Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.
~ George W. Bush (Jan. 20, 2005)
“Fire in the minds of men.” This phrase has the potential of matching the staying power of Lincoln’s famous words in his second inaugural: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln’s words were not carried into action; he was dead a little over month later. Reconstruction followed.
Will Bush’s words be implemented?
These words have received little attention from commentators. This is a pity, for they are not Bush’s words. They are taken verbatim from the title of a book written by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, which he wrote before he went on the government’s payroll. What is significant is the subtitle of that book: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith.
For a quarter of a century, I have regarded Billington’s book as the most important history book of the twentieth century, the book without which you cannot understand either the nineteenth or twentieth century. Billington traces the origins of Communism and Fascism: international revolution and national revolution.
Both traditions began before the French Revolution and led to that conflagration. Both streams of revolutionary violence were preserved and extended after 1815 by two movements: journalism and the occult underground, without which the French Revolution would not have occurred. Billington’s book provides more supporting footnotes in more languages for this thesis than any other book.
The book was published by the neoconservative publishing house, Basic Books, in 1980. Its editor was Midge Decter, the wife of Norman Podhoretz. It is also worth mentioning that it was co-funded, among other groups, by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Aspen Institute, as the author revealed in “Acknowledgments.”
In his opening words in the Introduction, Billington offers his book’s thesis.
This book seeks to trace the origins of a faith — perhaps the faith of our time. Modern revolutionaries are believers, no less committed and intense than were the Christians or Muslims of an earlier era. What is new is the belief that a perfect secular order will emerge from the forcible overthrow of traditional authority.
On page 5, Billington focuses on the imagery of fire, an image that began before the French Revolution and extended to Lenin’s newspaper, Iskra, “spark.”
The heart of revolutionary faith, like any faith, is fire: ordinary material transformed into extraordinary faith, quantities of warmth suddenly changing the quality of substance. If we do not know what fire is, we know what it does. It burns. It destroys life; but it also supports it as a source of heat, light, and — above all — fascination.
Billington argues that the myth of Prometheus was central to the mythology of the revolutionary movement.
A recurrent mythic model for revolutionaries — early romantics, the young Marx, the Russians of Lenin’s time — was Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for the use of mankind. The Promethean faith of revolutionaries resembled in many respects the general modern belief that science would lead men out of darkness into light. But there was also the more pointed, millennial assumption that, on the new day that was dawning, the sun would never set (p. 6).
A NEW WORLD ORDER
George H. W. Bush used one phrase over and over in his speeches: a new world order. His son returned to that idea and that language in his second inaugural address. This language was part of the Enlightenment’s revolutionary tradition. It even had some marginal influence in the origins of the United States. The President invoked this language toward the end of his address.
We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” — they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.
Notice that he also invoked what seems to be the imagery of the Civil War, “when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty.” Fredericksburg matches this description, as does Cold Harbor. Finally, he invoked the revolutionary confrontations of the 1960s, “when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner ‘Freedom Now.'” He did this in the name of universal liberty.
We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events.
His next sentence made it clear that he was not coming in the name of Christianity. He is coming in the name of a universal ethic that links all the major religions, including Islam.
In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character — on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.
He made this point clear. As citizens of America, we are not supposed to act in the name of God. “Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills.” This language is reminiscent of Lincoln’s words in his second inaugural, when he referred to the North and South as invoking the God of the Bible.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.
God’s will, according to Lincoln and Bush, is not for us to determine. This leaves mankind’s will and mankind’s ideals, which are universal. The new battlefield of the Republic is therefore all the world.
When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, “It rang as if it meant something.” In our time it means something still. America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength — tested, but not weary — we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.
In short, President Bush has clearly announced a foreign policy of world transformation.
Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.
Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world: All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.
Commentators have so far ignored what should be obvious: this is an extension of his father’s vision of a new world order. On September 11, 1990, George H. W. Bush told Congress,
We stand today at a unique and extraordinary moment. The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective — a new world order — can emerge: a new era — freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.
In 1990, conservatives were more likely to recognize this vision of world transformation as being at odds with the American Constitutional tradition of limited government. Conservatives today apparently no longer have qualms about a President who commits the nation’s resources to the creation of a new world order.
THE ORIGINS OF THE ADDRESS
Modern American Presidents only rarely write their own speeches. Even Reagan, as masterful a communicator as ever held the office, had speech writers. A President presumably provides notes to his speech writer regarding the speech’s main themes. Presumably, he proofreads the draft and makes additions or takes out phrases. But the phraseology of a major speech is not the work of the President who delivers it.
I do not for a moment imagine that President Bush has ever read Fire in the Minds of Men. I am not suggesting that he self-consciously decided to import the Promethean vision of the revolutionaries of nineteenth-century Europe; baptize this vision with a few catch phrases from American history; extract liberty, ignore fraternity, and abandon equality; and then present this strange brew as the vision of his administration. But one of his speech writers surely did, and the President then stood before the nation and delivered this rhetorical call to arms as a succinct outline of what his administration is all about.
Neoconservative theorist and columnist Michael Novak fully understands the dual origins of this rhetoric. It goes back to the French Revolution by way of Abraham Lincoln. Novak writes:
Bush gave an inaugural address that calls to mind the vision of Abraham Lincoln: It is without question the greatest presidential reflection since Lincoln on the meaning of liberty to the nature of the United States. . . .
In his day, Abraham Lincoln called forth a “new birth of freedom,” meaning the end of slavery in the Southern states and a new beginning. Bush calls forth a “new birth of freedom” too, meaning in the whole world as an alternative to tyranny, and in America’s internal life in an end to a culture of dependency upon the state.
The President has committed this nation to a program of world transformation. He is not the first President to do so. From the Spanish-American War until today, Presidents have repeatedly committed this nation, by way of politics, to an international crusade. The two Presidents who refused to invoke the rhetoric of world transformation have been relegated by academic historians and pundits to the outer darkness: “isolationism.” Harding and Coolidge are the odd men out in American history textbooks.
Step by step, crusade by crusade, America has been dragged by its Presidents and its pundits into the old revolutionary tradition of world transformation through military action.
In 1938, Old Right journalist Garet Garrett wrote an essay, “The Revolution Was.” The title told all. It dealt with the Roosevelt Administration. He followed this in 1951 with “Ex America.” In 1952, he published “The Rise of Empire.” These three pieces were published by tiny Caxton Press in 1953 as The People’s Pottage. In those days, Caxton, Devin-Adair, and Regnery were the only outlets for conservative authors. Today, there are many outlets. . . just so long as the authors promote that which Garrett warned against.
President Bush has offered nothing new of substance in his second inaugural address. What was important about the speech was the openness of its author, whoever he was, in connecting the President’s foreign policy to the origins of the revolutionary faith that a century of American interventionism abroad has implemented. What is amazing about the speech was its degree of self-consciousness. The President is dutifully following a path that extends back to 1898 in the United States and 1793 in France.
What is new is the degree of commitment by American conservatives to an ancient revolutionary program of world transformation through force of arms. They now applaud an escalated rhetoric of revolution. The revolution was by 1938. But the willingness of conservatives today to abandon their intellectual and moral roots in the anti-French Revolutionary tradition of Edmund Burke has now reached what may be a tipping point. It is not that the revolution was. It is that the victims on their way to the guillotine are singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They console themselves: “It is a far, far better thing that we do now, than we have ever done before.”
Include me out.
January 31, 2005
Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com