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‘What Is Happening To America?’

Wind gusts in 2020 shred world's largest American flag (TMJ4 News)

That’s the question I keep getting in my European travels. People here are worried. It looks to them like we are losing our collective mind. It certainly seems that way to me.

I had coffee this morning at the Scruton coffeeshop with Steve Hayward and his wife Allison. We talked about the astonishing, and astonishingly swift, breakdown of our country. I told them a story I’ve mentioned in this space on a number of occasions. I’ll repeat it here, in brief, for those who haven’t heard it.

On September 11, 2002, I accompanied a friend to Ground Zero for the one-year commemoration of the 9/11 attack. At just the moment when the first plane hit a year earlier, a hellacious wind began to blow from the direction that plane had flown. There was a hurricane hundreds of miles offshore, which explains the source of the gale, but the timing was extremely eerie. I know the timing because I was standing there outside the perimeter of Ground Zero, looking at my watch when the wind started. Here’s a photo I found online of Ground Zero in the wind that day:

It blew ferociously all morning, as they read each name of the 9/11 dead aloud. At some point later in the morning, I went into Holy Trinity Wall Street for a memorial service conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The wind was still howling outside. During the service, we heard the bells ring at next-door Ground Zero, signaling that the final name had been read. When we went back out, the wind had stopped. I have no idea when it stopped, precisely, but I have my suspicions.

Later in the day, I received a frantic call from the friend with whom I had walked down to Ground Zero. She asked me to hurry over to her place. When I got there, she showed me into her home office, and pointed to something hanging on the wall. It was a small American flag, some sort of antique — thin, with a smaller number of stars than usual. It must have been an early 19th century artifact. It was torn down the middle.

“That tear wasn’t there this morning,” she said. She told me she had had that antique framed under glass for years. No one had touched it. When she returned from Ground Zero, it had been rended down the middle.

The obvious touchstone here is the veil in the Hebrew Temple that Scripture tells us tore in half when Jesus died. That week, I told a well-known Catholic priest about the torn flag, and asked him what he thought it meant. He didn’t venture a guess, but he did say it seemed very ominous indeed. I remember thinking at the time that it was a prophecy about God lifting his hand from our nation. But I didn’t want to believe that. We were marching towards war with Iraq — a war that I supported. Surely this couldn’t be a sign of things to come. That’s what I wanted to believe back then.

Looking back on that today, 19 years later, with our country tearing itself apart, I can’t help but see it as a prophetic sign. Our country is dismantling itself in bizarre ways. Take the NFL’s decision to play “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem, before all games this fall. That’s a beautiful song, but the NFL is deploying it in a nakedly political way. As I have written in Live Not By Lies, and many times on this blog, the essence of totalitarianism involves making everything in society political — and that includes cultural politics.

You can’t just play football anymore. You have to make it an occasion of racial consciousness. It becomes ever more difficult to find a part of our common life that hasn’t been infused with wokeness, either of the racial or the LGBT kind.

Rich Lowry writes:

That the NFL has swung drastically the other way is a sign that a new national identity is emerging to supplant the old. This new American identity is, of course, getting pushed by every lever of elite culture. It is defined by “anti-racism” instead of the American creed, Black Lives Matter instead of, say, the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, and new rituals, holidays, and heroes instead of ones that have been long established and, to this point, uncontroversial.

The national anthem? It will now compete with the black national anthem and, by implication, risks becoming the “white” national anthem.

Juneteenth is worthy of commemoration but is being set up as a competitor holiday to July 4.

1776, that most iconic year, is under pressure from 1619.

Statues of American legends such as the celebrated explorers Lewis and Clark, and Roger Clark, “Conqueror of the Old Northwest,” were removed in a single day in Charlottesville, Va., the latest instance of a remorseless iconoclasm sweeping the land.

And so on.

Why does it matter? A nation is to a large extent defined by its symbols and associations, the holidays, rituals, heroes, and history — the mystic chords of memory — that constitute its collective self-understanding. This is how a nation tells itself what it is and what its priorities should be.

We are becoming two (at least) countries, and make no mistake, this is a project being driven by American elites and their soft totalitarianism. How can these fools possibly believe that this kind of thing makes us a stronger country? Even in the most literal sense, this isn’t true:

A scathing new report commissioned by members of Congress has claimed that the Navy’s surface warfare forces have systemic training and leadership issues, including a focus on diversity that overshadows basic readiness skills.

The report prepared by Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle and Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, both retired, came in response to recent Naval disasters, including the burning of the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego, two collisions involving Navy ships in the Pacific and the surrender of two small craft to Iran.

The authors conducted hour-long interviews with 77 current and retired Navy officers, offering them anonymity to identify issues they wouldn’t feel comfortable raising in the chain of command.

The report found that a staggering 94 percent of the subjects believed the recent Naval disasters were ‘part of a broader problem in Navy culture or leadership.’

‘I guarantee you every unit in the Navy is up to speed on their diversity training. I’m sorry that I can’t say the same of their ship handling training,’ said one recently retired senior enlisted leader.

A military that is losing the ability to defend a country that elites are teaching us is not worth defending. Twenty years ago, could you have imagined it? Yet here we are.

UPDATE: Reader Dragnet comments:

The point is that they couldn’t raise critical readiness issues that are caused by excessive deference to the diversity agenda without destroying their careers—that alone explains the need for anonymity. The “much deeper problem” here is that you can’t be honest about what’s destroying readiness (ie, the woke agenda) and still advance in the armed forces.

Yes, it’s HBO’s “Chernobyl”. In the Soviet Union, nobody could talk about actual problems for fear of stepping on ideological land mines. Thus, the meltdown. We are risking the same thing here. If I worked in a newsroom today, I would fear pointing out serious problems in the paper’s operations if doing so made me likely to lose my job for being a suspected racist, homophobe, bigot, whatever. This is the mentality in corporate America now, and across our institutions. We know where this is going. When people could lose everything simply for telling the truth, you have created a system that prioritizes ideological correctness over reality. It will fail when reality catches up to it.
Everybody needs to read historian Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. It’s about how plain old human stupidity caused massive failures. Given my particular interests, the chapter on how six Renaissance popes sparked the Protestant Reformation was my favorite. She details how those popes were products of, and upholders of, a system in which they ignored signs of trouble. She writes:
Their three outstanding attitudes — obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status — are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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