Notes & Comments September 2003
On The New Criterion’s new series about America and its institutions in the twenty-first century, inaugurated in this issue.
“An institution,” Emerson proclaimed in “Self-Reliance,” “is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Like much that Emerson wrote, “Self-Reliance” is longer on attitude than argument. Its mode is hortatory. But Emerson’s mot about institutions hints at some important characteristics of those curious joint ventures. For one thing, institutions tend to exist beyond themselves in a penumbra of interests: they loom. Then, too, institutions tend to owe their identity, in large part, to the animating energies of individuals. (“One man”? Well, sometimes.) They are impersonal entities enlivened by the personalities that created and maintain them. We thought of Emerson’s fertile phrase when contemplating the ten-part, year-long series of essays on America and its institutions that we inaugurate in this issue.
Even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it had become clear that a new chapter was opening for American institutions: cultural and social as well as economic and military. The jagged velocity of twentieth-century life had unaccountably catapulted the United States to a rare, perhaps unprecedented, preeminence on the world stage. How that preeminence would be negotiated—to what extent it would even be acknowledged—was a question more often answered by neglect than by engagement. Whatever else can be said about the events of September 11—events that continue to unfold nearly two years later—they had the effect of which Dr. Johnson spoke when he observed that the prospect of hanging “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Exactly what was this richest, most powerful, most influential of countries? Its reach was far—how far? And how far beneficent?
“Lengthened Shadows: America and Its Institutions in the Twenty-first Century” offers a wide-ranging series of reflections on the cultural situation of American institutions in the post-9/11 world. We look at everything from the institution of the military to the fate of modernism in the visual arts, from the law to music, from religion to diplomacy, architecture, and higher education. Among our contributors are Robert H. Bork, Fred Kagan, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, Michael J. Lewis, Jay Nordlinger, and Mark Steyn.
We begin our series in this issue with the historian Keith Windschuttle’s essay on “The Burdens of Empire.” Among much else, Mr. Windschuttle sets the stage for the series by setting the future of American power in the context of its past and the past of other great powers. His conclusion is simultaneously hard-headed and far-seeing: he acknowledges both the burdens of empire—which means the responsibilities of power—and their limitations. In other words, he steers a middle course between the enemies of American power and cheerleaders for the idea of an American imperium. He acknowledges that, although “rogue states and terrorists could inflict serious damage if they got the opportunity, none of them threaten America’s world hegemony now or in the future.”
America’s Islamic opponents pose as much threat to its strategic position as the Dervish brotherhood posed to the British in 1898. Kitchener at Omdurman and Napier at Magdala knew what to do. They confronted the enemy and destroyed him utterly. Similarly, the proper response today should be confined to the military. Only if another rival imperial force arose again, one that posed a threat on the scale of international communism during the Cold War, might the case for a more formal imperial role by America make sense. But without an imperative of this kind, America has no need to emulate the British Empire, or any other for that matter, and hence is unlikely to do so.
It is within the boundaries that Mr. Windschuttle limns—under the dispensation of a robust but self-limited power—that the future of American institutions can best flourish. It is in that context that we shall pursue our inquiry into the future of American and its institutions.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 1, on page 1
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