and free-born Englishmen of very recent stereotype. Now it is the land where snarling, shaven-headed louts beget still more louts upon a succession of compliant, abused sluts as clueless as they about what makes a meaningful and decent life; the land where stately ancient towns turn into nighttime circuses of drunken, vomit-smeared degradation, as young people purposely divest themselves of their human rationality and civility; the land where, to show their pride in a National Health Service they think proves their country’s unique compassion and social equality, the curable sick obediently die in accordance with official protocols that ensure that outcome; the land that jails citizens for free speech it deems “hate speech”; the land that, even when it had Royal Navy ships mightier than Lord Nelson could imagine, had sailors so cowardly and undutiful as to let Iranians in outboard motorboats take them captive without firing a shot, making the great ships useless.

It’s sobering proof of how quickly the interaction of culture and policy can remake the character of a people. Across the Channel, the Europeans simply decided to stop reproducing.

Herodotus recounts one such transformation that took only a single generation to complete. When the Lydians, ferocious warriors, revolted against their Persian overlords, their deposed king, Croesus, to keep the Persian ruler Cyrus from obliterating his people by dispersing them into slavery, suggested a less drastic way to ensure they’d never fight him again. Disarm them, he advised; dress them in women’s tunics and soft boots, teach them to play the lyre and the harp, and turn their sons into shopkeepers. “You will soon see that they will become women instead of men,” Croesus prophesied, “and they will then pose no danger or threat to you of any future rebellion.” And indeed, Herodotus concludes, “the Lydians changed their entire way of living.”

Culture changes policy; policy changes culture; and so the wheel of history turns. This is one of those moments when you can see it move. America’s traditional culture of self-reliant striving, of taming the wilderness, of limiting government from interfering with our own pursuit of happiness as we individually define it threatens to give way to a belief that our past and its values, from the heroic Founding onward, is a record of folly, vice, and misery, just as the British came to feel shame at their magnificent history. We are coming to care more about the victims—ever more broadly defined—than the successful, now assumed to be mere beneficiaries of injustice or worse. We are withdrawing from international leadership, disarming (understandably enough, perhaps) after a decade or more of inept foreign policy and timid generalship, guided by an idea of proportionality in warfare that has led us to act as if we were not the most powerful nation on earth, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have become sentimental about nature, as if it were not red in tooth and claw, requiring us to master, cultivate, and use it—and no less sentimental about human nature, mistaking evil for misunderstanding or for justified resentment that a little compromise can dispel.

Decades of teaching in the universities, the schools, even the kindergartens, along with all the lessons of Big Bird, Mister Rogers, and Oprah Winfrey, have made these habits of mind and heart pervasive—but fortunately not yet universal—in our culture. And President Obama is the incarnation of those habits in policy.

He is very small, you might say, to carry such freight. But that is the point: he is small, and he threatens to make us smaller.

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