By Alan Dowd – ASCF Senior Fellow
January 2015 – Who’s a bigger threat to world peace: ISIS or the United States? Everyone from EU bureaucrats to Iraqi shopkeepers to Hong Kong democracy activists to Canadian grade-schoolers knows the answer—everyone, that is, except America’s best and brightest college students. According to a sampling of students at Harvard University, the United States—the nation that ended the Third Reich, crushed Japanese militarism, refashioned those regimes into peaceful and prosperous democracies, created the UN, shielded the West from Stalinism, and serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense—does more to undermine world peace than ISIS—the mass-murdering jihadist group that has hanged, beheaded, slaughtered and terrorized its way across a vast swath of Iraq and Syria.
It gets worse.
In responding to the question posed by Campus Reform, a higher-education watchdog, Harvard students explained that “American imperialism and our protection of oil interests in the Middle East are destabilizing the region,” that “we’re to blame for a lot of the problems that we’re facing now,” that “outlandish” spending on “defense mechanisms” by the U.S. contributes to global problems, that “Americans have a skewed view of ISIS.”
This is just the latest example of what postmodern thinking is doing to our society. Postmodernism is a philosophy based on the notion that all truth is relative. Where modernism held that there are scientific, philosophical and moral truths which explain everything for everyone, postmodernism says, “You have your truth. I have mine. But there is no universal truth.” Postmodernism is based on feeling and individual experience, rejecting the collective wisdom gathered by others.
The corrosive effects of postmodernism are predictable and pervasive: We see its impact in academia, which, oblivious to the irony, teaches young minds there is no absolute truth except one—the absolute which declares there are no absolutes; in pop culture, where the only wrong behavior is judging something to be wrong; in our civic life, where, as historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values”; in Western civilization, where, as illustrated at Harvard, the healthy practice of self-criticism has led to moral relativism, cognitive confusion and a kind of cultural suicide.
As a university lecturer, I see postmodernism’s impact on students in the way students seldom take a position unless forced to do so. Sadly, many students struggle to answer normative questions—questions that require the student to state something to be right or wrong, good or evil. And many others, after years of being marinated in our postmodern culture, succumb to moral relativism, as the survey of Harvard students reveals.
Of course, it’s not just students. Not long ago, the Goshen College Board of Directors decided to ban “The Star Spangled Banner” from on-campus sporting events. The National Anthem, in the school’s view, is “inconsistent” with the school’s values. A statement from the tiny Mennonite school in rural Indiana explained that the board of trustees wanted an alternative that “resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.” “Mennonites,” added one Goshen student, “appreciate America but also don’t want to have that violence.”
As a matter of fact, “The Star Spangled Banner” is not about violence or promoting war. It’s actually about freedom and peace. All you have to do is read Francis Scott Key’s poem to understand that.
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
Key was asking if the flag was still flying—and more specifically, if his country was still free. After all, America, his homeland, was under attack. He saw Washington set ablaze. He saw “the bombs bursting in air.” And when he learned that “our flag” was “still there,” he was overjoyed, as the stanzas that follow reveal. “Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, in full glory reflected now shines in the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
To be sure, Key penned the poem after a battle. And we can gather from context that he didn’t view war as the enemy. But neither was he glorifying war or violence. In fact, he was celebrating his freedom and his country’s independence from an enemy that brought “the havoc of war” to America’s shores.
In other words, it may not mean much to those who confuse moral relativism for wisdom, but freedom isn’t preserved by student protests, international treaties, UN resolutions or academic lectures. It’s preserved by warriors. And as Key knew firsthand, America’s warriors are not enemies of peace.
Goshen College had every right to make this decision, and Harvard students have every right to share their opinions about America and ISIS. Of course, those of us who disagree with them have the right to point out how utterly misguided and unequivocally wrong these views are.
That’s how Reagan would respond. Reagan had no time for postmodernism’s murky moral relativism. While others called for accommodation with communism, Reagan dismissed communism as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written” and declared, “The West will not contain communism. It will transcend communism.”
He challenged Americans to use their heads as well as their hearts in trying to make sense of the world around them, showing no qualms about calling evil by its name: “Beware the temptation of…blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
And he reminded us of a universal truth—that all uses of force are not the same. During his 1984 D Day speech, Reagan explained that the boys of Normandy—many of them the same age as those surveyed at Harvard—had “the deep knowledge, and pray God we have not lost it, that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.”
Indeed. There is a profound difference between the use of force to annex Crimea and the use of force to liberate Kuwait, between the use of force to seize islands in the South China Sea and the use of force to defend the Baltics, between the use of force to attack a school in Peshawar and the use of force to hunt down the attackers, between criminals and police, between ISIS and America.
Thankfully, not everyone has succumbed to the postmodern pandemic, at least not yet. Consider what happens on autumn Saturday afternoons just a couple hours down the road from Goshen College. Purdue University takes a very different stance when it comes to patriotic pregame rituals.
In 1966, amid the tumult surrounding the Vietnam War, a local newspaper publisher encouraged Purdue University’s band director “to get some patriotism into these kids,” as the Purdue University website explains. The band director responded with these simple but stirring words, which would be “spoken over an arrangement of ‘America the Beautiful’” during the next home football game:
I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four: you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across a bright autumn sky.
But remember too, that they are more than just words. They are a way of life. So whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!
The band director figured it was a one-time deal. But in response to strong popular demand after the tribute was presented before a national TV audience during the 1967 Rose Bowl, “I Am an American” became a permanent pregame football tradition at Purdue University.
Almost five decades later, Purdue fans and visiting fans alike are invited to read the words of “I Am an American” during the pre-kickoff festivities of every home game—festivities which also include “The Star Spangled Banner.” When the crowd roars those last four words, it’s a reminder that America is a great and good nation—no matter what the kids at Harvard are being taught.