To the editors:
If America is going to find a new national purpose, it may, as Michael Miner suggests, (Hot Type, 7/14/89) be with the assistance of our South American allies, but it certainly won't happen thanks to the lazy reasoning evident in Miner's conversation with William Pfaff.
While Miner may admire Pfaff for his "keen sense of the importance of moral authority in history" (whatever that means), I'm struck by the fact that Pfaff and Miner apparently have no sense of historical perspective whatsoever when it comes to figuring out what's wrong with this country. All Pfaff and Miner do is restate things pointed out about the United States over the past 200 years by thinkers like de Tocqueville, Henry James, Richard Hofstadter, and Anthony Burgess. With incredible regularity throughout our history, observers have always been struck by Americans' ignorance of everything, our penchant for simplistic answers, the mediocrity of our leadership, the abysmal quality of our educational system, and our striking parochialism. So there's nothing very interesting or new about what Pfaff has to say--even though it may be true. Whether in spite of or because of our shortcomings, the United States has developed into the most pluralistic democratic republic ever; less vital and dominant than 40 years ago, but certainly more so than when we were a marginal British colony dependent on Europe for our ideas and culture.
Michael Miner replies:
None of the flaws of American character cited by Mr. Goldsmith as having been observed "with incredible regularity throughout our history" is the one William Pfaff spoke of most forcefully. Our ignorance, provincialism, and lack of forethought amount to a charming ingenuousness so long as the country is rich and booming--although Mr. Pfaff, growing up a Catholic intellectual in Georgia at a time when Catholics were generally considered not quite trustworthy, might have been less charmed or self-satisfied than most. But to quote Mr. Pfaff: "Nobody seems to be held professionally responsible. Duty doesn't seem to mean anything" in America anymore. He seems to think that as a people we have lost a sense of honor--to put it in my words, we don't act as if the ideals America stands for mean much to us anymore. We are squandering our moral authority, which as a prosperous, polyglot, democratic (if ingenuous) republic was the cornerstone of our international influence and self-esteem. Mr. Goldsmith finds some value in comparing us to the colonial America of 200-plus years ago. What's more significant is that for the first time, I suppose, in the nation's history America is "less vital and dominant" than it has been in living memory. We matter a lot, but not nearly as much, and the prospect is that over time we will continue to matter less. The rest of the world is going its own ways. In these tricky circumstances, observers such as William Pfaff might well look twice at our ingenuousness and decide that it's become a burden. In fact, it's no longer ingenuousness--because we're no longer naive. Innocence has become the great national pretense. Pfaff commented that we've taken to electing presidents primarily qualified for the office by "their ability to make Americans feel better about themselves and about their country." Unfortunately for some of us, we spit up the pill and don't feel better.