Telling The Truth About The United States Is Hard

What makes the United States the greatest country in the world?

I dunno. Yosemite?

___________

I like the above video’s puncturing of American exceptionalism. I especially like the Yosemite line, but when the piano starts to play, and the patriotic nostalgia begins again (“We used to be the greatest country,…”), I grow displeased. The fog starts to drop. We’re back in the realm of the mixed bag, of some true things mixed with some bullshit things. How hard it is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even for three minutes.

But here’s what’s true. The United States really has been a beacon of liberty in a very dark world for over two centuries. By fits and starts, it has moved toward the light (even as so many other countries have moved toward darkness).

The light is the Anglo-French Enlightenment. It is the intellectual source of contemporary science, religion-state separation, democracy, capitalism, individual rights, freedom of the press, and the separation of government powers (legislative, executive, judicial). These seven things, for good and ill, have shaped the modern world, and (thankfully) continue to shape it.

The United States has been on the sides of these good things from the beginning.

So the United States has pride of place here (as ancient Greece is special in pride of place for bearing the first rudiments of science, theater, philosophy, democracy, and humanist art and architecture to the world).

And ancient Rome also has pride of place (as the first Republic, however brief). It’s why the American founders, with both hope and affection, referred to their new country as “the New Republic.” Their models for experimentation were Greco-Roman and Anglo-French (whose intellectual drivers–Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Condorcet, etc.–also believed they were hearkening back to ancient Greece and Rome).

So beauty, truth, and good ways of doing things are productive–they have a way of getting themselves reproduced. They “show, don’t tell.” They sell themselves. In this sense, Greco-Roman culture is seed, the Anglo-French Enlightenment is theory, and the United States is practice. These three memes are one, and unlikely to ever wholly vanish from the memory and practice of people (in the same way that the wheel, once discovered, has never gone away). Where they cease in one place, they will be taken up by others in another place–because they work.

And this is why I hate strained and mystical patriotism (“there’s something unique about our people, our troops, our land, our relationship to God”). It’s idiocy. Herderian patriotism hijacks the good in the service of the bad, as when fundamentalists try to turn U.S. history into a narrative of Christian culmination.

But when something is successful, it’s important to identify the right things as the cause. In the case of the United States, it wasn’t Jesus or blood and soil mysticism, it was Washington and Jefferson with a little help from their Greco-Roman and Anglo-French friends.

That’s the truth.

thomas jefferson

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Telling The Truth About The United States Is Hard

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    The reason everyone keeps going on about how wonderful America is is that no one was ever denounced for telling people they’re uniquely wonderful. And that, being American themselves, a certain amount of strutting and preening feels good to the unreflective among us.

  2. Staffan says:

    “But when something is successful, it’s important to identify the right things as the cause. In the case of the United States, it wasn’t Jesus or blood and soil mysticism, it was Washington and Jefferson with a little help from their Greco-Roman and Anglo-French friends.”

    If all it took was some clever guys spreading these ideas, then they would have spread them all over the world. Instead it has remained a part of Western culture. In reality, it didn’t even spread to Eastern Europe. But it leaped over the Atlantic almost effortlessly, and now it’s for some reason in decline. How does your truth accord with that?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Are we living on the same planet? What decline? The Anglo-French Enlightenment is pervasive everywhere, and dominant in practice, at every major research university the world over. The Anglo-French Enlightenment and urban demographic trends are especially linked, and the world is becoming ever more urban.

      Democracy, science, capitalism, women’s equality, human solidarity (regardless of race), freedom of speech, etc. are all Anglo-French Enlightenment innovations–and they have dictators, nationalist, and religious cultures everywhere playing defense.

      What’s set Islamic civilization into crisis and fundamentalist reaction, for example, is the Anglo-French Enlightenment heading its way in the form of global capitalism, science, and modernism.

      The clever ideas, in other words, are winning–and spreading via the Internet as we speak. Wikipedia, for goodness sakes, is an encyclopedia! Here’s Wikipedia on Diderot:

      “[T]he Encyclopédie is famous above all for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. According to Denis Diderot in the article “Encyclopédie”, the Encyclopédie’s aim was “to change the way people think”.[1] He wanted to incorporate all of the world’s knowledge into the Encyclopédie and hoped that the text could disseminate all this information to the public and future generations.[2]”

      This is basically what’s happened.

      –Santi

  3. Staffan says:

    “Are we living on the same planet? What decline? The Anglo-French Enlightenment is pervasive everywhere, and dominant in practice, at every major research university the world over. The Anglo-French Enlightenment and urban demographic trends are especially linked, and the world is becoming ever more urban.”

    I’m on the planet where Enlightenment values and practices are pervasive in Western Europe, the Anglosphere and to some extent Latin America. I’m on a planet where the word “everywhere” includes Africa, the Middle East, Russia, South- and East Asia – and where this regions fail in basic human rights.

    As for decline, ask any woman in Western Europe who was an adult during the 1970s, they will tell you that they have less freedom today. More freedom on paper, but less in reality. You can’t draw a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad without fearing for your safety or that of your family. But you fail to see any decline?

    “Democracy, science, capitalism, women’s equality, human solidarity (regardless of race), freedom of speech, etc. are all Anglo-French Enlightenment innovations–and they have dictators, nationalist, and religious cultures everywhere playing defense.”

    Hm.. Hollywood used to criticize China quite a bit about Tibet and human rights. That seems to have decreased. Russia is not looking to replace their new Tzar and are instead getting increasingly hostile towards gay people. Uganda recently passed a law which can put someone in prison for life for homosexual acts. This doesn’t look like defense to me.

    “What’s set Islamic civilization into crisis and fundamentalist reaction, for example, is the Anglo-French Enlightenment heading its way in the form of global capitalism, science, and modernism.”

    I don’t see a crisis. They are poor and fundamentalist and hostile towards outgroups as they always have been.

    “The clever ideas, in other words, are winning–and spreading via the Internet as we speak. Wikipedia, for goodness sakes, is an encyclopedia! Here’s Wikipedia on Diderot…”

    This is basically what’s happened.”

    It would have happened if China wasn’t China, if Africa wasn’t Africa, if the Middle East wasn’t the Middle East, and so on. It didn’t happen there. It’s not about what’s on Wikipedia, it’s about what happens on this planet. Where are the human rights? They have largely remained a Western phenomenon. Your doing a George W Bush “mission accomplished” here.

    Like most Enlightenment people (or modern people as I like to call them) you are stuck in a blank slatist mindset. You assume that ideas will spread and grow in the hearts and minds of people without any regard to the possibility that they may be wired differently or that they may hold on to their own ideas and tradition even if they are inferior. If this was the case, it would have happened right from the start and Eastern Europe would be just as democratic as Western Europe now. And with the internet any little remaining resistence would now be obliterated at a blistering pace. And yet, here we are – with China, Muslim terrorism, African anti-gay legislation, Russian totalitarianism etc. That’s the planet I’m on – and you too.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You may be right about me doing a “mission accomplished” victory lap prematurely. From my vantage, though, you are looking at the past threats to the spread of the Anglo-French Enlightenment (things such as blood and soil nationalism, culture, and religion), whereas I see my premature victory lap in underestimating the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s mortal enemy of the future: Nietzschean nihilism. It’s what tanked global financial markets in 2008–people grotesquely pursuing money and power without the least moral consideration. Bloody dictators like Stalin or Mao and rapacious bankers can be symptoms of civilizations that have become unmoored from religious restraints or myths of humanist sympathy.

      If people cease to believe in the old gods, the default mode may not be the brother and sisterhood of humanity (as I would hope), but a Nietzschean will to power.

      The logic of the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s humanism and internationalism is running off of the fumes of Christianity–and Nietzsche called Christianity’s ethical system “slave morality.” In my view, the Anglo-French Enlightenment is thus sandwiched, in its democratic humanism, between two existential threats: the Herderian ones of the past that you identify and the outright Nietzschean nihilism that Enlightenment thought can arrive at because it has no metaphysical grounding once religion is gone. Standing opposed to the logic of Darwin and Nietzsche are fingers crossed that humans will see the collective wisdom in not taking the death of God to its logical ethical conclusions.

      As for China and the Far East, I see the coastal cities all turning increasingly toward Western urban norms of behavior that, again, are in accord with the Enlightenment. Japan and S. Korea are the Far East’s future, not Maoism. China will become over time more like Japan and Korea, not the other way around.

      And, demographically, we’re heading into a world in which women, not men, will make up the majority of professionals in most white collar jobs. I don’t see how this can represent a setback for women. And it probably will function, pragmatically, as a buffer against a Nietzschean future (even absent religion). Women stand a chance of keeping the world on a democratic trajectory over the next century, whereas men running things absent religion might well turn the world into a violent cluster.

  4. Staffan says:

    “If people cease to believe in the old gods, the default mode may not be the brother and sisterhood of humanity (as I would hope), but a Nietzschean will to power.

    The logic of the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s humanism and internationalism is running off of the fumes of Christianity–and Nietzsche called Christianity’s ethical system “slave morality.” In my view, the Anglo-French Enlightenment is thus sandwiched, in its democratic humanism, between two existential threats: the Herderian ones of the past that you identify and the outright Nietzschean nihilism that Enlightenment thought can arrive at because it has no metaphysical grounding once religion is gone. Standing opposed to the logic of Darwin and Nietzsche are fingers crossed that humans will see the collective wisdom in not taking the death of God to its logical ethical conclusions.”

    We use different terms but I think they apply to roughly the same things. Just make things clear this is how I see it. We have a basic dimension of traditional/modern that looks like this,

    Clannish: only family is morally relevant,

    Tribal: ethnic and religious group also included,

    (I think Herder would be somewhere here between tribal and conservative.)

    Western Conservative: other people even outside the nation are morally relevant and thus Enlightenment values are accepted to a point. But relevance and concern are highly concentric – family is still number one and so on.

    Liberal: all the world is morally relevant, although in reality this often falls back to a unconscious tribal mentality as practiced in the culture war against the neighboring tribe of conservatives – but never against minorities and rarely against foreign nations since that would cause too much cognitive dissonance.

    Libertarian (Nietzschean): no one is morally relevant or possibly only the individual is, whatever that would mean. This group never win any elections but they have a lot of financial power.

    Looking at it this way it’s easy to see that Nitzschean/Libertarians view themselves as the next step in the cultural evolution. They have seen a progression from a family bound clannishness to a globally oriented liberalism and applauded. But now the work to free the individual must be completed by abolishing not just traditional social structures and organized religion but also humanism or any form of morality.

    (Just to complicate things a bit I should add that the Christian roots of humanism can be described as what anthropologists call guilt culture as opposed to the shame culture of traditionalists. So in a way liberals are much more Christian than conservatives for which Christianity is an ill-fitting costume.)

    In this perspective I think you mistake this last group as the major enemy because this progression appears to give them momentum. But if you look at the reaction to modern liberalism, it’s not so much one of ultramodernism as of clannish, tribal and conservative forces. Almost 20 percent of the French support Front National, and this is a recent development, a reaction to globalization and immigration. You’ll find many similar developments all over the world. No one is rallying around the ultramodern camp; people still think Ayn Rand is a nutjob.

    It’s hard to say how this traditional reaction and ultramodern persistence through financial influence will play out, but in the hearts and minds of people they are the enemy. So the idea of them winning the culture war and the world turning into some Nietzschean battleground is highly unlikely. People don’t go against their own nature. And people are not individualists – they are always looking for approval because of their ancient/mammalian fear of ostracization. The basic wiring is so much stronger than any new ideas from the modern or ultramodern camp.

    “As for China and the Far East, I see the coastal cities all turning increasingly toward Western urban norms of behavior that, again, are in accord with the Enlightenment. Japan and S. Korea are the Far East’s future, not Maoism. China will become over time more like Japan and Korea, not the other way around.”

    China is much larger and diverse than Japan. And more clannish. For what ever reason the Japanese stopped marrying their cousins a long time ago. I believe this has consequences as people in the human biodiversity sphere have pointed out (see for instance hbd* chick: http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/start-here/).

    “And, demographically, we’re heading into a world in which women, not men, will make up the majority of professionals in most white collar jobs. I don’t see how this can represent a setback for women. And it probably will function, pragmatically, as a buffer against a Nietzschean future (even absent religion). Women stand a chance of keeping the world on a democratic trajectory over the next century, whereas men running things absent religion might well turn the world into a violent cluster.”

    I think this will be a setback for women. There is plenty of statistics showing women seek out men with more socio-economic status than themselves. This development means that they won’t find anyone. I know just looking at elite feminists in Sweden that they are all married to millionaires richer than they are or they are lesbian or single. Not a good model for women in general. But I can’t say I have a solution to this problem…

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      You offer a lot of really good thoughts here. I especially like your analysis of liberals (I may steal this in a future post, if you don’t mind). It stings, but is true.

      As to a reservation, I would not include Rand and libertarians with the Nietzscheans. Rand would never say (as Nietzsche does) that all that matters is that Beethoven is left alone to compose; that the rest of humanity ought to be at the ready disposal of geniuses and masters.

      Rand and the libertarians have a decidedly pro-social streak. They believe that private giving and valuing is not a waste of resources. You can value and love someone or a cause–and look after them–but only in the context of your own choosing (and not via the confiscation of your resources by the government). Rand and the libertarians respect Lockean boundaries (your liberty to swing your fist ends before it reaches your neighbor’s nose). And while they hate government, they also genuinely believe (even if it is only a side-effect) that capitalism ultimately lifts all (or at least most) out of poverty.

      I think this is, historically, largely a true claim. Capitalism is a moral system that works by paradox (selfishness results in general benefit to society as a whole). None of us would want to live in the pre-capitalist era. I just think that government should step in as capitalism flourishes (which makes me a liberal rather than a libertarian). Government balances out capitalism’s excesses. Big capitalism without a sufficiently big and democratic government to tap the brakes on it, morphs into all sorts of grotesque forms (child labor, bank fraud, pollution, etc.).

      • Staffan says:

        Nietzscheans and libertarians are not the same, and if we look at mentality there are many types of libertarians and probably nietzscheans too (although truth be told, I can’t say I have a good grasp on Nietzsche or his followers). But in a broad categorization I think it does make some sense to bundle them together. In all other groups there are people who you have moral obligations to. But these ultramoderns don’t have that. Libertarians may well be helpful and pro-social but that’s always optional. Their interactions are based on contracts that include people of their choice. As you can see, the dimension of traditional/modern is also one in which social ties gradually weaken as individualism increases. These ultramoderns share an extreme form of individualism which by the very definition of individualism excludes moral obligations to other categories of people like family, tribe, nation, international community etc.

        As for capitalism, I believe it depends on the situation, the people, their DNA. Westerners are more individualistic than others so it fits them better. But as it breaks down barriers that make up these circles of moral relevance, you will find that the basic (non-Western) human nature will react to that. We also have the fact that intelligence, ethnicity and financial success are all highly correlated. Those at the bottom of the order will realize that they can’t win the game of capitalism, that they lose a little more every year. And like Steven Pinker pointed out, social status (which is the real currency here) is a zero sum game. Everyone getting an iPad will not lessen the tensions between ethnic groups when the gap in social status between them widen. So yes, I see a few clouds on the horizon.

        (You can use anything thing I ramble about here as you see fit.)

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I would make a distinction between poverty and inequality. The more you overcome poverty, the less inequality matters. I don’t care, and most people don’t care, that Bill Gates is many orders of magnitude richer than the average American. I would only care if the average American was below the poverty line. The fewer people below the poverty line, the less inequality matters, and it is an undeniable fact that, all over the world, the middle classes are growing and per capita poverty levels are declining.

        But you act as if inequality will make the “losers” in the capitalist game feel inferior even if they have an iPad. I disagree. One way to win at the capitalist game is to rise above the poverty level, and studies of happiness suggest that beyond a certain monetary threshold, happiness is not increased all that much by having still more money.

        My argument is that worker productivity, as it increases because of technology advances, makes room for democratic politics (raising the minimum wage, sharing with workers the profits from increased productivity, etc.).

        Call me an optimistic globalist, but I basically agree with the argument that capitalism, as a global phenomenon (and a phenomenon of the Enlightenment), is winning, and will win, everywhere it is tried.

        I also argue that, in a world where the best brains are tapped from everywhere (India, China, South America, etc.), the technology developed from those brains are being distributed everywhere. It doesn’t matter all that much, in the long term, on what continent those brains cluster. Ultimately, the productivity gains from their technology and efficiency advances, spread everywhere, and Enlightenment culture (the internet, emphasis on education, democracy, etc.) spread with it. As people rise into the middle class and make their way into urban areas suffused with technology and industrial efficiency, what’s not to like about this? How is this not a huge success for the Anglo-French Enlightenment?

        And it’s not a zero-sum game. The Anglo-French Enlightenment can mix with multiculturalism in a lot of contexts–it’s not always a war with the Enlightenment on one side and culture on the other. If people can accept Locke and Mill (rather than Hobbes and Nietzsche) and the separation of religion and state–if they can get that far in their Enlightenment norms–then people can find their own forms of flourishing (individual or communal). I think this is basically what has been achieved in a multicultural state like California. It’s not an ethnos; people have to deal with one another within the bounds of toleration. Separate communities get established, and sometimes they mix. But it mostly works.

        I tend to think of California as the model, not just for the future of the United States, but for the world. California is the Anglo-French Enlightenment in the multicultural flesh. If you want to know how religions (in fits and starts) will get along peacefully in urban areas a hundred years from now, come to California. If you want to know how gay people will interact with straight, and Asian and brown people with white, come to California.

        California is the future, and California is the Enlightenment. This is where Jefferson would live in the 21st century. (Probably in Santa Cruz, haunting the bookstores and hiking, in the nearby redwood forest, wearing a tie dye T-shirt.)

  5. R7 Rocket says:

    Like Staffan has said, Pax Americana is in decline. It’s showing signs of imperial decline such as prioritizing parasites over its own legions, turning marriage into a form of indentured servitude for men, debasing the currency, the permanent elite (The Cathedral) becoming more like Prudentius and less like Cicero, etc.

    Mean while, China is pursuing eugenic policies like it has done for thousands of years, there’s a reason that the Chinese empire is still here and the Roman empire is not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s