By Jefferson Flanders

Was it a “low, dishonest decade”? That’s been a popular Anglo-American media meme adopted by writers commenting on the past ten years. The phrase comes from W.H Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” (“As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade”) and it was recycled by a number of commentators on both sides of the Pond for year-end use.

Harvard’s Joseph Nye (“Here’s to the 2010s”) cited the Auden phrase in his brief comments on Huffington Post, adding that optimism at the start of the century had been dashed by “the great recession, huge deficits and two wars.” In the Wall Street Journal Thomas Frank’s op-ed (“Low, Dishonest Decade”) bashed advocates of de-regulated markets, bankers, “preposterous populists,” lobbyists, and an asleep-at-the-wheel media for ”disfiguring” our country.

GlobalPost’s Michael Goldfarb (“Opinion: Low dishonest decade in review”) focused on British politics in attacking former Prime Minister Tony Blair (and the Bush administration) for the Iraqi war and for, in Goldfarb’s words, discrediting the idea of intervention in places like the Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran. (Yet that reluctance to intervene could be a good thing—if you believe in a more restrained and realistic use of American force.)

There are two things wrong with all this. First, it’s absurd to turn to Auden for political wisdom of any sort. The Anglo-American poet wrote “September 1, 1939” during his “Oxford Communist” phase, and later “rejected” (Auden’s term) the poem, along with “Spain”—in which the poet countenanced “[t]he conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden was a leftist dilettante at best: he fled to the U.S. in 1939 at the start of World War II and was, consequently, dogged with charges of cowardice and betrayal; later he was suspected of helping the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring.

Auden’s “low, dishonest decade” referred, in part, to his supposed disgust over western democracies’ unwillingness to confront Fascism during the 1930s. But if Frank, Nye and Goldfarb are going to borrow from Auden, to be intellectually consistent they should applaud George W. Bush’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq—certainly not Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement when facing threats to the West.

Secondly, it’s surprising that internationalists like Nye and Goldfarb (and I think that’s a fair characterization of their views) would judge the past decade solely on the American and British experience. What about the rest of world? As George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen noted in the New York Times (“For Much of the World, A Fruitful Decade“), there has been “raging economic growth” in China and India and “in economic terms, at least, the decade was a remarkably good one for many people around the globe.” Cowen added: “Ideals of prosperity, freedom and the rule of law have probably never been more resonant globally than they’ve been over the last years, even if practice often falls short.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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