America: Not Shining But Burning
The human mind naturally protects itself from considerations that would interrupt the appealing flow of everyday life. This fact alone explains the continued unwillingness of many thinking people to wonder aloud whether there is still hope for the survival of the United States of America as founded. Too early to voice such a dire concern, you say? On the contrary, it is far too late.
Through most of her history, America has stood as a unique object of admiration and envy to allies and enemies alike, and the most powerful attractive force of the modern era for men seeking prosperity and practical freedom. She has stood, in that expression adapted from the Sermon on the Mount by John Winthrop, and updated by Ronald Reagan, as a “shining city on a hill.”
These two images together—the attractive force and the light in the distance—explain America’s role in the modern psyche. She has been a kind of sun, holding a complex system of political aspiration in orbit around herself. She has played this role not only, or even particularly, through direct involvement in the lives of other nations, but also and primarily through her place in the minds of men around the world whose moral and political thoughts bent in arcs defining variations on the theme of respect for the dignity of the individual man—arcs that, for over two centuries, had America as their spiritual center.
Human things change, however, all too often for the worse. Modernity’s entropy is turning admiration to dread, envy to smug satisfaction, as the world begins to recognize the radically altered aspect of the light now emanating from the former land of the free. To adapt poet Stevie Smith’s famous trope, “Not waving but drowning,” it is now clear that our modern hope for the perpetuation of freedom and prosperity is not shining but burning.
The prospect of America in ashes, almost unthinkable only yesterday, must cause, and I believe is causing, a radical shift in the modern psyche. The old confidence inspired around the world by that seemingly inextinguishable light—our presumption, against the rising tide of statism, that America, at least, would resist—is being “fundamentally transformed” into a blood-brotherhood of the fighting minority within her borders and a few kindred spirits from abroad, united in a last-ditch effort to save America from herself. The city on the hill is itself the battlefront now, its ramparts crumbled, and its defenders vastly outnumbered. Surrender is not an option, but all delusional optimism and defeatist pessimism aside, it is simply too early to tell whether this fight can be won.
Perhaps saving America “from herself” is an inapt description of the crisis. For one might say that America does not need saving from Americans, but rather from an enemy that, while certainly within, cannot properly be called American at all. America, as many have noted, but as perhaps is only now fully explicable, is less a geographical area or a collection of citizens, than an idea. The idea, roughly stated, is that of man as a rational individual, naturally free to choose his path in life according to his best judgment, guided but not enthralled by the noblest traditions of the past, and managing his own social interactions through the facilities of a system of government he designs for himself—a government he owns, rather than one which owns him—and which therefore is constructed from its foundations as an aid to his liberty, rather than an obstacle to it.
That idea, with its concomitants, is perhaps the real America, and an individual who lives in accordance with it an American in a manner that is less like the relationship between nation-state and citizen than like that between a Platonic Idea and its material instantiations. An American, in this admittedly poetic sense, does not so much reside in America as participate in the Idea of America. This helps to explain America’s appeal to men beyond her borders, not merely as a destination, but more importantly as a consolation, a steady reminder that oppression is not our natural estate, and that there is a place on earth where, in principle, man is given his due.
This understanding of “Americanism” also explains the many thinking non-Americans who have, through no outwardly obvious necessity, made America and her inherent dangers their special study. The greatest of these, Alexis de Tocqueville, wished to apply his observations on modern representative government to French political problems; and yet his choice of America as the focal point of his research seems as natural in hindsight as it might have seemed peculiar to his contemporaries. An aristocrat with a liberal mind (in the correct sense of liberal), he intuited that if you wish to study human freedom in the modern world, you must study America—and that if you wish to learn how freedom may contain the germ of its own undoing, you will find the answer in a close examination of the American character.
Tocqueville was, if you will, the original “orbiting American.” Poetic as the notion may be, it seems to define a real category that transcends the legalisms of citizenship. Who more genuinely lives and defends the principles I identified as the Idea of America—Tocqueville, who warned of the threat of “soft despotism,” or the generations of leading American thinkers and politicians who have converted his grave warning into a how-to manual?
I grew up in Canada during its most vehement period of anti-Americanism, which, not coincidentally, was the era of Canada’s Barack Obama, Pierre Trudeau. My first formative political memory involves Ronald Reagan’s first official visit to Canada in 1981, when I was in junior high school. A vocal minority of jeering, sign-waving “anti-imperialists” greeted Reagan in front of the Parliament Buildings when he was introduced. Trudeau, the smug showman, leaned forward on the lectern and smirkingly berated them with, “Hey, guys, when I go to the United States, I’m not met with these signs. Americans have some beefs against us too. How about a great cheer for President Reagan?” He had managed to condescend to the protesters and his guest at the same time. And yet, for all this classic Trudeauesque élan in the service of his own ego, what I saw, even then, was a small man trying to aggrandize himself next to a big man.
Six years later, Reagan paid his last official visit to Canada, and spoke to a joint session of Parliament. This time, having become a politically focused lad with libertarian leanings, I hung on the old man’s every word. He spoke with clear and uncompromising principle about the glories of free enterprise as a means to prosperity, the inseparability of economic freedom and political liberty, and the need for constant vigilance against statism. Politicians never spoke this way—certainly not in that exhausted chamber, where the cause of freedom had long been “represented” by the Progressive Conservatives, a party whose very name was an apology for not being socialists.
Perhaps that moment, listening to that speech—more personally affecting for being delivered in my hometown—was the hour I became an “orbiting American,” although I would not have understood it that way at the time. In fact, the seed of this notion was perhaps planted, or at least placed in a sunny window, a few years back by one of my American readers, with whom I had struck up an e-mail correspondence that became a friendship.
Mr. Washington (not his real name)—I call him “Mr.” in honor of the fact that he almost always addressed me as “Doctor,” despite my repeated protests—was, at the beginning of our correspondence, seventy-seven years old. He is a navy veteran, an engineer, a businessman, a voracious reader, and an indefatigable big dreamer in that uniquely American way. Most of the best American minds seem to be of this sort. In the spirit of their nation and its founding, they tend to be experimenters and entrepreneurs of the intellect, fearless frontiersmen of thought, unafraid of being out in the wilderness alone, picking up their insights where they find them along the rough course of their investigations, and building functional shelters, rather than grand palaces, in any convenient clearing they discover. From Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison to Melville, Emerson, and Hoffer, America’s thinkers seem constitutionally resistant to that easy reduction to established categories which scholars use to make orderly sense of ideas they cannot actually understand.
Mr. Washington is a man in this rough-hewn New World tradition, a man of practice who respects the intellectual realm, and an honest truth-seeker who at seventy-eight was still planning for the day his ship would come in. He admires science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and the Federalist Papers, recommends various books on the history of progressivism, stoked my interest in anti-public school crusader John Taylor Gatto, and solicited my advice on where to begin his reading of Thomas Aquinas and Milan Kundera.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Presidential election, I wrote of its outcome as a monumental event in modern history, the symbolic end of a civilization, for which a radical, multi-generational rebuilding would be the only solution. Mr. Washington replied as follows:
I feel much the same way. I don’t feel dour although I do feel that the US as we knew it is no more.
In a very real sense, you as a citizen of Canada, are an American—You are one that believes in the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and formalized in the Constitution. That is the essence of what it means to be an American.
Today, 111 years after Theodore Roosevelt began this journey the progressives have finally taken over. We no longer have a government that defends and supports the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Control of both the Republican and Democrat parties belongs to the progressives.
Over those “111 years,” the Idea of America has been undone, or abandoned, mainly through the corruptions of nominal Americans themselves. A compulsory education establishment borrowed from Prussia and completed by Dewey indoctrinates generations in the virtues of submission to the collective, keeping to one’s place, and faith in the great god, Government. Progressivism borrowed from European intellectuals has devoured the heart of the American project, private property rights, and digested it into a grotesque Euro-illusion of “freedom” divorced from self-ownership. The land of the courageous frontiersman has willingly sacrificed its dignity and privacy in the name of a dubious security, both financial and physical, while a people identified with expressions like “Give me liberty or give me death” and “None of your damn business” is willingly granting its government powers of personal intrusiveness for which Stalin would never have dared to hope, under the self-immolating moral delusion that “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to hide.”
America is now a nation ruled—and that is the correct word—by a self-appointed elite of ignorant snobs and power-mad degenerates to compete with the worst ruling castes of the civilized world. The U.S. federal government has, through the deliberate deteriorations of a century, finally dispensed with all but the flimsiest pretense of the principles of limited government and the rule of law that virtually defined America’s historic political achievement. By turns Commodus, Nero, and Caligula, today’s American ruling elite steer an intentionally debased, demoralized and indoctrinated majority down the path to a form of enslavement as non-metaphorical as it is ingenious, the kind foreseen by Tocqueville as “soft despotism.” Never to be misunderstood is that by “soft,” Tocqueville did not mean weak; he meant achieved through enticements, rather than through brute force. This tyranny, he warned, might be more thorough than any “hard” despotism, in that the populace so enticed will welcome the chains, rather than resist them.
The current administration’s defining achievement—apart from the Benghazi cover-up—is surely the Affordable Care Act. All lies to the contrary notwithstanding, Obamacare was and is intended as the first step towards socialized medicine, the big prize of Western progressivism, in addition to being symbolic of the combined force of a wildly disproportionate executive authority and the infinite expansion of the regulatory administrative state. Socialized medicine is the dividing line—the one America alone among Western nations had hitherto resisted crossing—between a nation that maintains at least a mirage of individual self-ownership, and one that has finally dispensed with the niceties and declared officially that every man, woman, and child is property of the collective. Self-preservation at the whim of the state is no natural right at all. America had abrogated its founding principles in so many ways before, but now she has joined the rest of the world in making unfreedom as concrete a reality as is possible without literal shackles. In the name of “fairness” and “equality,” the value of a man’s life, and his ability to prolong it, will henceforth be determined by the state—the Declaration of Independence obliterated in 20,000 pages of bureaucratic tyranny.
Add to all of this the financial predicament of history’s most prosperous nation, a brewing storm of irredeemable debt and unmeetable multi-generational obligations that will, sooner or later, cause the global economy to collapse like a house of feathers; a permanent ruling class using economic redistribution and immigration policy to create an ever-growing dependent underclass of non-voters—or a dependable herd of voters for unlimited government, more fool-proof than any vote fraud, to be activated as needed; and a technological global surveillance state justified with arguments that would be a delightful parody of Orwellian Newspeak if only the speakers were not dead serious.
America now appears to be extinguishing herself into progressive tyranny more quickly than most of the nations whose continuance as “semi-free” has long depended on the gravitational force of the American example. The solar system of modern liberty is perilously close to breaking up. The resulting universal chill, should that happen, would likely be long and merciless.
How did it come to this, without men realizing what was happening, and rising up en masse before it was almost too late? We all know parts of the answer, though perhaps the whole truth, which cuts to the heart of our flawed human nature, will always elude us. Often, however, where ultimate wisdom is beyond our flimsy rational faculty, we may find truth in the microcosm of personal life.
June 28, 2012, the day of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, may be one of those historic moments that “will live in infamy.” That morning, my friend Mr. Washington sent me this:
Today seems to be a very serious day for America. About four AM your time [in Korea], high noon on our West Coast, two PM here and 3 PM in Ontario [my native province] our Supreme Court will hand down a very important decision regarding whether we continue as a republic or descend further into a dictatorship. As someone has pointed out it is amazing that free men are waiting for nine mortals to make that decision. It is even more amazing that as I write I am aware that large computers are analyzing my words to see if I am subversive. Further, that the words I am using are the words being used to indicate a subversive.
Consider that these musings, casually invoking the vocabulary of totalitarian oppression, document the state of mind of a reasonable, far from paranoid citizen of modernity’s erstwhile shining city. Consider, further, the decision that was ultimately rendered on that June day, and the American trajectory of the time since then.
In the summer of 2012, Mr. Washington indicated in passing that he sensed a new bout of illness coming on. As the remark was set against the general vibrancy and optimism of the surrounding discussion, I gave it too little thought, and our correspondence carried on as usual. I received my last e-mail from him on Christmas Day. For a while, I didn’t think about his absence from my inbox. Long distance correspondence is like that; long silences go with the territory. Eventually, I began to wonder, and to reconsider his remark about his health. I have tried to contact him, but have not received a reply. I have also noticed that his online reader’s comments at American Thinker ceased some months back.
There were signs, and I saw them, but I allowed myself to imagine, as we usually do, that they were false alarms, temporary setbacks, or that somehow everything would turn out alright. “Surely if anything were really wrong,” I told myself, “I would know, and have time to respond.” I miss Mr. Washington’s earthy wisdom, his clear-eyed commentary, and his unshakable faith in the future. I still want to be hopeful, but I am very worried about my friend. A stubborn cancer may finally have its way with even the hardiest soul.
(Originally published in September 2013)