The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations. - Edmund Burke
Liberty gained unimagined ground in 2004: here, with the re-election of George Bush; in Afghanistan, with the first free elections in 5,000 years; in Ukraine, with Viktor Yuschenko seemingly about to join Poland's Lech Walesa, the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel, and Hungary's Arpad Goncz in the pantheon of heroic catalysts for freedom; and, soon, in Iraq.
They underestimated Bush - still insistently do. Yet as Aeschylus reminded, "It is a profitable thing, if one is wise, to seem foolish." In expanding liberty's realm, Bush has profited the West - verily, the world- as none since that other disparaged dunce, Ronald Reagan.
Abroad, 2004 was these other things: Gaza, and death, and the first Palestinian elections since 1976. Iran and North Korea apparently going nuclear. Beslan, Russia, and Darfur, Sudan. About 200 dead and 1,200 wounded in Madrid. Iraq - Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Abu Ghraib, missing weapons, and (in September) U.S. fatalities passing the 1,000 mark. It was Osama and Zarqawi, Haiti, Hugo Chavez. The UN doing nothing, meaning more of the same. The mammoth, horrific, Sumatra tsunami.
Nationally, the passing year registered these names somewhere on the list: Vioxx, Celebrex, and Aleve. Delta, United and USAir looking to go toes-up. Tom Brokaw, Bill Moyers and an unapologetic Dan Rather at last chewing green in left field. Lance Armstrong pedaling to his sixth in a row; Michael Phelps splashing to two bronzes and six golds. The William Jefferson Clinton Library elevating mobile-home architecture to new heights.
Smarty Jones. Howard Dean's primal scream. Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson and Kobe Bryant. "Kenny Boy" Lay. George Tenet and Porter Goss. Britney Spears altaring twice in the same year. Jacko; sister Janet's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction." Howard Stern to Sirius satellite radio and Bob Edwards to XM. John Kerry windsurfing on Vietnam. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Too many hurricanes to name, and too many rejected nominees to the federal bench.
The Swiftees and John O'Neill's "Unfit for Command" largely turning the election to Bush. Red states and blue states, the "debates," metrosexuals, the Democratic implosion. "The Lord of the Rings" in an Oscar sweep; "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ." The Statue of Liberty reopened. The flu vaccine hardly to be found. Baseball evidently returning to D.C., fittingly (there) on the taxpayers' backs.
Exeunt RIP: Ronald Reagan. Pat Tillman. Czeslaw Milosz and Daniel Boorstin. Captain Lloyd Bucher and Adm. Thomas Moorer. Ray Charles and Lester Lanin. Julia Child and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper. Sen. Hiram Fong. Alistair Cooke.
Yasser Arafat, Abu Abbas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Marlon Brando and Janet Leigh; Tony Randall and Peter Ustinov. Mary McGrory and Francoise Sagan. Richard Avedon. Estee Lauder. Jacques Derrida and Jack Paar. Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan.
The year's principal congratulations go to George Bush for what he did on freedom's behalf - aided by the likes of Pat Tillman, who put love of liberty above love of lucre and love of self. The alternative is to degrade liberty into license, with all the smarmy and culturally debilitating consequences - as Tom Wolfe describes so devastatingly, so depressingly, in his "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
Bush the reputed pinhead, the incoherent village idiot, just rocked on - re-empowered by the equally stupid American voter. He carried the battle into enemy territory - and prevailed. By far the most compelling novel of 2004, "Charlotte Simmons" recalls in contrast perhaps nothing quite so much as Wolfe's fellow novelist Saul Bellow's observation: "(My intention is) the rediscovery of the magic of the world under the debris of modern ideas."
Yes, in October the duration of America's involvement in Iraq became longer than our involvement in World War I. And yes, in the passing year variations on the very cultural excesses confronting Charlotte Simmons threatened to redefine the American family and to crush the cathedrals of long-estimable institutions such as the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations.
But in 2004, precisely 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a Republican President named an African-American to succeed the first African-American secretary of state. And in 2005, though only a fool would say so absolutely, the nation behind George Bush just may get some solid new judges, and concrete reform of Social Security, and genuine tax simplification in the form of a national sales tax, a value-added tax, or a flat tax. Likewise, in Iraq - if the Shiites will get into the security game as they should, and if the Sunnis will give up their guns and get into the political game as they should - liberty just might take root there as well.