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Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Guest Post: What the Pursuit of Happiness Does and Doesn't Mean

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 "political correctness."
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.

Unfortunately, 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 "becoming yourself."
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 strive.

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 improve ourselves.

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.