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November 7, 2023

War in the Democratic Party — and at the Opera

In art as in politics, liberals find wickedness only in our own institutions.

Joe Biden’s party is at war with itself.

Scenes last weekend of protesters scaling the White House fence and shouting down Sen. Cory Booker at a Democratic rally in New Jersey are only outward manifestations of a deeper inner turmoil.

The Democratic Party’s identity is inseparable from a morality tale in which the world is divided between white, wealthy oppressors and nonwhite, poorer victims.

When this literally black-and-white worldview is applied to the Middle East, it presents the Israelis, who are richer and generally paler than the Palestinians, as always evildoers.

In other world affairs, it produces a presumption that the United States and the West are automatically in the wrong.

Yet Democrats have been responsible for U.S. entry into a great many conflicts since the two World Wars.

Korea was Harry Truman’s war, and Vietnam was largely Lyndon Johnson’s.

The Democratic Party splintered in the Johnson era, and was out of power in the White House for all but four of the next 20 years, because it couldn’t contain the contradictions of being both a party of Cold War foreign policy and a party of the “anti-colonialist” left.

After the Cold War, Bill Clinton papered over the cracks for eight years, even as he waged war in the Balkans, among other less-than-dovish actions.

But when a Republican followed Clinton, the antiwar left was reborn, and in 2008 it thought it had elected one of its own in Barack Obama.

Obama made war safe for progressives — or so he hoped.

Drones would cut the political costs that come due whenever body bags return home.

Maybe drones would solve war’s image problem, too: Instead of American troops rolling into non-Western lands en masse, remote controllers could do the killing with clinically impersonal machines.

Only now Biden is discovering that Obama didn’t accomplish the mission: For progressives, U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia was acceptable, but support for Israel against Hamas is not.

Art sometimes clarifies questions politics can hardly even frame.

A new opera recently premiered in the nation’s capital attempts to do just that.

“Grounded” is a co-production of the Washington National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, arriving in New York next season.

Its music is by Jeanine Tesori and libretto is by George Brant, who adapted it from a play he wrote that first ran in 2012, midpoint of the Obama era.

The opera tells the story of an Air Force pilot, Jess, who is forced into retirement when she becomes pregnant.

She reenlists but is not returned to the skies, at least not in person; instead she becomes a drone operator, until one day she refuses to take out a high-value target because his young daughter — whom Jess hallucinates is her own — rushes too close to the blast radius.

“Grounded” grapples with several moral dilemmas, not only about war but about the pull of freedom — the open blue skies — versus a woman’s “grounding” in family.

It’s stab at theological commentary is jejune; even before our psychologically crumbling protagonist declares herself to be God, the implications of the drone’s all-seeing eye and judgment from above on the guilty are obvious.

But can this opera help liberal audiences in D.C. and New York confront the moral challenges of war?

It would be more successful as art if it did.

Even Obama’s way of war is still black and white for this work’s creators; the enemy is just like us, and if they love their daughters as we love ours, how can we kill them?

The ultimate villain of “Grounded” is the U.S. Air Force, which tells Jess when she first gets pregnant to abort her daughter and finally orders her to fire on a target whose own daughter is in range.

This isn’t an opera about the tragedy of war; its message is that evil only comes from our side.

Yet “Grounded” isn’t a radical work; its D.C. run is sponsored by the military contractor General Dynamics.

The performance I attended began with WNO’s general director thanking service members, veterans and those who care for them, as well as the Elizabeth Dole Foundation for its support of those communities.

This is a melodrama designed to appeal to the great and good, and that’s telling.

Ordinary liberals like Biden subscribe to the worldview behind “Grounded,” even as they wage wars devoid of moral conviction and pray that newer technology or better diplomacy will clear their consciences.

This progressive doublethink has failed in foreign wars, and now it’s bringing the wars home.

If “Grounded” had faced up to outside evils — greater evils — and the costs men and women in uniform pay for fighting them, it could have been an urgent work.

But in art as in politics, liberals find wickedness only in our own institutions.

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