William Safire, the neoconservative Op-Ed columnist for the neomenshevik New York Times, asks in a recent column why the term "Fourth of July" has come to supersede "Independence Day." One answer, Safire notes - correctly - is that the idea of national sovereignty that the word "independence" connotes has become controversial at best, offensive (in both senses of the word) at worst. Today, interdependence is rather the enthusiasm of the international elite - notably in Europe, where "Euro-patriotism" is dissolving national loyalties in a process that "may ultimately homogenize what are now distinctive cultures and disparate interests."
So far so good. (You don't come across neoconservative tributes to patriotism as "a devotion to the culture, tradition and way of life unique to our nation" every day.) And a little further still, as Safire goes on to complain that Europe's commitment to interdependence has caused it to look with ever-greater disfavor upon America's "national independence," which it regards as arrogant unilateralism.
"The fall from fashion of independence," he continues, "also accounts for the condemnation of 'unilateralism' by those envious of American success or worried about U.S. free competition - or by Americans uneasy about the sole-superpower status who find surcease from shame in self-flagellation" and are unwilling therefore to celebrate, on July the Fourth, our "glorious independence."
(If you're at all familiar with Bill Safire's writing, you're probably beginning to sense where he's headed.)
Is the word "glorious" too triumphalist? Safire asks. And answers himself:
…[A]pplied to our breakthrough in the consent of the governed, glorious is immodest, unhumble, and (only whisper this) 100 percent apt.
It may be, though, he concedes, that we need to remove the bombast from our patriotic fervor and replace it with "profound pride," in this way creating a "new patriotism:" One that gives no ground where American self-regard is concerned, while abstaining nonetheless in rubbing other peoples' noses in it.
And so to the windup:
America's independence and our power gives us the right [my emphasis] to decide what's best for our national security; many of us believe that is also best for international security.
Our independence and our prosperity gives [sic] us the opportunity to lead the world by our example: Free enterprise bounded by the rule of law produces the most for the many.
Our independence and our historic moral concern gives [sic] us the freedom to support human rights anywhere.
Even in the era of multilateralism, the European Union and global democracy, the right of any country to determine its own national security is a truism - with the exception of Serbia, Iraq, and a few others that come to mind. To say, however, what Safire suggests — that what promotes American security promotes the security of the world is…bombastic.
As for our "opportunity" to lead the world and our "freedom" to support human rights "anywhere," it is clear from the context that what Safire means is that we have the right to lead (read "dominate") the world, the right to intervene in any international situation in which we can perceive, justify, or rationalize our intervention. That's not just "profound pride," it's overweening pride: "by that sin fell the angels," a commodity usually in short supply in Washington, D.C. Had the Founding Fathers possessed this concept of their role in the world and the power to enforce it, their first act after the surrender at Yorktown would have been to declare Britannia a rogue country and invade it, in the name of universal human rights and the brotherhood of man.
Bill Safire has it wrong. America does indeed need a "new patriotism," one based on shared Anglo-American institutions, European ethnicity and European culture. It needs to declare independence from a self-conscious and grandiose view of itself and of its importance to anyone in the world beyond the American people. It needs to think less about democracy in the abstract and more about freedoms, not freedom—and American freedoms at that. It needs to forget about our "historic moral concern" for the world (largely illusory, at least until Woodrow Wilson) and concentrate on pulling itself back from the brink of self-destruction and self-extinction. It needs to declare independence from the burden of serving as an example to the world, "a beacon on a hill," or even an evangelistic testimony to free enterprise, and begin to see itself as a nation among nations. Finally, it needs to abandon its current project - instituted after attempts at saving the peoples of the world in their home countries failed - to bring them all here, instead.
Safire concludes his Fourth of July oration with the following anecdote:
When Rufus Choate derided such Fourth of July oratory evoking the Declaration's "glittering generalities," Ralph Waldo Emerson shot back: "Glittering generalities? They are blazing ubiquities!"
Has Safire forgotten that the New England Transcendentalist circle, in which Emerson was a leading light, was a significant factor in the destruction of the Old Republic whose formation began with the events of July the Fourth, 1776?
Chilton Williamson Jr. is the author of The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience and an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes the The Hundredth Meridian column about life in the Rocky Mountain West.
July 04, 2001