calls for “hope” and promises of “change” resound this campaign season.
But when the inspirational rhetoric is stripped of its oratorical
trappings, what remains is remarkable not so much for what has been
said, but rather for what has been left unsaid for fear of alienating
some restive constituency.
course, such equivocation should surprise no one: calculated ambiguity
has long been part-and-parcel of the political world. Politicians who
hope to get elected must learn to “play the game.” For this they ought
not to be condemned.
there is something unsettling about the extent to which today’s
political messages so transparently bear the marks of slick marketing
consultants and calculating demographers. All too often the candidates
come across like the peddlers appearing on off-prime-time infomercials.
And they almost always succeed at staying on script.
accounts for this unusually depressed state of candor in political
discourse? One reason is that the candidates are accommodating our
empty-headed celebrity culture’s worship of flair – and indifference to
substance. But even more telling has been a distortion of the very
language of politics, wrought by the diktats of “political correctness.”
debate of the issues is made more difficult when formerly useful words
have been robbed of their meaning and when entire subjects have been
judged to be beyond the pale. To see how this is so, consider three of
the major challenges confronting America today: the war, illegal immigration, and race relations.
The War. Should we immediately withdraw from Iraq? Are the NSA’s surveillance programs necessary to protect our homeland from attack? And what about Iran’s
nuclear weapons program? Questions like these abound, yet the debate
lacks coherence because our political leaders cannot bring themselves
to define the threat that we face. Surely this is not a war on
terrorism, any more than World War II was a war on Blitzkrieg. Radical Islam – whether it be called “Jihadism” or Islamofascism” – is closer to the mark. But
lurking in the shadows is the uncomfortable truth that Islam itself is
inherently inimical to secularized liberal democracy. Yet discussion of
this fact – and of its policy implications – is off limits on the
campaign trail, for such discussion would involve openly judging the
relative merits of two opposing cultures. One can imagine the ensuing
cries of “cultural imperialism.” But any strategy for managing our
clash with Islam should be grounded in an articulation of the essence
of that conflict. The presidential candidates ought to reveal where
they stand on this question so that we can better evaluate their policy
Consider just one aspect of this thorny issue: the disposition of the
millions of illegal aliens who are already here. Mass deportation is
impractical, so the debate has been mostly about pathways to
citizenship. But lost in the policy particulars is a vision for how
these people are to ultimately fit into our society. Assimilation –
adoption of our common culture and language – used to describe the
making of new Americans. Most citizens still subscribe to this meaning.
Yet the word is seldom heard in the public forum because the purveyors
of multiculturalism and “diversity” have succeeded in redefining
assimilation as the racist imposition of the “dominant” culture on an
“oppressed” people. So some politicians who agree with the traditional
sense of the word steer clear of it for fear of alienating Hispanic
voters. Others share the multiculturalists’ definition of assimilation
but prefer not to reveal their dream of an America
where group identity is more important than the individual. Thus we
find ourselves in a sort of limbo not only about how to handle illegal
immigration but also with respect to how we see ourselves as Americans.
In no other aspect of American life is our language so confused and
circumscribed as is the case for the discussion of race. To some
“affirmative action” means to level the playing field; to others it is
a system of racial preferences. To some “racial preference” amounts to
racial discrimination; to others it is a benign means for achieving
diversity. And the term “diversity” is promiscuously used – sometimes
in its unobjectionable descriptive sense and at other times as a coded
reference to a system of race-based preferences – to obscure the
objectives of its proponents. And that most potent of epithets,
“racist,” is a brickbat that is being indiscriminately hurled at those
who hold contrary views. But the race divide will never be transcended
through evasion and obfuscation. To overcome the lingering anger,
resentment, and guilt that haunt race relations in our nation, our
leaders must transcend this abuse of our language and instead must
speak out plainly in words that all Americans can understand.
challenges that we face today demand the leadership of an Abraham
Lincoln, a Winston Churchill, or a Ronald Reagan. These luminaries were
adept at the dark art of politics. Through their words, each could
inspire his countrymen to greatness. Yet their accomplishments were not
merely attributable to political cunning or to gifted speechmaking.
Rather, we remember them for having had the moral courage to confront
the toughest issues of their days by articulating unambiguous policies
grounded on clearly understandable principles. In short, Lincoln, Churchill, and Reagan were more than politicians: they were statesmen.
Clinton, Obama, and McCain are masterful politicians. Whether any of
the three will answer the call to statesmanship remains to be seen. We
can only hope.
views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to
reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the
Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.