A Return to Childhood: The New Immaturity

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

I would never have imagined that journalists, academics, actors, artists, and the intelligentsia in general would have so opposed the end of dictatorship and promotion of democracy abroad. And who would have thought that Vietnam would become the source for Democratic nostalgia, rather than the usual recrimination? Did anyone think the appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, promises of $15 billion in grants to combat AIDS in Africa, and lectures to the politically powerful Arab world to cease the genocide of black Sudanese would earn George Bush slurs evoking the Taliban, the old Confederacy, and fascism? Have we become children who live in a world of bedtime stories, afraid to face the cruel truth around us?


It is disturbing to see John Kerry insist that America has lost its friends and, through imbecilic diplomacy or worse, alienated those abroad. The world I see would beg to differ. Emigrants strive to reach American shores more often than all other destinations combined. Globalization is now synonymous with Americanization itself. The world’s preference for American food, music, travel, popular culture, fashion, and entertainment all suggest a dynamism in the United States found nowhere else.

One third of the planet — India and China — has evolved from being impoverished and bitter neutrals or outright enemies into capitalist powerhouses dependent on American free trade and outsourced jobs. If we used to argue in the 1940s about whether millions of dollars in U.S. grain aid really did any good in feeding the starving of China and India, we can all agree now that American liberality in letting consumer goods in and jobs out has done more for the world’s hungry millions than a century of American gift-giving.

Without $12 billion a year in remittances from illegal aliens in the United States and American tourists south of the border, the economy of Mexico would be in ruins. For all his party’s juvenile rhetoric, Vicente Fox realizes that America is about as liberal and humane to Mexicans who head north as his country is harsh and cruel to Latin Americans who cross its own borders from the south.

European elites, it is true, are angry at the United States. But that pique is more a result of projection and scapegoating rising from its own problems, not ours — as it struggles with demographic crises, unassimilated immigrants, impotence abroad, an embarrassing desire for free American protection despite concomitant resentment and envy, and a growing realization that while the world talks up the EU, when it has real problems, it goes to Washington.

In this regard, Greece is a metaphor for the entire ambivalence of the continent. It now worries about Arab terrorists in Athens, despite courting Middle East dictators for decades. It castigates the U.S. for bothering an Islamic Iraq, but Greeks lauded Milosevic in support of his Orthodox crusade against Albanian and Kosovar Muslims. A few years ago we were booed by Athenians for trying to save Muslims in the Balkans, and now we are even more vehemently trashed for allegedly killing them. Thousands publicly hissed at the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; yet American sailors openly patrol the Greek coastline while Special Forces not so openly help train Olympic security officers. Add it all up and there is one constant: Greece (like Europe) really does count on the U.S. as much as it counts on never having to say that publicly.

There are dozens of countries participating in the reconstruction of Iraq, perhaps more than were willing to get on board in Serbia to oust Milosevic. The Arab world’s anger at the United States — not evidenced by a precipitous decline in immigration to Detroit or new alliances with France — arises out of hurt and shame. We choose to prefer a democratic Israel to its own autocratic tribalism. Yet Middle Easterners privately know that should they adopt democracy they would win equal treatment from Washington. And they also grasp that to do such a revolutionary Western thing, they would have to embrace religious tolerance, gender equality, free speech, and an end to the pathologies of the Arab Street. And so they are stuck with the nagging truth that the Middle East will have to become more like the West — rather than the West like traditional Arab society — for real friendship to emerge.


The best way to sum up this now popular leftist analysis of the rage of Islamic fascists and their sometime supporters in the Middle East would be simply to imagine a different America, in, say, January 1941.

So envision a Vice President Henry Wallace lecturing the American people on its failure to win the hearts and minds of European youth. He perhaps would say something like, “What have we Americans done wrong to lose millions of Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and Japanese, who turn their back on democracy and prefer fascism?”

Roosevelt then might expound further, “Look at the world! We don’t have an ally anywhere but Britain. What have we done to earn the animus of most of Europe that has either joined Hitler or would prefer to be neutral? Why is all of Eastern Europe against us? Whether Communist or fascist, Russian or German, the common enemy is either the United States or England. All Stalin and Hitler can agree on is shared dislike of America. Why? Even Mexico and South America feel more affinity for Germany than for the U.S.”

Then a congressional board of inquiry could issue a finding that America had failed to give proper aid to Europe during the depression. It could suggest further that we are isolationists and self-absorbed. More thoughtful senators, the intellectual precursors of a Patty Murray perhaps, could rail that whereas Hitler built autobahns, we lent out high-interest loans to those who were already struggling.

All such browbeating would have an element of truth in it, but, of course, in its totality remain an outright lie: Hitler, like bin Laden and his epigones, was the problem, not us. The only difference is that our grandparents knew that and we don’t.


The best evidence of the new childishness is its persistence in self-contradiction. Thus, Howard Dean hints that the recently elevated alerts might be politically motivated terrorist hype — even as John Kerry insists that we haven’t done enough to stop the fascists from planning our destruction.

Similarly, the Iraq war was at times necessary, completely uncalled for, poorly planned, nevertheless worthy of staying the course in, and more still — depending on the particular level of support voiced for the war in the polls of the week. The New York Times in April decries brutal American force in Fallujah, only by summer to scoff that our forbearance there had created a terrorist heaven.

The modern Left was created on the premise that Vietnam was both a strategic mistake and a moral catastrophe — and now has come full circle in praising men like John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Wesley Clark for their combat service. Are they heroes of a noble cause that to win deserved more support at home? Are they tragic fighters whose bravery was not properly appreciated? Or are they participants in what John Kerry once assured the American people was an illegal war in which soldiers routinely committed war atrocities? All or none?


This is a favorite canard of New York Times and Washington Post columnists who resent the inconvenience of security measures in their digs, and the attention such vigilance diverts from Mr. Kerry’s message. This story I think runs something like this. After 9/11, instead of pursuing the culprits through the proper domain of law enforcement, Mr. Bush embarked on two wars. Thus, we are now plagued with a series of terror alerts in a manner that did not follow the first World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Then rightly we indicted the culprits, arrested them, put them on trial — and went back to our afternoon nap.

Put aside the idea of magnitude — the singularity of 3,000 dead, a city block leveled, and a trillion dollars in lost revenue — as well as the fact that the 1990s appeasement led to constant harvesting of American diplomats, soldiers, and tourists abroad.

Instead, focus on the sheer historical ignorance of such sentiments. The tardy decision to fight back — whether in Britain in 1939 or the United States in 1941 — always carries with it the acceptance of greater short-term bloodletting and chaos in hopes of long-term security. Churchill was applauded for ending Chamberlain’s appeasement — and then nearly was sacked after Dunkirk, Singapore, and Tobruk defeats that all could have been avoided by submissively “dialoguing” with a Hitler or Tojo.

Pearl Harbor was not immediately followed by victory at Midway, but rather first the shame and violence of Wake Island and the fall of the Philippines. Certainly, there was more, not less, killing inherent in America’s defiant decision on December 8, 1941.

So yes, Pakistan is beset by nearly daily assassination attempts and terror is ubiquitous now in Saudi Arabia. But this chaos is not because of George Bush, but rather because George Bush, unlike all previous presidents, at last pressured those autocratic governments to cease their bribery and tacit support of terrorism.

Fascists don’t like it when erstwhile sponsors switch sides. In the same manner, once bin Laden & Co. learned that the U.S. was at last serious in eradicating their terrorist sanctuaries, they accelerated their killing, rightly convinced that there was a real war on now, in which there would soon be real winners and losers — and losing meant the end of all the progress that they achieved in the last two decades.

Why do we embrace these flawed concepts and exhibit such wild swings of mood and logic?

In a word, we have devolved into an infantile society in which our technological successes have wrongly suggested that we can alter the nature of man to our whims and pleasures — just like a child who expects instant gratification from his parents. In a culture where affluence and leisure are seen as birthrights, war, sacrifice, or even the mental fatigue about worrying over such things wear on us. So we construct, in a deductive and anti-empirical way, a play universe that better suits us.

In that regard, for the moment George Bush is a godsend. His drawl, Christianity, tough talk, ramrod straight strut — all that and more become the locus of our fears: French and Germans on the warpath? They must have been Bushwhacked, not angry that their subsidized utopia — from a short work week, looming pension catastrophe, and no national defense — is eroding.

Bombs going off in Manhattan or stuck in a tunnel while cops search every truck? Either way, Bush is the problem. Either he foolishly went into Iraq and let down our guard, or he is trying to scare us into believing that a nonexistent terrorist is under every bed. The television still blares about suicide bombers and repugnant thugs tormenting bound hostages? Surely Bush set them off. The proper response? Presto! Elect a less confrontational John Kerry, and thus cease a long, difficult war to defeat and to discredit all who would embrace such odious ideas.

Liberal civilizations often tire of eternal vigilance and in the midst of peacetime affluence work themselves into mass hysteria when challenged. Such is the picture we receive of the Athenian assembly around 340 B.C. when Demosthenes desperately warned that Philip was not a national liberator. Few thought Hannibal really would cross the Ebro. Churchill in the 1930s wasn’t listened to very much — after the Somme, who wanted lectures about deterrence? Ronald Reagan’s earlier prescience about the Soviet threat in the post-Vietnam era prompted Hollywood to turn out cheap TV movies warning of Reagan-inspired nuclear winters.

We too are reverting to our childhood and thus are in the same weird mood preferring fantasies and stories to reality. The Democrats know it. And so the unifying theme of their otherwise contradictory messages is that we can return to the infantile delusions of September 10, and not the crisis-filled adult world of post-September 11 that now confronts George W. Bush.

© Copyright 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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