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The American Experiment
From Ideal to Ordeal: Our 247-Year Trajectory
I’ve had thoughts and feelings bouncing around inside me for some time that I hoped and assumed would make their way onto my Substack blog before too long. Over a year later, I have yet to find the time to give form to what some part of me is starting to think might be eternally inchoate ideas. Substack is a powerful platform, but writing posts in my head is not what its creators had in mind, I think.
This is a day, however, on which I don’t want to let the Sun set before setting down some thoughts on its meaning. We call it Independence Day for obvious reasons, but it’s not merely independence from our erstwhile colonial master that inspires me to think with such deep affection about the meaning of this day. In the process of declaring and then procuring that independence, a simple but profound ideal was asserted that changed the trajectory of history in a manner and to a degree that stands to this day as one of the most significant developments in the progress of human flourishing. It’s wonderful that we threw off the yoke of that tyrant George III, but something far more significant was accomplished. The mere escape from oppression is an occasion for hearty thanks, but it hardly justifies the sense of reverence many of us feel for what this day symbolizes.
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Many of us, I think, feel that reverence, but not all. And far fewer than I thought was the case just three short years ago. The year 2020 was a historical breakpoint, the significance of which I think many of us have failed to grasp. I was starting to realize that just a year after it ended, and I wrote about it here. Looking back from the vantage point of one year later still, I think that realization has continued to grow and sharpen in the intervening months. On this date in 2020, I posted some thoughts on Facebook about the meaning of Independence Day. Some of our cities were on fire, and it was clear that some people were trying to burn down more than just the physical infrastructure of our nation. For the first time in my life, I felt self-conscious celebrating America's founding among my fellow countrymen. I remember even wondering if I was running the risk of having my house egged when my wife and I planted numerous small American flags around our mailbox to supplement the large one flying from our front porch. Such was the mood in the nation, that this was not necessarily a paranoid or even an unreasonable thought.
I wanted to work out an answer to this question in my Facebook post: Who are we talking about when we say “Americans”? Are we past the point of finding a reasonable consensus of opinion on the question of what this nation represents even at the highest level of abstraction? I had previously taken for granted that our national divisions were driven by a diversity of opinions as to how we could or should realize our national ideals, not about the legitimacy of those ideals themselves. I thought we disagreed on how we could reach a salutary future, not on whether our past and present were a shameful and execrable historical flex to be discarded with prejudice. I saw the beginnings of a counter-narrative that I hoped could be circumscribed and contained, but three years later I realize that it was more formidably entrenched than I had imagined.
I didn’t know that Substack existed in 2020. More significantly, I didn’t know that we needed it to exist. It didn’t occur to me that in a few short months, freedom of speech, that signal American virtue, would be transformed into a vice. That a feature of our existence as indelibly impressed on our national character as the Rocky Mountains are on the skyline of our heartland would be repudiated and overturned by a cabal of corporate and government power brokers, with the acquiescence and aid of the majority of our institutions, the mainstream media foremost among them. This is a subject for another post (one of those inchoate ideas I referred to above), but I mention it here in passing to explain why I’m referring now to a Facebook post from what it’s no exaggeration to say is a bygone era.
I’m going to paste that post in its entirety below. It’s a mere eight paragraphs and a two-sentence coda. I’m including it here in part because the recollection of it is what prompted me to revive my Substack blog today. But more importantly, I think it helps to illustrate our national trajectory. A mere three years later, the phenomenon that grabbed my attention through the burning of our cities in the midst of a national crisis appears to me in a very different light. What I naively assumed could be weathered and resolved to some tolerable degree over the course of a long Summer I now see as an eruption of a conflict simmering since our founding, but which has now been dangerously transformed into something that seems beyond the ability of any political process to fix.
It is not, in essence, a political conflict but a clash of world views bedeviling a society that has lost the ability or the inclination to think in terms of worldview. Although a worldview thinker can discern the outlines of two sets of allied forces, the typical 21st-century mind thinks in terms of group power dynamics and “principles” that are merely rules of construction, not attempts to reach some approximation of goodness or truth. What is good and what is true is no longer a question, but an assertion. And in this assertion, we no longer seek to reach beyond our selfishness and ignorance and find something far bigger than us to imbue our life with meaning, but rather to find a way to justify our prejudices, actualize our will, and increase our power. Such is life in the postmodern world, God help us.
Three years after that signal breakpoint that we call The Year 2020, how can we summarize this conflict? More specifically, who is trying to wreck the American Experiment, and why? And what can be done about it? These are not questions that can be readily answered even in a long treatise, and I’m trying to wrap up this particular post anyway. I think many writers more astute than me are addressing these questions today, and I hope to contribute my voice to the discussion in due time. For now, I’d like to suggest merely an outline of possible answers.
It seems to me that the primary conflict today is between those who believe that humans flourish through freedom and those who think that an elite few have the responsibility and the ability to bring about that flourishing through central planning and coercive control. Students of history know that this is hardly a new development and therefore not a particularly compelling problem statement in itself. But they also know that this is a conflict that was largely resolved in the Western world through events that began on this continent two and a half centuries ago, and that it has now come back upon us with a vengeance. Furthermore, the levers of control are being manipulated in unprecedented ways today, partly by the use of technologies that tyrants only yesterday had no access to and hardly even dreamed of, and partly because there has been a novel development in approach: a combination of corporate and governmental control on a global scale. The fascists have learned to think and act in a planetary scope. A collaboration across national boundaries among entrenched bureaucracies, financial and corporate power centers, and a sophisticated propaganda network that passes itself off as a professional media corp is creating a new international order that is vying to replace the familiar concept of adversarial nation-states as the principal power dynamic in the world. This has never happened before.
Another salient feature of the conflict is that the would-be neo-feudal masters depend on fear and information control to achieve their objectives. They operate in the open in some sense, but inasmuch as they control much of the communications media, through which they employ military-grade psychological warfare principles that have been honed for decades, they seek to remain masked because the world will as yet not tolerate them if their objectives are plainly seen. Fear goes hand in hand with information control because it is more easily instilled in a populace than some positive inducement. Everyone has different desires, but no one wants to die. Fear is also more conducive to gaining control because it is a powerful emotion built into us for the very purpose of eliciting rapid action and the acceptance of radical measures that we would never brook for some perceived positive good. I won’t give up my freedom to gain a nice salary, but I may do so if I think it’s the price of survival. The good news for us in this is that this tactic makes the tyrants exceedingly easy to spot. As soon as you realize the game, you can find them everywhere. And it is relatively easy, at least on the individual level, to resist this tactic. We all have the power to choose not to be afraid.
Lastly, I observe in my outline that there are certain issues that the power brokers and information warriors continually assert to be the issues that are vitally connected with our well-being, but which are actually artificial constructions or gross distortions, intended primarily to distract us from the disastrous effects of decades of failed governance. Thus the national conversation is manipulated to focus the populace on vaguely or nefariously defined issues such as racism, white supremacy, transgenderism, climate change, gay marriage, etc. Each of these is inherently defined so as to divide us, thereby distracting and keeping us from noticing that the leadership class has utterly failed in their governance with respect to actual issues that affect the well-being of our inner self as well as our material prosperity. Thus they seek to remain undisturbed as they preside over the destruction of our energy infrastructure, the impending collapse of our financial system, accelerating crime and violence in our cities, the degradation of our production and distribution capabilities, the capture of the public health system by a blatantly corrupt combination of pharmaceutical companies and government regulatory agencies, and the ripping of our social fabric into shreds.
There is room for optimism in all this, but that is not to say there is nothing to mourn or that the prospect of a lost greatness that we may never regain is to be discounted as a paranoid overreaction. We cannot go back to the past, but the future we build is not constrained by what was lost. I hope to explore the prospects for that future in the coming weeks. For now, the best I can do to end this post on a positive note is to share my thoughts on Independence Day from a bygone era when cynicism was a vice and trust was a virtue.
— Independence Day, 2020 —
We hold these truths to be self-evident...
So began a document that changed the history of the world and defined a nation. Today we celebrate the signing of that document and the birth of our nation. But it's suddenly necessary to ask who the "we" in that statement is.
Allan Bloom said "You can become an American in a day."1 He meant that the United States is unique among the community of nations in being a country defined by an idea. But I think not many of us understand today the nature of our country's uniqueness or what we even mean by "the American experiment". And I think few of us can articulate what our founding idea is. But that's what this day is supposed to be about, right?
The American ideal can be easily articulated. All men are equal and in possession of certain rights, not because a government deigned to grant them those rights or that equality, but because they possess those rights and that equality inherently. Government is our shared project to protect and preserve those rights that we possess by nature, and it rules by the consent of those governed.
It's no secret that the ideals of 1776 were not applied to all men by the government that was formed in 1787. "The current recognition of the horror and intolerability of slavery represents a rare example of unambiguous moral progress", but at the time of the American founding, notions of free labor were surprising, and even alarming, to much of civilized society.2 The transitional character of this question was reflected in our Constitution and in its tension with the ideals expressed in the Declaration. It was a thorny and troubled question, the climactic answer to which came with 600,000 killed under arms in a national cataclysm, and at least that many more killed from the war's more indirect, but no less horrific, effects. Even then, all men were free, but not all were equal, until another hundred years of struggle.
America is a country with unique and benevolent ideals that she has not fully lived up to. We are also a country that has struggled mightily to realize them. We have made exemplary progress, and the vast majority of us are committed from the heart to continuing on that beneficial path. There are voices today who want to tell a different story, but that story is not supported by facts and is rather driven by a counter-revolutionary ideology that is used to grossly distort our history and set fire to our inheritance. I will not give voice to that story.
The lives of Black people matter. I will say that with a full stop because there are many who think this proposition is not universally accepted. I disagree that this is the case. But rather than argue the point I'll respond warmly and from the heart, asserting what is thought to be lacking. But I will not utter the name of that organization that has adopted a true statement for its title but has a reading of the past and a vision of the future that is destructive of human flourishing, for people of all races.
I'm proud to be an American. That is neither an expression of parochial interest nor an unthinking, emotional outburst. It is an assertion from the heart of ideals that can and will ensure human flourishing. And 200+ years of history have attested to the truth and goodness of those ideals, as despite all our struggles and all our failures, we have built a multi-racial society that has flourished like no other in history. They are ideals that apply to and will enliven people of all races, creeds, ethnic backgrounds, etc. Though it would be hollow to make such a statement with respect to the events of 1787, in 2020 these are words of genuine hope.
It is clear to all who will judge honestly and fairly that the only sane and salutary path for our society is for people of all races to embrace these ideals and work together for the preservation of our freedom and the continued march of prosperity. To look each other in the eye, so to speak, and seek with all sincerity to understand what unites us and what (and who) is seeking to divide us.
God bless the USA. All 328 million of us.
“A man can become an American in a day, but he cannot become an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, or a Russian in a hundred years. Americanization is a matter of acquiring a new set of political habits, not of acquiring a new culture." Allan Bloom, “The Closing of the American Mind”, Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, “The Mind of the Master Class”, Cambridge University Press, 2005.