Meyer-Lindenberg: The Fixing Of America

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.

47 comments on “Meyer-Lindenberg: The Fixing Of America

  1. wilbur

    Mmmmm … moldy shake.

    Very well-done. It’s all too easy to be pessimistic about the future of the polity. I fall prey to it myself. This is a good reminder that while our upward arc may not be as dramatic or steep as it was, it’s because we’ve come so far already. Thank you.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      While Scott’s away, all the complimentary comments get posted and all the mean people get silenced! Ha HA!!

      1. B. McLeod

        Temporary ABA Journal rules! (Assuming “complimentary” means the same as “leftist”). Well, hey. Who can argue with success? (Assuming “success” means the same as an echo chamber/comment wasteland with declining readership). I don’t see how there could be any problems.

        1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

          You are very handsome and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  2. Brian Cowles

    Thank you, Mr. Meyer-Lindenberg. It’s also worth noting that we (that’s the American politically-aware “we”, by the way) are fighting the same battles we always have. Whether it’s the fight over national security, or freedom of speech, or bigotry, or taxes, or anti-intellectualism, or the legislation of morality, or any one of a thousand other things…the voices change, and the argument specifics change, but rarely anything is Decided (yes, with an authoritative capital “D”) for good. It is worth remembering that all of those decisions are represented in those amendments Charles Cooke rightly extols.

    Personally, I’m hoping another historical trend will reassert itself soon – that of changing up the two parties that make up the system. It has happened before in times of great strife; it can happen again.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      Yup. For over two centuries, Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid arbitrary rule. And the results, I think, speak for themselves.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      After reading your comment and realizing I have the power to edit it, I now understand better how Galileo was admired for his self-restraint.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        Hey, your comment just reminded me — while you’re in charge, can you add a +1 button?

        1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

          It’d be great for a couple of hours. Maybe a day. Then Scott would pull out my intestines. I’m attached to my intestines.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Yabut you just admitted that Scott can fix that. Apparently it’s not just old judges who can’t remember what they wrote in the immediately preceding sentence.

          2. Nick Lidakis

            “I’m attached to my intestines.”

            I see what you did there. A duodenum entendre. Very clever Mr. Lindenberg.

      2. Mario Machado

        Galileo was restrained on pain of being burned at the stake, it’s not like you’re under similar pressur…, ah, nevermind David.

        Carry on amigo

          1. Mario Machado

            Damn, I missed that. Not my fault, though. I blame your fellow European, Lard Ulrich’s double kick-drum for rattling my ear drums and thus synapses.

            New old rule: never, ever schedule anything of slight importance the day after Metallica.

            But, going back to the Galileo-like predicament, should anything happen to you, I will echo Stephen Hawking’s answer to the Pontiff’s question of “what would he like to see in the Vatican?”

            Easy:

            “I would like to see the transcript for Galileo”s trial”

            1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

              Oh sure, rub it in. Everyone except me gets to go to rad concerts. Life’s so unfair.

            2. Mario Machado

              Great post. It’s naloxone for the Armageddon-minded. The hysterics are in dire need of a double shot in the chest, Pulp Fiction style.

              In line with Oscar Wilde’s injunction that if you’re gonna tell people the truth, you better make them laugh.

      3. SHG

        Thanks for watching the shop for me and not breaking anything. And your restraint in the face of these scamps is appreciated.

        1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

          My pleasure. But can you do me a favor and get them to stop calling me “Mr.” Meyer-Lindenberg? Way too adult for this Millennial.

          1. Brian Cowles

            Being about the same age, I can totally appreciate that. Just let me know what you would prefer instead, please – I jammed my foot down my own throat far enough yesterday.

  3. Lee

    “That which is not expressly forbidden is allowed.”

    That, for me, sums up the US Constitution. Despite all the encroachments that have been made in the last 226 some years, that continues to be IMHO the main point.

    Sure, we have to tinker with things from time to time, but that premise remains constant.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Thank you for the lovely card, but I don’t see the manufacturer’s name on it. How can I be sure that it was made from thrice-recycled GMO-free, gluten-free, hormone-free, grass fed, humanely killed virgin trees?

  5. David

    You might also note that United States has been attacking and over-throwing democracies while supporting dictatorships around the world for well over a 100 years. Whenever a government starts to tax US companies they get attacked. there is a reason liberal goverments don’t last in smaller and poorer countries.
    Quote by; Major General Smedley Butler USMC MOH(x2)
    I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
    It’s still true today

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      I might’ve. And I might also have noted that the enormous worldwide upswing in wealth that defined the last century was in large part due to America. America keeps the sea lanes open, enforces global peace, punishes rogue states and governmental bad actors, figured out how to cheaply feed the world, gave us this ridiculous Internet we live on, spends lavishly on foreign aid and imposed democracy on the country of my birth, which never once in its history voluntarily embraced it.

      But I didn’t do that, because it wouldn’t have been relevant. This is a post about American liberty and longevity, and how they benefit Americans. Focus.

      1. JimEd

        I was going to make a tangential observation on Persia experimenting with democracy for a few years prior to 1953. But that would have been nit-pocking downer of a comment on an otherwise nice post.

        I blame David.

        1. SHG

          David made an important point about viewing what America has done from a distance, and in response, some have demonstrated their inability to step back rather than focus on what ranges from silly nitpicks to nutjob crazy bullshit. There are times I’m proud of the people who read SJ. There are times I think some of the readers’ existence defies Darwin.

          I trashed some of the comments I found awaiting moderation this morning because they moronic. If you left a comment and it’s not here, that’s why.

          1. Norahc

            “David made an important point about viewing what America has done from a distance”
            Learning to see the forest through the trees, so to speak, is one of the reasons I read SJ daily. It is the same reason i read the BBC news.

            Being able to apply those different perspectives to my viewpoints and values are crucial to filtering out the agenda driven information we’re bombarded with on a constant basis. When you read about the same story from two different perspectives it really helps highlight the subjective and objective aspects.

            1. SHG

              What people fail to grasp is the reason I tend to respond to particularly stupid comments with snark (which infuriates the commenters) is that I assume readers here will be smart enough to grasp that the comments are petty, erroneous, off-topic and just plain stupid. The amount of effort necessary to unexplain stupidity is a magnitude greater than the energy needed to spew it. I am unwilling to put that much energy into a stupid comment, and it’s rarely appreciated anyway.

    2. Frank Miceli

      You offer a quotation from Major General Smedley Butler as the last word in a condemnation of the United States, but there is ample reason to question Butler’s views. Butler was seen by his superiors as brilliant and brave but “unreliable.” He had a series of run-ins with public officials such as the Mayor of Philadelphia. Because of diplomatic faux pas and other reasons he was the first general officer since the Civil War to be placed under arrest. By dint of abject apologies, he narrowly avoided a court-martial. After his retirement in 1931, he became a proponent of Prohibition, an activist in the Socialist Party and an opponent of the Roosevelt Administration. Testifying before the precursor to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee he told of a supposed plot by business interests to overthrow the government, which the New York Times characterized as a “gigantic hoax.” In the late 1930’s he was an ardent pacificist and opposed a military build-up. The quotation you cite came from his 1935 book, “War is a Racket,” a pacifist screed.

  6. Mike G.

    You’re assuming that Scott went to some old people’s concert. Perhaps he’s kicking up his heels at a Pink Floyd or Rolling Stones concert… on second thought, nevermind.

  7. Richard Kopf

    David,

    We live short lives compared, say, to the ancient and gigantic redwoods. As a result, and I fault myself on this as much as anyone, our historical perspective is laughably short sighted. We (I) don’t see the arc of history as we live our little lives. Your post and particularly your reference to the Roman Empire was an elegant reminder. Maybe Plato was wrong after all.

    All the best.

    RGK

  8. Kurt Buff

    I strenuously disagree with the quotation supplied: “With the arguable exception of the swiftly repealed Eighteenth, there is not a single amendment that interferes with the original guarantees of individual liberty.”

    The 16th Amendment is the very antithesis of individual liberty.

    Kurt

          1. Kurt Buff

            LOL.

            I supposed if I’d ever seen the movie, I’d get the reference.

            Sorry for the fail.

  9. Billy Bob

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! In 48 hours, no one else remembers this witticism? The reality is that this is just the old glass-half-full, glass-half-empty conundrum. The nation is neither as great as some patriots would have us believe, nor as horrible as the Cassandras think. Somewhere in the middle; Amerika is perhaps better at self promotion and boosterism than other nations. Did anyone ever think of that? Some folks buy it, and others don’t. That’s how the cookie crumbles!
    We have a ways to go to catch up to the Roman Empire. Mister Lindenberg slaughters a lot of words, but it’s not a bad essay, and timely, of course. Flag-wavers, all of em! (We do enjoy a good ol’ Amerikan parade. The Marines are the best in the West. And a good rock concert, or ball game, goes without saying.)

    1. SHG

      Bill, have you noticed that I’ve trashed almost all of your comments lately. Do you have any clue why? You’re reaching the point of utter incoherence, pointless offensiveness and unadulterated batshit fucking crazy. Either get your shit together, try your best to write something that’s not completely insane or no more comments for you. There’s only so much I can take.

      1. Billy Bob

        Scott, have you noticed that i’ve been trashing you and your blawgsite unrelentingly, lately in my neighborhood and amongst my friends and associates?!? Huh, huh? Who do you thinky you are? The big PoohBah of the blawgosphere! Well let me say this about that: You are not the Center of MY Universe,…just a whistle stop on the way toward Justice and Peace in Amerika, if you can wrap yer fat little head around that conceptual misnomer par excellence? If ever there was one!
        Have a gooday, mate, and may the L0rd be with you. You kneed Him more than He kneeds you.

        My wife sez, if I go fishing one more time, she’s gonna leave me! Shore gonna miss her?!? Likewise, Simple Justice,… which ain’t as simple as you/they think in the county courthouse in these hear parts, or the hinterlands, the bayous, the highlands, the lowlands and the deserts. You city slickers and DC typos can take your justices of the pieces and shove em someplace where the sun don’t shine,… and I don’t mean maybe. Hillary,…help me out, I’m stuck in a mobile with the Memphis Blues again!

        Thanx for you support, Mister Lindenberg. We buy your cheeses at the local food mart. We kneed all the help we can muster in these times of turmoil and confusion. Better dayz are comin’, for real,… that is a Given.

  10. nodandsmile

    Tummy rub.

    Not a US citizen. Right or wrong, I’m not arguing anything mind, this was a point I don’t think I’ve ever seen made before. Possibly that just proves my ignorance, but regardless, thank you. Thought-provoking.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      No no, I think we both benefit by concluding I’m a genius. Let’s go with that.

Comments are closed.