Category Archives: American Exceptionalism

A Sacred Document of a Sacred Idea

Take a look at this document:


This is the Constitution of the United States of America. I get into tangles all the time over at Mikeb302000 about the nature of this document. Mikeb loves to point to the elements that offend the modern leftist–slavery and the Second Amendment being the predominate targets. By contrast, I see our constitution as sacred.

Understand that by sacred, I don’t mean perfect or beyond change. I have discussed here, for example, how I wish the first two amendments were written and what I see as circumstances that would justify overthrowing the constitutionally legitimate government. Certainly, the document itself has provisions for amendment, showing a recognition from the start that changes might be necessary as time went by.

That being said, there are fundamental principles of our constitution that should not be changed. It establishes a nation and defines the government that will regulate that nation, and that definition sets strict limits on what powers each branch of the government may have. It divides government into three branches to place further limits on the extent of that power. The first ten amendments enumerate rights that the Founders regarded as necessary to protect by name.

But the argument gets made that we don’t really need such protection anymore. Surely a modern, democratic society can maintain rights by the consensus of the people.

Think again. An example of the dangers of that point of view came up yesterday (20 August 2013) in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered with Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of The Guardian. I’ve given a link to the full story, but I’m going to point out one significant statement that Rusbridger made:

And this may be – sound strange to American listeners, but there is no First Amendment in the U.K. and there is no bar on prior restraint, the idea that the state could prevent a news organization from publishing by taking back its source material.

Caught it, yes? Without the First Amendment, there is nothing in Britain to prevent the government from blocking publication of a story.

What story are we talking about? The one reported by Glenn Greenwald of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing about the American NSA’s invasions of privacy. The British government also detained Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, under powers given by terrorism legislation. This is one of those coincidences that those of us who enjoy language note, since it was another Miranda who caused a limitation of police power in the United States.

There are people who claim that all of this security theater is keeping us safe, who see what has happened in Britain as a model for what should be done here. To them, we are nowhere near tyranny, so we should just shut up and trust the government. (I’m talking to you, Mr. President.) That kind of sheepish attitude is unbecoming for people who have overthrown a government that was not respecting their rights, fought a civil war to defend rights, and who claim to love liberty today. The only way to guarantee that we don’t fall into the kind of police state that some of us warn about is to fight against every step in that direction.

God, guns, and gays

I’ve written many times before on the question of gun rights and gay rights. Sometimes, I’ve even put the two together. Today, since both subjects are drawing the attention of America, I’m joining them to show the common thread.

As I’ve said many times, if you’re not hurting me (or an innocent person), do as you will. The Wiccans use that saying as the basis of their ethics, and it’s a good summary of the libertarian philosophy. It is also at the heart of the American way of doing things.

At the same time, Americans have a Puritan strain running through our collective consciousness. Recall H. L. Mencken’s line about Puritanism–the haunting belief that somewhere, someone is having a good time. It’s the reason that our missionaries wandered the globe making women wear woolen dresses in the tropics. It’s the reason that we forced a change of governments in Iran in 1953 and in Chile twenty years later. It’s tied up in the reason that we removed Saddam Hussein from power. In all of those, we had the belief that people were doing things in a way that we didn’t approve.

In our nation and in any society, there will always be a tension between the individual and the group. It’s been my observation, both as a student of history and by keeping my eyes open, that while individuals screw up from time to time, to make a royal mess of things requires the idiocy of crowds. That being said, I generally favor regulation to increase in direct proportion with size. Individuals deserve wide liberties, while groups often need to be restrained.

At the same time, I recognize that actions do have consequences and those consequences at times demand a response from the rest of us. When that’s the case, we have to balance the harm that could be done against the rights that we all should value.

Consider, then, the two issues that I named above. Take gay marriage first. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal considers the evidence of harms and benefits. The conclusion given, based on a review of the literature, is that there is evidence toward looser unions when same-sex couples are allowed to marry, and those same-sex couples have a lower concern about monogamy. That being said, children raised in same-sex couple households do as well as children in other relationships, and the time a relationship lasts and the number of partners tolerated in a relationship reflects overall changes in society in general.

What about guns? About 30,000 persons die in a given year from gun fire, and a couple hundred thousand are injured. The majority of deaths are suicides. Accidental deaths come in around 600. Contrast that with the number of defensive gun uses in the same period–in other words, cases in which someone uses a firearm to defend against a lethal threat–run anywhere between 108,000 and 2.5 million, depending on which study you accept. We also see that over the course of the last two decades, as gun laws have loosened and more states have allowed citizens to carry guns, the rate of violent crime has dropped. While cause and effect are hard to link, the evidence does show that more guns in more hands doesn’t result in more violence.

In other words, both gay marriage and gun ownership and carry have a mixed bag of results for society. This is where I have to fight against that Puritan yearning that so pervades American thinking. It is not the job of society to sweep in and right every wrong. A world in which no wrongs can occur is a soulless existence. Human beings are born with the power to choose, and that includes choosing right or wrong. It also includes a vast territory of grey, even presuming that our understanding of the two opposites is as good as we wish to believe.

I come back to my original idea. The fundamental principle of a society must be that each member is entitled to as much liberty as can be. The limits of liberty are defined by what would destroy the society or harm its members unduly. I realize that these terms are vague. To introduce clarity, look at the data that I cited above. Despite the mixed results, we see no evidence that either freedom will destroy us all. In fact, on balance, both freedoms create more good than harm. That being the case, I ask here a question that I often raise when the subject of control vs. freedom comes up:

Give me a reason to support control that does not depend on the theology regarding your favorite deity.

That means, obviously, the Christian God, but it just as well applies to pronouncements from social theorists in the absence of proof. Yes, the Bible in a literal reading is against homosexuality. Yes, a number of political philosophies are against private citizens having firearms. But America, a Constitutionally defined secular and agnostic nation, cannot base its laws on theology. Understand that by secular, I mean the law must be independent of any reference to an outside power, and by agnostic, I mean that without evidence and in the presence of speculation, the law must admit to not knowing.

We in this country have made the extraordinary choice to build our law on that principle. It was a good choice, both in terms of utility for the individual and the society as a whole. It was the correct choice if we believe that we all are born with rights. It is a choice that each generation has to make again and defend again.

Civilize ‘Em with a Krag?

America is now involved in its third foreign entanglement of the twenty-first century. Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has been mixed, showing that we’re remarkably capable in some tasks and dismally inept in others. Federal debt and deficit may decide how much foreign policy we can sustain, but if we are able to resolve the budget concerns, we do have to consider what conflicts are likely.

The war that we were ready to fight from the late 40s through the 90s was a total war. It would have involved tanks and fighter jets for a few hours, but we all knew that it would get settled with nuclear weapons. That kind of war is still possible, as the nuclear-armed powers haven’t gone away, but barring accident, it’s unlikely. The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) means that two nations with a lot of nukes will grumble at each other, but generally remain polite.

Some will suggest nuclear disarmament. While that’s a laudable goal, it’s unrealistic. The technology for making nuclear weapons is widely known. Anyone with the uranium and no concern for longevity can build one in the basement. With a little more skill, such bombs can be churned out with minimal difficulty. There’s no going back from that, and as long as one nation has nuclear weapons, several others will have to have them as well.

But a nuclear world war is much less likely than the kind of war that we’ve seen in the last several decades. These days, the typical conflict is with bothersome little countries that seek to annoy the rest of us. Iraq is a good example of this. Saddam kept interfering with his neighbors and threatening more distant nations. Removing his regime proved to be astonishingly easy. What we saw is that America has a military that can defeat most countries around the world within a month of fighting. That’s our skill.

What happened afterward was a disaster. We don’t know how to occupy a country. We thought we did, but our experience in Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War doesn’t really apply. In those two situations, we had spent years beating them into abject submission. We were then able to build them back up in our image. That kind of war can never happen again because it was a war against an equal, and our military equals today are in the previous category.

With all of this in mind, what kind of military force do we need in the future? I suggest a three-part force. The first two parts we already have. We need a nuclear force–including bombers, submarines, and missiles–to defend against total war. We need an expeditionary force that can sweep away any minor nation’s government and military, when such action is indicated.

The third force is an occupation force. It will have the training and equipment to act as a police department, civil services sector, better business bureau, and other such offices. The problems of occupation are insurrection, corruption, and tribal interests. The force that I’m picturing must be able to deal with all of those.

Americans, as a rule, don’t like the idea of occupying other countries. We objected to the British, and Southerners objected to Reconstruction. I don’t mean here that we ought to go around taking over small nations just for the enjoyment of it. The trouble is that a few of those will insist on being disagreeable. If we leave them alone, they fester and make more noise (something like children).

This essay is an exercise in realism. That being the case, I have to acknowledge that we’re likely heading into a period in which we can only afford to take care of ourselves, if that. But somebody has to take this role. The United Nations, being run by festering little nations, can’t. The Chinese don’t want the job. The Russians and the British are tired after years of managing empires.

Sacrebleu, I guess that leaves us with the French, if not us. Come on, Americans, get our act together.


The title of this piece comes from a song of the Spanish-American War:

Underneath our starry flag, civilize ’em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.

The Krag is the Krag-Jorgensen rifle, America’s first smokeless powder longarm adopted by the Army.

A Viking America?

Over the holidays, when I wasn’t watching movies with family (I saw A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time), I read books and articles about the Norse exploration of North America, and this got me wondering why they weren’t the ones to open up the New World to Europe. The world had to wait another several hundred years for Spain to get around to doing it. My answer may be surprising, but it does raise important points to consider about our future.

For review, let’s go over what is known about which Europeans got here first. We know for a certainty that Eric the Red colonized Greenland. His son, Leif Ericsson, spent time exploring the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland and possibly some members of his party got as far south as Cape Cod or Long Island. The Norse settlers stayed in Greenland for almost five hundred years, starting in the late tenth century and disappearing sometime after 1408. So why didn’t the Vikings conquer America?

First, look at the level of technology of the various peoples involved. The Norse had iron weapons, but those were only a slight advantage over the stone projectiles that the Native tribes used. A stone arrowhead is just as dangerous as an iron one. The Viking swords were good tools, but a sword is a contact weapon, and a band of archers can do a lot of damage, especially when they’re shooting from their home soil.

By contrast, the Spaniards had ships, horses, and firearms. Yes, the Norse had horses, but they were smaller than the southern varieties, and the Vikings preferred to fight on their feet. The Vikings also had sailing vessels. Those longships looked like Native canoes, though, only bigger. The Spanish ships were significantly different in design as to appear to be from the gods.

The Spaniards also had guns. We today realize that their firearms were inefficient and could have been defeated by determined Aztec archers, but the peoples of the Americas didn’t have centuries of hindsight to use. They saw men in shining metal using rods that brought lightning and thunder down to the ground. This was devastating to the morale of the Natives.

Another point that favored the Spaniards was global climate. The Little Ice Age started in the early fourteenth century, making Greenland untenable. Greenland has grassy fields growing on its southwestern shores, but the climate in 1000 was warmer than in 1350. The colder Earth also enabled the spread of the Black Death, a plague that limited European contact with the Norse colonies. Columbus, on the other hand, chose a southerly route to the New World, and the first Spanish colonies were founded in the tropics. While the climate in the north was still cold, the Caribbean was unaffected.

But the most important reason is the difference in cultures. Norse society had always been tribal–small communities led by a chief, but with the consensus of the free members. (One point to note is that the consolidation of power under the king of Norway in the thirteenth century weakened general European ties to Greenland and may have contributed to the demise of the colonies.) The Vikings–not the whole of the Norse peoples–were merchants and pirates. The point here is that Norse trade, exploration, and colonization were usually the work of small groups, not the whole state.

Spain was the opposite. The Spanish monarchy had finally expelled the Moors from the Iberian peninsula and unified the Spanish peoples under one flag. Columbus was acting as an agent of the King and Queen, not under his own initiative. The colonies had the backing of the state, unlike the free farmers in Greenland.

And thus it was that the Spaniards, not the Vikings, conquered the New World. In thinking about this, I found it to be a depressing thought, since I favor the Norse model over the Spanish when it comes to social structures and governments, but then I realized that what seems to be the conclusion is not necessarily so.

Here’s the good news: The Vikings did conquer the New World, at least a major part of it. How? Remember that England was conquered by William, a Norman. In other words, a Norseman or Viking. Large parts of England were also ruled by Vikings in the Danelaw before his arrival. English society has been shaped by Norse ways of thinking (along with Celtic and Germanic traditions, which share a lot of the same values).

Compare the English colonies and their successor nations, the United States and Canada, with the areas that were under Spanish control. The economies of the Spanish colonies were based, with the limited exception of some agriculture, on the mining of precious metals. Spain pulled so much silver and gold out of the New World that it caused massive inflation at home and has never really recovered from it. The English colonies were blessed by not having one dominate natural resource and were thus forced into economic diversity.

The Englishmen also valued individual liberties. The Puritans were an aberration, not the norm, while the Inquisition was typical of the monolithic Spanish culture. The English people always pushed back when their rulers got oppressive. Their colonies were expressions of the values of their cultural ancestors. When feudal and aristocratic Europe wouldn’t accept small merchants and farmers taking the economy into their own hands, the adventurous members of the working classes moved to America.

The message here is that while the Norse model of society may not be as efficient in the short term, it is ultimately the better culture, if we value individual liberty and development.

Let Haiti Be An Island

John Donne told us that no man is an island.  And yet, there are times when the people around have to let someone go.  Think of the drug addict who uses every penny given to him to buy more drugs.  Call it tough love, if you must, or call it realism, but some persons, through a stubborn insistence in making bad choices, cannot be helped.

As it is with individuals, so it is with nations.  Consider two countries:  Haiti and the United States.  Each had its founding around the end of the eighteenth century, and each had to fight for its independence.  Each was isolated from the Old World.  Each had a measure of natural resources.  Given these facts, it would seem that the two ought to have developed along similar lines.

So what happened to Haiti?  Its history is long and messy.  In summary, it is a study of how revolution leads to dictatorship to revolution to dictatorship and on and on.  Haiti is one of the first nations to come to mind when one thinks of corruption, environmental degradation, and government failure.  Haiti isn’t alone in following this pattern.  Many nations that go through civil upheaval experience the same results.  It’s a good question to ask why America went the direction that we did, and in the future, I’ll discuss that.  For now, though, let’s consider what to do about Haiti.

I have to say that seeing my fellow human beings in pain makes me want to help.  This is a natural response and typically American.  But many nations have been trying to help Haiti for a long time.  Help in some of the cases may be the wrong word.  The United States has been interfering with and helping Haiti for the better part of a century, and nothing has worked.

Lest it be said that foreign aid will always fail, contrast Haiti with another country that walked a similar path, Indonesia.  That Asian nation went through the same pattern of revolution, dictatorship, and corruption for some time, but the Indonesian people finally pushed out their bad leaders, and now their nation is becoming one of the better democracies and economies in the world.  We helped the Indonesians after the 2004 tsunami, and that aid was put to good use.

In Haiti, the aid that came in response to the 2010 earthquake has produced little, other than complaints that United Nations peacekeepers brought cholera with them.  Perhaps those who came to help are to blame for that, although the evidence at the moment is inconclusive.  That’s as may be, and one might suggest that someone who is in desperate need ought to say “thank you” to those who are willing to help.

Here’s my suggestion with regard to Haiti:  Let it be an island.  Pull out our people; stop sending money.  Tell Haiti that we’ve tried, we’ve done our best, and it’s obvious that we’re not doing any good.  Tell the Haitians that when they’re ready to pull themselves together, we’ll be here to receive them as productive citizens of the world.  Until then, we wish them good luck.  What else can we do?


Why America Is Exceptional

The United States of America is a unique nation.  When I was a student in elementary school, this statement was broadly accepted, yet today, given the challenges that we face, we suffer from self doubt.  But hope and faith are part of what it means to be an American, so we need to find our values again.  Let’s look at what this status for our nation and what we can do to keep it.

The first characteristic is our representative democracy.  Yes, there were forms of government that approached what we have.  The ancient Greek city states led the way; Iceland and Switzerland had forms of representation in the Middle Ages, and the English parliament gave us our most recent model.  It is also true that we took many years to live up to the ideal.  All of this being said, the fact that one person has one vote is extraordinary.  It’s not one person of the right class or ethnic group or sex; it’s one person.

We aren’t the only nation to have this, but other nations that are achieving it often look to America for inspiration.  The students in Tiananmen Square quoted Thomas Jefferson.  The revolutionaries in France saw our success and lopped off the heads of their upper class.  Where they went wrong was to allow that revoution to be one of class against class, rather than individual against society.

We do struggle with keeping each person’s vote equal.  The recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case means that those entities with plenty of money have a louder voice than the average individual.  Of course, that has always been the case.  It’s easy to say that we must ignore money and go our own way.  The hard part is actually doing that.  For a democracy to work, the citizens must think for themselves, coming to reasoned decisions about how to vote.  Millions of dollars can buy a lot of time on television, but they cannot make an idea right, and it is the responsibility of each of us to do the work of coming to our own conclusions.

I have used the word “individual” several times, and that is because individualism is another characteristic of American exceptionalism.  The origin of this lies in the Germanic tribes that colonized Britain and created English culture.  Many of those tribes had elected leaders and expected individuals to speak for themselves in courts and councils.  The culture respected explorers and free market adventurers.  While there were a variety of motivations that brought colonists to this continent, one of the primary ones was a desire to live without the boundaries of class and guild.  Compare the United States and Canada to Latin America.  The Europeans who settled in North America tended to be shop keepers, small farmers, and fur trappers, while Central and South America was occupied by plantation owners and those who sought to exploit mineral wealth.  In other words, those who worked for themselves created a new society.  The others continued the stagnation that was inherent in the feudal system.  (I’m from the South, but I have to admit that the reason that the southern states lost the Civil War was their stubbornness in clinging to the plantation as the definitive model of social order.)

The idea of a new society is the next point.  Americans do value tradition, but perhaps only in the way that we value that picture of Grandma that hangs in the hallway.  We look at it now and then and dust it occasionally, but we go our own way.  We decided to recognize each person’s right to choose a religion, to speak thoughts that others object to, to own and carry a weapon, and to practice a profession of choice, not parentage.  These were all in contradiction, to one degree or another, to the home countries of the colonists.

It’s difficult to hold change as a value, since change does not always go in a good direction and often leaves behind things worth keeping.  By itself, the urge to try something new is nothing.  What matters is that in America, we have the freedom to experiment.  Some ideas succeed, and others fail, but the attempt is not condemned from the beginning.

And what of those who do fail?  Jesus’s question of who is my neighbor guides the desire of Americans to help others.  One of my concerns with the Tea Party in specific and libertarianism in general is an apparent unwillingness to keep a safety net for those who try but fail.  Unemployment benefits, universal healthcare, and aid to small businesses are good ideas, not on account of being charitable, but because they make taking risks easier.  People who can get back up after falling flat are able to experiment again.  The model here is the pioneers who extended our country across the continent.  No one is going to pull my wagon for me, but we’ll circle the wagons when we’re under attack.  I have to care for my own farm, but we’ll get together to raise a barn or harvest a field.

Finally, though, I’m going to return to an idea that I mentioned in the opening of this essay:  hope and faith.  The notion of America as a city on a hill goes back to the beginning of our country.  It is the belief that we are special and an example to everyone else.  This can be indulged into smugness.  The values that I have addressed here are what give us the right to believe that we have something good to offer to the world.  We must also keep faith with the idea that the future can be better than the past and that our labor will get us there.

This is why America is exceptional.  Will we continue to be?  That’s our choice.  I choose yes and ask you to join me.