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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002 / 5 Tishrei, 5763

George Will

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The Great Refutation | The hero is a feeling, a man seen

As if the eye was an emotion,

As if in seeing we saw our feeling

In the object seen . . .

-- Wallace Stevens

"Examination of the

Hero in a Time of War"

In our mind's eye we see them, the police and firefighters, the passengers of United Flight 93 and all the others who disappeared behaving nobly. The mind's eye holds a mixture of emotions, including anger, directed at primitive enemies from abroad, and at the faux sophistication of some homegrown thinking.

The thinking is as contemptible as, and more dangerous than, any foreign enemy, now or ever, because its agenda is to discredit ideas that make nobility intelligible and hence heroism possible. Last Sept. 11 was, among other things, the Great Refutation. And perhaps a catalyst of a sustained restoration.

Ideas have consequences -- indeed, only ideas have large and lasting consequences -- so history is, at bottom, the history of mind. The acts of war a year ago made up our nation's mind, as one restores order to an unmade bed. We made up our mind to fight, of course, but also to become virtuously intolerant of a certain kind of nonsense, including the notion that tolerance is everything because everything else is nothing -- nothing but opinion or chimera.

The postmodern plague of quotation marks -- the punctuation of disparagement that labels as superstitions "virtue" and "heroism" and most of the other things that make life worth living -- was erased by men running into burning buildings, men who had not been disabled by today's higher learning. The quotation marks remaining after the Great Refutation surround two words: "Let's roll!"

The cultural relativism that gives rise to the fetish of multiculturalism -- "It is mere ethnocentric arrogance to say one culture is superior to any other" -- was incinerated by burning jet fuel. Reductionism -- the realism of people blind to reality -- holds that individuals are just soups of chemical reactions, that all motives are banal and tawdry, that the best biographies are pathographies, piercing the veil of human greatness to reveal grounds for diminishment. Thus is mind, and hence valor, drained from history.

Which licenses the envy of the untalented, giving rise to what has been called the revenge of failure: Those who cannot paint destroy the canons of painting; those who cannot write reject canonical literature. One conclusion compelled by this is that progress is impossible, indeed meaningless -- a conclusion from which many "progressives" flinch.

The blowsy handmaiden of all this is the notion that everything can be understood as an emanation of this or that culture, no one of which is superior to any other, and therefore to understand is to forgive. But to understand our enemies is to know they must be smashed.

Susceptibility to feelings of civic guilt and a tendency to social hypochondria are two generally healthy American attributes traceable to the republic's founding -- to living in the long shadow cast by the great men whose rhetoric and documents gave vitality to great principles. So last Sept. 11, there was an American reflex to ask, self-accusingly: "What did we do?"

The reflex was wrong. Our enemies attacked us not for what we have done but for what we are. And because of the attacks, we are even more intensely what we are, a nation defined by our unum, not our pluribus. The nation's great seal, proclaiming e pluribus unum, was adopted in 1782, five years before the Constitution was written and six years after the Declaration of Independence, with its declaration of equality of rights, made us, as Lincoln was to say at Gettysburg, a nation dedicated to a proposition.

The proposition, and all it entails, enrages, to the point of derangement, our enemies. So we fight.

Emerson, who spent much time around high-minded abolitionists who were as ardent for avoiding war as they were for ending slavery, probably startled, even scandalized many readers when he wrote that war can "educate the senses, call into action the will, and perfect the physical constitution." Hence his exclamation at the outbreak of the Civil War: "Ah! sometimes gunpowder smells good."

The Civil War, and with it the right of some human beings to own others, might have had a different end if penicillin had been available 80 years earlier. If, that is, Stonewall Jackson, wounded at Chancellorsville in May 1863, had survived infection and been at Gettysburg in July.

Sometimes gunpowder does smell good because civilization -- especially the highest, ours -- is not inevitable. So we fight.

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