An Ode to Dogma
Theirs vs. ours.


Jonah Goldberg

In the past few months I’ve written things that have tended to annoy large segments of Muslims, Arabs, the French, the Europeans in general, the Canadians in particular, and, of course, their liberal fans here at home. In response, a great number of people have written me to say all sorts of terrible things about me, my causes, my country — even my canine companion, and my mother.

It is not because the last two nouns in that sentence refer to “dog” and dear ol’ “ma” that I want to take a few minutes to discuss “dogma.” But, like William Safire on a day that ends in “Y,” I couldn’t resist some word play.

Anyway, in response to my various, and entirely true, assertions about our ungrateful, crapulent, carping, or otherwise cloying “friends” around the world, I’ve received a great deal of e-mail from partisans of the anti-American cause. (And, please, I do not mean to say that all Muslims, Arabs, Frenchmen, etc., are “anti-American” or otherwise loathsome. I speak in generalities and most non-pedants should be fine with that).

One “argument” I hear very often is this contention that the United States is akin to the old Soviet Union. Apparently the idiocy bacillus that carries this notion has infected water supplies around the globe. More than a dozen Canadians have expressed remorse over the “tragedy” that America has become what it fought against for so long. Among radical Muslim groups and cranky Arab secularists, the idea that the United States will be the “next” empire to fall is now commonplace. Osama bin Laden, by all accounts, believed that the United States was the weaker of the two superpower empires, and that since the mujahedeen defeated the Soviets, they could certainly defeat the United States. Then again, Osama bin Laden also believed the Muslim nations of the world could beat the non-Muslim nations in a fight, which is to say Osama bin Laden was — or is — an idiot.

Just the other day I listened to a radio interview with a radical Muslim outside a mosque in London who explained that America was about to collapse for the same reasons the Soviet Union did. In France, the distinctions between the United States and the Soviet Union have been as lost as the distinctions between soap and garlic. “What is the point of Europe?” Charles de Gaulle once asked. “It must serve to prevent domination either by the Americans or by the Russians.”

One might as well say, “What is the point of the corner grocery? It must serve to prevent domination either by the Mafia or the police.”

Anyway, I don’t want to belabor this point. Suffice it to say that many people are stupid — or, to be more charitable, their dislike for America makes them stupid. Just as a matter of Political Science 101, if you can’t tell the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States, you aren’t a person to be taken seriously.

I got to thinking about all this after I heard the Iraqi response to Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations. “Any third-rate intelligence outfit could produce it,” declared General Amr al-Saadi, Saddam’s science adviser. He added that Powell’s case was “simply manufactured evidence.”

Now, obviously al-Saadi is lying. But how many people might actually believe him? After all, lots of people think the White House is manufacturing all of the evidence against Iraq. I just heard Howard Zinn make largely that point this morning on NPR. And if I were an average citizen of an average Arab country — where government lies and propaganda are par for the course — it might seem entirely reasonable to think America makes stuff since, after all, my own government certainly does. Indeed, al-Saadi might even think this is a perfectly plausible accusation: Since he lies and deceives so much, surely Powell does too.

Never mind for the moment that if the United States government were actually going to manufacture evidence, we could come up with better stuff than what Powell presented. We could have had pictures of Saddam eating puppies and Baathists defiling pictures of Oprah Winfrey. We could have had tapes of Iraqi officers planning to blow up San Francisco. One patriotic kid at Kinko’s could have tricked out some nuclear weapons in Photoshop, if truth were no longer a standard.

The reason Powell didn’t make stuff up goes straight to the heart of why people are moronic when they compare the United States to the Soviet Union. Powell wouldn’t make up evidence because he knows that his career would be over if he did. He didn’t do it because few people in the State Department would help him do it. He didn’t because his name would be tarnished in the history books for all time. He didn’t because nobody asked him to. He didn’t because he didn’t think to do it.

And therein lies the power of dogma. Chesterton noted that the merely rational man will not marry and the merely rational soldier will not fight. The flight to dogma — which comes from a Greek root meaning “seems good” — is a human reflex and can never be exorcized. Nor should it be. In America, we go through intellectual contortions over the phantom lost liberties of captured terrorists, because we adhere tenaciously to a dogma of individual liberty. I may think such concern is misplaced, but it is impossible not to concede that a country terrified of denying the rights of a terrorist is unlikely to deny the rights of the rest of us. In other words, good dogma is the most powerful inhibiting influence against bad ideas. As William F. Buckley put it in 1964 when discussing the libertarian idea to privatize lighthouses: “If our society seriously wondered whether or not to denationalize the lighthouses, it would not wonder at all whether to nationalize the medical profession.”

I’ve written a lot about how many people don’t understand that America isn’t an empire (see: “Not Getting America“), and I’ve come to believe that this misunderstanding is rooted in dogma — not ours, but theirs. As that quote from De Gaulle indicates, many people grew up believing there was a moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States. They were a superpower. We are a superpower. They tried to disseminate their ideas around the world. We try to disseminate our ideas around the world. Etc., etc. But the problem with this thinking is that opposites are always in the same category. “Hot” and “A chicken” are more distant from each other than “Hot” and “Cold” are, but we understand that hot and cold are opposites because they both describe temperatures.

When it comes to human affairs, though, people get very confused about such things — especially overly literary liberal people. Police get confused for criminals. Soldiers are seen as terrorists. And good and decent democratic societies are confused for evil and corrupt tyrannical societies, simply because they fit into the same categories. The differences between the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t simply a matter of different uniforms. We had nuclear weapons and big armies, and so did the Soviet Union. But that’s as revealing as saying that an ambulance driver and a hit-and-run killer both have driver’s licenses.

Unlike in most countries, in America we see a huge difference between the state and the nation, or between the government and the society. The reason for this is that Americans are a morally dogmatic people see “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants“). The Soviet Union collapsed because when the state imploded, everything else — schools, businesses, etc. — of necessity imploded with it. America is an open society in which the government is merely one institution among many. If our government collapsed tomorrow, America would remain. Sure, there would be financial dislocations and other big problems. But America would still be America because — corny as it may sound — America is a people far more than it is a government.

In Saddam’s tin-pot Stalinist torture chamber, the nation is a tool for Saddam’s will to power. If the inspectors find a cache of chemical weapons, Saddam cannot claim “rogue elements” in his government acted independently and lied to him — because in his government, rogues, mavericks, freethinkers, and independent spirits of any kind are put to death, often after having seen their families murdered first. The only reigning dogma is to please the master and stay alive. Such is the way of all totalitarian regimes, be they Saddamite or Stalinist.

In America, rogues and freethinkers get TV shows, endowed chairs, and attaboys. If you can’t see how profound a difference that is, your problem is your own dogma, not America’s.