What’s with The New York Times? Week after week this summer, its editors have been running thoughtful essays on the Sunday Review section’s front page. Maybe they’ve decided to move away from predictable analysis pieces by staffers to guest writers who are used to thinking independently.
This week’s essay is about an annoying symptom of America’s decline — i.e., the tendency of far too many people to “infantilize” themselves through mindless worship of the military and belief in American exceptionalism. Think of George W. Bush strutting in his flight suit under the “Mission Accomplished” banner:
It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them… The cult of the uniform also bespeaks a wounded empire’s need to reassert its masculinity in the wake of 9/11. “Dead or alive,” “bring it on,” “either you’re with us or you’re against us”: the tenor of official rhetoric in the ensuing years embodied a kind of desperate machismo…
“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators.