It's always amazed me how quickly the American left managed to twist the 9/11 attacks into a club with which to beat their own country. I recall watching the smoke from the towers late in the day, exhausted from stress and emotions I could scarcely identify, and thinking, "They'll never be able to defile this." It was the end of the postwar flirtation with apostasy, I thought, the end of political frivolity, the birth of a new kind of patriotism, one annealed by fire, one that would become part of framework of the country, one that would last.
Well - they proved me wrong. True, for a few days they kept quiet, scattering like roaches when caught in the public spotlight mouthing the old slogans. Michael Moore was forced to back up quickly after his first remarks, and there was that aide to Willie Brown ("What did you do, America?") never heard of before or since, and of course, Noam Chomsky, pleading that we "enter the minds" of Mohammed Atta and company, but apart from that, most of them kept their counsel. For a while, it really seemed that things had changed.
But after what in retrospect appears to be a pitifully short period, they were back, and in force, and they have never retreated since. Contrary to consensus belief, it didn't begin with Iraq. It began with Afghanistan, starting only a month after the attacks, and built up from there. Moore, the Dixie Chicks, Cindy Sheehan, Cynthia McKinney, Durbin, Murtha... The list could go on for page after page, all of them speaking in identical terms, all repeating the same code words - Halliburton, blood for oil, Abu Ghraib - all tearing into their country in a fashion unseen even in the Vietnam era.
And where the trendsetters have led, the public has followed. If the polls can be trusted (a bit of a leap, it's true) something like over half the American people believe that the War on Terror, far from being a response to an unprovoked and atrocious attack, is a war of aggression fought on behalf on industrial capitalism in the form of George W's oil buddies.
This is not a natural response. Countries fighting legitimate defensive wars don't suffer this kind of erosion of public support in the midst of hostilities. Particularly as involves a war that began with an atrocity committed against fellow countrymen, an atrocity that could be (and eventually will be) repeated at any time. Such a reaction should not have occurred.
The reason it happened this time was the result of fifty years of conditioning that any and all American activities overseas, whether diplomatic, commercial, or military, are fundamentally illegitimate. American wars, no matter what their cause or nature, are viewed through the same prism, one created on the left for the purpose of undermining the country's commitment to the Cold War, but useful in any context. Call it the "Imperial" or "Hegemonist" doctrine. Simply put, it holds that no American war (and little in the way of any interaction on the international level) is ever justified. All such ventures are wars of imperialist aggression, commonly carried out against helpless innocents in defiance of the wishes of the American people (at least the true American people - that is, left-wing Democrats), on behalf of secretive, sinister interest groups.
Unlike most left-wing doctrines, this one is not a European import but fully home-grown. It was incubated in the universities, developing over several decades in response to U.S. efforts against the Soviet Union. Like any such doctrine it was the product of many hands over a considerable period. But for our purposes, two of the major figures, C. Wright Mills and William Appleman Williams, will serve as examples.
Williams was a revisionist historian based for many years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, one of the nation's premier radical campuses. His field was American diplomatic history. In works such as The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1958) and Roots of the Modern American Empire (1969) Williams depicted the U.S. as an imperial state basing its policies on relentless economic expansion and distracting the masses with a series of overseas military adventures. The Cold War, according to this view, was instigated by the U.S. to protect its markets, with the Soviets as much victims as perpetrators. It comes as no surprise to discover that Williams is Gore Vidal's favorite historian. (Ironically, Williams was eventually driven from Madison by the activities of the very New Leftists he'd done so much to influence.)
C. Wright Mills was a sociologist specializing in the study of elites. His major thesis was presented in a book titled The Power Elite (1956), in which he contended that the U.S. was run by a political, military, and corporate ruling class that shared the same concepts and goals and had converted the U.S. to a "permanent war economy". The mass of citizens, as described in an earlier work, White Collar (1951), were effectively mindless androids bullied and channeled by the bureaucracy. Mills later turned to the international arena in the book Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (1960), one of the earliest works written in support of Castro.
Though by no means bestsellers, Williams' and Mills' books were widely read in the academic world, by both faculty and students (I recall as a young child seeing paperback editions floating around during the 60s). They were influential far beyond the number of copies printed - the kind of books that are talked about much more widely than they are read. They were further popularized by various acolytes such as Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, and Howard Zinn in the academic world, and Tom Hayden (who wrote the most recent biography of Mills) and George McGovern in the political sphere.
Their first vector of influence was the New Left. The Port Huron Statement of 1962, usually regarded as the movement's foundation document, is steeped in the ideas of Williams and Mills. From there the Students for a Democratic Society, which had branches and offshoots across the country, spread them throughout the higher educational system. In the hothouse atmosphere of the 60s, and with the impetus of the Vietnam War, the hegemonist doctrine became the standard model for evaluating U.S. policies. The New Left grew into The Movement, encompassing tens of thousands of students, academics, and hangers-on and dedicated to shutting down the war using whatever means came to hand. Hegemonism, holding that the United States was effectively a force of evil with nothing humane to be expected of it, comprised a basic tenet of the counterculture.
The potency of the doctrine rose not from any innate theoretical brilliance or predictive power, but from the fact that it embodied a number of impulses (usually involving petty resentments) as old as human nature itself. The notion that some vague "they" - usually identified with politicians and industrialists -- were running things for their own benefit. That "they" had it in for the little man. That wars were good for business. That such cynicism meant one was in the know, and couldn't be fooled. It was a doctrine that appealed to fundamental human failings - hatred, envy, smugness, and paranoia.
A doctrine based on such elements has a very strong foundation, and hegemonism did not fail the New Left. Incompetent execution along with a complete inability to articulate its aims left the Johnson Administration with no public support for the war effort. The New Left swept in to fill the vacuum.
By the late 60s, hegemonist doctrine was stripped of any academic or intellectual pretensions whatsoever, becoming little more than a set of slogans. But as Cardinal Newman once said, "Men will die for a slogan who will not stir for a conclusion." And while very few died, The Movement succeeded in infecting the middle class with its own mix of paranoia and defeatism, shutting down American participation in Southeast Asia just as the South Vietnamese were beginning to find their feet. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were thrown to the wolves, the Movement collected a pair of presidential scalps in the persons of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and then moved on toward broader horizons.
Hegemonism became institutionalized in the Democratic Party when the New Left effectively took over during the McGovern campaign of 1972. Politicians espousing the doctrine, among them Hayden, Ron Dellums, Frank Church, and culminating at last with Jimmy Carter, became the new face of the party. At the same time, the doctrine infiltrated a number of other institutions, including the news media, the entertainment industry, the unions, and much of the governmental bureaucracy. By the mid-70s it was the currency, having replaced the earlier consensus view of the United States as a unique nation standing aloof from the sleazy operations of older states while willing to lend a hand to emergent or established democracies. The thesis of the United States as predator, as an international outlaw state whose every action was suspect, had become the operating worldview of the educated American public.
But the doctrine failed in its primary aim, that of wrecking American efforts in the Cold War. By the time the 80s began, hegemonism was beginning to look a little ragged around the edges - it's hard to lend conviction to a theory that the U.S. is the source of all international evil when the world insists on rolling noisily down the road to Hell despite American hands being tied. The ascension of Ronald Reagan put a temporary quietus to the concept. Reagan's traditional view of the United States, his simple faith and confidence in its destiny, galvinized support from the vast and often ignored masses of middle America. His success in rolling back and at last cracking the facade of the Marxist tyrannies undercut the entire basis of the domestic left-wing program.
There seemed to be no point - and no future - for the hegemonic doctrine in the afterglow of 1989 and the prosperous, relatively quiet 1990s. It appeared to be as obsolete as brinksmanship, detente, Mutual Assured Destruction, and other concepts derived from the Cold War, for all that, a pair of true believers were running the White House for most of the decade.
But no ideological construct dies before its time. Hegemonism was kept alive by people like Noam Chomsky in his endless series of books and pamphlets, Howard Zinn, whose "People's History of the United States" is the standard classroom history, and Oliver Stone's paranoid cinematic fantasies. It remained a central concept of the entertainment world and the media, was encysted within the Democratic Party, and acted as the motivating force of the anarcho-syndicalist anti-globalism movement.
When the towers came down and the U.S. went on war footing, it emerged intact and complete in every detail, as if it had never lain dormant. It has set the terms of the argument since late 2001 - unspoken, unacknowledged, and undebated. The conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, with their faceless mass murderers manipulating a cooperative military and intelligence sector, are purely hegemonist. So is the entire effort to undermine the Iraq War, with the endless echoes of Blood for Oil, accusations against Halliburton, and attacks on "neocons" by people who have no idea what neoconservatism is or could name a single one of its tenets.
The Iraq War was a godsend for the American left, something they'd have had to invent if it hadn't happened on its own. It allowed the entire War on Terror to be chopped and fit into the already existing intellectual template, enabled all the old slogans to be revived, all the dusty concepts to be trotted out anew. It has turned the overall war, one of the most justified conflicts in this country's history, a belated defensive response against an ugly and murderous enemy, into the traditional shadow play of murderous military officers, bloody-handed CIA operatives, and cackling businessmen, all overseen by a bulging-browed Karl Rove, operating from some Goldfingeresque headquarters buried far beneath the Crawford ranch. The result is a nation slowly edging toward the same paralysis that afflicted it during the 1970s.
The U.S. remains the world's hyperpower. We have no blatant military weaknesses, our economy is sound, our political system more solid than any in the world. (As was proven last month, where a contentious wartime election overturned the status quo without a shot being fired or a jackboot being stamped. So much for the Bushitler thesis.) We are the foremost element in any contemporary nation-state's international calculations, friendly or hostile. We (and not the UN, God forbid) are the nation everyone turns to when things go wrong.
Our fatal flaw involves our national will, our apparent inability to take on any necessary task, however lengthy, dirty or unpromising, and finish it satisfactorily. Our enemies have noted this and target it as a matter of course. Our friends - to perhaps stretch a term - have learned to manipulate it to their advantage.
As we have seen, this is no natural turn of events. There is nothing inevitable or unavoidable about it. It is entirely synthetic, the byproduct of an effort by our intellectual elite to serve an ideology now long dead. Our belief in ourselves as a nation, in our role and mission on the international stage, has been undermined for fifty years and more. There is not a level of society, from day laborer to corporate CEO, who has not been touched by this dogma. Not a single institution (with the professional military perhaps excepted) has been unaffected.
There are politicians now serving in Congress, intelligence agents investigating overseas threats, diplomats working in embassies, bureaucrats handling the day-to-day business of the government, who fully believe that the country they serve is a criminal enterprise. And this is not even to mention the millions of students, professionals, housewives, officials, clergymen, and citizens of all types who labor under the idea that their country is an international tumor worthy only of defeat and punishment, because they have never heard it argued otherwise. The United States, the most powerful nation in the memory of man, is proving unable to correct a situation that led to the greatest crime ever committed against its citizens because of the doubts and anxieties engendered by this empty dogma.
And it is empty. The hegemonist thesis was worked out for one purpose. Not for reform -- no serious reform has ever been associated with it. Not for political guidance -- it leads nowhere. Not for enlightenment - it was designed to blind and confuse. It was intended solely to toss a wrench into American efforts against the Soviet Union. A short glance across the international landscape will reveal that no such entity now exists. The USSR is dead and gone and no one possessing a soul regrets that fact. Instead we are confronted by something else - something unforeseen and unimagined by the intellectuals who engendered the doctrine of the U.S. as monster state.
Hegemonist doctrine has no place in it for phenomena like Al-Quaeda and the Jihadists. There is no way to fit them into the theory, because to acknowledge that a tangible, undeniable threat exists is to negate every other element of the thesis. So they are ignored. No solution is offered, no suggestions are made. They are simply pushed aside as irrelevant. The doctrine that underlies all opposition to American policies in the War on Terror has absolutely nothing to say about the forces that triggered the war, forces that have already attacked two American cities and have promised to return.
It follows that hegemonist doctrine has no meaning in the 21st century - but on it goes, like a rogue missile that has missed its target and now traces an unguided trajectory, tearing a swath across the national psyche, derailing our sense of purpose by the very fact that it exists.
And that's yet another reason why it's going to be a long, long war.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.