He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones with the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men. — Jean de Crevecoeur in Letters from an American Frontier, 1782.
This is a bit of a prelude to some essays percolating in my mind, in which I will discuss some grave errors that have been made by various countries in the past, including the United States of America. I want to have some thoughts on “America” on record before I write those posts.
First, I want to take issue even with the idea that the United States is like any other country in the world, past or present. If I discuss America’s ‘sins’ is that even a meaningful concept? To what degree is it meaningful even to discuss the sins of ‘Germany,’ such as what transpired under the Nazis? What is ‘Germany’? In what sense do Germans today have to answer for what Germans did almost 100 years ago (the Beer Hall putsch was in 1923)? Not every German went along with it; some, like Bonhoeffer, actively opposed it, and paid for it with their lives.
In an important way, the idea of a ‘country’ is conceptual short cut, which is real enough, but also obscures other realities. For the purposes of this conversation, one of those ‘realities’ it obscures is the fact that if you’re going to try to make people TODAY accountable for the behavior of people 100+ years ago, you’re going to need something more expansive than merely the fact that they happened to live in a region geographically described as being within the ‘German’ or ‘American’ territory.
The point is driven home when you look at certain regions which have been in the hands of different ‘nations’ repeatedly over the centuries. The country of Czechoslovakia has had its borders changed dramatically over the centuries. One decade, the Czechs are Hungarians, the next, they are Poles, and the next, Germans. To which ‘nation’ do present day Czechs need to answer for? Similarly, should the people who live in the region of the Alsace today answer for the actions done by Germany or the actions done by France? There is a wry bit of ‘humor’ in The Gulag Archipelago where Solzhenitsyn describes ‘Russians’ who were sent to the gulags for treasonous travel without the proper papers–travel that had occurred decades earlier, before the region in question had fallen under control of the Soviets. They had betrayed Russia decades before they were subject to her laws! But that did not stop the Soviets from imprisoning them or even executing them.
These kinds of realities seem essential to recognize if one is going to start talking about ‘generational justice’ and reparations, and so on. It is all well and good to make someone pay for their crimes, and maybe even proper to have the child pay for the sins of the parents, but should someone be made to pay for the sins of people who were not their ancestors at all? If 100 years from now, the Canadians sweep down from the north to conquer the state of Wisconsin, should residents of Wisconsin be made to pay for the Canadian crimes against their aboriginals? If so, on what basis? On what logic?
If I had to wager money, it would be based on no logic whatsoever. It would be a pure emotional argument, with the truth more likely being that the ‘justice’ argument was a paper thin cover for pure greed and covetousness. But I’ll be speaking on this more in the upcoming essays.
Back to the topic at hand: just what is America?
America is not like any other country, past or present. It was not organized based on tribe or religion or political party. Most of the people who flocked to the geographic area now called ‘America’ were in fact fleeing countries that were organized based on tribe, religion, or ideology. These knew intimately and directly what atrocities followed from the principles espoused by other statists, especially but not exclusively in Europe. They wanted nothing except to be left alone, and they designed an organizing document that would enshrine these principles of liberty.
Granted, many of these principles were corrupted before the pen even went to the paper. Granted, many of the Europeans modes of thought that they had wanted to escape nonetheless followed us here. Granted, even these people who felt these principles of liberty most keenly failed to implement them. Granted, granted, granted… and yet….
America is not a ‘country.’ It is an idea. And you can have that idea wherever you live in the world, regardless of the circumstances of your birth. These ideas lived in the bosoms of Mankind before there was the land we call ‘America’ but until there actually was a land, people were enslaved to the whims of strongmen, ‘nobles,’ and ‘systems.’ Contrary to much of the gibberish spouting out of the ivory towers today, ‘America’ flourished not because the region happened to have a lot of natural resources or because it plundered resources, but because the people it attracted were the bravest and most noble people from any region.
They sold all that they had, took every risk, and suffered immeasurably, to escape the tribalism and dictatorships of the other countries all around the world. When they tossed King George on his ass in the late 1770s, they had no desire whatsoever to appoint a new king. When they fled Prussia in the 1850s, it sure as hell wasn’t to create a new Prussia. We could go on and on with such examples, whether they be Chinese settlers or Irish immigrants, one of the defining characteristics of these people was that they were adamantly opposed to implementing the philosophies of the lands they left. However different they were in other respects, they had this in common, but it was only in the land we now call ‘America’ was it possible to avoid doing otherwise.
To put it another way, you could almost carve out any other territory in the world and hand it over to these kinds of Americans, and they would there build a city on a hill that shines as brightly as it now shines today. That’s because there is a connection between the philosophies enshrined in the US Constitution and the great wealth and prosperity the US has enjoyed. There is a connection between the constitutions of the people who flocked to the shelter of the US Constitution and the great wealth and prosperity the US has enjoyed.
There is a reason why the rest of the world limps behind ‘America’ in so many respects, and that reason is that the people who love America as an idea love a better idea. What is that idea?
In a nutshell: every person has intrinsic dignity and worth and has the right to strive mightily for their own self-interests, worshiping as they see fit, living as they see fit, and governing themselves. But, people will abuse both powers and freedoms, thus robust checks and balances are necessary. A republican scheme of governance allows for the most pertinent issues to a community to be resolved by the community itself, with only select powers given to the higher levels of governance. Both the mob and the tyrant are to be feared.
The rest of the world is still bound up by its old world concepts, with its ethnic divisions and squabbles over petty issues, which is all well and good if that’s what they like, but the spasms of violence and grotesque atrocities that are constantly percolating make it clear that the idea of ‘America’ must be carefully preserved and protected–for it can be lost.
Indeed, it could be argued that it is being lost. As second and third and fourth generations are born in land area called ‘America,’ it has been easy to forget just how God-awful things were for their parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents, and so on. It has become easier to contemplate, nay, even embrace, defective and destructive policies that have laid previous populations into ruin. Aye, are even now laying people low: look to Venezuela or North Korea. These things could happen in this land area, given time and circumstances. Ideology matters.
‘Americans’ have sinned horrifically over the centuries, but the idea of America is nearly without blemish. I renounce and hate those sins, but the idea of America is the closest thing to heaven that we’ll actually have on this earth. If it is lost, there is no haven besides heaven left. The further away we get from that ‘nutshell’ understanding of the American ‘idea,’ the greater the danger of having that last haven disappear, with all of the attendant tragedies likely to be inflicted in short order.
Thankfully, the idea of America is not bound up by borders or genes, so even if the region now called ‘America’ were to succumb to old world toxins, America could spring up again–in China, perhaps, or the Congo. And the world’s best and most bravest will go there, instead, and raise the light of freedom high once again. But you can be sure that many people will have died in the intervening hours. It would be far better if we remember not only why America as an idea is great, but just what it was that our immigrant ancestors repudiated with their feet, and guard ourselves appropriately.