William Bennett Chases His Tail

Self-criticism is bad for us, good for them.

What makes Western civilization superior to Islamic civilization? Its capacity for self-criticism, argues William Bennett. And what threatens to cripple Western civilization as it wages war against the Islamic world? Its penchant for self-criticism. Most of the fun in reading William Bennett’s new book, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism, comes from watching Bennett try to reconcile these two opposing ideas. Here, for instance, is Bennett closing in on synthesis like a cat chasing its own tail:

[T]he habit of self-criticism, which some in the West have admittedly made into a self-destructive fetish, also happens to be the one irreplaceable engine of human progress. If, as we have been assured, moderates really do outnumber extremists in the Muslim world, if they really do not wish to relegate themselves to the extremists’ enclaves, and if they really do aspire to enjoy the benefits of a free society, then they will have to stand up and begin the arduous work of reconstruction from within by criticizing, criticizing, criticizing …

Book cover

How much self-criticism is enough, and how much is too much? It depends on who’s doing the self-criticizing. In the West, Bennett argues, a surfeit of self-criticism brought undeserved grief down on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after he said in late September that “We [i.e., the West] must be aware of the superiority of our civilization” in comparison to the Islamic world. The West is superior to the Islamic world, Bennett insists, and to argue otherwise (as Chatterbox does, here) is just relativistic and politically correct nonsense. Clearly, though, Bennett wouldn’t mind if the Islamic world would let go of its conviction that Islamic civilization is morally superior to Western civilization—a bit of hubris that underlay the Sept. 11 attacks. That would just be constructive self-doubt.

Bennett would reply, correctly, that there’s a false equivalence between Berlusconi’s notion that the West is superior and Osama Bin Laden’s notion that Islam is superior. Most obviously, Berlusconi is not a murderous fanatic. More relevant to Chatterbox’s point, Berlusconi thinks the West is better largely because it’s more democratic, which, among other things, means that it’s more apt to criticize itself. Just because self-criticism is “the one irreplaceable engine of human progress,” that doesn’t mean the West needs to take it to “self-destructive” extremes.

But Bennett can’t seem to find any American self-criticism acceptable (except, of course, the criticism that we’re too critical of ourselves). In Bennett’s worldview, the virtues of introspection are, for our team, entirely theoretical. Bennett can’t abide Noam Chomsky, which is perfectly sensible, but neither can he abide Theodore Dreiser for helping to create the adversary culture. Another bad guy, by Bennett’s lights, is Eric Foner, the Columbia University historian. Foner’s offense was to respond to a poll showing overwhelming support for the war among the young by observing, “If our aim is to indoctrinate students with unpatriotic beliefs, we’re obviously doing a very poor job of it.” Foner’s point was that the critical analysis applied to American history by scholars like himself does not threaten students’ fundamental allegiance to their country because that allegiance isn’t nearly as fragile as Bennett fears. Inexplicably, this sent Bennett into a rage:

[Foner’s] comment was intended to ridicule the notion that professors like him do strive to influence their students’ views against their country, but it also inadvertently conveyed the sneering mind-set against which those students … are going to have to struggle. His very choice of words—”indoctrinate,” “unpatriotic”—seemed calculated to caricature and impugn the presumptively McCarthyite motives of anyone who would dare question Foner’s own motives, let alone his thoughts.

Is humor something else that we must abjure in wartime?

In one sense, Bennett is admirably consistent: His blanket prohibition on Western self-criticism extends to himself. Chatterbox felt certain that a book aimed at stiffening America’s spine to fight a war would relate the story of Bennett’s own failure to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. In 1987, the Associated Press reported that Bennett flunked a draft physical while he was in graduate school because of a bad back he’d gotten playing football. But it’s clear that Bennett didn’t want to go. As an undergraduate at Williams (class of ‘65), he’d nearly joined Students for a Democratic Society, and, he told the AP, if he’d been called he would have had to “examine my conscience.” There is nothing dishonorable in any of this. The Vietnam War was a dubious moral enterprise and, even if it hadn’t been, there would be no shame in a young man’s hesitating before placing his life at risk for his country. But this episode is surely relevant to any book Bennett might write under the title, Why We Fight. It isn’t here, though. Instead, you’ll find Bennett excoriating a college student for telling a journalist after 9/11 that he did not want to join up (there is, of course, no longer any risk of being drafted) because there are “people who are more willing to fight.” Self-righteousness and hypocrisy, it seems, pose no threat to America’s war on terrorism.