Last week we had explored what Alexis de Tocqueville and Henry Adams had said about American Exceptionalism. This week I will just ask a simple question: Compared to what is America so bad?
On the other hand, there have always been defenders of American exceptionalism as a vital force for good. Thus, several decades before switching sides, Henry Adams charged America’s foreign critics with blindness to the country’s amazing virtues. Whereas, Adams wrote, European philosophers and poets could see only rapacity and vulgarity here, the poorest European peasants could discern that “the hard, practical money-getting American democrat was in truth living in a world of dream” and was “already guiding Nature with a kinder and wiser hand than had ever yet been felt in human history.” It was this dream, Adams went on to say, that beckoned to the poor of the old world, calling upon them to come and share in the limitless opportunities it offered—opportunities unimaginable anywhere else.
For a long time now, to speak personally, I have taken my stand with the young Adams, to whom America was exceptionally good, against his embittered older self, to whom it had become exceptionally bad. In my own younger days, I was on the Left, and from the utopian vantage point to which leftism invariably transports its adherents, it was the flaws in American society—the radical 1960s trinity of war, racism, and poverty—that stood out most vividly. It rarely occurred to me or my fellow leftists to ask a simple question: Compared to what is America so bad?
From our modern perspective, much more was wrong with Periclean Athens, or the Italy of the Medicis, or England under the first Queen Elizabeth, or 19th-century Russia under the Romanovs. But this has not disqualified them from being universally ranked among the highest points of human civilization and achievement. After more than 40 years of pondering the question “Compared to what?” I have come to believe with all my heart that the United States belongs on that exalted list. It is true that we have not earned a place on it, as the others mainly did, by our contribution to the arts. Yet it is worth pointing out that even in the sphere of the arts, we have not done too badly. To speak only of literature, names like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Robert Frost, and many others attest that we have, in fact, done far better than might generally have been expected of a nation conceived primarily to achieve other ends. These ends were social, political, and economic, and it is in them that we have indeed excelled the most.
We have excelled by following our Founding Fathers in directing our energies, as our Constitution exhorts us to do, to the preservation of the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, as well as to the pursuit of happiness tacitly understood by the Declaration of Independence to require prosperity as a precondition. (In his original draft of the Declaration, of course, Jefferson used the word “property” instead of “pursuit of happiness.”) By remaining faithful in principle—and to a considerable extent in practice—to the ideas by which the Founders hoped to accomplish these ends, we and our forebears have fashioned a country in which more liberty and more prosperity are more widely shared than among any other people in human history. Yes, even today that holds true, despite policies unfaithful both to the letter and to the spirit of the traditional American system that have resulted in a series of political and economic setbacks.
The question Podhoretz asked (Compared to what is America so bad?) is one we should be asking all of our liberal friends. See if this will get them to think and find out just WHY they think America is so bad. This will force them to do what Andrew Breitbart had said in Righteous Indignation when he brought up his Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Revolutionaries. If you remember, Rule 9 of the Primer dealt with not letting them pretend to know more than they do. In fact, let me read just a small excerpt from it when I did my editorial on that particular rule.
“Your opponents will pretend to be experts if you don't, but that's okay, because you can always puncture their balloon with one word: why. Asking them to provide evidence for their assertions is always fun, and it's even more fun asking them to provide the sources for that evidence. Attacking the fundamental basis of their arguments if fun, too - if they tell you health care is a right, ask why. Liberals don't have a why, other than their own utopianism and their dyspeptic view of the status quo and America. Reason is not their strong suit - emotion is. Force them to play on the football field of reason.”
As Andrew said, there is one word which we can use to puncture the false narrative propagated by the left, and even a few kooks on our own side. That word is why, a simple three-letter word with a lot of power and oomph behind it. If we ask why they think that, then they will have to come up with a reason. As we all know, reason is not their strong suit because they always rely on emotion.
As I had said at the end of that particular editorial, “We have the tools to force our opponents to play on the football field of reason. The thing of it is do we have the WILLPOWER to confront them and force them to play on that football field of reason, or are we afraid to do it?”