Lethal Certainties

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The American idea, as seen by the founders of The Atlantic Monthly, was never an ideological monolith. It was a coming together of a whole culture of pluralism, of the rule of law, of the open society, of the open mind. It was enriched by the immigrant, the South, and the frontier.

Over the years the idea faced many challenges, both at home and abroad. It was not, with its inherent optimism, wholly suited to grappling with the forces of negation and repression. Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations comes to mind; so does Franklin Roosevelt’s misunderstanding of Stalinism.

For the American experiment was faced with and challenged by other experiments. Russia, with its usual bad luck, was infested with an intelligentsia with no tradition of civic experience. It was not the intellectuals’ opinions but their certainties that were so destructive the world over—and these are still smoldering, with Russia itself still not cleared of them.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

Today’s challenges to the American idea, such as jihadism, are equally driven by lethal certainties. They present what amounts to the anti–American idea. In a less extreme form, a lethal certainty infects our own—and the West’s—public life. The superficial blemishes to be found in any society are equated with the totally negative cancers in the vital organs of our foes. The idea, and the open society, needs a sense of proportion—not always to be found, even among our own equivalent of an intelligentsia. Nor is a far-too-uncritical internationalist sentimentalism absent from our image of today’s United Nations.

The idea was, and is, in principle ready to learn from experience. This does not guarantee particular successes. The American idea is always stumbling—but seems strong enough, even so, to prevail and pervade.

Robert Conquest, a historian and poet, is the author of more than 30 books.
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