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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Independence Day From Plausible Deniability

Happy Fourth of July, to all of you - even if you're not citizens of the USA. The founding principles of the USA transcend nationality, and in celebrating our Independence Day, we are really celebrating the right and duty of humans everywhere to pursue "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". You need a reasonable degree of freedom to do it, and that's why we celebrate our Independence Day. Once we acquired the freedom to act, then we became responsible for achieving our goals.

We didn't start out as a great nation. The long, slowly built success of our nation has tracked very closely with our long, long struggle to achieve the fulfillment of those ideals. As Lincoln said, our identity as a nation is wrapped up in those goals. When this nation was born, inequality was the rule, and not the exception, as it is now. The United States of America is the longest surviving popular democracy in the world. It has shown the way and borne the proof that popular democracy is possible. We didn't create those ideas. We have merely shown that they can succeed in practice; this is a great achievement in world history.

Betsy Newmark has a superb post up on patriotism. You're cheating yourself if you don't read it. It's long, comprehensive, filled with links and basically revolves around this idea:
A conservative (or as Sowell terms it - the constrained vision) accepts that man is imperfect and that the choices we have are often between two rotten alternatives. A liberal (or in Sowell's term - the unconstrained vision) is more likely to focus on the faults and not accept that the ideal was not possible.
The implicit corollary to the idea that the undefined ideal is possible and achievable now is that society is a matter of static, discrete conditions rather than a somewhat chaotic and continually evolving construct. If you accept the first idea about society, then the duty of the moral individual must be to throw all of his support toward moving society into a better state, and one does not have to worry about the processes or the details necessary to maintain that state - they will automatically be solved once we reach that state. In fact, you don't even have to define that state - it is the "right" state. Just get there. In other words, first the revolution, then no need to worry any further. This is the maxim of the progressyves (all hail Professor Chomstein).

Aha! The progressyve cries, "What about the American revolution?" Well, first, you don't really approve of the American revolution, I reply. And I know exactly why you don't - because the American revolution was not your type of revolution. It was a cynical revolution. It wasn't aimed at achieving some wondrous state dominated by rightthinkers who would automatically solve everything, but at achieving a condition of relative freedom in which the colonists could try to work things out for themselves by avoiding the worst evils of society and trying to preserve enough individual freedom to let the better ideas and innovations flourish.

The Constitution of the United States is an awesome document precisely because it is a profoundly cynical document. It assumes that individuals and factions will struggle for power. It assumes that people will commit crimes. It assumes that the highest elected official in the nation may commit such severe crimes that he may need to be deposed. It assumes, to sum it up, that humans will continue to be just the same corrupt, productive, selfish, plundering, kind, merciful, unselfish, loving, abusive beings they have always been. This assumption has not been disputable over the 230 years of our history.

The Constitution of the United States is also an awesome document because it is a profoundly idealistic document. It assumes that even while human nature will remain the same, deeply imperfect thing it has always been, human rationality will still be able to create a counter-balancing system which will allow the imperfect humans in the system to achieve a better state of existence through solutions and experiments conducted by those imperfect humans. And this has held true over the 230 years of our history.

A less utopian foundation for government was never written; a more successful blueprint for government does not yet seem to have been found. I define Jeffersonian liberalism as a cynical pursuit of human ideals.

Keeping the above in mind, let's turn to LGF's collection of Kossite expressions of despair at patriotism. Here's one:
Today I walked out of church about a third of the way through the service. A soloist was performing “God Bless the USA.” I have always found that song to be especially cloying, but when I noticed it listed in the bulletin I decided to attempt to tolerate it. And I might have managed to do just that had not one or two individuals prompted the entire congregation to stand.
A scarifying experience for the recounter, I suppose, who explains further:
How could I in good conscience stand to embrace the lyrics “I’m proud to be an American” in the very same week we learned U.S. soldiers raped an Iraqi woman then murdered her and her family to cover up the crime?
(My first inkling was to search to see if this commenter had ever expressed an opinion on Tookie's demise, but I suppressed it.) No one's asking you to be proud of that. The perps are going to get what they deserve for that crime (after receiving a trial, and if the evidence holds up). There can be no possible nation, priesthood, profession, ministry, army or police department which does not contain individuals who fall so short of perfection that they commit crimes. The logic contained in the above statement pretty much indicates that the writer of the statement is not capable of feeling pride in, or expressing support for, any human institution.

But without human institutions, the only alternative is anarchy, and anarchy is a state in which a strong person is perfectly free to beat in the head of other inconvenient, weaker persons. Thus anarchies don't last long - instead they evolve swiftly into feudal states in which the stronger and less morally conscious prevail, and then easily shift into an autarchy like Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The nastier the autarch, the greater the rebellion and then the slaughter of the people enslaved under the autarch.

To express such distaste for the criminal or criminals who commit such a crime while ignoring or celebrating the "self-determination" of a criminal regime such as Saddam Hussein's is inexplicable to me. Surely a bad deed is a bad deed. Surely those who blow up civilians in marketplaces are criminals of the worst and most dangerous sort. Surely a person who believes in moral responsibility for his or her own actions should also believe in moral responsibility for inaction?

And why does this commenter go to church, anyway? Churches are awfully human institutions. I hope this person was never under the impression that this was a company of saints. People may go to church for many reasons, but surely the primary one ought to be that the attendees are entertaining at least the dim suspicion that they themselves might be imperfect and might need to improve on those imperfections. Churches and temples are for sinners. Churches are for the despairing, the sorrowful, the suffering and the striving. Churches exist to offer a better teaching, faith, inspiration, to support our willingness to continue to try to turn away from our worst and move toward our best. This is why despair is the worst of all human errors; it is the ultimate denial of our own individual responsibility and the ultimate embrace of individual irresponsibility.

All faiths teach us to recognize the bad consequences of our actions, to resolve to stop acting badly, and to attempt to provide whatever remedy we can for the bad consequences of our own actions. That's the meaning of repentance. It's not about feeling, but about action. It's the ultimate acceptance of personal responsibility.

A church is not to blame if it finds that a member of its congregation was stealing donations from the collection for the poor, acts to stop it, and does not endorse the activity. To engage in an agony of remorse for what you couldn't control is really a redirection of your attention from your own responsibilities. No faith or ethical system that holds together tells you to repent for and repair your neighbor's misdeeds. People who do this are embracing irresponsibility. Nations which do it are embracing irresponsibility too.

I'll express sorrow for the lack of action in Rwanda, and I will accept that the United States should try to reimburse Iraqi civilians for unintended harm to them by our armed forces. But I will never accept the idea that evil should not be opposed, because it is the ultimate argument of despair, and the ultimate abnegation of responsibility. I will not accept it individually, and I will never support our nation's acceptance of this idea.

Finally, I leave you with this Kossite keening on the occasion:
The United States of 2006 is, sadly, not my United States. As a middle class, middle aged WASP, I feel as disaffected and isolated as perhaps my darker, poorer, non-Christian fellow citizens feel. I want a democracy that values all of its citizens and their faiths, regardless of their personal wealth and social standing. I want a president, a Congress and news media that shares my image of the United States that attracted millions of immigrants to its shores, the image encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It's fascinating to see how the different camps quote the same thing, isn't it? I bookended Betsy's observations and the Kossite Kamp's for a reason. First we'll let Lincoln rebut this understanding of the Declaration of Independence, as quoted by Betsy in her must-read post:
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. ... I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
And now I'll let Chief No-Nag (who solemnly laid out his red-white-and-blue golfing outfit last night) point out to the Kos Komplainant above that it is those darker, poorer people who are flooding to the United States, and that their complaint of oppression is related to exclusion from our society's benefits. They clamor at the gates for admission to the society that this WASP so mourns. What does that say about his essential argument? Africa has great natural resources, but most of Africa's nations have slid back during my lifetime instead of advanced. The truth is that our society would totter and fall within a year if we opened our doors to all who wanted to come. We literally could not feed, clothe or house all the people who would arrive.

Knowing that, a responsible person would seek to somehow offer the keys to our success to other nations, and those keys lie in our cynical yet idealistic approach to human life. We are what we are, but that does not mean that we cannot improve the net sum of our imperfections. For other peoples and nations to achieve the same results, they don't have to be paragons of perfection - but they must accept real responsibility for their lives.

Our system of government only works because we accept responsibility for our own lives and our own futures, and we have historically realized that rational laws can be both cynical about human nature yet allow human condition to improve. I would advise the Kossite above to continue to vote his conscience, but I would also warn him that this is a democratic nation, not his nation. It's a mutually generated and held possession, and what is of importance for our future is not just his vision, but the sum total of all our visions. See Photon Courier for elaboration.

Small mistake there, the swiss are the oldest democracy in the world, established in 1294.

Also the Swiss still have a federalist system, one the US abandoned sometime around WWI.
Anon - they were not a democracy. They became a democracy well after the US. This is a common mistake, but it is a mistake.
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