Trying something new today - my friend Jeremy posted the below on Facebook, and has allowed me to post it here, since it sums up pretty closely something I wanted to post to mark Independence Day in the US. Enjoy:
American culture has a character problem. The evidence is abundant.
Look at our child president. Look at the sad resentments that have made
the "troll" into an established American archetype. Look at how large
parts of the population moan about the imaginary restraints of
The funny thing is that America's lack
of character is bound tightly to the otherwise enlightened idea that
each human is inherently valuable.
"We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men 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."
It's great! Radical, even, given how we treat each other.
It's also obvious that we've never come close to putting these
supposedly self-evident truths into practice. Some say America has
always been a forward-looking concern, that that unequivocal line from
the declaration is a beacon on a distant shore, one that we aim for when
we take a break from beating civil rights marchers and injecting people
with expired execution drugs. We fix on that beacon and ignore the
cognitive dissonance the threatens to trouble us whenever a right-winger
invokes Martin Luther King, Jr.
But I think that founding idea
also works on us at a more basic, psychological level. It gives us a
powerful cognitive tool we can use to assert ourselves, to proclaim our
worth in the face of the forces of anti-humanism.
this tool can also be put to dark uses. For some, the American self
isn't just sovereign. It's imperial. It opposes civilization and
cultivation. It favors the zero-sum contest and precludes honorable
restraint and moral obligation.
I'm not saying the American
character needs more submissiveness. Nor do I use obligation in the
Confucian sense. But I fear so much of our culture insists that we're
just fine as we are. The raw materials implied by our self-evident
animating idea are enough and in no need of refinement. Even our
children's entertainment emphasizes "being yourself" with no mention of
But the Declaration of Independence wasn't a
declaration against self-improvement. The idea was never that we should
be born free and then stay dumb, that our inherent value as people
absolved us from all further effort. The "pursuit of happiness" may
sound like the end of obligation, but it's an active idea, an invitation
To be clear, I'm not talking about the meritocracy or the self-improvement of internships, resumes and the self-help section.
The pursuit of happiness is America's jihad. It is a call for us to
struggle against base instincts and prejudices. It is the effort to make
each us a vessel of civilization and refinement. We must have
experiences and study the arts and expand our conceptions. We have to
question ourselves and resist the fake comfort of confirmation bias. We
must live for each other and build each other up even as we work to
Honor isn't a restraint, and the declaration
didn't kill it. Each of us may have our ideas about what constitutes
happiness, but how can anyone be happy when everyone acts as if their
happiness matters more than everyone else's?
Resentment is an
individual flaw, but it's also writ large in the contemporary American
character. It is the current president's primary motivation. It was the
force behind the political movement that put him in power. Resentment
keeps us from thinking clearly about our real problems. It is against
honor and it weakens us.
So, in that spirit, I recommend that
Trump's America read George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company in Conversation. He wrote it when he was a teenager.
Not all of the rules are worth following. It has a bit too much
deference to social betters for my taste. But patriots might like it.