Newsweek has published a special issue. ABC will telecast the event. Commemorative coins have been issued, awards will be bestowed by the president and, even more of an event, Frank Sinatra will sing. The Statue of Liberty, 100 years old and all gussied up, is going to get a party. It is clear, we love that statue. It is just as clear, though, that we love ourselves more.
The statue has earned our affection, and there is nothing wrong with bathing it in fireworks and showering it with praise. It is a mighty monument, almost sacred to some, that says more about America -- the reality and the myth -- than any other work of man or nature. The statue is our statement -- an outstretched arm, a welcome and the promise, sometimes false, that you can be what you want. For many immigrants, that promise was kept.
But the celebration of the statue's 100th anniversary is evolving into something more than a birthday party for a national symbol. Like the 1984 Olympics before it, it is becoming an excuse for celebrating not just who we are as a nation but our self-proclaimed superiority as well. We are no longer just different or distinct. We are No. 1 one.
In the last several years, the United States has gone from resurgent nationalism to outright narcissism. We can't get enough of ourselves. We no longer just celebrate distinctive American traits -- our culture, our ethic -- but proclaim them the best. Free enterprise capitalism, which on the whole has been a boon to America, is unhesitantly prescribed as a universal panacea. We are confident we have the kinks worked out and think the whole world ought to adopt it.
The new narcissism has given rise to a new kind of isolationism. Unlike the old one, the urge now is not to withdraw into our own continent so much as it is to ignore both the wishes and the sensibilities of the rest of the world. We have, for instance, slowly diminished the importance of the United Nations. We have withdrawn entirely from UNESCO. We walked out of the World Court when Nicaragua went before it to complain of U.S. attempts to topple its government. Each case seemed to have been decided on its own merits, but the trend and the results are clear: we are more on our own than we used to be.
Similarly, the United States went it alone when it came to the Libyan air strike. Aside from the British permitting the use of NATO air bases, the rest of the Western Alliance would not go along. They had their doubts, but we dismissed them. For what seemed like good reasons at the time, we bombed a sovereign country, killed a child of its leader and now have reason to wonder whether we retaliated against the right country. Is it possible that Syria is behind most terrorism?
America, though, shows no doubts. It is in no mood to second-guess itself -- not on Libya, not on SALT II, not on stoking the fires of counterinsurgencies all over the world. Our righteousness is proclaimed by the president and lesser politicians, and blessed in the most sanctimonious terms by preachers. By the former we are told we are right; by the latter we are told that God is on our side. As with Iran under the ayatollah, religion and politics have been fused into iron conviction. We do God's work and, by golly, we do it well.
Some will say that this narcissism is a product of the preceding era of national doubt. The war in Vietnam and the scandal of Watergate caused us to question what sort of people we were. We were hard on ourselves, but then we had reason to be. The saddest monument in America commemorates the dead of Vietnam -- and those are just some of that war's victims. A nation as powerful as ours can do a lot of damage when it is wrong. Its first obligations should be humility, caution and prudence -- all true conservative virtues. But now we run those barricades with little patience. We are insufferably sure we are right. As a nation, we wear one of those "Damn, I'm Good" buttons.
Everyone loves a party and, for sure, the Statue of Liberty deserves one. But this party is fast becoming another episode in a national drunk -- a bender of yahooism, chauvinism and narcissism by a country whose greatness is manifest and hardly needs to be brassily proclaimed. The old lady in the harbor is being used. The party that we claim is for her is really for ourselves, and the noise is getting awful. Walt Whitman listened and heard America singing. Now it blows its own horn.