On Setting an ExamplePEGGY NOONAN
Being a "beacon to the world" is more challenging than it sounds.
I thought I'd say a word for the Beaconists.
This election year we will, sooner or later, be asked to think about, and concentrate on, what American foreign policy should be in the future. We will have to consider, or reconsider, what challenges we face, what the world really is now after the Cold War and after 9/11, what is needed from America, and for her.
In some rough and perhaps tentative way we will have to decide what philosophical understanding of our national purpose rightly guides us.
Part of the debate will be shaped by the tugging back and forth of two schools of thought. There are those whose impulses are essentially interventionist — we live in the world and must take part in the world, sometimes, perhaps even often, militarily. We are the great activist nation, the spreader of political liberty, the superpower whose meaning is made clear in action.
The other school holds profound reservations about all this. It is more modest in its ambitions, more cool-eyed about human nature. It feels more bound by the old advice attributed to one of the Founding Generation, that we be the friend of liberty everywhere but the guarantor only of our own.
Much has changed in the more than two centuries since he said that: many wars fought, treaties made, alliances forged. And yet as simple human wisdom, it packs a wallop still.
Those who feel tugged toward the old Founding wisdom often use the word "beacon." It is our place in the scheme of things, it is our fate and duty, to be a beacon of liberty. To stand tall and hold high the light. To be an example, to be an inspiration, to encourage. We do not invent constitutions and impose them on other countries; instead they, in their restlessness, in their human desire to achieve a greater portion of freedom, will rise up in time and create their own constitution. And because they created it, and because it reflects their conception of justice, they will hold it more dearly.
So we are best, in the world as it is now, the beacon, not the bringer, of freedom. We are its friend, not its enforcer.
As a foreign policy this sounds, or has been made to sound, unduly passive. We'll sit around being a good example and the rest of them can take a hike. But if you want to be a beacon, it's actually a hard job. It involves activism. You can't be a beacon unless as a nation you're in pretty good shape. You can't be a beacon unless you send forth real light. You can't be a beacon unless you really do inspire.
Do we always? No. We're not always a good example for the world. And so, for the coming holiday, a few baseline areas, some only stylistic, in which we could make our light glow brighter in — and for — the world.
It would be good to have the most visible symbols of our country, the president and the Congress, be clean. So often they seem not to be. They are scandal-ridden, or an embarrassment, or seem in the eyes of the world to be bought and paid for by special interests or unions or industries or professions. Whether you are liberal or conservative, you agree it is important that the world be impressed by America's leaders, by their high-mindedness and integrity. Leaders who are not dragged through the mud because they actually don't bring much mud with them. There is room for improvement here.
To be a beacon is to speak softly to the world, with dignity, with elegance if you can manage it, or simple good-natured courtesy if you can't. A superpower should never shout, never bray "We're No. 1!" If you're No. 1, you don't have to.
To be a beacon is to have a democracy in which issues of actual import are regularly debated. Instead our political coverage consists of daily disquisitions on "targeted ads," "narratives," "positioning" and "talking points." We really do make politicians crazy. If a politician cares only about his ads and his rehearsed answers, the pundits call him inauthentic. But if a politician ignores these things to speak of great issues we say he lacks "fire in the belly" and is incompetent. So many criticisms of politicians boil down to: He's not manipulating us well enough! We need more actual adults who are actually serious about the business of the nation.
To be a beacon is to keep the economic dream alive. We're still good at this. The downside is the rise in piggishness that tends to accompany prosperity. It is not good to embarrass your nation with your greed. It disheartens those who are doing their best but are limited, or unlucky, or just haven't made it work yet. It is good when you have it not to keep it all but to help the limited, and unlucky, and those who just haven't made it work yet. Keep it going, Porky.
To be a beacon is to continue another thing we're good at, making the kind of citizens who go into the world and help it: the doctors, the scientists, the nurses. They choose to go and help. The world notices, and says, "These are some kind of people, these Americans."
To be a beacon is to support the creation of a culture that is not dark, or sulfurous, or obviously unwell. We introduce our culture to our new immigrants each day through television. Just for a moment, imagine you are a young person from Africa or South America, a new American. You come here and put on the TV, for even the most innocent know that TV is America and America is TV, and you want to learn quickly. What you see is an obvious and embarrassing obsession with sex, with violence, with sexual dysfunction. You see the routine debasement of women parading as the liberation of women.
Conservatives have wrung their hands over this for a generation. But really, if you are a new immigrant to our country, full of hope, animated in part by some sense of mystery about this country that has lived in your imagination for 20 years, you have got to think: This is it? This ad for erectile dysfunction? Oh, I have joined something that is not healthy.
Sad to think this. They want to have joined a healthy and vibrant and well-balanced nation, not a sick circus.
I haven't even touched upon poverty, the material kind and the spiritual kind. I haven't touched on a lot. But if we were to try harder to be better, if we were to try harder to be and seem as great as we are, we wouldn't have to bray so much about the superiority of our system. It would be obvious to all, as obvious as a big light in the darkness.
To be a brighter beacon is not to choose passivity, or follow a path of selfishness. It would take energy and commitment and thought. We've always had a lot of that.
A happy Thanksgiving to all who love the great and fabled nation that is still, this day, the hope of the world.
Peggy Noonan. "On Setting an Example." The Wall Street Journal (November 16, 2007).
Reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, LLC on behalf of the author.
Before entering the Reagan White House, she was a producer at CBS News in New York, where she wrote and produced Dan Rather's daily radio commentary. She also wrote television news specials for CBS News. In 1978 and 1979 she was an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. Ms. Noonan lives in New York.
Copyright © 2007 Peggy Noonan
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