When I Was Young . . .

by Victor Davis Hanson

Private Papers

When I was young, my parents in the early 1960s told me to ignore stories about the “Jews.” Of course, out here in rural California, I never met such distant persons, but only heard about them from disgruntled farmers (who, I wager, had never met any either). These pesky “Jews” apparently in some secretive cabal controlled the entire fruit-market of the United States! “They”—not the paradoxes of interstate commerce and the cutthroat nature of American marketing—explained why we got $3 a box for plums while “they” took $20.

Middle men, market manipulators, and secret smart guys who trafficked in inside breaks and shady deals—all these right-wing farmers used to swear pulled the strings of the American fruit market. When I asked my mother if this could possibly all be true, she would sigh, and say, “No, no, no. You see when people fail, or when they are angry, or they become afraid and confused, they always blame those who are different or successful or confident. And often that means Jewish people, most of whom our neighbors have never met.”

And then I grew old, and learned that it wasn’t any more reactionary men of the soil who evoked the Jews to explain why they were not listened to, or felt weak, or were frustrated, but rather often very liberal, and self-acclaimed progressives. Instead of Shylock fruit merchants, the new sneaky Jew was the neoconservative—with a funny-sounding name like Wolfowitz or Perle who, due to some sinister genius, had hoodwinked red-blooded Americans into fighting and dying for the Likud party in Israel. Not 9-11, not Saddam Hussein’s horrific record of genocide, not some systematic effort to end rogue states and terrorist havens, and not an idealism to bring consensual government to the landscape of the Middle East explained why we went to Iraq. No, it was once again the Jews.

When I was young, my mother and father also lectured me about the paranoid style in American politics. “There will always be someone like a McCarthy waving papers and shouting conspiracies,” they preached. At the time, inasmuch as they were agrarian conservative Democrats in a sea of reactionary Republicans, I think they were telling me to watch out for phraseology from our politicians like “cooked up,” “treason,” “traitor”-and especially to be on the look-out when they screamed and frothed, and made all sorts of scary allusions like “some leaders have told me in private” or “the greatest example of (fill in the purported travesty) in American history.”

And then I grew old and listened to Howard Dean quote al Qaeda’s about killing Spaniards as proof of our blunders and ponder the “theory” that George Bush knew in advance of 9-11; and Ted Kennedy refer to cabalistic meetings in Texas; and Al Gore scream, veins bulging and hair tossed, about the administration’s treasonous war; and the Democratic National Chairman alleging that a President was AWOL while in the military; and John Kerry hinting at unnamed foreign leaders contacting him in secret—the conspiracists Chomsky, Gore Vidal, or Michael Moore no doubt all grinning off-stage.

When I was young, my parents used to lecture me “Don’t listen to those people who use that awful term “colored people.”  “Get off this farm and meet others, learn we are just people. Live next to or marry anyone you want. We are all the same on the inside and nearly so on the outside as well.”

And then I grew old and heard not the old racist “colored people” but the new racist “people of color.” And instead of integration, I taught at a school that had students of different races voluntarily separating themselves where they ate—and the university not objecting to such separatism, but itself promoting graduation ceremonies whose particular participation was predicated on the color of one’s skin. The epitome of this new make-believe world was the recent failed candidacy of third-generation Californian Cruz Bustamante, the ultimate political insider who thought by learning Spanish, using his once forgotten Latino name, and showing up at ethnic rallies he could be the real deal “immigrant,” while the true newcomer with thick accent, who as a once penniless arrival had navigated the shoals of American business, was in fact to be the privileged “establishment”—apparently by virtue of his skin color?

When I was young, my father used to get me out of bed, in a thick John Kennedy accent, and with perfect Bostonian mimicry order me to start the day with “viga.” I think he meant “vigor” in the sense of the new Kennedesque idealism at home and abroad. My isolationist grandfather would sigh and concede that Harry Truman was right after all, in spending all our hard-earned tax dollars in strange places like Greece and Turkey and sending relatives and friends to worse in Korea. There was a sort of guarded idealism of the need to promote democratic values, coupled with the tragic acceptance that such sacrifice would always be misinterpreted and caricatured. But the idea, my grandfather also added, was to make places abroad a little freer so Americans would not have to be attacked here at home by those who hated us.

And then I grew old and learned that somehow Iraq was not like Panama, or Serbia, or Afghanistan, where without the UN, Congressional approval, and mostly alone we took out dictators and theocrats and left the foundations of democracy in their place. Instead, something that made no real sense in terms of classical economic exploitation was said to be about “blood for oil,” or promotion of the Likud party in Israel, or creating a new empire in the Middle East—all this about a country that we debated publicly a long time about invading, went to the UN, got congressional sanction, and toppled its dictator in three weeks, and then stayed on for another year to ensure the Iraqis had a chance for the only freedom in the Arab Middle East.

The world has changed. What was once liberal is now illiberal, and the old progressivism has become mean-spirited and opportunistic. What was once idealistic is seen as calculating. When I read about the “Jews” now, it is almost always negative and emanates either from the European left or the so-called liberal university here in the United States. Israel, still democratic and still attacked by autocracies, is now hated rather than respected, not for what it has done, but for what it is. The world snored, for example, this week when suicide bombers were foiled in their attempts at getting at a chemical weapons dump so that they might once more gas Jews. Neither Kofi Annan nor Desmond Tutu, for all their recent media appearances, said a word when Palestinians apologized for murdering a jogger in Jerusalem on the mistaken impression that the poor Arab was a “Jew.”

When I turn on the TV and see some wild-eyed crazy-like public figure ranting, it is not a John Bircher frothing about pure drinking water and statesmen of dual loyalties, but prominent Democratic politicians like an Al Gore or Howard Dean screaming to the point of exhaustion, alluding to the end of America as we have known it, and citing a “betrayal” of the United States. Secret meetings, stealthy friendships, and contorted past relationships—the purported exegesis of all this intrigue and plotting now comes out on NPR and in theNew York Review of Books, not garish 1950 pulp newspapers printed in pink.

When I listen to those who talk of race first rather than last, and identify themselves and others by their skin color, it is almost always by those on the Left, and usually by those who have something to gain by claiming first loyalty to a race or tribe rather than to a common humanity. And when I hear America criticized for being too wasteful in its largess, too naive in its foreign policy, too extended abroad, too simplistic in its support of democracy, it is now always from a Democratic Senator or liberal professor, almost never from the old America Firster or pull-in-our horns Isolationist.

What has happened to the liberal world I grew up in? Perhaps the visceral hatred for George Bush, the appearance of a President who did not win the popular vote, who is openly Christian, who has a drawl, and who talks in absolutes explain some of these paradoxes. Maybe.

But I think there is a deeper pathology involved. The leadership of the American Left is no longer a product of the mill, farm, or shop—and no longer strives for a 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, and vigilance about a totalitarian Soviet Union. Here in California, Workers’ Compensation fraud, not its absence, has nearly ruined the state; rampant illegal immigration cloaked in cynicism, exploitation, and racial chauvinism, not assimilation and integration of different peoples, is threatening the body politic. Corruption, waste, and fraud of a Democratic governor, not too low income and sales taxes, have bankrupted the state. Massive Medical fraud, not neglect and insensitivity, threaten ample health care to the poor.

Most Democrats we saw this year—Howard Dean, Al Gore, John Kerry, Terry McAuliff, and John Edwards—either grew up in aristocratic bounty or are themselves multimillionaires. Does this matter?—only in the sense of sincerity and consistency. When Republican grandees talk of the glories of the free market you know what you get; when very liberal grandees talk of its evils, you have only the assurance that what they advocate and whom they champion most certainly will have little to do with the lives they themselves will live. And the message is no longer one of guaranteed equality of opportunity but of forced equality of results—as long as we accept that such a utopia applies for everyone else outside the world of corporate Ketchup money, astronomical trial lawyer fees, inherited Kennedy capital, Park-Avenue bond security, Sun Valley, and prep-school privilege.

I don’t know quite how they did it, but the Democrats’ candidate looks as at home snowboarding at a ritzy ski resort as George Bush does at a NASCAR rally. And when I hear anti-Semitism, hatred of Israel, warning about Jews in government, fury about foreign aid, visceral hatred and rude exclamations, sinister conspiracy theories, and racial separatism it usually has come far more often from someone on the Left than Right and from one educated and affluent rather than poor and ignorant.

The world I grew up in really is long gone.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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