Older & Wiser?

Published September 26, 2005

The Weekly Standard, Volume 011, Issue 01

The first issue of The Weekly Standard appeared in September 1995, partway through the Clinton administration, and less than a year after the Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1994. The pressing foreign policy issue of the day was Bosnia. The world seems a very different place today. To mark the magazine’s 10th anniversary, the editors invited several contributors to reflect on the decade past and, at least indirectly, on the years ahead. More specifically, we asked them to address this question: “On what issue or issues (if any!) have you changed your mind in the last 10 years- and why?” Their responses follow.

OPTIMISM AND PESSIMISM were both easy to come by in the 1990s, when this magazine was born. The optimism was largely technological: the birth of the Internet, the beginnings of the biotech revolution, the age of turning work into play, the promise of great wealth overnight. The pessimism was largely cultural: Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote of the “de-moralization of society,” Robert Bork of “slouching toward Gomorrah,” First Things of “the end of democracy,” William Bennett of the “broken hearth.” Times were good, but many good conservatives felt miserable. American creativity seemed boundless, but the American character seemed questionable. On September 10, 2001, the cover of this magazine declared “Farewell to American Greatness,” with little reason to believe that “compassionate conservatism” would inspire its return.

One day later, everything changed, or so we thought. Techno-optimism turned into techno-fear: We worried that our inventions were coming back to destroy us, and that the destructive power of four conventional airplanes would soon be followed by the apocalyptic power of weapons of mass destruction. Cultural despair, meanwhile, gave way to cultural resolve: We affirmed that our modern way of life was not only worth defending at home but worth promoting abroad. By October 8, 2001, the cover of this magazine was already making “The Case for American Empire,” with growing reason to believe that President Bush would embrace the twin tasks of regime change and nation-building that he had rejected one year earlier as a candidate.

In truth, of course, not everything changed overnight. The American belief that technology can set us free remains in force, as we look to embryo research, mood-altering drugs, and genetic self-control to perfect the imperfections of human life. The reasons to worry about American modernity still exist–divorce is still rampant, human cloning is around the corner, pornography is available on our cell phones, and the elite universities remain havens for mediocre minds with oversized egos and fragile spines.

But the political moment has indeed changed, and so have the responsibilities of being a governing conservative. Even as many “neocons” still worry about the problems of modern progress, they rightly embrace America’s special obligation to defend modern life against its mortal enemies. Even as many conservatives oppose excessive modernism at home (seeing Judeo-Christian religion as a corrective), they rightly celebrate the birth of modernism abroad (seeing many radical Islamic institutions as the problem). And even as many virtue-loving Americans lament the excesses of freedom in our everyday lives (the “right” to abortion being paradigmatic), they rightly celebrate the benefits of freedom in our political regime.

So: I can’t say I have changed my mind on this issue or that issue–though I probably have. But the last decade has clarified the relationship between American responsibility abroad and American virtue at home. By dying for the freedom of others, Americans might recover an understanding of the public burdens of freedom as well as the private opportunities. Just as we did in the late 1990s, we look to American 21-year-olds for excellence and greatness. But the image has changed from the young entrepreneur building billion-dollar software in his dorm room to the young soldier leading a platoon in the desert. No doubt many decent suburban parents would rather see their child at home, flush with opportunities. But many parents–Cindy Sheehan notwithstanding–are proud to see their sons and daughters abroad, bearing responsibilities that a great democracy like America still seems willing to shoulder. And that, at least, is reasonable grounds for optimism.

—Eric Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis and resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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