Early last week I received two comments from a reader in Brazil who goes by the handle “tupiniquim.” One was in response to “You’re American if you Think You’re American,” and the other was to the piece “They Keep Making Better Fools.” In “Better Fools” I wrote:
I am an unabashed supporter of America. I truly believe that it’s the best of all possible places to live, and that our form of government is superior to all others ever practiced.
You believe that your form of government is superior to all others because you, i’m sure, did never take a look at everything that’s happening out of USA. Take a look at Latin America, or Africa. Read Noam Chomsky. Read Allen Ginsberg. A lot of people out of your country is suffering with this “superior form of government”. Believe me, I really know what I’m talking about.
“You’re American…” was a response to this Steven Den Beste piece where Steven made some sweeping generalizations that I generally agree with. In response to this, Tupiniquim was a bit more verbose:
Well, despite the fact that I am a Brazilian and a Latin American, I don’t hate North Americans. I really think there are great people in USA, alive and dead, like Noam Chomsky, John Steinbeck or Allen Ginsberg. But, in USA, there are George Bush or McCarthy too. Great people live together with some tirans. What would Martin Luther King think about George Bush, the father and the son? Or about Collin Powell? Why do the country where was born the jazz, rock’n roll, beat generation, the “flower power”, the hip hop, is the same country where was born McCarthism, Ku Klux Klan and the crusade of “War against terrorism”? Excuse me, I don’t want to look offense, but I just can’t comprehend what’s the idea you all share. Steven Den Beste needs to write a book, but not compiling his essays. He needs to write a book explaining what is this one idea that all North Americans share.
I promised him a response. This is it.
First I’d like to say that, like most Americans, I’m not a student of our government’s actions in South America. What has gone on between our government and the various governments to our South hasn’t interested me a great deal, and is not in the forefront of the news up here. Perhaps it should be, but one of the failings we Americans are often accused of is that we’re uninterested in what goes on outside our borders. Guilty as charged, for the most part. I’m aware, however, that the U.S. government has supported some pretty vile regimes around the world in the Kissingerian “but they’re our bastards” foreign policy plan. I attribute this to our Cold War policy of “anything’s better than Communism.”
Well, perhaps for us, but certainly not for the people under the governments receiving our support.
Criticism of our behavior both in South America and around the rest of the world is valid – to a point. But the job of our government is to keep us safe, and the people we elect do that as they think best. I was both greatly heartened and somewhat troubled by President Bush’s recent speech to the British people when he said:
As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own back yard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.
Heartened, because this statement repudiates the “our bastards” policy, troubled because a real commitment to this policy will require the U.S. to intervene, and America has not been really interested in becoming the policemen of the world. It is not something we’ve done well, because, by and large, we really are uninterested in what goes on outside our borders, and we’ve been unwilling to spend the lives of our soldiers in efforts not perceived as directly related to our own safety and security. That may be changing. It remains to be seen.
In response to Tupiniquim’s comment about reading Chomsky and Ginsberg, let me say this: Some criticism of the behavior of America is warranted. Chomsky goes way, way over the line. (I’ll admit right up front that I’ve never read Ginsberg, and have no plans to.) Cox & Forkum recently did a political cartoon (about another professor) that illustrates precisely what I think of Chomsky:
Here’s something for you to think about: Chomsky, in my opinion, isn’t an American in anything but legal citizenship. He belongs in Europe. But if he were there, and said things about those governments as he does here about ours, I doubt his voice would be tolerated, much less celebrated.
This brings us to the thing Tupiniquim doesn’t understand: What is the idea that all Americans share? (Well, he said “North Americans” but we know what he meant.)
So, what is “it”? “It” doesn’t fit on a bumpersticker. The idea we share won’t fit on a protest poster. It doesn’t fit on a T-shirt, and it isn’t a single thing. Let’s see if I can distill the idea down.
Let me start by saying that everybody who holds American citizenship doesn’t share the idea. We’re far too diverse for that. Many people born here never do understand it. Den Beste was making a generalization, and generalizations don’t hold up under a microscope. I’d also like to say that, while I believe the majority of Americans do understand it to a greater or lesser degree, there is a large and growing contingent in this country that not only doesn’t understand it, but rejects the idea outright. Go read Democraticunderground.com if you want to see some prime examples of this.
Our Declaration of Independence says:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
The first line of the Declaration is one strongly definitive of an American ideal – equality of birth.
There is a story, a joke in some ways, an allegory in others, that dates way back. In it, a British Lord travels to the Frontier West, America in the 1800’s. His horse throws a shoe on the trail, so at the first little frontier town he comes to, he finds a blacksmith’s shop to have the shoe replaced. As he rides up, he sees a large, sweaty, filthy man hammering on a piece of red-hot iron. The Lord sits on his horse, waiting to be served, but the blacksmith doesn’t pay him any attention and continues to work his iron. Finally, the Lord, outraged to have been ignored this way by an obvious servant, dismounts, approaches the ‘smith, and taps the man on the shoulder with his riding crop.
“You, man!” he barks, “Who is your Master! I wish to have a word with him!”
The blacksmith turns, looks at the Englishman, spits a stream of tobacco juice on the point of the Lord’s boot and says,
“That sumbitch ain’t been born.”
That’s one idea Americans share.
Another is that government should work for us, not us for it. (But Americans are not one monopolitical block. Just how government should work is something we’ve been fighting about since before the end of the Revolutionary War, so being an American is more than believing that we are not the servants of our government.) That, too, goes back to “That sumbitch ain’t been born” – just because someone draws a government paycheck does not make them our masters.
“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That’s another thing Americans believe in, and that’s what draws people to this country – the liberty required to pursue happiness. In very much of the world, for a very long time, what you were allowed to do was constrained by your birth, and in many places today that’s still true. America is that place you could go where what you could do was constrained only by your own capabilities. The ideal is that we are born equal, but that we succeed on our individual merits – equality of opportunity, not outcome. And note, our Founders didn’t promise happiness, only the opportunity to pursue it. That’s also an opportunity to fail – the risk is ours to take. And we’ve been risk takers the likes of which the world has never seen before. Bill Whittle wrote:
Next time you look at the moon, challenge yourself to think of something: there are footprints up there. Footprints, and tire tracks. Also three used cars, and one golf ball.
Why are they there? Because we decided to go to the moon, that’s why. What a typically arrogant, unilateral, American conceit! Damn right it was, and that footprint – you know the picture – will still be there, unchanged, a million years from now. In ten million years, it might begin to soften a little around the edges. But in a billion years – a thousand million summers from this one – it will still be there, next to glistening pyramids of gold and aluminum junk decaying under the steady cosmic drizzle of micrometeorite hits.
That was liberty risking life in the pursuit of happiness. Trust me on this, I grew up during the race to the moon. My father was an engineer for IBM working on the Saturn V Instrument Unit. I know whereof I speak.
America is the place where you can dare to dream, and Americans all over the world, regardless of their legal citizenship, understand this too. Is America perfect in this regard? No, but no place is. However, where else but in America can a first-generation immigrant be elected Governor? Where else but in America can a college drop-out become the wealthiest man in the world? Where else but in America can you come get the finest education available? We’re not perfect, but I believe we’re the best that’s available.
And yes, we make mistakes, and those mistakes cause misery and death to some. But America is not the “Great Satan” – our mistakes are simply that, not deliberate efforts. No, we’re not perfect, but ask the people who lived in the former Soviet Union how they would grade their governments. Ask the victims of Nicolae Ceausecsu. Ask the Czechs after the Russian armor rolled in in 1968, and there are uncounted other examples. Ours is a difference in kind not just degree. Sometimes we make an error, and instead of admitting it, we compound it.
We’re human too. That’s something else Americans understand.
One more thing Americans understand (though fewer of us than I’d like) – government is not a panacea, it’s a necessary evil. It is seldom the answer to our problems, and it is often the cause of them. Americans have a love/hate relationship with government. We’re schizophrenic about it. We want it to do what we want, not what we ask it to do. We want it to take care of us, and we want it to leave us alone. We want it to do extravagant things, and we want to not pay for it. And we forget, constantly, that a government that can give us everything we want can also take everything we have. I said in “Better Fools” that I believed that “our form of government is superior to all others ever practiced.” I really do. But I also believe this rather sad comment made by someone:
The Constitution may not be the greatest work ever set to paper,
But it beats whatever it is the government is using these days.
I truly believe that our Constitutional Republic, as established by the Founders, was the best form of government ever conceived. It resulted in the greatest nation this world has yet seen. Not perfect, but unmatched in potential or performance when it comes to the individual and to the society. Its only failing is human nature. How do you make people want to stay free? How do you make them do the work necessary to ensure their freedom, when they can be so easily convinced to give it up in exchange for some promise of security? I don’t know the answer to that, and neither did the Founders. At least I’m in good company.
One last thing I’ll discuss here that Americans understand: “…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” We believe that, even though we’ve propped up some despots and overthrown some others. Those of us who really believe it are often those who have the least say in what our government does. We’re the ones who want to be left alone by government instead of taken care of by it, and we’re the least likely to be elected officials or employees of the government. We also believe “that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.” If your government is “destructive of these ends” it’s your job to alter or abolish it – even if it’s our government supporting the bastards. Yes, we’re schizophrenic that way, too. It’s another reason Europeans don’t understand us, and it goes right back to “that sumbitch ain’t been born” – our people often don’t do what our government tells us. Hell, our government often doesn’t bother to tell us because even they know it won’t do any good. When enough of us are pissed off, it listens. As a result we can and do things as a nation that our government has no control over, as the French economy experienced just recently.
In conclusion, let me address the questions of good & bad, King & McCarthy, jazz and the KKK et al. America hasn’t seen any real “tyrants” since we threw the Redcoats off our shores. McCarthy? Arguably crazy, but he wasn’t wrong about the infiltration of communists. Any parallel you draw between Bush (father or son) and McCarthy is one strained to incredulity. What, pray tell, is your problem with Colin Powell? The KKK is a small bunch of losers who feel that somebody has to be inferior to them, and their teeth have been pulled (no pun intended.) But this is America – like Chomsky, they have a constitutionally protected right to spew their venom, and we have a constitutionally protected right to ridicule them. America is a great country because it provides a marketplace where all ideas can be expressed to survive or fail on their merits. The KKK and Chomsky have small followings because their ideas fail in that marketplace. Repressing them would give them legitimacy they don’t deserve. That’s also why we don’t ban Mein Kampf. It deserves to be read, to remind us of what those ideas lead to. America is hardly the only place where bad ideas originate.
America is still the beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. The Land of Opportunity. As such, we are held to a high standard – one we occasionally fail. When we do, those who hate us, those who fear us, and those who simply don’t understand us point to those failures and declare that our leadership is illegitimate, our freedom is false and our promise of opportunity is a trick. They say we are evil.
And we ignore them, and go on.
We’re not perfect, but is there a nation superior to America in this world?
That sumbitch ain’t been born.