Perspectives on the Past and Present

Published: 1995-12-01

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Joseph Sobran is a nationally-syndicated columnist, lecturer, author, and editor of the monthly newsletter Sobran's ([... now defunct; ed.]).

"Man of the Century?" is reprinted from the January 6, 2000, issue of the traditionalist Roman Catholic weekly The Wanderer (201 Ohio St., St. Paul, MN 55107). "Persecution Update" is reprinted from the December 1995 issue of Sobran's. "Verdicts of History" is reprinted from the March 1997 issue of Sobran's. "Here's to the Losers" is reprinted from the September 1999 issue of Sobran's. "The Imperial Theme" is reprinted from the December 1995 issue of Sobran's.

Man of the Century?

The suspense is over. Time magazine has finally named its man – sorry, person – of the century: Albert Einstein. Oddly enough, Time named Winston Churchill its man of the half-century in 1950, and Einstein, who died in 1955, did nothing after 1950 to surpass Churchill, who at least returned to power briefly after the century's midpoint.

In fact Einstein had done all his ground-breaking work in physics before World war I. His single achievement after that was to persuade Franklin Roosevelt to launch the quest for a superbomb that would kill whole cities in a flash. He seems to have been grieved when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of Berlin and Munich; and he was especially alarmed that it might later be used against the Soviet Union. A reliable fellow traveler of Stalin, he spent his latter days denouncing nuclear warfare and the United States. After defending Stalin's show trials in the 1930s, he warned against "McCarthyism" in the 1950s. As a scientist, a genius; as a human being, a worm.

Time's runner-up for Person of the Century is Franklin D. Roosevelt, my own choice for con man of the century (followed by Freud, Picasso, and Clinton). The magazine devotes several pages to a gushing dithyramb to FDR by that garrulous den mother of liberal mythology, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Sure enough, we hear of FDR's cigarette holder, maintained at a "jaunty angle." No other cliche is omitted: "buoyant optimism ... serene confidence ... moral compass ... unshakable belief in the American people ... came to sympathize with the poor and the underprivileged ... defied prevailing opinion ... magnificent sense of timing ... in the end, Roosevelt's great strengths far outweighed his weaknesses ... the most genuine and unswerving spokesman for democracy," etc., etc.

Joseph Sobran, 2007

Joseph Sobran

Mrs. Goodwin's essay is interesting not because it's in any way original, but precisely because it isn't. It's a recitation of the orthodox liberal litany, without a syllable of deviation.

She says barely a word about FDR's chum Stalin, the real winner of World War II. By implication, Roosevelt helped the Soviet Union only for the sake of whipping Hitler; never mind his diplomatic recognition of the pariah Communist state in 1933, his personal fondness for "Uncle Joe," and his readiness to overlook forced famine, purges, and invasions of Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Even before the war FDR assured Americans that the Soviet constitution protected religious freedom just as ours did.

Considering who his boss was, Alger Hiss got a raw deal. The active Soviet sympathizers around Roosevelt – Hiss, Harry Hopkins, Harry Dexter White, and others – merely reflected FDR's attitude. He had no differences in principle with Stalin; he merely acted under more restraints. None of this is mentioned by Mrs. Goodwin.

Mrs. Goodwin says nothing, of course, about Roosevelt's contempt for the US Constitution he was sworn to uphold. She has never read it and cares nothing for its severe divisions and limitations of power. His scheme to pack the Supreme Court, which shocked even his fellow Democrats, gets no mention either. She merely coos over the way Roosevelt communicated his infectious "confidence" to the little people during the Depression, especially through his inspiring "fireside chats."

She makes a glancing regretful reference to his order that Japanese-Americans be deprived of their rights, a measure even J. Edgar Hoover condemned as unconstitutional. Not a word about FDR's use of the FBI, the IRS and other Federal agencies to spy on, intimidate, and control his opponents. Nor about his slandering of his critics, like the brave Charles Lindbergh, which went far beyond anything McCarthy would do later. Nor about FDR's attempts to stir envy and hate against "economic royalists," an absurd but potent phrase.

Nor does she understand the FDR's giveaway programs were a classic demagogic technique of bribing the electorate. If you want to give Roosevelt credit for anything, it should be for his Machiavellian savvy in perceiving and exploiting the worst possibilities of mass democracy.

Not a word, either, about FDR's resort to the savage practice of terror-bombing cities, deliberately targeting civilians in utter violation of the principles of civilized warfare – an "advance to barbarism," as F.J.P. Veale later called it. Though fully worthy of Stalin, this policy was adopted by FDR in partnership with his fellow savior of Western civilization Winston Churchill. (At the post-war sham trials at Nuremberg, the blitz of London was not included in the "war crimes" the Germans were accused of, since the Allies had initiated the aerial bombing of civilian areas – a fact that was discreetly acknowledged only years after the war had ended, when few were paying attention.)

Thus did Franklin Roosevelt save "democracy and capitalism," according to Mr. Goodwin. She does her utmost to make him sound like a philosopher-statesman with some higher purpose than getting elected and re-elected and amassing power. And of course she acknowledges no cost: it's pure profit, with no loss in terms of American constitutionalism, the rule of law, personal liberty, or Christian morality.

Mrs. Goodwin's resolute optimism has a quaint shallowness, a refusal not only to see other possible dimensions of her hero, but a typically American inability to see the potential for evil in the American role in the world. For her there is no tragedy in a war that claimed tens of millions of innocent lives, leaving every survivor scarred – only a happy vindication of Democracy and its "peerless leader."

The Allied cause was fatally corrupted by its association with the Soviet Union, and even today the democratic West remains both tainted and morally disoriented by its inability to admit the profound evil of the means it adopted for the purpose of defeating Hitler. The notion that Roosevelt and Churchill were innocents at Yalta, and that Stalin revealed his true colors only after the war, is nonsense.

The year 2000 affords one more occasion for rehearsing the threadbare epic of our great progressive heroes, airbrushing their little peccadilloes out of the picture. But Churchill professing surprise at the "Iron Curtain" was as hypocritical as Einstein professing shock at the horrors of nuclear war. Were these far-sighted men so unable to foresee the natural consequences of their own actions?

Persecution Update

A few months ago I was persecuted for my opinions again. A speech I was scheduled to deliver to the Shakespeare Oxford Society was cancelled, not because of my views on Shakespeare, but because a handful of members accused me of "anti-Semitism." Other members objected – after the fact. They weren't consulted in advance, nor was I; the governing board simply caved in to backstage pressure, in the usual way of these things, then announced its decision.

What this had to do with Shakespeare we could only guess. In fact it seems odd that a society that defines "anti-Semitism" so loosely should be devoted to the creator of Shylock.

I'm driven to the conclusion that I'm a victim of a boycott – or more precisely, a goycott. Such luminaries as Richard Cohen of the Washington Post and Leon Wiesel of the New Republic have refused to participate in broadcast discussions with me, citing my views on Israel – even when Israel wasn't the scheduled subject of discussion!

There's no point in complaining. If Israel means so much to these folks, so be it.

But I do want to make one point. The usual pretext of Israel's American partisans is that Israel is a "reliable," if not indispensable, ally of the United States. But if they were really motivated by the welfare of the United States, why do they attack critics of Israel and the alliance as anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, insensitive to Jewish concerns, and so forth?

According to their own professions, they should attack those critics for hurting American interests. Yet they never do. And nobody is surprised by this. Everyone seems to understand what their real motive is.

The hypocrisy lies in the pretense that American and Israeli interests are the same thing, and that the Israeli lobby isn't just doing what most lobbies do: seeking the sacrifice of the general good to its own special purposes. This is the old problem of what the framers of the Constitution called "factions."

More recently, American Jews, supporters of Israel and otherwise, have worded about the charge of "dual loyalty." But the Israel lobby doesn't evince dual loyalty; it has only one primary loyalty. It would display dual loyalty if it occasionally recognized a divergence between American and Israeli interests, and preferred the former to the latter. Which it never does. It pretends that no divergence exists, that Israel's enemies are also America's enemies, and that the United States should, for its own good, maintain hostilities toward Arab and Muslim countries.

All this is a matter of simple logic and common sense. We have been saved from the natural consequences of the Israel lobby's conduct by Israel itself – specifically, by the realism of Yitzhak Rabin.

And for that, no credit belongs to our toadying politicians; nor to those conservative pundits who do their Judaeo-Christian duty by staying on the safe side of their neoconservative cronies, while knifing those of us who apply our principles even to Israel – principles that are supposed to be theirs too.

The trouble with the customary charges of bigotry – not only anti-Semitism, but racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – is that they assume that certain demands must be granted because of their provenance. They are made by the pedigreed underdogs. If you resist them, you are at least insensitive to the victims, and possibly hostile. The demands are assumed to be moral tests of those they are made against, who have no right to scrutinize them. That's a formula for a politics of passion, imbalance, intemperance, and finally injustice. It denies the principle that there may be two sides to a question; it flouts the whole Aristotelian tradition of the West, which seeks to measure every claim against a total moral order and to draw appropriate lines against excess.

When Aristotelian reason is banished, there is no longer such a thing as moral order or excess. Any critical scrutiny of inordinate political claims can be treated as persecution of those who make them, as I keep discovering. It's no use pleading that you merely want to test whether the fights some people claim for themselves are bound to be greater than the rights of others, and to place unjust burdens on those others. To reason is to incur guilt.

And so "civil rights" have come to mean privileged treatment for some, treatment that can be purchased only at the cost of depriving others of their natural freedom of association. "Israel's right to exist" has come to mean its privilege of living off the tax money of Americans, while denying Christians and Muslims the equal rights Jews elsewhere properly insist on for themselves. "Gay rights" means the suppression of sexual morality. It never ends.

Verdicts of History

Though I try in my writing to present myself as the soul of reason, the truth is that I'm merely capturing and recording what I think are my relatively few lucid moments. It has taken me many years to reach conclusions which, once achieved, appear so obvious that I wonder why it took me so long.

The other day, for example, it hit me that I'd spent most of my life vaguely assuming that Lincoln had abolished slavery by a simple act of will. Nobody ever taught me that explicitly, but it's the impression we are given by our teachers, textbooks, and public Lincoln-worship. You'd think (as I certainly did) that Lincoln was the first president who didn't believe in slavery, and one day he just picked up his pen and wrote an order doing away with it.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. Lincoln wanted to punish the South for secession, encourage a slave uprising, and give the Union cause a moral gloss that would override Northern reservations about quelling an independence movement: after all, many Northerners were willing to let the South have its independence. Besides, Lincoln had no constitutional power to abolish slavery: he knew it, and he knew everyone else knew it. He could justify it only as a punitive measure of expropriation against what he chose to define as insurrection. Legally, he wasn't abolishing slavery; merely putting down a rebellion. Slaves in the Union states remained slaves.

Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, observed that Lincoln had freed the slaves over whom he had no authority, while not freeing those over whom he did have authority. But once the Union had conquered the South and freed slaves within the Confederacy, slavery had to go in the loyal border states too. But a constitutional amendment was required, not a mere statute, edict, or executive order.

Today, of course, Lincoln's act is treated as a feat of pure moral will, and freeing the slaves has become, in retrospect, the whole purpose of the Civil War. Of course few Northerners would have been willing to give their lives for the Union if the issue had been framed that way at the time; the South would have been allowed to secede, and slavery would have continued indefinitely. I like to think it would have been abolished by attrition before very long, but I have no way of knowing that.

The Civil War had three great results. The one we always hear about is the accidental one of abolishing slavery. The other two were the deaths of more than a half million young men, which is sometimes mentioned as a sort of regrettable detail, and the subversion of constitutional restraints on Union power, which is rarely mentioned at all, since it was precisely the tear of consolidated government – the kind we now take for granted – that led the Southern states to secede.

I often think of the wonderful exchange between General Burgoyne and Major Swindon that concludes Bernard Shaw's witty play about the American Revolution, The Devil's Disciple. When Burgoyne remarks acidly that Britain is about to lose her American colonies because of the folly of a single British minister, the flustered Swindon asks: "But what will history say?" Burgoyne, ever the suave ironist, replies: "History, sir, will tell lies, as usual."

Here's to the Losers

I have a temperamental sympathy for lost causes, or at least a passionate curiosity about them. I can't stand the "progressive" attitude that in nearly all the great controversies of history, remote and recent, the right side won. I always want to know what the losing side had to say for itself. History, notoriously, is written by the victorious side; and usually in such a way as to provoke the question whey there could ever have been any other side. Even if the winning side was always right, why did some people oppose it?

Why was there an Inquisition? Why was there slavery? Why did some people vote against ratifying the Constitution? Why was there a Confederacy? Whey were there "isolationists"? All these causes are so discredited in modern rhetoric that it remains to be explained why opposition to them wasn't as unanimous in their own time as it is in ours. And it seems to me a kind of bigotry to assume that there was never anything to be said in their favor – as if, had we been there, we'd have naturally been on what is now assumed to have been the "right" side.

The Imperial Theme

The United States isn't just a republic. In fact it's not at all the little federal republic it used to be. It's an empire, an immense concentration of power, overly complicated and overextended, with no clear purpose, rules, or rationale. It undertakes vast new commitments at home and abroad even as it sinks beneath a $5 trillion debt it lacks the will and resources to deal with. Americans don't like the word "empire," so they resist facing the obvious.

Clinton himself is a reluctant imperialist. So are most Americans. In fact there is little domestic support and even less enthusiasm for the Bosnian mission. None of the major Democratic constituencies – labor, Jews, blacks, feminists, teachers, homosexuals – is wholeheartedly behind it. The military is deeply skeptical. Clinton has more conservative and neoconservative than liberal support for this adventure, which isn't saying much. Every congressman reports passionate and almost unanimous opposition from his own district. Our young president knows that he is courting political disaster, even if only a handful of American soldiers die in Bosnia.

But Clinton is trapped. He feels he has no choice. Unless the United States gets into the act in Bosnia, along with its Western European "allies," it will forfeit its "leadership" in both the United Nations and the "NATO alliance." But how can there be an "alliance" without a common threat, or a common enemy? Thereby hangs a tale.

The historian Stephen Ambrose speaks (approvingly) of America's "rise to globalism" during and after World War II. "Globalism" is one of several euphemisms for empire; it would sound silly to speak of Belgium's or Singapore's "rise to globalism," however much their engagements with the outside world may have widened. It's assumed that "world leadership" is an American duty and prerogative. Only in America is "isolationism" deemed a sin; when Russia threw off Communism and turned inward, in fact, the same Americans who would lament a similar mining inward at home applauded it there. Now the United States is, as Ben Wattenberg crowed, the world's first "omnipower." Its "sphere of influence" is not even a mere hemisphere, but the whole sphere – the great globe itself. This after generations of accusing Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Communist China of seeking "world domination."

Gore Vidal has said that the Civil War was America's Iliad. That was once true, but World War II has displaced the Civil War, making it seem like a local skirmish. World War II was vaster, far better recorded (which keeps it still relatively immediate), and more ideologically seminal. Even conservatives now feel they have to make their obeisances to the official mythology of that war. For Americans in our time, history virtually begins with that war and is centered around it in the same way the ancient Greeks and Romans thought history was begun and forever shaped by the Trojan War. World War II not only shaped our world but provided it with its most basic lessons, such as "the lesson of Munich" and "the lessons of the Holocaust."

The correct lesson is being missed. The United States under Franklin Roosevelt was remade on the European model of the centralized state. The great old "isolationist" critics of the New Deal, including John Flynn and Garet Garrett, saw clearly that the New Deal was not the opposite of fascism but its counterpart; that domestic centralization would be easily consummated under wartime conditions; and that the postwar settlement was a dual US-Soviet imperialism (reified in the United Nations), which quickly split into rival empires.

The conversion of the United States into a radically different system required all sorts of hypocrisies. These began with the Nuremberg Trials, in which mass murderers were tried for mass murder by mass murderers, all of whom had made ruthless war on civilians. At home, the US Government was forced to "reinterpret" the Constitution, not as something it had to obey, but as something it had to enforce – against the very states and citizens whose reserved powers and rights were underlined by the most important articles of the Bill of Rights, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, both of which became dead letters.

In an odd way all this has made federalism global just as it has ceased to be national. The Constitution is defunct at home, but something like the original constitutional system obtains abroad. Other countries have the same relation to Washington the "several states" used to have. They are allowed to govern themselves internally, provided they adhere to the union. (It's doubtful that outright secession would be tolerated.) Of course even here there are exceptions: South Africa's apartheid laws became an excuse for intervention, just as "civil rights" became the excuse for Washington to violate the reserved powers of the states.

But in general, US power over other countries is so far confined to external matters. As in Kuwait, the United States is in Bosnia on an imperial mission – to define and guarantee borders.

Clinton has won support for the Bosnian mission in quarters where he is usually opposed with contempt. Many neoconservatives, who want the United States to play an imperial role for Israel's sake, are backing him. The Weekly Standard, Rupert Murdoch's new magazine, is squarely behind him. So is most of the Commentary crowd. So is William Safire. So is The Wall Street Journal, which in a single editorial denounced "head-in-the-sand isolationism," "beer-belly isolationism," and "hell-no-we-won't-go isolationism" – never acknowledging the principled "neutrality" among the "belligerents of Europe" that guided Washington, Jefferson, and most of the founding fathers, who feared what they called "the poison of foreign influence" to which republics are especially vulnerable. (They argued that a monarch, unlike an elected politician, has no natural motive to sell out his country's interests.)

But other Zionists and neoconservatives, such as Charles Krauthammer and Abe Rosenthal, strongly oppose the mission, if only because it may drain imperial resources and popular support they'd rather reserve for future occasions when Israel's interests may be more nearly touched.

There was a time when the US empire could be sustained. It may even have been profitable. After World War II, the United States was the only major country that wasn't devastated. Its domestic institutions and moral traditions were still solid. Washington wasn't yet consuming most of its wealth. Taxes were low; incomes were soaring. The welfare state was relatively small. Christian standards of conduct could be presumed, in private life and in public. Most Americans could feel that their government was on their side and that this meant that they were free. The white birth rate was high. The dollar was strong. Crime wasn't a worry.

If you're old enough, you can amaze yourself by simply remembering how high national morale was in those days. People didn't fret about what their government was doing, because everything was going so well. There were still deep anxieties – the fear left over from the Depression, the new fear of Communism and nuclear war – but Americans believed in their future. The few things liberalism asked in the way of welfare payments and civil fights seemed like reasonable concessions for a rich majority to make to the less favored. Federal spending was in the tens of billions. Only a few right-wing Cassandras warned of organic trouble ahead, arising not from foreign threats, but from the principles that were taking root within the governing system and the ruling elites.

How times have changed. Americans no longer feel much hope for their future, and they have accordingly ceased to feel that they profit by their country's imperial role, any more than they feel that they are the beneficiaries of the welfare state. The empire is inseparable from the welfare state, and they are tired of paying for both.

Given a welfare state that supports even illegal aliens, we are headed for all kinds of trouble. We have a regime that, apart from being anti-white and anti-Christian, subverts family morality, crime control, private property, economic sanity, and every other bulwark against social chaos. The marriage of liberalism and empire may be the most potent recipe for disaster ever devised.

Inheriting the Future

"There is an iron law in history: the future belongs to the fertile. Just as the clan-centered, child-rich barbarian tribes ... swept away the sensuous and sterile Western Roman Empire, so shall new barbarians arise. Barring religious renewal… the fate of the European Community is already written: The heirs to the continent will be… the Muslims, the Asians, the Africans – who have been brought in to clean up after their hosts. With fertility levels three to four times that of their neighbors… What remains of the splendor and wealth of Europe will probably be theirs by the mid-21st century. In other words, forget the 'new politics' of the Tony Blairs; bet on the Taliban."
—Allan Carlson, "An Elegy for the Free Sexual World," Family in America, July 1999.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Joseph Sobran
Title: Perspectives on the Past and Present
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 18, no. 5/6 (September/December 1999), pp. 57-61; repinted from: "Man of the Century?", The Wanderer, January 6, 2000; "Persecution Update," Sobran's, December 1995; "Verdicts of History," Sobran's, March 1997; "Here's to the Losers," Sobran's, September 1999; "The Imperial Theme," Sobran's, December 1995.
Published: 1995-12-01
First posted on CODOH: Feb. 27, 2013, 6 p.m.
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