Scott’s out of town today – a concert of some kind, old-people music, a trip to Cambridge – and he asked me to look after you guys. Entertain you, maybe.
This is not going to end well.
My usual MO would be to rant about the lack of civil liberties in Europe. And maybe that’s still going to happen. But I couldn’t help but notice you people celebrated Brexit 1.0 a couple days ago, so I thought it’d be a good opportunity for an outsider’s perspective on the United States in the midst of all the doom and gloom on social media.
As Scott puts it, you guys are mourning over the corpse of a great nation. It’s incessant. Either you flagellate yourselves because the United States, despite its egalitarian surface appeal, is racist, sexist and took ninety years to free the slaves, or you flagellate yourselves because the United States, despite its egalitarian surface appeal, is corrupt and elitist, a place where government/immigrants/the media (circle all that apply) have spent the last ninety years selling off the nation’s birthright.
Consider Duke professor Alex Rosenberg’s recent screed against the Constitution, hot dogs and bald eagles, a tale of self-loathing so exquisitely told you can feel the whip impact your back as you read. And if New Media’s more your speed, there’s the innumerable In Americams clogging right-wing Twitter, where jaundiced, cigarette-smoking British dweebs tell you to weep for your country because of CNN or some equally unfathomable shit.
What the left- and right-wing hot takes have in common is myopia and pessimism. Yes, Rosenberg, et al. have a point when they say America was slow to extend the franchise to the African population. But they conveniently forget that America, after a less than promising start marred by the likes of Dred Scott v. Sandford, realized its error and remedied it, amending the Constitution to guarantee liberty to those who had been denied it.
Better yet, after the Thirteenth, the pro-liberty amendments just kept coming. As NRO’s Charles Cooke, a much less execrable specimen of an Englishman than is par for the course over there, put it in his first book:
[The] history of the United States has been a slow history of recompense – not of fixing fundamental problems with what remains a remarkable and relevant piece of work, but of augmenting access to its protections. [The] significant postbellum alterations to the American constitutional settlement have been expansive, not restrictive […] With the arguable exception of the swiftly repealed Eighteenth, there is not a single amendment that interferes with the original guarantees of individual liberty.
Sure, Prohibition sucked. But he’s right! Most non-American governments have a way of starting out illiberal and getting worse as they slide closer to catastrophe. And if the experience of the Jews, currently unwelcome guests at both dyke marches and alt-right rallies, is at all instructive, the typical way for a “marginalized” group to catch a break before America came along was to benefit from noblesse oblige. But noblesse oblige is here one moment, gone the next. Constitutional amendments are a damn sight more enduring.
We might as well admit it: the United States is pretty exceptional in that it started from a position of unprecedented liberty, then, in defiance of the experience of other countries, improved as time went on. When Rosenberg and his intellectual fellow-travellers condemn America for having had to address its own shortcomings instead of being made perfect, like Jesus’ robe, it’s clear their arguments say a good deal more about them than they do about the nation.
In fairness, the negative right-wingers that abound on Twitter would object to this view of America. To them, the United States is less a fine brandy, getting better as it ages, than that moldy shake you recently found at the bottom of your gym bag. America’s in a state of decline – maybe irretrievably so. Its glory days are past. The country’s abandoned its core values, and all that’s left to do is prepare for the end. Again, I suspect there’s a kernel of truth to the observation that America’s in danger of losing its way. The temptation to regulate and criminalize one’s way out of social problems, for example, is currently stronger than many would like. But like the left-wingers, the whiner right misses the forest for the trees.
There’ve been a lot of terrible decisions in America’s past. We’ve already mentioned slavery and Prohibition. Not every President has been a model of enlightenment and republican virtue. And there are even people who don’t much care for the legacy of the New Deal. When hasn’t America been in danger of losing its way? But for all the apocalyptic ill-feeling, the country’s still here – still, to all outward appearances, going strong.
Did you ever hear the tragedy of the Afsharids? No? I thought not. It’s a Persian legend. You see, they ruled over the Persian Empire when America was young. The last Afsharid Shah, nothing more than the blind puppet of a rival warlord, was executed in 1796, almost exactly a year before George Washington amazed the world by relinquishing power and retiring to Mount Vernon instead of ruling on as a tyrant. Since then, Iran’s gone through a lot of shahs, tyrants, ayatollahs and forms of government. America? Not so much.
In our lifetime, America will see its 250th birthday. By this point in its history, even the Roman Empire had endured three debilitating succession wars, a massive provincial uprising or two, lots of rebellions by wannabe emperors and innumerable smaller conflicts. Yet it took another 1200 years for it to go under for good. And the United States has a peculiar way of weathering the worst of times and coming out stronger. From a European point of view, with just one civil war to your names – a war that, to the delight of some and the obvious chagrin of Professor Rosenberg, would ultimately make a contribution to America’s legacy of liberty and equality before the law – I’d say you guys are doing pretty well for yourselves.
Whether you’re on the left or right, don’t let the haters, losers and social-media whiners get you down. Those of us who can see past our personal biases know America for what it is: a strange, fascinating, fantastical place that defies the expectations of history at every turn, whether by prospering where other states fail or liberating where others oppress. Happy birthday, guys. For all the hiccups and mistakes, you’ve got a lot to be proud of.