Thursday, September 11, 2008


Last night I happened to catch Sarah's arrival in Fairbanks, Alaska - covered with breathless expectation by CNN (has there ever been a VICE-Presidential candidate whose arrival by plane has been awaited with such expectation?). She gave what appeared to be an extemporaneous talk (maybe - there were teleprompters, of course) in which she gushed enthusiasm to be back in Alaska, spoke fervently about electing McCain, and used a few lines from "the Speech" now with less freshness. The one policy area she DID talk about was energy: namely, that a McCain administration would pursue nuclear (ah me, she actually said Nucylar, I think), renewable energy, and yes, would "drill, baby, drill." She did have the virtue of arguing that increasing domestic sources was a matter of national security, a point that should be stressed constantly in the shadow of several wars we have fought in recent years in the Middle East.

It was a brief appearance, but what struck me was here, on the eve of the attacks of 9/11, there was no actual mention of sacrifice that such a vital matter of national security might require from the American people. She - no more than McCain - has mentioned, much less stressed, the word sacrifice with any regularity. Coming out of a convention devoted to the theme "country first," what little policy tidbits we are now being fed by the Republicans is that we don't have to change our behavior one single bit. In spite of being in a war - a war that was started as a result of attacks on our mainland seven years ago today - not once has the current President, nor the current candidates, in any real way called on the American citizenry for sacrifice. We were told in the days after 9/11 that we should go shopping, and we are still effectively told the same thing today. Both candidates are running on an economic program that stresses tax cuts and magical energy solutions that will require no change in behavior on our parts. Neither can find the nerve to highlight the word "conservation." Both fear calling forth the better angels of the American electorate's nature, suspecting - perhaps correctly - that a generation of pandering Presidents (beginning with Ronald Reagan, I dare say, who taunted Jimmy Carter's call for conservation) has allowed to atrophy.

I have written of an encounter with Senator Obama in which he spoke with rhetorical brilliance about the need for sacrifice, but in fact called for none. I do not see any particular change in this basic fact in subsequent months. Senator McCain has run his campaign on the example of his own great sacrifice - no one can doubt he made extraordinary sacrifices for his nation, evident every time he raises his arms only to his shoulders - yet, an example he has not momentarily suggested that the American people might consider emulating, even if in the smallest way.

Democracy was classically understood to be a form of governance that called upon great reservoirs of self-governance. For this reason Montesquieu considered democracy to be the regime, above all, based upon virtue. Modern democracy, by contrast, is premised upon a philosophy that understands human motivations to be exclusively based on self-interest. Tocqueville observed in the 1830s that Americans speak constantly about self-interest, but that in fact they acted often out of altruism - thus, he wrote discerningly, they "do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves." The absence of any sustained or noteworthy call for sacrifice by either of our candidates suggests that we have tended, over time, to conform our actions to our words. Even a candidate whose life of sacrifice is exemplary and whose campaign motto is "Country First" can't bring himself to call for restraint and virtue from his countrymen. All the candidates rightly praise our military men and women, but in a society of severe subdivision of labor, we place upon them alone the burden of self-sacrifice while we change our behaviors not a jot. Members of our military protect our access to Middle East oil so that we can continue to shop. 9/11 was a terrible day, but perhaps what has been most terrible is the opportunity that was missed to call upon the willing reservoirs of sacrifice that was exhibited by the entire citizenry in the days that followed those attacks, and instead was allowed to fall back into the torpor induced by "Leaders" whose motto is more likely and honestly to be "drill, baby, drill" than "Country First."


Anonymous said...

Sarah Palin is returning to Alaska to see off her oldest son as he's deployed to serve his country on the anniversary of 9/11. It's hard to think of a better example of actions speaking louder than words.

Patrick Deneen said...

Absolutely true. I hoped to emphasize the fine individual examples, such as John McCain's wartime record. Sarah Palin's son's service is another good example - and at the same time, reinforces what I wrote here, namely that we praise our soldiers (and their families) without asking anything of the rest of the populace.

So, perhaps her son's deployment is an instance of the sort of example that our leaders could set, but I fear it's likely to be viewed as an extraordinary instance of personal sacrifice that has little bearing on the lives the rest of us lead here at home.

Anonymous said...

In his acceptance speech, McCain did touch on ways we could serve; join the military, teach, mentor a child, etc., but "drive less, walk more, think more about your lifestyle" was absent.

Conor said...

Solving the many energy and environmental crises at the moment must depend, in the end, on retrenching our needs. I agree wholeheartedly. Nonetheless, I can't help but wonder if we're capable of it. Humans are very talented at opening "doors," but they are extremely poor at closing them. Have we ever been able to sacrifice for a sustained period as a group? Of course, this doesn't make it an impossibility, or suggest that we ought not try, but it tempers my optimism (not my hope) for a future that is sustainable in terms of energy (and morality?).

Robert said...

A call to sacrifice is probably not sustainable outside of a persistent threat (real or perceived). Even in the face of a real threat, we've shown time and again that a vapid reassurance from a Daddy figure (e.g. your reference to Reagan) is overwhelmingly preferred.

If we're to be change it will look more like conversion. When the better way is forced on us it will be experienced as a relief, not as a sacrifice.

Black Sea said...

I like Sarah Palin as a cultural figure (I neither know nor care much about her political background), but I see the deployment of her son to Iraq as less an example of worthy sacrfice than as a unfortunate consequence of an incoherent and disengenuous foreign policy.

As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out on the day of the 9-11 attacks (privately, of course), this disaster also represented an "opportunity." By which he meant an opportunity to invade and occupy a foreign nation on the flimsiest of pretexts, something that he and several other key Bush appointees had been publicly urging even during the Clinton administration.

They made no calls for sweeping national sacrifice because they didn't want the public asking any probing questions about why we were doing this in the first place. They hoped that all the shooting would be over before the public ever got pissed off enough to begin making inquiries. "Relax, just keep shopping. We'll handle the rest."

The reality is that oil revenues flowing into the Middle East subsidize political terrorism, sometimes directed against the West, sometimes not. While America could have and should have taken measures starting in the 1970s to curb our consumption of oil, we didn't. Regardless of how much we voluntarily reduce our consumption, we will for the foreseeable future be economically dependent on oil imported from the Middle East. Our purchases will thus indirectly subsidize terrorist activities, often directed against us.

No easy solution there; hence the vain hope on the part of some supporters of the Iraq invasion that it would "transform" the political culture of the Middle East. I've often though that Operation Iraqi Freedom would have been better dubbed Operation Wishful Thinking. We've suceeded in strengthening the hand of Iran, which was not, I think, one of our original goals, though it was in fact predicted by several people outside the administration, including former CIA agent Robert

We're now 5+ years into a pointless military conflict (or war, if you prefer), and most Americans have no clear idea what would even consititute an acceptable outsome, much less a victory. Unless our ruling elite can come up with some better way of conducting its - and our - affairs, I would take any of their calls to sacrifice with a rather large lump of salt.

Anonymous said...

The current state of the thoughtful person's internal conflict about our country's course is visible in the comments here. We have "anonymous" who only wants to serve his/her coutry and praises Track Palin for his patriotic actions. True enough ... at the surface. Then we have "black sea" who correcty points out what most unbiased commentators have been saying for some time ... that there is no relationship between Iraq and the terrorism threat. If anything it is a distraction from where the focus should be. Then, add to that the very real influences of imperialism, selfishness, and commercial motivations to the decisions that were made regarding the "war on terror" and we get the current dilema faced by the "thoughtful patriot". Sorry "anonymous", but it's not so simple as "letting your actions speak" when your patriotic actions enable highly irresponsible (and immoral?) political decisions. Ben P

Anonymous said...

"During the Eisenhower years, ours became a land of lotus-eaters." William F. Buckley, UP FROM LIBERALISM, 117. Lotus-eating is precisely what is encouraged by our elite because it keeps people in a state of mental slavery.

Peter Y. Paik said...

I wonder whether Obama's refusal to talk about "conservation" or demand "sacrifice" (and belt-tightening) to meet the big challenges of our time (climate change, oil dependency, our deficit, as well as terrorism) can be regarded as a prudent strategy of not upsetting the electorate, given the low threshold it has displayed for reality, and of avoiding being tagged with such labels as "defeatist" and "JC redux" (that's Carter not Christ). Can't this move on Obama's part be regarded as a kind of Platonic noble lie (by negligence), avoiding troubling people with the terrible truth and escaping the insults sure to fly from the right-wing Trotskyites who want to drill our way to geopolitical supremacy?

Plutarch's biography of Phocion is instructive for our times -- the Athenian leader who thinks his state is throwing away its remaining power and influence in futile wars is the one who ends up being executed by the perpetual war/expansionist faction.

... said...

We have moved from a society willing to make sacrifices to a society where we feel entitled to everything -entitled to wealth, entitled to happiness, entitled to "not being offended", etc. And we view the government as being the organization that must give us these entitlements. This frame of mind is ruining America. As Gov. Romney said, "Dependency is death to initiative."

The Western Patriot