Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Anti-American Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

Over the decades, ever since I got smitten by the American experiment in community life, it has been one of my more masochistic tasks to watch out for criticisms, denunciations, derisions, ridiculing of and expressions of contempt for the country, mostly by erudite intellectuals. It began with my college professors who, nearly without exception, had only disdain for the general ideas that have been associated with America. I am talking, of course, the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Scorn is what a long line of such critics—well, that may be too flattering a term for most of them since the bulk merely looked down their noses at the place—expressed in class after class, book after book, paper after paper, and article after article. Even as recently as the early 2000s I ran across a bunch of books in which the purpose was clearly to invalidate notions of liberty, justice, and rights associated with America. Thus we have professors writing books, published by the most prestigious houses, on how ownership—the right to private property so prominently featured in the U. S. Constitution, both explicitly and implicitly—is a myth. Or how the rights listed in the Declaration and the Constitution are far less significant than those invited in, say, the era of the New Deal.

Ok, so there are many critics of the American political tradition at colleges and universities, at magazines that are sold to folks who consider themselves sophisticated way beyond the simpletons who forged the founding documents. That would be something to be expected. Colleges and universities demand of their faculty “original research and scholarship” and nothing passes better for that than tomes attacking the ideas and ideals of the Founders and their teachers, like John Locke. It is beneath the lofty self-image of the bulk of these educated people to actually admit that those people who founded the country had identified true principles of community life. No, instead what they are accused of having done is incorporated their class biases into the foundations of American society. They were, in short, mere ideologues, pretending that their preferences amounted to basic principles—exactly as Karl Marx and his followers had argued about John Locke and Adam Smith. (See, for the clearest instance, Marx’s posthumously published book, Grundrisse.)

Yet if you dig deep enough into the mass of critical works, there is something rather peculiar that becomes evident. Nearly all the critics deploy standards by which to denigrate American society, which are part of the American political tradition itself. Take slavery. It is by reference to the principles of the Declaration of Independence that this institution turns out to be utterly peculiar, as Lincoln understood very well. Or take the oft heard lament that American society has been unjust toward women and minorities. This, too, is a complaint that gains its soundness from taking the principles in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights very seriously. All the concerns in the criminal law about the unjust treatment of suspects make sense in light of the conception of justice that the founding documents embody.

Even the more alien charges, say about the lack of equal pay for equal work or the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, can be related, perhaps a bit awkwardly, to certain notions in the American political and legal tradition. Yes, some of those charges are based on a far more egalitarian political stance that is incorporate in the American viewpoint but they resonate with many Americans because they appear to be based on that viewpoint—“all men [i.e., human beings] are created equal” and “they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.” That surely includes both citizens and foreigners!

Even criticisms of America’s frequently ill conceived foreign and military policies gain their strongest backing from distinctly American principles. Of course, from the inception of the country there has been a debate afoot about how best to interpret the founding principles, with some favoring a strong central government—including what this may imply for foreign affairs—some championing limited (though perhaps not necessarily small) government and how that would influence foreign policy. But the basic notions about individual rights, due process, free markets, and equal justice for all found few outright enemies apart from defenders of chattel slavery and some reactionary male chauvinists.

The point to remember here is that anti-American lambastes tended and still tend to rest on America’s very own distinctive principles, ones that may be present to some extent in other societies (Great Britain, Australia, France and some other European countries come to mind). Foreign interventionism is ill fitted for a country that tends to rest on the idea that force may only be used in self-defense. Never mind that this has never been that closely adhered to, mostly with the excuse that survival required expansion or humanitarian concerns imply exporting American ideals abroad. The point is that the operative terms of debate in all these instances arise from the American political and legal tradition, not from those that form the basis of the countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. When the American government and military are charged with the inhumane treatment, even torture, of “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay, the basic premise underlying the charge is that individuals may not be subjected to harm unless they have been shown to deserve this. Mere “reasons of state” do not suffice to justify such treatment and that is very much a tenet of the individualist social philosophy with which American is so closely associated.

So all the while the intellectuals have frowned on the allegedly simplistic and false 18th century notions drawn from Locke & Co., they have not hesitated making use of those very notions as they have drubbed American left and right. Not a bad record for such an awful system, me thinks, comparatively speaking.

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