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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, At the Altar of American Greatness

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The members of what TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America's War for the Greater Middle East, calls "the Church of America the Redeemer" are in some disarray these days and in quite an uproar over the new Pope and his aberrant set of cardinals now ensconced in Washington. Perhaps there was no more striking -- or shocking -- evidence of that than the brief comments that hit the front page of the New York Times last week in an article on a month of "turmoil" in the Trump White House, but never became a headline story nationally. Amid the hurricane of news about the fall of national security adviser of 24 days Michael Flynn, the reported contacts of Trump associates with Russia, and a flurry of leaks to major papers from what are assumedly significant figures in the intelligence community (talk about "feud"!), one thing should have stood out. Here's the passage from that Times piece: "Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military's Special Operations Command, expressed concern about upheaval inside the White House. 'Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we're a nation at war,' he said at a military conference on Tuesday. Asked about his comments later, General Thomas said in a brief interview, 'As a commander, I'm concerned our government be as stable as possible.'"

It may not have looked like much, but it should have stunned the news media and the country. That it didn't tells us a great deal about how the U.S. has changed since September 11, 2001. Thomas, the head of the crème de la crème, secretive military force (all 70,000 of them) cocooned inside the U.S. military, had just broken the unwritten rules of the American political game in a major way. He fired what amounted to an implicit warning shot across the bow of the Trump administration's listing ship of state: Mr. President, we are at war and you better get your house in order fast. Really? Direct public criticism of the president from a top commander in a military once renowned for its commitment to staying above the political fray? Consider that something new under the sun and evidence that what might once have been considered a cliche' -- sooner or later wars always come home -- is now an ever more realistic description of just where we've ended up 15-plus years after the Bush administration launched the war on terror. Seven days in May? Maybe not, but when the nation's top special warrior starts worrying in public about whether civilian leaders are up to the task of governing, it's no ordinary day in February.

It's true, of course, that in many graphic ways -- including the migration of spying devices developed on this country's distant battlefields to police departments here, drone surveillance flights not in Afghanistan but over this country, and the increasing militarization of our police -- our wars in the Greater Middle East have indeed made their way back to "the homeland." Still, not like this, not directly into the sacrosanct heartland of democracy and of the political elite, into what Bacevich might call the precincts of the American political Vatican, where those like New York Times columnist David Brooks once happily opined about American "greatness." It seems that we're now plunged into the political equivalent of war in the nation's capital, even if in the fog of battle it's still a little hard to tell just who is who on that battlefield. Tom

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Angst in the Church of America the Redeemer
David Brooks on Making America Great Again
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Apart from being a police officer, firefighter, or soldier engaged in one of this nation's endless wars, writing a column for a major American newspaper has got to be one of the toughest and most unforgiving jobs there is. The pay may be decent (at least if your gig is with one of the major papers in New York or Washington), but the pressures to perform on cue are undoubtedly relentless.

Anyone who has ever tried cramming a coherent and ostensibly insightful argument into a mere 750 words knows what I'm talking about. Writing op-eds does not perhaps qualify as high art. Yet, like tying flies or knitting sweaters, it requires no small amount of skill. Performing the trick week in and week out without too obviously recycling the same ideas over and over again -- or at least while disguising repetitions and concealing inconsistencies -- requires notable gifts.

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David Brooks of the New York Times is a gifted columnist. Among contemporary journalists, he is our Walter Lippmann, the closest thing we have to an establishment-approved public intellectual. As was the case with Lippmann, Brooks works hard to suppress the temptation to rant. He shuns raw partisanship. In his frequent radio and television appearances, he speaks in measured tones. Dry humor and ironic references abound. And like Lippmann, when circumstances change, he makes at least a show of adjusting his views accordingly.

For all that, Brooks remains an ideologue. In his columns, and even more so in his weekly appearances on NPR and PBS, he plays the role of the thoughtful, non-screaming conservative, his very presence affirming the ideological balance that, until November 8th of last year, was a prized hallmark of "respectable" journalism. Just as that balance always involved considerable posturing, so, too, with the ostensible conservatism of David Brooks: it's an act.

Praying at the Altar of American Greatness

In terms of confessional fealty, his true allegiance is not to conservatism as such, but to the Church of America the Redeemer. This is a virtual congregation, albeit one possessing many of the attributes of a more traditional religion. The Church has its own Holy Scripture, authenticated on July 4, 1776, at a gathering of 56 prophets. And it has its own saints, prominent among them the Good Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the sacred text (not the Bad Thomas Jefferson who owned and impregnated slaves); Abraham Lincoln, who freed said slaves and thereby suffered martyrdom (on Good Friday no less); and, of course, the duly canonized figures most credited with saving the world itself from evil: Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, their status akin to that of saints Peter and Paul in Christianity. The Church of America the Redeemer even has its own Jerusalem, located on the banks of the Potomac, and its own hierarchy, its members situated nearby in High Temples of varying architectural distinction.

This ecumenical enterprise does not prize theological rigor. When it comes to shalts and shalt nots, it tends to be flexible, if not altogether squishy. It demands of the faithful just one thing: a fervent belief in America's mission to remake the world in its own image. Although in times of crisis Brooks has occasionally gone a bit wobbly, he remains at heart a true believer.

In a March 1997 piece for The Weekly Standard, his then-employer, he summarized his credo. Entitled "A Return to National Greatness," the essay opened with a glowing tribute to the Library of Congress and, in particular, to the building completed precisely a century earlier to house its many books and artifacts. According to Brooks, the structure itself embodied the aspirations defining America's enduring purpose. He called particular attention to the dome above the main reading room decorated with a dozen "monumental figures" representing the advance of civilization and culminating in a figure representing America itself. Contemplating the imagery, Brooks rhapsodized:

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"The theory of history depicted in this mural gave America impressive historical roots, a spiritual connection to the centuries. And it assigned a specific historic role to America as the latest successor to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. In the procession of civilization, certain nations rise up to make extraordinary contributions... At the dawn of the 20th century, America was to take its turn at global supremacy. It was America's task to take the grandeur of past civilizations, modernize it, and democratize it. This common destiny would unify diverse Americans and give them a great national purpose."

This February, 20 years later, in a column with an identical title, but this time appearing in the pages of his present employer, the New York Times, Brooks revisited this theme. Again, he began with a paean to the Library of Congress and its spectacular dome with its series of "monumental figures" that placed America "at the vanguard of the great human march of progress." For Brooks, those 12 allegorical figures convey a profound truth.

"America is the grateful inheritor of other people's gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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