It’s a presidential-election year, as you no doubt can’t escape. The anger and conviction can be quite overwhelming. Even the words “presidential election year” seem heavy weights.
Speaking of overwhelmed, my office tends to be, with books. New books and old books. I’ve purged many times — we’ve had at least two moves in my twentysome years here. For some reason, two oldies rose to the top of a pile on the first day back in the new year. What’s Wrong with the World, by G. K. Chesterton, and My Love Affair with America, by Norman Podhoretz. They clearly have something to offer us overwhelmed ones.
This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. . . . The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. . . . We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them.
He goes on in his diagnosis of 1910 England: “We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity.” Well, now I feel overwhelmed, because while the latter is true today, the former certainly is not. Attempts to make it legal in more than Nevada are afoot, and pornography seems ubiquitous. And yet, his prescription seems to stand the test of time:
The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social idea. We can all see the national madness; but what is the national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.
In his ode to America, Norman Podhoretz celebrates the best of the United States. He cites, for instance, his public-primary-school teachers’ including traditional Christmas carols as part of their instruction. This is part of our culture after all, and joy is not to be withheld from children; they can come to know joy is possible, whatever their beliefs about the nature of God might be or come to be. We pay lip service to not “imposing,” and yet we do impose in all kinds of ways as a culture of increasing ideological tyranny. It is out of respect for another that you share, while not demanding submission! Podhoretz captures something beautiful and worth reconsidering throughout his book about love and gratitude:
Looking back as a septuagenarian on my life as an American in America, I am reminded of something Jewish — this time of a special hymn of thanksgiving. . . . Each element is the subject of its own sentence, and each sentence of the series concludes with the word dayyenu, which can roughly be translated as “That alone would have been enough for us.” The idea is that, not content with “that alone,” God went on and on and on to pile wonder after wonder and marvel after marvel; so many that those participating in the seder invariably grow fatigued by the time they finish reciting them all.
He is quick to add that
America is not God, but it declared its independence as a nation by an appeal to “the law of Nature and Nature’s God,” and the Constitution its founders wrote and ratified for that new nation uses the word “blessings” in its very first paragraph. The particular blessings to which they referred were those of liberty, to “secure” which to themselves and their posterity they created the Constitution that set the United States of America on its course.
We’re their posterity. And at a time when anti-Semitism is terrorizing people right here in America — in the very state of New York, from where I’m writing, it seems fitting for a Jewish grandfather to lead this exercise. What is it we’re grateful for? What is still exceptional about America? If you happened to watch the long press conference that Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa gave while leading his citizen patrol of Gentiles into Brooklyn on the last night of Hanukkah to help protect Jewish people there, you were reminded that we still have a fighting chance here to protect freedom, including religious freedom. If only the bride beheaded on her wedding day in Nigeria during Christmas had been in similar circumstances.
And there are authors still calling us to our better angels. National Review editor Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free could very well have adapted Podhoretz’s title. And the day I first cracked it open, I started reading his chapter on Joan of Arc. It isn’t a prideful (in the deadly sin kind of way) argument he makes; it’s a love story seeking to draw others into the kind of gratitude that helps with perspective.
Our NR colleague, Richard Brookhiser, too, writes in his new Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea:
Our concern for liberty shapes how we live in society and what we know ourselves to be in the order of things: how we relate to each other and what God has made us. Americans are free and equal men and women, marked for liberty at birth. Ignorance and vice may obscure and sometimes even steal our birthright, but we work, stolidly or heroically, to reclaim it.
How about resolving to make this election year different? Reject cynicism and rage. Renew and rebuild what’s been best about us. To do right in every scenario before us — as a matter of civics and daily life.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.