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Finding our convictions again

Culture | Relativism recedes as Americans rediscover ideals worth defending

Issue: "Mourning has broken," Sept. 29, 2001

Who would win? A group with convictions so strong that they are willing and eager to die for them? Or a group without beliefs, thinking one idea is as good as another, rejecting their own heritage, and averse to any sacrifice of their personal pleasures?

With the World Trade Center attack, we prosperous, pampered Americans suddenly find ourselves up against suicide bombers, legions of volunteers eager to blow themselves up to reap a supposed eternal reward and to kill the infidels they hate. Americans, way too sophisticated even to comprehend this mindset, are derided by radical Muslims as soft, decadent, and easily scared.

For decades, Americans have been paralyzed by intellectual, moral, and religious relativism, a wishy-washy self-doubt about our own history and institutions. We have tried to be multicultural, as if we had no culture of our own. Exhibitions of faith and patriotism have been embarrassing, politically incorrect, and retro-primitive. But now that our nation has been attacked, this is changing. Americans are seeing that we have a civilization worth defending.

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The Irish poet William Butler Yeats saw the problem as early as 1920, in his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

The "best" people of the West, the well-educated, creative, intelligent leaders of the culture, lack all conviction. They are skeptical about everything, cultivating an amused, detached irony instead of any kind of commitment. They are agnostic, dismissive of every kind of moral authority, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed.

Truth is relative, say our educators. There are no absolutes, say our ethicists. Religion, ideals, and civilization are frauds. Life is meaningless. We just need to have a good time before we die.

Then the planes crashed into the centers of American culture. Life is meaningless? The loss of thousands helped Americans see how precious it is. There is no objective right and wrong? But there sure seems to be something evil about mass murder. All religions are equally valid? But there seems to be something wrong with a theology that teaches that a sexual paradise is the eternal reward for those who murder innocent people.

Now all of the academic left's slogans seem frivolous and irrelevant. National leaders are quoting the Bible and calling for prayer. People are praying for each other and asking for prayer, and the media are treating faith with respect.

Flags are coming out of the closet. Some radio stations are playing non-stop patriotic songs. (Who knew there were so many?) Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and whites, liberals and conservatives, rich folks and poor, are all saying the same thing, coming together in support of our country. In the air is a spirit of determination and resolve to protect America and all that it stands for.

On college campuses, formerly apathetic students are rallying behind the president, giving blood, lighting candles, and even enlisting in the military. True, some professors and their followers are spouting the old bromides about the evil of America and how the terrorists are the true victims, but they and their whole ideology now sound ridiculous.

It is as if our culture has been preparing for this moment. Three years ago, Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation paid tribute to those who made it through the Depression and who fought World War II. A bestseller, it gave aging baby boomers and generation X-ers a new appreciation for our parents and grandparents, forcing us also to take stock of ourselves, whether we would be willing to make the same sacrifices.

So did Stephen Spielberg's movie Saving Private Ryan. Other successful books helped the public appreciate America again. David McCullough's John Adams showed grateful readers that government officials, contrary to recent experience, do not have to be corrupt, immoral, and self-interested, that a politician can be a statesman. Historian Stephen Ambrose has sold millions of books about the great achievements of this country-the Lewis and Clark exploration of the frontier, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the ordinary men who fought World War II.

In his recent bestseller, Wild Blue, we learn that George McGovern, known heretofore as the ineffectual peacenik presidential candidate, was himself a war hero, flying B-24s over Germany. And now HBO has turned one of Mr. Ambrose's books into a mini-series, replacing R-rated fare about the Mafia and swinging singles with the dramatization of Band of Brothers liberating Europe.

Yeats himself noted a change when a number of his friends and even opponents were killed during the Irish revolution. In "Easter 1916," he writes about the change brought on by their deaths, as his memories of their small talk, the foolishness, and the petty politics all give way to something far more important: "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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