Thursday, March 20, 2014

Which America do we want to be?


Which American?

just-concluded 40th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society,
held in Chicago, featured a panel on US foreign policy. Midge
Decter, the controversial new president of the society, praised
the United States as embodying universally applicable principles,
and endorsed the aggressive foreign policy that is the hallmark
of the Bush administration. On the same panel, Claes Ryn, the
2001–2002 president of the Society and the author of the
recently released America
the Virtuous
, criticized this kind of universalism as “neo-Jacobin”
and as incompatible with traditional American views on government,
not to mention peace in the world. Professor Ryn’s remarks follow:
Quite often
I have lunch at a McDonald's in one of the most affluent and pretentious
suburbs in America just outside of Washington, D.C. The residents
are ambivalent about having a McDonald's in their community –
it undermines their self-image – so the restaurant is tucked
away inside a little mall and almost impossible for outsiders
to find.
I like
to arrive just after 10:30. I am up very early, and before 11:00
my McDonald's is still quiet. I eat and read in peace. Later,
mothers drive up in their luxury SUVs with their preschool children,
and, if schools are closed, older children too. Some high-schoolers
show up. On Saturdays many fathers do McDonald's duty and older
children come as well. My French café is transformed into
bedlam. Near the playpen especially the noise rises dramatically.
I have learnt when late to shut out the din, but sometimes I watch
the scene in fascination. At the counter toddlers in strollers
scream when parents do not give them French fries fast enough.
Older children crawl on chairs and tables or rush about shouting
and shoving while waiting for mom or dad to bring the food. Mothers
and fathers scurry around, anxiously solicitous of their princes
and princesses. They comfort the crying and apologize to little
Ashley and Eliot for having taken so long. By now I know well
the difference between the crying of a child in distress and the
importunate crying of a child who won't wait or take no for an
answer. At the playpen – the "hell-hole" – it is obvious
that playing without throwing yourself about and making lots of
noise would not be real playing. Sometimes the playpen emits such
piercing screams that the Asian-American children look at their
parents in startled surprise. Deference to grown-ups seems unknown.
I used to take offense, but the children have only taken their
cue from their parents, who took their cue from their parents.
The adults, for their part, talk in loud, penetrating voices,
some on cell phones, as if no other conversations mattered. The
scene exudes self-absorption and lack of self-discipline.
this picture has everything to do with U.S. foreign policy.
This is the emerging American ruling class, which is made up increasingly
of persons used to having the world cater to them. If others challenge
their will, they throw a temper tantrum. Call this the imperialistic
personality – if "spoilt brat" sounds too crude.
surely, this rising elite has wonderful strengths. Are not its
adults highly educated – about history, philosophy, geography, and
world affairs – and masters of several languages? Do they not travel
widely and have a keen understanding of other countries and regions
of the world? Are they not sophisticated cosmopolitans suited
to running an empire.
the sarcasm. I am well aware that a different type of American
still exists. That American aspires to character traits virtually
the opposite of those on display at my McDonald's. Americans used
to admire self-restraint, modesty, humility, and good manners.
They were acutely aware of original sin. They feared the self-indulgent
ego, in themselves and others. Americans of an earlier era stressed
the need to check the darker potentialities of human nature, the
unleashing of which could wreak havoc on the individual and society.
They hoped that in personal life moral character would restrain
the desire for self-aggrandizement, just as in national political
life the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution would contain
the all-too-human desire for power. Personal self-control and
constitutionalism were but different aspects of the effort to
subdue the voracious ego. Human beings could not be trusted with
unlimited power.
The old
Americans were not so foolish as to try to extinguish the will
to power. Nothing good could be accomplished without power in
some form. But they recognized the great danger of the will to
power being diverted from its legitimate ends and breaking free
of checks.
The Framers
assumed that, for the Constitution to work, its institutions had
to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit. These individuals
had to be predisposed to virtues like self-restraint, respect
for law, and a willingness to compromise. They had to have what
I call a constitutional personality. The spirit of the written
Constitution stemmed from America's unwritten constitution,
that is, the religious, moral, and cultural life that had inclined
Americans to constitutionalism in the first place. The Constitution
could not survive without character traits that the Framers hoped
would be wide-spread. All know Benjamin Franklin's answer to the
woman who asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced:
"A republic, if you can keep it." The primary reason
why today the U.S. Constitution is a mere shadow of its former
self is that it cannot be sustained without the constitutional
The new imperialistic
ego is shrugging free of the old American self and corresponding
constitutional restraints. The desire for self-aggrandizement
has transformed limited, decentralized American government into
a national Superstate, which has given the will to power a scope
far beyond the worst fears of the anti-Federalists. The Tenth
Amendment, that ironclad guarantee against improper expansion
of central power, is a dead letter, like so much else in the Constitution.
Decision-makers in Washington reach into virtually every aspect
of American life. But not even power on this scale can still a
desire that is insatiable. Today it contemplates dominating the
entire world.
to say, the will to dominate does not present itself as such to
the world. It wraps itself in phrases of benevolence and selflessness.
There is always another reason for government to do good. The
greater the caring, the greater the need to place power in the
hands of those who care. It is, of course, sheer coincidence that
this benevolence invariably empowers the benevolent. So well does
the will to dominate dress itself up that it almost deceives the
power-seekers themselves.
The ideas
of the French Jacobins provided a sweeping justification for exercising
unlimited power. As followers of Rousseau, the Jacobins were not
content with reforming historically evolved ways of life.
"Freedom, equality and brotherhood" required the radical
remaking of society. Because of the scope and glory of the task,
the Jacobins had to gather all power unto themselves and deal
ruthlessly with opposition. Good stood against evil, all good
on one side – their side. The Jacobins called themselves "the
virtuous." In the twentieth century, their communist descendants
offered an even more blanket justification for wielding unlimited
the classical and Christian view of human nature has eroded, big
government still has a bad name in America. Challenging the Constitution
outright remains risky. Americans attracted to the Jacobin spirit
have therefore sought instead to redefine American principles
so as to make them more serviceable to the will to power. They
have propounded a new myth – the myth of America the Virtuous – according
to which America is a unique and noble country called to remake
the world in its own image. The myth provides another sweeping
justification for dominating others.
An effort
has been long underway to transfer American patriotism to a redefined,
Jacobin-style America, seen as representing a radical break with
the Western tradition. According to Harry Jaffa, "The American
Revolution represented the most radical break with tradition .
. . that the world had seen." "To celebrate the American
Founding is . . . to celebrate revolution." In Jaffa's view,
the American revolution was milder perhaps than the "subsequent
revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or elsewhere,"
but it is, "the most radical attempt to establish a regime
of liberty that the world has yet seen." America thus reinvented
is founded on ahistorical, allegedly universal principles summed
up in such words as "freedom," "equality,"
and "democracy." These principles, the new Jacobins
assert, are not just for Americans; they are, as Allan Bloom insisted,
"everywhere applicable" – a theme echoed today by George
W Bush.
The French
Jacobins appointed France as the Savior Nation. The new Jacobins
have appointed America. Its great, benevolent cause is to rid
the world of evil. This cause gives the appetite for power the
moral cover it likes to have. One kind of universalist ideology,
communism, has been replaced by the ideology of American empire,
and the stage is set for another cycle of crusading. With neo-Jacobins
shaping U.S. foreign policy, whether as Democrats or Republicans,
America and the world can expect an era of chronic conflict.
Could any
goal be more appealing to the will to power than ending evil?
The task is not only enormous but endless. No conservative would
need to be told that evil cannot be "ended"; Rousseau's
notion of the fundamental goodness of man and his vision of society
transformed are pernicious figments of a childish imagination.
Evil can be tamed to some extent, as the Framers knew, but even
Sunday schoolers used to understand that it cannot be ended. You
wonder why, if America is called to end moral evil, it should
not, while at it, also do away with poverty and illness.
Do the new
Jacobins ever reflect on the remarkable coincidence that they
should be alive at the precise moment in human history when the
one valid political model was finally discovered and that, furthermore,
they should happen to live in just the country that embodies that
model and is called to bestow it on the rest of the world? But
such questions do not bother ideologues who are arguing toward
a preconceived conclusion: that they should preside over armed
American world hegemony – for humanity's sake, of course.
The word
"empire" does not yet have the right ring in American
ears, so the new Jacobins try not to appear too grasping. But
even when feigning modesty the will to dominate has difficulty
keeping up appearances – as when Ben Wattenberg said, no, no, no,
we Americans do not want to "conquer the world."
We only wish to ensure that "the world is hospitable to our
The arguments
for bold American assertiveness are familiar: We live in a dangerous
world full of odious political regimes. Terrorism is a serious
threat to America and its allies. America must, as the world's
only superpower, play a leading role in the world.
But why keep
repeating the obvious? Yes, the world is dangerous; it always
was, more or less. Like other countries, America must be prepared
to defend itself and its legitimate interests – of course – and as
a superpower she will indeed have to carry a heavier burden than
other countries. It does not follow that America must impose its
will on the rest of the world.
But 9/11
changed everything, the neo-Jacobins cry. Well, not quite everything.
The human condition has not changed. Terrible events do not cancel
the need for those personal qualities and social and political
structures without which the will to power becomes arbitrary and
tyrannical. Unfortunately, 9/11 gave the imperialistic personality
another pretext for throwing off restraint.
unilateralism represents a reversal of the old spirit of constitutionalism
and checks-and-balances. Just as, domestically, particular interests
need to accommodate other interests, so, internationally, states
need to check and balance each other. The notion that America
knows better than all other nations and has a right to dictate
terms to them betrays a monumental conceit. It also guarantees
that other nations will see a need to arm themselves just to have
some protection against American bullying. Already the Muslim
world is seething with hostility. China, which has long found
Western hegemony intolerable and is already strongly prone to
nationalism, can be expected to respond to American assertiveness
by greatly expanding its military power. If present trends continue,
the time should soon be ripe – in 50 years perhaps? – for a horrendous
Sino-American confrontation.
For Christians,
the cardinal sin is pride. Before them, the Greeks warned similarly
of the great dangers of conceit and arrogance. Hubris,
they said, violates the order of the cosmos, and inflicts great
suffering on human beings. It invites Nemesis. On the Apollonian
temple at Delphi two inscriptions summed up the proper attitude
to life. One was "Everything in moderation," the other
"Know Thyself." To know yourself meant most importantly
to recognize that you are not one of the gods but a mere mortal.
As for the old Hebrews, in Proverbs (16:18) we read: "Pride
goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."
To the new
Jacobins, such calls for humility have the quaint sound of something
long outdated. Why should those who know how humanity should live
question their own ideas or right to dominate? The world needs
"moral clarity," not obfuscation. Many of those who
shape the destiny of America and the world today are just
such "terrible simplifiers" with absurdly swollen egos.
How very
different the personality that defined the old America and conceived
the Constitution! In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a day
of thanksgiving for all the good bestowed by Almighty God on the
American people. He asked his fellow Americans to unite "in
most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great
Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon our national
and other transgressions." This is the voice of the America
that is passing. Today, increasingly, the imperialistic personality
of Ashley and Eliot is being unleashed upon the world.
5, 2004
G. Ryn [send him mail] is
professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, chairman
of the National Humanities Institute, and author, most recently,
of America
the Virtuous