Many, many years ago, I heard second hand a true story that still makes me smile. It was the story of an American walking down the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He was enjoying the day, going nowhere in particular.
After a few moments, he came upon a small knot of people clustered in a tight circle, and as he drew nearer, he heard the sound of a guitar. Even from a distance he could tell that most, perhaps all of the group were Americans -- from just-off-the-plane tourists to seasoned, long-term ex-pats. They were smiling as they clustered around a street musician, who was strumming away energetically. Many in the audience had tears streaming down their faces as he sang:
Come and listen to my story
'bout a man named Jed,
A poor mountaineer
Barely kept his family fed.
And then one day
He was shootin' at some food
When up from the ground
Come a-bubblin' crude.
Then, with all the passion of Bill Travis and Davy Crockett calling the Alamo defenders to the ramparts, this crowd of Americans hollered at the top of their lungs: 'OIL, THAT IS! BLACK GOLD! TEXAS TEA!'
Shocked, mystified and undoubtedly worried for their safety and those of their children, the Parisians continued walking by, no doubt giving them a wide berth and that expression we see so frequently from their waiters and maitre'Ds. To the Americans, they and the rest of their city no longer existed, and the unknown musician ' God bless him, whoever and wherever he may be ' grinned like a monkey and picked up the pace:
Just sit right back
And you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip'
That started from
This tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The smiles, the group singing -- you can just take that for granted. But the tears, the weeping '- we can understand that too. The loneliness, the longing for the simple comfort we find in a kindred spirit, far from home. The instant camaraderie '- 'Pittsburgh? Go Steelers!' And there's something just so damn carefree and glorious about a bunch of oblivious Yankee tourists making complete idiots of themselves, surrounded by two thousand years of culture and art, banding together to sing about the Modern Stone-Age Fam-i-lee! and think about home'
You want to go where people know
People are all the same
You want to go where
Everybody knows your name.
In '98 I spent a terrific three months in Brisbane, Australia. OZ is home to the nicest, most fun-loving people who ever walked the earth. I went boogey-boarding in the Coral Sea, and walked on white beaches so fine and clean that the sand squeaked like new sneakers on polished hardwood with every step you took.
But the night I got up and sang a karaoke Danny Zuko to an adorable, blonde Australian Sandy and a mob of fifty drunken Aussies torturing 'Summer Nights' from Grease'well, to be perfectly honest, I was just so damn proud. That American accent really sold it. My money was no good in the joint after that.
For those of us paying attention, it looks like the world is getting to be not the same cozy place it was when I swam in the Coral Sea or The Unknown Musician put his hat down for a few francs. Something has happened. We all know what that something was, and there's nothing worthwhile I can add about that clear, blue, fall morning.
Something has happened to us as a people, too -' most of us, anyway. And the rest of the world looks at us the same way those Parisians did that harmless afternoon on the Champs Elysees: nervous and apprehensive and deeply concerned. We have already deeply shocked and surprised our enemies '- those that are still alive. But from those we thought friends, we have heard a growing stream of bitter invective and shrill hysteria that has risen in pitch above the range of human hearing and is now audible only to the neighborhood dogs. We are called unsophisticated, swaggering cowboys who have somehow stumbled upon vast power, and many of our erstwhile allies have taken to talking to us as you would a four year old holding a loaded gun.
Our critics watch us with an intensity most of us cannot believe or perhaps even imagine, and they are looking carefully, waiting to see what the American behemoth will do next.
At home and abroad, there have been renewed charges of American Imperialism, of cultural and economic hegemony, and of determined efforts on our part to subjugate and dominate the people of the world through our greed, our ignorance and our cruelty.
Once again, events not of our doing have thrust the United States into a position where military engagements on the far side of the world seem inevitable, and no less inevitable are the charges of American Imperialism. If we are to be worthy of the manifest blessings and freedoms we enjoy, we must take these charges very seriously, and be as ruthless in our self-examination as we are on the battlefield.
Unlike the miserable, poorly trained, ill-fed and disgracefully led legions of conscripts we will face on that battlefield, our soldiers are citizen volunteers, and such free people need, and deserve, a cause worthy of their hardships and sacrifice.
And there is no disputing the fact that it is WE who are going over THERE. To the degree that there are civilian casualties (and there will be), it will be their civilians, not ours, that are dying. There are justifications for such a course of action, justifications that tower above the base and criminal plunder of territory and resources. So if we are about to go and inflict such violence, we had better be damn sure we check our motives before we go.
Accusations of 'Imperialism' are flung at us so frequently, and met with so little defense, that it is actually shocking to see how easily such a simplisme charge can be overturned.
To be Imperial is to possess, or hope to possess, an empire, and these slanders have been made for about a century now. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines 'empire' as 'a group of countries ruled by a single person, government or country.' Oxford paperback dictionary calls it 'a large group of states under single authority.' Cambridge goes on to define 'imperialism' as 'a system in which a country rules other countries, sometimes having used force to obtain power over them.'
ANY rational person can see that the United States does not meet these qualifications by any stretch of the imagination. What nations do we rule? Whose legislative bodies can we overturn with a wave of the hand? Where on this planet do people live under an American flag who do not wish to? And as Jonah Goldberg correctly points out, where are our governors and our tax collectors so that we can siphon off the meager wages of our Imperial Slaves? What kind of empire does not have these imperial mechanisms?
At the end of World War II, America stood astride the world as the unchallenged military and economic power. The terrible might of Germany and Japan lay crushed in smoldering ruin. Great Britain, bled white by the near-total loss of two successive generations of their best and brightest, was in barely better shape. China was a collection of pre-industrial peasants fighting a bitter civil war, and nowhere in the rest of Asia, Africa or South America did there exist anything more than local defense militias.
Only the Soviets remained as a potent military force -' and that force was essentially tactical, not strategic, in nature. While strong in tanks, artillery and men, it had no navy to speak of, and an air force consisting mostly of close support ground-attack aircraft such as the Il-2 Sturmovik. While effective against ground targets, the Soviets in 1945 had nothing resembling US heavy bombers such as the B-17, the B-24, or the magnificent B-29.
On the other hand, the United States not only had what was far and away the world's preeminent Navy; we also had large numbers of long-range strategic bombers and swarms of highly-seasoned fighter escorts. We had a Marine Corps flush with victories: battle-hardened men who had invented through blood and horror the means to go ashore on enemy beaches and stay there. We had an Army whose courage and skill in battle was unsurpassed, and whose critical supply and ordinance staffs were, by far, the best in the world.
And, of course, we had the atomic bomb, and the will to use it.
History has never, and will never, record a time when such unchallenged power existed in the hands of a nation, nor of a time when opposing forces were so weak and in such a state of disarray and abject surrender.
And these feared and ruthless Americans, a people who had incinerated cities in Europe and Japan and whose ferocity and tenacity on island jungles and French beaches had brought fanatical warrior cultures to their knees -' what did these new conquerors of the world do?
They went home is what they did. They did pause for a few years to rebuild the nations sworn to their destruction and the murder of their people. They carbon-copied their own system of government and enforced it on their most bitterly hated enemy, a people who have since given so much back to the world as a result of this generosity. They left troops in and sent huge sums of money to Europe to rebuild what they all knew would eventually become trading partners, but also determined competitors. Then they sent huge steel blades through their hard-earned fleets of ships and airplanes and came home to get on with their lives in peace and quiet.
Oh, and some of the islands they had visited had asked to remain under the American flag as territories and protectorates, free to leave whenever they chose.
We are still too close to our actions in those critical years to fully grasp the meaning of what we did. Distant history will show it to be the most magnanimous act in human history, a test of national character passed with such glory and distinction that it baffles and amazes both our friends and enemies to this day.
Of course, many of our critics will claim that those were the actions of a better, simpler America, a place long gone and nothing like the cruel monstrosity we have become today. But isn't it odd that those who call us Imperialists are the first to point out our overwhelming strength ' a relative strength that is starting to approach once again that which we held in 1946? Surely, with the political, economic and military power we command today, we could safely assume the mantle of Imperialism -- 'a system in which a country rules other countries, sometimes having used force to obtain power over them.' -- pretty much at will. And yet we do not.
Once again we see the posters calling for NO BLOOD FOR OIL. Putting aside whether or not oil is indeed worth fighting for, let us look at a past so recent as to be indicative of the people we are today.
In 1991, NO BLOOD FOR OIL had an actual point to make, for during the Gulf War we were indeed fighting to keep oil supplies out of the hands of a madman who would, perhaps ' and eventually did ' try to hold the world hostage to his ambitions by trying to control or destroy this vital resource.
After handing him the worst defeat in modern history, and once again with vast numbers of battle-hardened and victorious troops in place, the United States could have simply claimed the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil fields as spoils of war. It was clearly the Imperialist thing to do.
Furthermore, it was a fait accompli ' already done. There was no further risk to us. The Republican Guard was running as fast as their stolen Mercedes-Benz's would carry them. We had achieved such a total and spectacular victory that our pilots ' men called baby-killers, sadists, murderers and worse ' refused to drop their weapons on legitimate military targets because the victory was so one-sided that they in their decency could no longer continue to do what they were ordered to do.
And so what did these American Imperialists do with the spoils of such victory, with the precious, precious oilfields completely and totally ours? We sent our best people over there to put out the fires. And then we came home. Again.
How many times will we have to do this before our critics are able to discern a pattern? How many provocations and taunts and slander will we have to endure before anti-Americans wake up to the simple truth that brings us home time and time again, which is simply this: For the first time in history, a nation powerful enough to rule the world has simply refused to do so. It is a moral and ethical choice we make as a people. More than that; it is data. It is evidence.
People who ascribe to us the most base motives imaginable, using ancient rhetoric from 80 years of Marxist failure have, as usual, had to confront the fact that everything they believe in is demonstrably and spectacularly wrong. Despite their shrieking words and foaming mouths, the history of our actions makes liars of them all. It is a truth so simple, written so large and so clearly, that even the most liberal among us can understand it.
Don't let them use that word, 'imperialism,' unchallenged again.
There is no American Empire. There is, however, the possibility of American Hegemony. Back to the dictionaries:
Oxford Online is shockingly direct: 'Hegemony: noun. Leadership.' Clearly, by Oxford's definition, we are an Hegemony.
But it gets more complicated. Merriam-Webster defines it as 'preponderant influence or authority over others,' while Cambridge weighs in with 'the position of being the strongest and most powerful and therefore controlling others.'
'Preponderant influence' and 'the strongest and most powerful' are hard to disagree with. Those seem indisputable facts as applied to the United States, whether it be in the area of culture, politics, science and engineering, or our military prowess. Where the term comes into question lies in whether or not we use 'authority over others' and are 'therefore controlling others.'
We are widely criticized among Europeans for what they call our cultural and economic hegemony. They decry our pop culture as vulgar and commercial, and in fact, it often is. McDonald's are now everywhere on the European continent, and we are reminded what horrible, fattening food it is. Agreed.
What doesn't seem to get through their anti-populist, anti-American blinders is that basic economic principle of supply and demand. I suppose we shouldn't be too shocked to hear this. The birthplace, intellectual home and last bastion of Marxism has always had a tough time with economic reality.
They also have a tough time with democracy, and the idea of people ' you know, the masses ' making their own decisions. And the thing that breaks the heart of every European elitist is the inescapable fact that McDonald's and Cheers are huge in Europe, because their own people can't get enough of them.
I have never been to France myself, but I would presume that daily life there does not consist of squads of heavily armed US Marines rounding up the terrified population, herding them into McDonald's at gunpoint, and shaking their last euros out of them. When France passes laws saying that some minimal percentage of their television programming must be produced in France, then that is an admission ' and it must be, if you will pardon the pun, a galling one ' that huge numbers of their people prefer our culture over their own.
Fact is, dreadful or not, McDonald's is not subsidized by the US Department of World Hegemony. They are a business concern. The day European customers stop eating at McDonald's, the McDonald's will go away.
But they do not. They are growing like mushrooms. American television programming has to be legally constrained. I suspect that Spider-Man out-drew more Europeans in a weekend than all of the films of Truffaut's did in the United States over forty years. This is telling them something, and what it is telling them is that our culture has a greater hold over the imaginations of their own people than theirs does.
To the Average French Citizen, I imagine Spider-Man, Cheers and McDonald's represent more or less what they do to Americans: a fun couple of hours, a few laughs, and something quick to scarf down when you're in a hurry. Big deal.
But to the deep-thinking elites of Europe, these trends are catastrophic, and terrifying. For it shows them, yet again, that a mob of boorish, unsophisticated, common brutes ' that'd be us ' is able to produce art and music and culture that cleans the clock of any nation that lets it in the door.
Spider-Man and McDonalds, and the long lines of their own countrymen waiting eagerly for a taste of them, prove to them daily that the European cultural superiority that they so deeply believe in is'how do we say this delicately?'uh, wrong.
And of course, being unwilling to face these unpleasant logical inferences, the blame has to be put somewhere. And who better to blame than a blinded, staggering, idiotic Cyclops, smashing all the delicate china in its drunken, obnoxious rampage?
So, are we being an hegemony? Are we using some 'authority over others' to force our cultural and political will on unsuspecting, defenseless people? Or do those people, from their own free will, choose to enjoy American movies and food and music and television because it has somehow managed to tap into the human spirit, into a sense of playfulness and freedom and above all, optimism --- things that all people crave, and that their own dark, brooding, pessimistic outlets have failed to deliver? Are these common Europeans being brainwashed by the orbiting Yankee Mind-Control Ray, or is the idea of a place where everybody knows your name or a beat-up teenage kid who can fly through canyons of skyscrapers on gossamer webs something that just about everyone wants to be a part of?
I studied film in college. I sat through Jules et Jim, The Bicycle Thief, 1900, Satyricon and The Grand Illusion. Watching them was work. I enjoyed just about all of these and many other mov -- sorry, films -- and I am a better person for having seen them, but some of them ' like a recent Polish entry in the Academy Awards, 'Life as a Fatal, Sexually Transmitted Disease,' well, that approached prolonged oral surgery in terms of its enjoyment value.
You don't have to have the vast intellectual reserves of a French Minister of Culture to understand why our movies and music have such appeal abroad. They are, more often than not, each small ambassadors of freedom and optimism. From James Dean to Brad Pitt, Americans are cool; cool because they don't spend their evening sitting around bumming cigarettes and discussing global warming. They have bad guys to fight and motorcycles to ride, vast stretches of open road to get lost in and a disdain for any authority whatsoever. Where the European hero is a deeply conflicted soul lost in an existentialist nightmare, the American counterpart is a member of a rag-tag group of Rebels flying out to destroy the Death Star. Or a no-nonsense cop who plays by his own rules. Or an ordinary person, who, as the result of chance (Spider-Man), determination (Batman) or accident of birth (Superman), uses amazing personal power to aid the weak and fight evil.
These are our myths. They lack the patina of history that elevates those of the Greeks and Norse and countless other mythologies. But they are not created in a vacuum. These stories come from our common heritage and our common beliefs. Our heroes are what we make them, and for this country, the most successful have been young men and women thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who fight evils and monsters and never, ever use their powers for personal gain.
Yes, these are fantasies. No, of course real Americans are not so altruistic. But these are the standards we create for ourselves, and these American heroes represent what we represent as a nation. Action over endless discussion and moral paralysis. Rebellion against authority. Defense of the weak and helpless. And most of all, the optimism of the happy ending.
We get a lot of criticism from our betters about how shallow and mindless the Hollywood ending is. Fair enough. It does turn its back on the untidiness of reality. But it is also an expression of how we would have things turn out in a perfect world, a world where freedom and justice triumph and reign. These are the things we believe in, and these are, not surprisingly, immensely attractive to the rest of the world.
Much of that world is now going through a state of cognitive dissonance regarding America and her people. In some places, this split-personality disorder is so intense as to cause us real concern.
Talk to the vaunted 'Arab Street' about America. Watch as their eyes glaze over with hatred and loathing and a desire to see us wiped off the face of the earth as criminals and murderers. Then something amazing happens. Time and time again, after expressing their view that there is no higher calling for their sons and daughters than to kill as many Americans as possible, watch what happens when asked if they want to visit the US.
On a table, place a $100 dollar bill, keys to a nearby Mercedes, a steak and lobster dinner and a US green card, and see which one disappears first.
These people, common people who spend their entire day sipping coffee and planning our violent demise, want nothing more than to go to Disney World (presumably they will blow themselves to pieces after they get through the lines at Pirates of the Caribbean.) They want to live in nice houses and drive nice cars, just as we do. They want to live in affluence and security ' like the Americans. They want everything we have, and admit it cheerfully. And then, some of them revert to planning how to blow up, shoot, poison or infect every last one of us.
How do they sleep with this contradiction? I personally find Islamic fundamentalists revolting, violent, ignorant and cruel. I have no desire whatsoever to visit Cairo or Damascus or Amman. To the extent that they want this fight I am ready to give it to them, with no schizophrenic mental contortions.
Mohammad Atta spent some of his last days in Las Vegas. That must have put the zap on the head of that murdering, smug bastard. He could have despised it from a distance and kept his Muslim soul pure for the butchery ahead. But he and his colleagues did not. They drank alcohol and cavorted with strippers. They could not resist the temptations. Even they, the most committed haters of what we are, could not stay away from what we have to offer.
To be honest, I think the very presence of America drives these Jihadists insane.
Promised world domination from their God and their holy Koran, they see around them nothing but failure and frustration and humiliation; while on the far side of the world lies a nation which, in their minds, has no culture and no history, and is populated by 300 million people bound and determined to break every one of their prohibitions on sexuality, drinking, gambling, and trade. As Steven Den Beste has pointed out brilliantly and often at www.denbeste.nu, not only our evident success, but our very existence calls to lie everything they believe in.
Again, paraphrasing my friend Steven, they look out from under a repressive, brutal government and a religion that demands obedience, conformity and denial of all natural desires... and see in us a society so free and comfortable with ourselves that we had the nerve, the audacity to include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights!
I have no trouble understanding why such fanatical elements of Islam want to see us destroyed. What I do find hard to understand is how so many of them love us with the look of little children promised a trip to The Magic Kingdom. For many, many people on 'The Arab Street' the very idea of coming to the US fills them with visible glee. I don't think I will ever understand how they can turn this inner argument down enough to be able to sleep at night.
In one sense perhaps, we are, in fact, an Empire. We are an empire of the mind, a place whose dreams and ideals have colonized the world. We are a black hole of desire upon which billions place their unfocused hopes. And yet, to them it seems as if we turn them away. We dangle freedom and hope and comfort in front of them with a glimpse into our everyday lives though television and movies. They want what we have, desperately. And they hate us for not giving it to them.
Well, sooner or later they are going to have to grow up a little and face some unpleasant truths. These people want the fruits of our success; they want our freedoms and our wealth and our confidence. But they are not willing to do the work. They are not willing to pay for it.
They wonder why we do not come and set them free from their own governments, why we don't send our sons and daughters around the world to get killed in order to break their self-imposed shackles. They wonder why we don't let all of them into the Magic Kingdom. They do not see, because they do not wish to see, that these freedoms and ideals cannot be dispensed like Hershey bars from a passing Jeep.
No one gave us our freedom ' we earned it. We fought and died for it. We have paid a terrible price in blood and treasure to keep that freedom. We fight and die to this day to preserve it. Right now, at this instant, American kids have chosen to be sitting in foxholes or cooped up in the bowels of ships, trading the liberty of their youth for poor pay and drab conditions to allow us to keep these freedoms. We will again ask some of these people to die for us, and some of them will.
To those poor suffering billions out there who want what we have, our refusal to hand our success to them on a platter makes us cold and inhuman and uncaring. But freedom is not a gift, it is an idea which only becomes a right when it has been paid for, and to that extent our edifice of prosperity and success is built on a deep and strong foundation that they simply do not have.
These foundations are well known to all who care to pay attention. Freedom of speech, no matter how reprehensible or challenging. Respect for law. Racial, sexual and religious equality. Respect for work and education. Tolerance. We have been hammering on these principles daily for almost two and a half centuries, and we still have a long way to go.
These and a thousand million small webs of trust and interdependency simply do not exist in the countries we find ourselves at odds with, nor do they seem in any hurry to develop them. The millions who stare wide-eyed at all we have accomplished refuse to do the dirty, unglamorous work that makes it all possible.
The founding legal document that we revere with the same passion that they do their religion is not a secret known only to a robed cabal. It is available for study in millions of places, quoted daily and debated in thousands of publications. It is the key to our success, prosperity, and outlook.
But adopting it is not easy. It means abandoning the easy satisfaction of blaming others for one's own failures. It means forgoing fatwahs and murdering people who express opinions you find abhorrent. It means enduring the stress and strain of finding a way to make compromise with people you dislike. It means treating women and homosexuals and Jews and much more that they hate with respect and dignity. More than any of these lofty and essential habits, it means nothing more or less than getting out of bed each morning, slugging through traffic and putting in an honest day's work --- five days a week, fifty weeks a year.
But they don't want that. They just want the Gold Card, and they want someone else to make the payments.
There are a few writers out there who have been responsible for teaching me not what to think, but how to think. Carl Sagan was one of the first; Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Den Beste are two of the most recent. But of them all, the one who has been the most fun has been P.J. O'Rourke. He toured the world pondering why some places work, and some don't. His book, Eat the Rich, is just simply brilliant ' brilliant in how it shows success not to be the product of geography or the accident of national resources, but rather the culture and attitude of the people and the way they view themselves.
PJ ends this really excellent and very funny work by pointing out that while nine of the ten commandments deal with such primal, elemental rules as 'Thou shalt not kill' and 'Thou shalt not steal,' God and Moses added at the end one that is somewhat startling in concept, namely: 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house; nor his wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.' 'In other words,' writes PJ, 'go get one of your own.'
I believe this Republic will weather the threats we face today in the same way we have for 250 years. I believe we are already a stronger, better place than we were on September 10th, 2001, for we have once again had to take stock of who we are and what we believe in.
And I believe that the power of our American Dream will, in fact, eventually cast off the ignorance and fear that have held so many in bondage for so long, because it is ultimately a fight you are free to join or walk away from. It represents a choice to join a ragtag group of Rebels fighting a desperate battle against tyranny and oppression ' and who would want to walk out on a movie like that?