Monday, July 13, 2009

Should Americans be Humble?

Tibor R. Machan

After president Obama traveled abroad recently it became clear that he wanted to present himself and, indirectly, America as a nation, differently from how he believed President George W. Bush did this. In particular, Mr. Bush was generally seen by his critics as more of an "ugly American," following the character of the novel by that name, written half a century ago by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer (who exemplified the sort of American who tended to be insensitive to the rest of the world's population, their customs and languages, etc.). Mr. Obama seems to want to change this by appearing to be less arrogant, swagger less than Mr. Bush. Instead Mr. Obama wants to be friends with virtually everyone, even those who have no interest it being friends with America and Americans, including him. This comportment of "turn the other cheek" appears to be Mr. Obama's way of conducting America's foreign affairs. No hint that America might teach the world anything about anything--indeed, one Russian commentator on Fareed Zakaria's CNN program, "GPS, Global Public Square," when asked the difference between how Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama came across to Russians on his visit, said that while Mr. Bush gave advice to Russians about democracy, human rights, and so forth, Mr. Obama simply listened to the Russians he met.

Ordinarily, in a world of civilized regimes everywhere, this approach to foreign affairs would be quite right but sadly we are not living in such a world. From its inception the United States of America stood as a challenger to the rest of the world on certain key issues of public policy. The most radical position advanced as a country was laid out in both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights (the U. S. Constitution). This was the idea that governments don't rule; they aren't the sovereigns in a country but the citizens are.

Hardly anywhere else in the world and throughout human history has this stance been embraced officially by governments and their officials. To the contrary, while the American Founders held that you and I and the rest of us own our own lives and must be left free to govern it to ends we ourselves have the right to select, around the globe the idea has been that governments set the agendas to which the lives and labors of the population are to be conscripted. While here and there this notion began to be asserted less and less confidently, so that kings and czars and the like began to lose their absolute authority over the people, the basic idea never really changed. Governments are supreme, they rule the people, more or less brutally or gently, but they do rule. (In Dubai they actually call the head "the ruler.")

Now this fact has never endeared America and Americans to the elite of the world, those who felt that they do have the rightful authority to rule, to decide what goals people in their countries should pursue. The notion that these individuals have a right to the pursuit of their own happiness just seemed wrong, self-indulgent, and yes, arrogant. You need to consider this in light of the fact that for centuries and centuries ordinary human beings everywhere were deemed to be the unwilling or at times somewhat accommodating building blocks of grand and not so grand national projects. All those fabulous ruins of the past, such as Rome's Colosseum and Egypt's pyramids, were built not by using freely sold labor but, at least to a significant extent, from the work of slaves (some of whom were taken in battle, some the children of these, some convicts, but many simply people who could not resist the powers that be). Above these folks always stood the rulers, the class of human beings who managed to convince themselves that they had a God given right to rule others, and who were willing to impose this rule throughout the realm. And this went on for a very, very long time, so that in most places it is still regarded as the political norm.

In light of this picture it is no surprise that America's declaration to the world, even in its current watered down rendition, is offensive to all those who get to talk about these matters--who come on various prestigious forums and interview programs and appear in prominent journals and get invited to visit top ranked universities--except a very few who understand that the American message is actually right on.

No doubt some Americans, including some American presidents, embrace a rather crude, unsophisticated version of the American message and project this "ugly American" image but it needs to be noted that just by being normal Americans who are loyal to the spirit of the American founding they would be offensive to many of the elite abroad anyway. (The rest nearly all wish they lived here!)

So Mr. President, please don't bend over backwards to please everyone around the globe. Certainly many are not worthy of being appeased by you. Being civil to them all does not mean accepting the idea that America must become humble. Its creed is that of proud human beings, not of paeans.

As a footnote, the other evening I checked out the David Letterman show on CBS-TV and heard the announcer saying "From New York, the greatest city of the world" or something to that effect. And I imagined President Obama, given his attitude, writing to the producers saying they need to tone this down lest they offend the rest of the world's cities. Maybe I am paranoid but maybe this is just what we have to look forward to.

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