May 10, 2009

American Exceptionalism and the Art of Flying Kites

UPDATE: Mr. Mark Steyn chimes in. Brilliant, of course.

Kites rise highest against the wind - not with it.

- Sir Winston Churchill

Sir Winston’s maxim above is so oft cited as to have become cliché. Every parent, teacher, coach, religious instructor, motivational speaker, and supportive friend worth their salt has employed it, or some variation of it, innumerable times. The point – that confronting adversity makes one stronger – is allegedly common knowledge. Indeed it is intrinsic to the ethos of Western man. As Sir Winston declared before the Canadian Parliament in December 1941. “We have not journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”

And yet, political winds ore’ those Western oceans, mountains, and prairies blow in a different direction today. Western man is evidently tired and seeks respite from the toil of flying his kite and maintaining his Liberty. Since the end of the Second World War Western European nations, Britain, and Canada have succumbed to the seductions of the Nanny State; accepting her high taxation, high unemployment, low growth, and ever-diminishing liberty in exchange for cradle to grave economic sedation. The exchange has rendered them comfortable, for the most part, and secure, so long as America was willing and able to shoulder their defense.

But now Americans too say they are tired, and seek admission into the Great International Nursery.

Our dear friend Mr. Shane Borgess at Political Vindication.com recently brought to our attention a magnificent presentation by Charles Murray, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, about this very phenomenon. Entitled, “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism” Mr. Murray’s essay examines America’s seemingly increasing conviction that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are the proper model for U.S. governance and economy. Murray confesses some empathy for this infatuation.

“Not only are (European) social democrats intellectually respectable, the European model has worked in many ways… When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like—a lot to love—about day-to-day life in Europe.”

But?

“But the European model can’t continue to work much longer. Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that.”

Mr. Murray then commences his argument as to why the United States must not become more like Europe. He argues, not for economic reasons, (despite Europe’s “sclerotic economies”) but for reasons that could best be described as spiritual.

“My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: ‘A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.’ Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.”

Murray contends that the European model, where the State seeks to provide all for all from birth to death, is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes thus far, it is not suited to the way human beings flourish.

“The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith (via social policy) it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality—it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met—family and community really do have the action—then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.”

To relate back to Sir Winston’s maxim, as government shields against contrary winds, so fall the kites of all.

As evidence of this decline and disintegration, Mr. Murray identifies sundry pan-European paradoxes: meticulously tended churches, subsidized by the government and unattended by the people; “child-friendly” policies for populations with plunging marriage rates and fertility rates far below replacement; jobs carefully protected by government regulation and replete with lavish mandated benefits for work forces who regard work as, at best, a necessary evil, rarely as a vocation, and who are least likely to say they love their jobs.

“What’s happening?” Murray asks. He calls it “the Europe syndrome,” a mentality that has been documented by journalists and scholars alike.

“That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

If that’s the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that’s the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble—and, after all, what good are they, really? If that’s the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that’s the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

The same self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe’s military impotence? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?

I stand in awe of Europe’s past. Which makes Europe’s present all the more dispiriting. And should make its present something that concentrates our minds wonderfully, for every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life as well.”

Murray traces the source of the American outbreak of European Syndrome to the elite American Left who openly express their accord with the above stated world view. This elite American Left has been in control of American popular culture for some time and is now completely in control of the American government. The trajectory is nauseatingly predictable.

In reading Mr. Murray’s essay, the voices of many echoed in our minds; Tocqueville, Russell Kirk, Pope Benedict the XVI, Churchill of course. But the voice most resonant was that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, particularly as expressed in his indispensable 1978 graduation address at Harvard, “A World Split Apart.”

Here Solzhenitsyn is highly critical of the very mentality Murray identifies and its effect on the souls of free men.

“When the modern Western States were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free to pursue happiness. (See, for example, the American Declaration). Now at last during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades. … the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country?

Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.”

(Sir Winston’s kite theorem is again brought to mind.)

But is Solzhenitsyn here suggesting that the vision of the American Founders was to create a welfare state tasked with providing for the material comfort and ease of all the people? Quite the contrary.

“In early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God's creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.”

The consequences of this drift from God are manifest for all with eyes to see.

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. … Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”

“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.”

One might here be tempted to conclude – as is rather the fashion these days - that Solzhenitsyn has declared the death of Western democracy (in particular the American Republic) and is suggesting that only government via strict regulation and economic planning can restore the vitality and direction necessary to bring these nations back to their original greatness. One would be dead wrong.

“I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system to present socialism as an alternative. Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.”
What then? If all species of socialism and wanton materialism both ultimately lead man to the same state of spiritual and practical ruin, by what system is man to achieve – as Murray describes it - “happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole” ?

Solzhenitsyn suggests a return to fundamental spiritual values – sacrifice, restraint, prudence, forbearance, humility - not by force of law, but by voluntary change of heart.

“If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. …. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.”

Murray agrees.

“If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith…. The stuff of life—the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships—coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness—occurs within those four institutions.”

This spiritual maturity necessary to willingly and enthusiastically accept these duties; the voluntary, inspired self-restraint to which Solzhenitsyn refers, is the essence of American Exceptionalism. Is it not vastly evident in the words and deeds of the Pilgrims who first settled the American coast; the Colonists who established communities and nurtured a passion for self-reliance; the Founders who crafted a brilliant system of government devoted to the maintenance of ordered Liberty; the pioneers who risked all and endured the unendurable in search of greater opportunities and new lands; the ordinary citizens who weathered a Great Depression and two World Wars? It is this Exceptionalism – the American soul – despite all its resurgence in the years since Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 address, that Murray says is today in danger of being lost forever.

"What it comes down to is that America’s elites must once again fall in love with what makes America different. I am not being theoretical. The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious."

It is not too late America. Seek not the protection of the Nanny State Nursery, for its shelter is that of a tomb. Instead, step boldly once again into the winds of adversity and set your kites as high as you see fit, living as the Creator decreed and the Founders intended – in sacred freedom.

Cheers,

Charlie

1 comment:

Jesse M. said...

Nicely put together!