My Impromptus column today is headed “Our old friend personal responsibility, &c.” It has a range of items, as the “&c.” implies, and it begins with — you guessed it — personal responsibility, our old friend.
I just read George F. Will’s column today, and it is a thing of intelligence and beauty, as usual. I was particularly interested in the phrase “the burden of personal responsibility.” It comes in the second paragraph of the column. I will quote the first two — the first two paragraphs:
Today’s pandemic has simultaneously inflicted the isolation of “social distancing” and the social solidarity of shared anxiety. In tandem, these have exacerbated a tendency that was already infecting America’s body politic before the virus insinuated itself into many bodies and every consciousness.
It is the recurring longing for escape from individualism, with its burden of personal responsibility. It includes a concomitant desire for immersive politics, whereby people infuse their lives with synthetic meaning by enlisting in mass movements or collective efforts. These usually derive their unity from a clear and present danger or, when that is lacking, from national, ethnic, racial or class resentments (e.g., Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s not-so-very-different populisms of those who feel victimized).
I’d now like to publish a little mail, concerning a Corner post I had about America’s role in the world (if there is to be one): “Between Albania and Zimbabwe.” A retired U.S. diplomat writes,
. . . I will end with a quote we both like from a great American we both treasured: “Decline is a choice.”
Our letter-writer thinks that Americans will choose wisely:
When I was a diplomat, I used to quip, when things were looking bad for us, that “no one ever made money betting against the United States.” If I was speaking to an audience especially skeptical of the U.S., I’d say, “No one ever made money over the long term betting against the United States.”
So, who was the “great American we both treasured” who said, “Decline is a choice”? That was Charles Krauthammer — whom I thought of while reading a David French column. Actually, when I watched a YouTube clip that David linked to: this one.
It shows Michael Corleone, in The Godfather Part III, saying, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
David meant that he was going to have to defend America’s constitutional order against the illiberals who would undo it, making us an un-American kind of nation.
Years ago, I had an email exchange with Dr. K., which I noted in an appreciation. I will quote from that piece, that appreciation:
About the Middle East, he wrote regularly, always keeping an eye on it. One day, he had a column about Israel — another one. I sent him a note, saying, “Charles, I find that I can barely write about the Arab–Israeli conflict anymore, so weary am I from doing it, year after year, decade after decade. I’m glad you’re not weary — or that you push through it, to say the necessary, again.” He replied, “I know exactly of your weariness. My reluctance to write about it once again is enormous. It’s only a sense of duty — and the shocking realization of how few are prepared to say the obvious truth anymore — that makes me do it.”
David’s column with the Michael Corleone clip is here. He then wrote the column he knew he had to write: here. When I tweeted it around, I did so with the comment, “You would think that defending the American Way — ordered liberty, in sum — would be like defending chocolate ice cream: not all that necessary to do. But no. It has to be defended against Right and Left all the time.”
My friends, you would be amazed at how many people are prepared to go negative against chocolate ice cream. I thought it was universally popular, pretty much. I’m not sure about that now. (A typical comment from the naysaying tweeters: “Bitter.”)
Rum raisin? (Nah, that’s a minority taste.) (By the way, Pat Buckley loved rum-raisin ice cream, and Bill did too, but his favorite, by far, was coffee.)
I want to end with another YouTube clip — not The Godfather Part III, but a musical performance. It is of “America the Beautiful,” and it was put together by my friend Robert Kahn, a young conductor. He was a college classmate of another wunderkind, Theodore Kupfer of NR.
In the video I have linked to, students of the Curtis Institute, the conservatory in Philadelphia, play “America the Beautiful” in self-isolation, wherever they happen to live. And they come from all over the world. The performance is dedicated to the health-care workers who are acting heroically, for the sake of humanity at large.
Again, watch it here. Kids from all over the world, playing “America the Beautiful,” in an expression of thanks. (Robert himself is from Holland, by the way.) That is very American, and outstandingly human.