Congressman Pete Stark has apologized for saying that President Bush finds “amusement” in the spectacle of American troops getting “their heads blown off” in Iraq. Yet his comments have been embraced by many of the president’s detractors, among them bloggers at The Huffington Post and Daily Kos.
It is not hard to see why. Congressman Stark’s words are faithful to a particular way of looking at America and its place in history — are faithful to what might be called the “liberal interpretation of history.”
The liberal interpretation of history holds that the United States is not merely a flawed country — all countries are flawed — but a deeply flawed one. It was founded by statesmen who subscribed to a deeply flawed philosophy; statesmen who believed that all men are created equal, and that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the fruits of their industry.
The founders of the United States, it is true, did not always live up to their philosophy. But by placing its principles in the Declaration of Independence, they preserved it, as Abraham Lincoln said, for all time, so that “to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
In the view of those who subscribe to the liberal interpretation of history, the philosophy of the Declaration is antiquated. According to the liberal interpretation, all men are created equal, except for blacks, Native Americans, Alaskan natives, Hispanics, and Asian and Pacific Islanders, who are racially challenged and must be classed apart from everyone else. (Native Hawaiians will be added to the list if the Akaka Bill becomes law.) All are entitled to life, except for those whose hearts beat in the womb; to liberty, except for those who require the supervision of the nanny state; to the fruits of their industry, except for those who have made a certain amount of money and are obligated to hand a disproportionate chunk of it over to the government each year.
Central to the liberal interpretation of history is the belief that a country founded on so flawed a philosophy cannot, as a rule, be a force for good in the world. Accordingly, when the United States acts in the world it most often acts not for good, but for evil.
Viewed in the light of such an interpretation of history, Congressman Stark’s comments become comprehensible, even predictable. President Bush adheres to the Freevangelical faith of President Lincoln, who argued that the United States has a decisive role to play in advancing the cause of freedom in the world. President Bush adheres, as well, to the belief that all human beings are entitled to liberty and the fruits of their industry: he therefore opposes the enlargement of nanny-state measures like S-CHIP when alternative measures (such as tax cuts) would promote the general welfare in a better and less intrusive way.
From the point of view of those who subscribe to the liberal interpretation of history, such heterodoxy cannot be explained rationally; the President must be not merely intellectually primitive, but morally depraved, as Congressman Stark suggested when he condemned the president for defending freedom abroad while resisting S-CHIP expansion at home.
History, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, is biography. In the liberal view, American history — or much of it, at any rate — is sordid biography. Practitioners of liberal history seek to discredit as morally, financially, or sexually corrupt those whose beliefs cannot be reconciled with liberal orthodoxies. The founders, Charles Beard and Richard Hofstadter argued, were financially corrupt. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was a rich man’s club which frustrated the progress of democracy and protected the interests of the well-to-do by imposing an aristocratic constitution on the unwitting populace. Thomas Jefferson, who set forth the founders’ philosophy of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, was both morally and sexually corrupt; he owned slaves and may have slept with some of them.
Abraham Lincoln, liberal revisionists argue, was a corrupt hypocrite who cared nothing for the welfare of blacks; he played on antislavery sentiment in order to gain power for himself and impose prohibitory tariffs on the nation — a political kickback to the rich businessmen who helped elect him.
Likewise Ronald Reagan, who, according to the liberal interpretation, presided over another corrupt administration. In The Liberal Persuasion, a festschrift for the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., one prominent liberal historian denounced Reagan’s Washington as “a ‘Grand Bazaar’ where moneyed interest groups regularly bought influence and power from public officials, betraying American democracy in the process.”
Hence, the animating idea of the liberal interpretation of history: The shapers of America’s philosophy of freedom were corrupt; therefore the philosophy they espoused was also corrupt.
President Bush has made the case for an older, pre-welfare-state theory of liberty, and he has portrayed the United States as a global vindicator of freedom. The logic of the liberal interpretation of history demands that he, too, be discredited as the founders, Lincoln, and Reagan have been discredited.
Unable to accuse Bush of malversation or sexual peccadilloes, proponents of the liberal interpretation of history argue that his corruption lies deeper, that he is a sort of modern Nero, a man who, like Gibbon’s Commodus, was born “with an insatiate thirst of human blood, and capable, from his infancy, of the most inhuman actions.” Congressman Stark depicts Mr. Bush as a sadist who enjoys the spectacle of human suffering; Huffington Post blogger Paul Slansky compiles a brief which implies that the President is cavalier about capital punishment and that he sends people to their deaths with a light heart. Slansky adds that as a boy Mr. Bush liked to blow up frogs with firecrackers.
The liberal interpretation of history has largely replaced the older Whig interpretation of history as a way of understanding the American past. In the Whig view, the United States represents a “new beginning” in the world: it is a country which has played a crucial role in breaking with age-old despotic patterns and in furthering the progress of global freedom.
The liberal interpretation of history, by contrast, asserts that the belief in a “new beginning” is one of those national “illusions” (in the words of liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) that must be punctured. Americans’ faith in freedom, Niebuhr contended, is rooted in a naïvely self-righteous conception of the country’s pre-eminent virtue.
Niebuhr was wrong. None of the great exponents of America’s faith in freedom had a naïve faith in American virtue. As Niebuhr himself conceded (in a contradiction to his own argument), the founders retained enough of the old Calvinism to know that no human soul is wholly pure. Lincoln agreed: he said that American complicity in slavery must be expiated in suffering. But both Lincoln and the founders rejected the idea that simply because men are imperfect, they are incapable of governing themselves, and must be ruled by paternal guardians.
Those who, like Congressman Stark and his supporters, subscribe to the liberal interpretation of history vilify President Bush for a reason. They are much closer than he is to the paternalist philosophy that America’s greatest champions of freedom have always repudiated.
— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, is being published this month by Free Press.