Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope

National Review has an interview with Bill Bennett about his new popular history book, America: The Last Best Hope. Here are a couple things from the interview that piqued my interest.

The contemporary conflict between the West and radical Islam seems to have prompted Bennett to delve deeper into the historical relationship between Muslims and the West and how that relationship affected America in particular. He acknowledges some of his insights may be considered "politically incorrect":
Radical Islam or Militant Islam was trouble for us from before day one. The European empires go west because they don’t want to deal with these guys in the east. Jefferson’s war against the Barbary pirates was taken up after more than one million Europeans had been made slaves by Muslim traders. John Adams was opposed to the war, by the way, saying prophetically that if we fought these militant Muslims we’d be fighting them forever.
I'm not sure if Bennett's preemptive categorization of his treatment of the history of the tension between Islam and the West is a case of him forecasting the kind of negative reaction he expects to get regarding that portion of the book or if he is merely setting up a straw-man. I guess I'll have to wait for the reaction itself. Nonetheless, to my knowledge, Bennett may be the first to emphasize (if that's indeed what it is) the relationship between Islam and America in a popular history. He deserves credit for that.

Refreshingly, Bennett tried to provide a bit of levity, too:
I’ve tried to find really funny, really memorable lines. Try this for example, General Sherman said “Grant stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. Now we stand by each other always.” Great quote. Funny. Bracing. Uplifting. How about two more in connection with Teddy Roosevelt? Joe Wheeler, an ex-confederate officer, was chasing retreating Spaniards in 1898 somewhere near San Juan Hill: “We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!” he yelled at his men. But it was former Sergeant Buck Taylor of the same war who, when later campaigning for Roosevelt, said to crowds: “He kept every promise he ever made to us, and he will to you as well. He led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter, and so will he lead you.”
If Bennett's humorous examples are sprinkled throughout, I for one will be happy. Funny things do happen in history, after all.

When asked who his MVP of American History was, Bennett replied:
Well it’s Lincoln and Washington, no surprise there. But, in my top-ten, maybe top-five, I put Frederick Douglass—a guy I didn’t know that well before. You know I don’t the think the left likes Douglass, and I don’t think the right and the center have given him his due. I hope I have.
Bennett's comments about Douglass are also interesting and encouraging and may point to the first recorded instance of a conservative engaged in revisionism! (Just kidding).

To conclude, he also explained why he thought America--slavery and all--was indeed the "Last Best Hope":
The question there is “compared to whom?” [Patrick] Moynihan said, “Am I embarrassed to speak for less than a perfect democracy? Not one bit. Have we done terrible things, yes we have.” But as Lino Graglia says, “In the long story of inhumanity and misery that is history, the American achievement is high, and unique.” By the way, if we are such a bad place, as many have it today (and some have always had it), why are we flooded with people who want to come here? With students, I talk about “the gates test.” I say, you want to find out whether a country is good or not, give it the gates test: when you raise the gates, which way do people run? In or out? In America, when we raise the gates, the people flood in. Even with the gates down, they flood in, as today’s headlines make plain. People all over the world have been voting for America with their feet, for a very long time.
Finally, I suspect that Bennett tells both the good and bad of U.S. history, but doesn't allow the instances in which America has fallen short of its founding ideals to overshadow the ideals themselves or the continued attempt to live up to them.

As a preview, he has been releasing excerpts from the book (in place of his columns) over the last couple weeks: America: The Last Best Hope; Jefferson's crisis; Preserving our federal union. It is with a portion--indeed, perhaps the very premise-- of the second excerpt ("Jefferson's Crisis") that I disagree with Bennett. But more on that later.


Anonymous said...

Marc, Bennett's comments about Muslims enslaving a million Europeans is the kind of one-sided and blindered "fact" that feeds hate into perpetuity. The fact is that slavery survived into the modern world largely because of a consensus among Christians and Muslims that binding captives in warfare as slaves was a legitimate alternative to killing captives or holding them hostage for exchange. So, does Bennett say that Christians had enslaved a million Muslims? No, he forgot that part of his "fact". No one really knows how many Christians were enslaved by Muslims or Muslims were enslaved by Christians, but their shared practice caused Europeans to have no qualms about enslaving Africans that they encountered as they explored the west coast of Africa in the 15th century. That was an inherited practice full of sad portent for the future.

Marc said...

Thanks for the observation. However, since I haven't yet read the book, I'm not sure if Bennett has or hasn't linked the Christian/Muslim, back-and-forth slave trade to the later African slave trade at some later point in the book. I'll have to read the book. I'm reserving my judgement on this until then.

That is also why I'm holding back from commenting on what I've taken to be his implication that Jefferson was somehow more correct in challenging the Barbary Pirates than either Washington or Adams when he never supported the Navy that the two Federalists had tried to build and that he (Jefferson) ended up relying upon to fight the Pirates.