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The term "American Exceptionalism" always evokes, for me, images of Americans, whether drunken louts at international sporting venues or neoconservative pundits, simultaneously exalting their country while denigrating others, either implying, or stating forthrightly, that other countries should emulate America. I have no taste for such rhetoric because I have no taste for the jingoistic, as I have no taste for the braggart, the bully, and the powerful lording their power over the weak. Hence, I found the Lowry/Ponnuru piece that inspired Paul's four-part response distasteful, and, apart from the specific political and philosophical points that everyone is debating, a manifestation of the political psychology of the right in America, according to which political conservatism is identified with America itself, and never fails but is only failed by fallible men. For this psychological constellation, deviation is a perpetual threat, and so the bearers of deviation must be identified, marked, and stigmatized. Harbour a different interpretation of some epoch of our national history? You might be less an authentic American than the conservative, the bearer of anti-American ideas, whether embryonic or full-blown. This happens so frequently that it is not worth reciting the litany.

I'd posit that this psychology, aside from emotive sources, is rooted in a confusion over what it means to close questions societally, a confusion over what it means to have openness in a society. Every society closes some questions. Every society also permits discussion, deliberation, and dissent within the confines of its orthodoxy. Catholics debate the application of their social doctrine, and we Orthodox would do the same if we admitted that we had one - we do, and it's pretty much like the Catholic one, though some Orthodox will chafe, understandably or not, at the philosophical foundations of the Catholic doctrine. Liberal political philosophers debate all manner of things within the confines of the Rawlsian/post-Rawlsian framework, such as the respective merits of the resources and capabilities approaches to justice. And Americans debate the meaning and applications of the Constitution and other institutions of public life.

The error of so much of the talk about American Exceptionalism, anti-Americanism, and so forth, is that it attempts to circumscribe the boundaries of the foundational orthodoxy too narrowly, thus stifling the discourse. Openness always exists within the context of closure. Both Paul and Lydia are correct, in a sense.

Enough of that, however. The difficulty I have with the disavowals, at NRO, of any affection for J.S. Mill, is that the Open Society is not merely an intellectual construct, and a set of social and political practices based thereon, abjuring and resisting the emergence of any public orthodoxy. The Open Society cannot be reduced to a matter of beliefs and the operationalization in political action. A society may also be adjudged "open" in the relevant sense if it has no set of practices, institutions, arrangements, whether social or economic or religious that is embraces and defends as given, as the preconditions and presuppositions of all social development, and thus, as immune from fundamental alteration, be it instigated from any source. To the extent that American Exceptionalism is equated with a defense of the dynamism of American capitalism, of the relentless gales of creative destruction that sweep away institutions, economic structures, social formations, and even mores, and to the extent that this construct is defended, there will be a defense of the Open Society. In other words, to the extent that social formations and institutions other than those of the economic must orient themselves in, around, and between the forces of dynamism, as they manifestly do in American society, we have an Open Society. The Open Society is not merely a matter of public orthodoxies, or the lack thereof, of our beliefs and the extent to which we debate them; it is also a matter of social organization, of the actual structures and practices of a society. As there are perhaps hidebound Millians who eschew any thoughts of a public orthodoxy, so also are there hidebound defenders of dynamism and economic openness who eschew any thoughts of, say, defending certain economic arrangements insofar as they make possible strong localistic tendencies, family stability and security, and so forth.

One cannot claim to oppose the Open Society and then defend a political economy which first traduces, and then dissolves, every fixity and stability, all in the names of dynamism and efficiency.

Comments (34)

"American Exceptionalism" evokes for me: John Winthrop (and Reagan quoting him), Ben Franklin and George Washington, Lewis and Clarke, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, Carnegie and his philanthropy, Gates and Jobs, etc. And that is ignoring all the war figures I admire (Lincoln, Grant, FDR, Patton, MacArthur, etc.) so as to avoid starting any really nasty fights with all my blog friends here at W4. The point is that I think of America's accomplishments and her heroes and Jeff Martin thinks of jingoistic bullies.

So am I defending a "political economy which first traduces, and then dissolves, every fixity and stability, all in the names of dynamism and efficiency"? Yes, with the caveat that Jeff Martin is not describing an American economy that exists in the real world but an imaginary one that he continues to condemn from this blog, the facts be damned. Every fixity and stability indeed!

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success
be nobleness
And ev'ry gain divine.

Maximos, how would you characterize patriotism without veering in the direction of jingoism? Or is it that one man's patriotism is another man's jingoism, and there's nothing that truly and substantially distinguishes them?

John Lukacs:


We have seen that while true patriotism is defensive, nationalism in aggessive; patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a "people", justifying everything, a political and ideological substitute for religion; both modern and populist.



Since it appeals to tribal and racial bonds, nationalism seems to be deeply and atavistically natural and human. Yet the trouble with it is not only that nationalism can be antihumanist and often inhuman but that it also proceeds from one abstract assumption about human nature itself. The love for one's people is natural, but it is also categorical; it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one's country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to love of one's family. Nationalism is both self-centered and selfish - because human love is not the love of oneself; it is the love of another* Patriotism is always more than merely biological - because charitable love is human and not merely "natural".
Nature has, and shows, no charity.

* A convinced nationalist is suspicious not only of people he sees as aliens; he may be even more suspicious of people of his own ilk and ready to denounce them as "traitors" - that is, people who disagree with his nationalist beliefs.


I do not follow Lukacs in all points of historical interpretation and analysis, but I certainly follow him in distinguishing patriotism and nationalism, the public and attitudinal expression of the latter of which is jingoism, the braggart's boasting of the greatness of his country relative to all others, her superiority over the works of all others, the baseness and depravity of those others, and of the Idea that his nation incarnates, an Idea perhaps intended - by some Agency, whether divine or historical - to reorder the affairs of men. The jingo magnifies the greatness of his nation, not merely in itself, but comparatively, that the refulgent splendor of his national Idea might cause other nations to wither - in his eyes at least - in its radiation. When American conservatives denigrate France, or virtually any nation of Europe, particularly with the gauche rhetoric of the New and Old Europes, they are engaging in jingoism. Examples could be multiplied, but the undertaking would be fraught with tedium.

The patriot has no need whatsoever of comparative political economy in order to love his country, no need to so much as hint at another country in order to express his love for his. It is sufficient that she is his, and that his love for her is more than the primitively "biological", as Lukacs expresses it, such that the patriot can encompass at once in his love both her virtues and her faults. The jingo, by contrast, cannot abide any discussion of national faults or failings, and continually strives to 'other' or excommunicate from the national 'church' those who point to them, those who by their chastisements strive to achieve a betterment of national conduct. I think it manifest and incontestable that many 'conservatives' cannot abide discussion of the darker passages of American history; many cannot abide even of the manifest, and originary, pluralism of American "Ideas". As to the former, those 'conservatives' cannot tolerate mentions of the complexity of American foreign policy, its welter of motives, some of which were, and are, base. As to the latter, many 'conservatives' strive to write out of the national narrative whole schools of thought which have been with us, almost from the beginning; others still strive to exclude them in a manner reminiscent of fundamentalist biblical exegesis, by construing the Constitution and other American institutions in certain ways, and then stigmatizing those who differ as less American, and so forth. And the more vociferously they insist upon these exercises, the more vigorously will the 'deconstructionists' insist upon the irreducible pluralism of the American narrative, itself a function of human finitude and the permanence of the problems of political philosophy and statesmanship.

I have written about patriotism enough (I hope) not to be suspected of nationalism, much less of the sort of amalgam we have here where nationalist passions are attached to propositions instead of a people; but I must say that I often wonder why those who would chastise these errors (and again I hope I am taken to be perfectly sincere in calling them errors) in their countrymen have so little sympathy for the indignation of the patriot at insult and injury.

America is cursed with full throats every semester at every third university campus across this land. But one or two a generation, every major film depicting American soldiers draws them as madmen, cruel tyrants, degenerates, or oppressed free souls ground to death by an inhuman machine. (To my knowledge there has been a total of one serious film that showed American soldiers in Vietnam as actually heroic.)

When my country is so degraded, when such bigotry and one-sided calumny is heaped upon her, yeah, it pisses me off. And I might lapse and make a crack about France* if (let's say) it is a Frenchmen who levels the scurrilous accusations. Or I might answer an American leftist that our country has been mighty damn generous with her treasure (rather too generous, some would say) to quickly restore vanquished enemies to prosperity -- mighty damn generous for a nation of greedy bastards; and he can take his critique of imperial greed and pound sand with it.

But according a certain line of chastisement that America has (it is alleged) so richly deserved, we are to be unmanly patriots who only once in awhile throw in a word edgewise that golly gee America hasn't been all bad, fellers.

No less than the objects of its critique does this line of argument "write out of the national narrative" aspects of the American character "which have been with us, almost from the beginning."

The boastful patriot with a bit of a chip on his shoulder -- this character has been with us from the beginning beyond all doubt. Sometimes he is wrong in feeling insulted and denigrated; sometimes he is quite wrong in his response, even when right in his feeling. But it is the lack of human sympathy for this eminently human response to insult, which strikes the observer of a certain line of critique of America.

Finally, I shall have much more to say about boasts and patriotism and humility in the last part of my Exceptionalism series.


_________
* Q: why are the avenues in Paris lined with trees?
A: So the Germans can march in the shade.

Great comment, Paul.

Yes, excellent response, Paul.

Maximos, although I accept a generalized distinction between patriotism on the one hand and something on the other, which Lukacs identifies with nationalism, frankly I don''t think it really is nationalism that is the target of his arrow. After all, a nation is, technically, "a people", united by common ancestors, heritage, language, and usually faith. And on the first hand: it is truly, truly bizarre to center patriotism on love for a particular LAND. Given our pioneer foundation, our pioneer adventurism to scout out the next hill, the next forest, river. But even aside from pioneering Americans: The Greeks who left Athens and founded Syracuse and other colonies, and (literarily) the Trojans who left Troy to found Rome cannot be faulted for patriotism, and yet what they kept by reason of that patriotism was their heritage, their gods, their ancestors, not their land. For a true patriot, land is probably the most important of all the secondary realities to be defended, not the defining one.

The patriot has no need whatsoever of comparative political economy in order to love his country, no need to so much as hint at another country in order to express his love for his.

Ok, so how does the patriot express his love for his? (His what, by the way? His family? - no, that's not patriotism. His clan? - no, still not it. His people and country ? Yes, that's right.) Negatively, of course, a patriot shows his love for his own by defending them against attack. Should I mention this would take on metaphorical attacks as well: pushing back against verbal attacks against his own country? How often do we see non-"conservatives" push back against verbal attacks on their own? If conservatives do it poorly, at least they do it, compared to others who would just as soon attack their country verbally as not.

Positively, how? By saying and doing things that show that he gives preferential standing to his own before others. Preferential standing. Hmm, does that begin to sound suspiciously like hinting that another country takes second place to his own? Which is inherently comparative, whether anyone bothers to make it explicit or not.

no need to so much as hint at another country

Yeah, it's just _so_ unhelpful to telling my kids how great America is and how thankful they should be to have been born here to tell them how other people live and what other people have to fear elsewhere.

Not.

American pride forever.

I have written about patriotism enough (I hope) not to be suspected of nationalism, much less of the sort of amalgam we have here where nationalist passions are attached to propositions instead of a people; but I must say that I often wonder why those who would chastise these errors (and again I hope I am taken to be perfectly sincere in calling them errors) in their countrymen have so little sympathy for the indignation of the patriot at insult and injury.

Speaking solely for myself, and not for any other conservative or reactionary types who have written upon these themes, I do have sympathy for the indignation of the patriot; that for which I have no sympathy whatsoever is the sort of vulgar nationalism that takes umbrage at, to take but two examples, the suggestions that American foreign policy has issued in adverse blowback, and that it is pointless to critique the political economy of France insofar as it differs from ours - in other words, that nationalism, that apotheosization of the American Idea, according to which America does no wrong, and is the measuring rod by which other nations are to be judged. For all of the grandiloquent expressions of pride, there is weakness lying beneath such attitudes, in the form of a fear that America is not exceptional at all; so many of these expressions presuppose, not that America should be America, this positive thing-in-itself, but rather America, the not-France, the not-Europe: America the negation of some positive thing, itself confident in itself. Of course, this is a manifestation of a general tendency; conservatives have often troubled themselves so greatly in order to be the not-liberals, the not-left, that they have conserved nothing at all, save for that determination to negate something.

After all, a nation is, technically, "a people", united by common ancestors, heritage, language, and usually faith. And on the first hand: it is truly, truly bizarre to center patriotism on love for a particular LAND. Given our pioneer foundation, our pioneer adventurism to scout out the next hill, the next forest, river.

Patriotism as Lukacs expounds it is much like the credo of the Front Porch Republic folks: place, limits, liberty - meaning the customs, mores, folkways, traditions of this people in this place. The many peregrinations of Western history complicate matters, and I would maintain that the pioneer spirit in the American character differs, by degree, perhaps even kind, from other notable Western migrations, in that it was often driven by an impulse to excape the obligations of custom and place, and not by a desire to implant those ways in a new place. The strands are interwoven in our history, and - and here is where I would locate my critique of "economic dynamism" and its effects upon culture and family - if anything, the 'escape' strand is by far the stronger and more prominent, owing precisely to our political economy. Now, all of the work being done on the formation of intentional communities, and ideological sorting-by-geography counters that critique somewhat, but only somewhat; intentional communities and sorting are really only dialectical twists of the dominant narrative: when these things occur, they occur because people want to escape those who are unlike them, in order to reside among those among whom they will not encounter disagreement. Old-school communities, of the sort that really underpinned our traditions, and their intergenerational transmission, were not voluntary in this sense; you were stuck with them, and you were compelled to negotiate disagreements in good Burkean fashion, compromising, living and letting live, etc.

Positively, how? By saying and doing things that show that he gives preferential standing to his own before others.

Preferential standing cannot be equated with what so many conservatives in fact do, which is to imply, or state openly, that the problem with France, for example, is that its institutions and mores are bad tout court, and not merely bad - probably - for Americans. The institutions and practices of other nations are emergent phenomena of their cultures, histories, and so forth, and make sense, or fail to make sense, with respect to these. In other words, it is incoherent and nonsensical to damn France for having a social democracy, when this latter is precisely a function of French history and culture; to do so is to indulge in absurdity, as it would be absurd to demand that America replicate French institutions. But wait, isn't this all that Lowry and Ponnuru are doing? No, they're doing something more, something ideological: reifying these things as Ideas and demanding that they never converge in a certain direction. The other direction - France becoming America - would be fine with them, and some neocons hoped, early on in his administration, that Sarkozy would accomplish it. History, however, never rests, and the problems of political science endure forever; one cannot, therefore, issue the categorical imperative in the negative form - never adopt any policy resembling one in Europe! - for it is always possible that circumstances will move America toward an American inflection of such a policy.

The inherent comparisons therefore assume the form of observing that American institutions are more or less adequated to American aspirations in given circumstances, as French institutions are adequated to French aspirations in given circumstances, and that we, as Americans prefer it that way. But what the French do is fine for the French.

Old-school communities, of the sort that really underpinned our traditions, and their intergenerational transmission, were not voluntary in this sense; you were stuck with them, and you were compelled to negotiate disagreements in good Burkean fashion, compromising, living and letting live, etc.

Well, yes. Except when you got up a lynching party, a witchhunt, a pogrom. Then you didn't have to live with those nasties.

The notion that you had to learn to live with those others hangs on an assumption that you could learn to live with them. It has been social experience over and over again that when one party takes on a new all-encompassing set of customs, practice, ideal, faith, and then insists on living that in defiance of the old, then the friction generally results in either war, suppression, or flight. Not accommodation. Please re-read the history of the wars of Europe.

Maximos, I have no problem pointing out that patriotism can be taken too far. I also agree that IF patriotism is taken too far, it is more commonly a conservative who does so rather than a liberal. I agree that America is not flawless, and the attitude that she is the heaven-sent light of political perfection to the world is flummery. But even while we accept that America isn't perfect, it remains possible that America gets some things more right than other countries, and other countries could learn from us.

Me, I don't want France to become a new America, I think France is fine to be a good France. But that doesn't mean that I don't think that France could become better, even while remaining France. (True with America, too.) I have friends who came from France, who settled here in the US because they couldn't raise & homeschool their kids well in France: even though they love their home country & go back to visit often, they don't love aspects of France enough to live there, and they do love certain aspects of America enough to live here. No big deal, they also think America does some stupid stuff. It is possible BOTH to allow different countries have different characters distinctly their own, AND to admit that within certain parameters, A is simply better than B. And sometimes, the parameters are so wide and so deep that the limits are negligible: in 1977 America was a better country than Cambodia. Simply.

Well, yes. Except when you got up a lynching party, a witchhunt, a pogrom. Then you didn't have to live with those nasties.

Excerpt that the limit cases are not the relevant points of comparison; the relevant points of comparison are probably small to moderately-sized American towns or cities prior to the largest depredations of industrial and post-industrial capitalism.

There is actually an interesting politico-philosophical subtext buried within this discussion, and particularly the comment to which I'm responding in these paragraphs, namely, the meta-political question of the ends of politics, and whether we should aim to achieve, by approximation some form of the Good, or merely to avoid some concept of the summum malum. I'm in the former camp, obviously, and find tedious all of the "but... socialism!", or "but....(insert intellectual construct drawing upon some historical unpleasantness)!" for a simple and serious reason: worrying about some hypothetical summum malum, and making the avoidance of this thing the lodestar of one's political doctrine, is so very liberal, in the historical genealogical sense, as with the genesis of liberal doctrines in reactions against the Wars of Religion. If we cannot structure our politics around some thick conception of the Good, for fear of some dire, sanguinary outcome, then let's do the honest and honourable thing and become liberals, full stop. Please.

It has been social experience over and over again that when one party takes on a new all-encompassing set of customs, practice, ideal, faith, and then insists on living that in defiance of the old, then the friction generally results in either war, suppression, or flight. Not accommodation. Please re-read the history of the wars of Europe.

Beyond what I've written above, may I state that I find this somewhat hyperbolic in actually-obtaining American circumstances? Are we really at the precipice of conflagration because Neoliberal Party D thinks that the marginal rate of taxation should be 39% while Neoliberal Party R think that the marginal rate of taxation should be lower, always lower? In these American Exceptionalism discussions, we're not concerned with social policy, as it bears upon abortion and other manifestations of the culture of death - why that is is a subject best fit for another post - but with political economy and the tiresome meta-discourse of what we think about political economy, along with foreign policy. Is a new Civil War aborning because Americans disagree about taxation, or because some think that the Iraq War was, and remains, unjust and stupid?

But even while we accept that America isn't perfect, it remains possible that America gets some things more right than other countries, and other countries could learn from us.

Meh. Every such cultural transmission must be translated and inflected, and the resultant translation or inflection must be compatible with the recipient culture. Should I mention Iraq, or stick to France? I'll stick to France for the moment. Conservatives should cease and desist from their critiques of the so-called dirigisme, social-democratic economies of European nations such as France, for the manifest reason that capitalism, American-style, is alien to their cultures - not "alien to the artifically-imposed quasi-Stalinist political culture of the Sorbonne", but alien to their cultures, period. They have no desire for what they term 'cowboy capitalism', and, as it is incongruous with the national character, no use for it. It is as fully meaningless to condemn French political economy for being unlike American political economy as it is to state that France should at once be France and America.

I don't think we entirely disagree on this account: France should become a better France, in a French way. Certainly, to take your example, it would be wonderful if French families were able to homeschool their children. But this is emphatically not the sort of policy shift conservatives have in mind when they bloviate about American Exceptionalism and the retrogrades on the Continent. They're concerned about dog-whistle, intra-group regimes of signification such as "socialism" and "(whatever the foreign-policy meme of the month is)". This, however, is to return to one of those subtexts or meta-questions of politics, in this case, that of those issues that differ legitimately across cultures, and those that ought to be constant. It would seem obvious enough that, while defeasible, parents should have a claim-right to educate their children as they deem necessary, within broad social parameters (ie., parents in developed societies should not be permitted to leave their children uneducated). Unfortunately, it seems rather less obvious to many conservatives that political economy is a legitimate sphere of fairly wide cultural difference. Perhaps they should hand over the bottles of Olde Colde Warre; it's skunked anyway.

And sometimes, the parameters are so wide and so deep that the limits are negligible: in 1977 America was a better country than Cambodia. Simply.

I advert to earlier remarks upon the subject of limit cases. Cambodia was objectively worse than just about every other extant nation in 1977, because it was a communist despotism perpetrating a genocide. It is not a sensible and coherent claim to state that America is a better country than France. One could claim that America is a better country than France for an American steeped in American traditions and assumptions, or that one prefers the specific constellation of social goods and ills characteristic of America to those of France, and that would be sensible and coherent.

They have no desire for what they term 'cowboy capitalism',

The Europeans' utterly stupid and continual use of the term "cowboy" has no pull, none, whatsoever.

Not even after the manifestly, ahem, roguish conduct of financiers and speculators has led to a Great Recession? Really? One may view their use of the term 'cowboy' with disapprobation, owing to positive connotations of the term in an American context, but the complaint does point to something real, something which has unmoored American capitalism since - at least - the S&L crisis.

Non-discussion discussion is so much fun.

Have you never noticed the utter reflexiveness of it, Maximos? It's just not some sort of thoughtful critique.

Sigh. Any critique can be reflexive and autonomic in certain circumstances, and yet those circumstances do not always obtain. Sometimes, they actually have teeth, as when the Europeans actually propose to limit, in their own domains, American speculators who have engaged in abuses, and caused destabilization.

It is not a sensible and coherent claim to state that America is a better country than France. One could claim that America is a better country than France for an American steeped in American traditions and assumptions, or that one prefers the specific constellation of social goods and ills characteristic of America to those of France, and that would be sensible and coherent.

I don't really have anything particular against France, I was using them just as an example.

How about this: it is possible to say of country A versus B, that A is a better place to get a wholesome job, or to raise kids, or to live a vibrant life enfolded in the Church, or to receive health care, or to get an education worthy of the name, or to start a business, or to be a poor person, or to grow all your own food. Any of these might be reasonable. If it turns out that 4 or 5 or 6 of these important, life-encompassing sorts of realities all go to A instead of to B for more people more of the time, then a statement that "A is a better country than B" would be more true than it would be false or indeterminate. Even in a bona fide case where A really is better than B, (Say, from God's eagle-eye view) that doesn't imply that A is better for each and every citizen, so finding that some people steeped in culture B find B better doesn't undermine the claim.

concerned about dog-whistle, intra-group regimes of signification such as "socialism" ...

may I state that I find this somewhat hyperbolic

Indeed. You may.

It would seem obvious enough that, while defeasible, parents should have a claim-right to educate their children as they deem necessary

Too true. How unfortunate that Germany runs exactly in the opposite direction: that parents have NO right to choose to educate their kids, and have taken kids away from families for exactly that reason. How gratifying that the American justice system has granted asylum to German families charged with such "crimes." Germans will respond that our American notions of personal and familial freedom are contrary to the German spirit, and as such we should not think to suggest the Germans adopt a more home-school friendly approach to education: that wouldn't be Germany becoming a better Germany in the German manner. To which I would say (of this issue): in a pig's eye.

Just by the way, the Convention on the Rights of Children would, if adopted by the US, (a) override all federal and state constitutional provisions, and case law, on parental rights, and (b) make it possible for a Brussels bureaucrat to decide whether a family in the US can rightly choose to homeschool. This is the sort of international approach (European driven, with support from US liberals) to "accommodation" that we must say no to. It defies the concept of subsidiarity in such a vastly important way that it is almost impossible to overstate.

Tony, amen on that concerning parents. There is a reason--several--why America is a bastion of freedom for home schooling. Has something to do with those "dog-whistle," jingoistic notions about liberty. And it isn't just Germany, either. Sweden kidnapped a child off a plane because his home schooling parents were about to escape with him to India (of all places). While Germany is one of the worst among the Western countries in this area, my strong impression is that all European countries are significantly worse than America for home schooling and that this is directly tied to that whole "European way of being" thing. (England just suggested new controls on home schooling that have had many English home schooling parents seriously considering moving to Scotland.) Short version: Europeans and people in the UK usually think we're nuts for allowing parents the prima facie freedom to educate their children that we do allow. I guess we're being "cowboys" about that. Or something.

It seems to me that sometimes, out there among the many young men who have made their name as "internal" critics of the American Right, the American conservative is asked to abandon all that is distinctly American in his conservatism.

Is it or is it not true that Buckley's vision embraced, or at least made peace with, a broad swath of what we call libertarianism today? Is it or is it not true that American conservatives, dating back to at least to Randolph and Orestes Brownson, have been an eccentric and individualistic lot? Did Burke not speak truly when he said,

The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We can not, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would detect the imposition. Your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.

or was Burke doing the falsifying there?

The pioneer, the inventor, the frontiersman, the eccentric, the man of fierce independence of mind and body -- these form a major part of the American character, especially the American conservative character. A mediaevalist like Russell Kirk can fit in precisely because America gives board range to every man in his unique character to live life as he sees fit to live it.

That virtue, discipline, piety, that these too are necessary none here will deny; but there is nothing necessarily uniform in the expression of virtue. The colorful panoply of the saints of Christendom confirms this.

So yeah, the critique that usually follows that phrase "cowboy [fill in the blank]" is very often a tired and brittle fragment of real discussion; an ancient artifact from the Cold War, really. They leveled this charge at Reagan, and even our Maximos must admit that Reagan (whatever his latter-day invokers may say) was not a president given to reckless foreign policy adventurism. His vision of defeat for the Soviet Union was crowned by a true prudential statesmanship, which gave us the victory peacefully (or mostly so anyway). No small thing. Even many of the liberals who called him a cowboy have discovered this fact at last.

In sum, an American conservatism that aims to throw off the tradition of individualism entirely ought to just come out and admit that the whole national modifier must go. No longer can it be American.

(Also, let's face it, a true cowboy capitalism would have let Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Merill Lynch all fail with a curt, "Tough luck, hombres.")

Also, let's face it, a true cowboy capitalism would have let Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Merill Lynch all fail with a curt, "Tough luck, hombres.

There isn't anything wrong with wanting to make Wall Street a ghost town, the banksters certainly had no qualms about sacrificing the Rust Belt to their strange idols. Still, you want there to be some sort of backup system in place before retiring them to their mansions.

If it turns out that 4 or 5 or 6 of these important, life-encompassing sorts of realities all go to A instead of to B for more people more of the time, then a statement that "A is a better country than B" would be more true than it would be false or indeterminate.

I don't really believe that matters are so simple, so easily quantified, because the quantification conceals the value judgments with which I am concerned, and which I lump under the rubrics of 'culture'. American health care is characterized by a higher degree of innovation than virtually all European systems, aided by vast public and private research apparatuses; the French system makes it easier for those not blessed with either wealth or employer-based coverage to receive routine, as opposed to merely emergency care. This is the consequence of a confluence of cultural value judgments. "Better" is relative to the scheme of values.

Again, I have no difficulty condemning the German proscription of homeschooling, precisely because I am striving to discriminate between those matters grounded firmly in fundamental human goods and obligations, and those also grounded, but mediated by complex socio-cultural forms. And, I'm sorry, but the relationship of parent and child falls into the former category, while such things as the rate of taxation, the role of unions in the political economy, the structure of the health care system, and the encouragement given to entrepreneurship fall into the latter category; they do not involve uncomplicated moral judgments, let alone the moral gravity of the parent-child relationship. Besides, issues such as homeschooling are red herrings in the American Exceptionalism controversy in any event, inasmuch as no advocates of the Idea ever trouble to broach them; instead, they are always banging on about the American form of capitalism, and so forth, which is to state that they are assigning excess moral weight to something comparatively unimportant.

Is it or is it not true that Buckley's vision embraced, or at least made peace with, a broad swath of what we call libertarianism today?

And this was one of its cardinal failings, inasmuch as the resulting fusionism conserved precisely nothing more than the interests of its business-class donor base. This is quite apart from its intellectual instability.

Is it or is it not true that American conservatives, dating back to at least to Randolph and Orestes Brownson, have been an eccentric and individualistic lot?

I'm dubious that the sort of individualism lauded by advocates of American Exceptionalism is really the same sort of thing as the eccentricity of a Russell Kirk or Orestes Brownson; one might as well equate the individualism of the daring quantitative trader and the eccentricity of the Christian saint, but I doubt such a construction would pass muster. There is an unbridgeable chasm separating the individualism of the man devoted to the false infinity of material desire, and the individualism of the man devoted to the Good, or the true Infinite of the divine.

So yeah, the critique that usually follows that phrase "cowboy [fill in the blank]" is very often a tired and brittle fragment of real discussion; an ancient artifact from the Cold War, really.

Very often, perhaps, but not universally, and certainly not with reference to the dominant tendencies of American political economy over the past generation or two. Whatever criticisms continental Europeans have leveled at the finance capitalists of New York and London have been vindicated, perhaps trillions of times over, by the reckoning of the quantity of wealth destroyed.

Besides, issues such as homeschooling are red herrings in the American Exceptionalism controversy in any event, inasmuch as no advocates of the Idea ever trouble to broach them;

Except that we just did.

And Maximos, you're just wrong. The European discomfort with home schooling is _deeply_ woven intertwined with the European discomfort with individualism, with being different, with limitations on the power of the state, with a failure to conform and join in. It has, in short, to do with what the author of America's Thirty Years' War (who might have been thought to know what he was talking about) "jingoistically" referred to as the "Franco-Prussian" way of thinking, which--as I'm sure he'd be the first to acknowledge were he still on this earth--has now spread to the Anglos of the UK as well.

If we're going to start talking about French (or, surely, German) ways and how they're good for their own people, we have to recognize the fact that the hostility to home schooling is not a German aberration but is bound up with German ways of thinking and being. Indeed, it was from the Prussian model of compulsory state education that America's own original compulsory education came.

Sometimes--people have to change their national character. And this is one way in which the American national character has something to teach the European style of national character.

Paul, I very much appreciated your comment. Maybe we can find some terminology to agree on that expresses what you just said but doesn't raise Millian specters.

Sometimes--people have to change their national character.

True. But if the Europeans change their national characters in the direction of American distinctives, then what becomes of American "exceptionalism"? See, this exceptionalism thing cannot be anything but subjective and un-enduring. But true patriotism - love of the patria, or fatherland - endures so long as the patria endures. It doesn't need to be "exceptional" because it doesn't evaluate itself through the eyes of foreigners; it abides despite changes in government, national character, or even religion.

Let's admit the difficulty. This isn't a country like other countries. We don't have the centuries-old ethno-national-religious-geographical stability from which to draw common memories, songs, stories, and traditions. America's patriotism has to be somewhat different. That's the reality that the neo-conservative "proposition nation" enthusiasts are responding to, and it's something that traditionalist conservatives need to come to terms with. But in my view, the neo-con response is not only inadequate, but works against the development of genuine patriotism on American soil.

And this [the alliance between conservatives and libertarians] was one of its cardinal failings, inasmuch as the resulting fusionism conserved precisely nothing more than the interests of its business-class donor base. This is quite apart from its intellectual instability.

I'd not be so quick to answer so decisively. One of American conservatism's cardinal failings was ... the formation of an anti-Communist coalition?

Right now you are advocating the formation of a coalition of opposition to finance capitalism. But it seems that alliances with parties outside the strictly conservative orbit are dubious, because some of their constituents might not be interested in conserving anything. So that in a couple generations some new critic might say, "sure, we managed to reining in finance capitalism, and that's great and all, but look at what error we stored up! We have to say that the early 21th century alliance against capitalism was one of our cardinal failings."

In truth there is no way out of coalition-building in human politics. By any historical measure the anti-Communist coalition was an immensely fruitful one, contributing as it did to the overthrow of one of the most wicked and menacing political systems ever devised by man. Now, the relevance of this coalition to post-Cold War politics is far less clear; and I think we'd agree that it is outlived its usefulness. But to treat this coalition as a failure on its own terms is a rather striking claim, given the history of the Cold War.

I'm dubious that the sort of individualism lauded by advocates of American Exceptionalism is really the same sort of thing as the eccentricity of a Russell Kirk or Orestes Brownson

I made no such claim. I only made the claim that individualism and eccentricity are foundational characteristics of American conservatism.

Except that we just did.

The folks who get paid to write about American Exceptionalism for periodicals do not generally bring up homeschooling and the like - because what really exercises them is defections from some capitalist ideology. For my part, I regard German treatment of homeschoolers as orders of magnitude more disturbing than anything Europeans do in political economy. Period. And I think that all conservatives should think likewise, for reasons I've sketched. Family is important in a way that the details of capitalism simply are not, and cannot be. And yes, that aspect of European culture ought to change. It will never change if the advocates of that change insist that it must be accompanied by shifts to American-style political economy. Pick your battles.

'd not be so quick to answer so decisively. One of American conservatism's cardinal failings was ... the formation of an anti-Communist coalition?

Coalitions always store up errors and unintended consequences. The burden of my argument, therefore, is that we spurn the coalition once it achieves its principal objectives, rather than cling to it, as though it were an Ark of Salvation. The fusionist coalition achieved its objective twenty years ago, and should have died at that time; it is long past the time to inter the thing in its final resting place, namely, the histories of political and intellectual conservatism. In other words, the capitalism vs. socialism narrative is dead, and died with the Cold War's conclusion, brought about by the pressures of prudent statecraft upon an internally incoherent system. The issues of the age are new, and so also should be the coalitions and arguments; but conservatives still have not awakened to this reality.

I only made the claim that individualism and eccentricity are foundational characteristics of American conservatism.

Understand, please, that I have no intention of excising that sort of individualism from American conservatism, let alone the American character; the sort of individualism that must be excised, as the tumour that it is, is that which leads, say, the quantitative trader or speculator in derivatives to believe himself entitled to his profession and lifestyle.

Besides, issues such as homeschooling are red herrings in the American Exceptionalism controversy in any event, inasmuch as no advocates of the Idea ever trouble to broach them; instead, they are always banging on about the American form of capitalism, and so forth, which is to state that they are assigning excess moral weight to something comparatively unimportant.

Present company excepted. The conservative people here at this website are a highly notable exception.

"Just by the way, the Convention on the Rights of Children would, if adopted by the US, (a) override all federal and state constitutional provisions, and case law, on parental rights, and (b) make it possible for a Brussels bureaucrat to decide whether a family in the US can rightly choose to homeschool."

In between spring chores I've been trying to make sense of all this and this might help.

1. Just where is "a." stated in the convention?

2. Just where is "b." stated in the convention?

Maximos,

I think there is a good reason we keep reading articles like this one over at "National Review":

http://article.nationalreview.com/434170/the-other-european-volcano/victor-davis-hanson

I think you are too quick to dismiss the broader moral implication of getting political economy right and why political economy remains important to the notion of American Exceptionalism. Which would make sense if you want to transform the American economy to resemble something more similar to Germany or France. As much as I love both countries (my parents cruised down the Danube a year ago and the pictures and stories they brought back are awe-inspiring) I don't want America to emulate those countries for good reasons.

Which would make sense if you want to transform the American economy to resemble something more similar to Germany or France.

Well said, Jeff.

To those defending a more "neo-con" understanding of American Exceptionalism, I'd ask this: what do you think of another manifestation of what might be called exceptionalism, i.e., the "America First" type of view espoused by Pat Buchanan and some other paleos/trad-cons?

Is that exceptionalism perhaps not exceptional enough for your taste?

Rob G,

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'd say yes -- Buchanan's ideas are NOT exceptional enough for my taste with one caveat. I always think it is right and proper to question and yes, disagree about the direction of America's foreign policy. So if Pat doesn't think we should support Israel, let him make his argument -- I think it is a bad argument, but there is nothing inherently anti-American about the argument. Likewise for our role in Afghanistan or Iraq.

I do think, however, that when we look at the broad sweep of American history, there is a strong argument to be made that part of our American exceptionalism does indeed include what Lowry and Ponnuru call our "model of ordered liberty and self-government" which has served "as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary."

~~~there is a strong argument to be made that part of our American exceptionalism does indeed include what Lowry and Ponnuru call our "model of ordered liberty and self-government" which has served "as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary."~~~

I don't think that Buchanan or Kirk or even Michael Savage ('borders, language, culture') would disagree. However, none of them would support an exceptionalism that seems rooted in radical individualism and which expresses itself primarily as marketplace success. It's unfortunate, but very telling, that Ayn Rand's work is on the upswing in popularity among modern conservatives.

I think you are too quick to dismiss the broader moral implication of getting political economy right and why political economy remains important to the notion of American Exceptionalism. Which would make sense if you want to transform the American economy to resemble something more similar to Germany or France.

Not to make the obvious, philosophy 101, informal fallacies point, but the issue is not what Maximos thinks about political economy, but whether political economy is culturally conditioned, and whether, therefore, it will vary as cultures themselves vary.

Apparently, it is impossible for some to think this thought.

Maximos,

"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

I'm not sure I would put this idea in such stark terms, but the point I was trying to make about political economy is that it can and does shape culture (within bounds, especially bounds determined by human biological diversity). That doesn't mean it will be easy or necessarily wise to try and turn Iraqis into model liberal democrats, but I do think it means we ask ourselves if the French economy would do better for its own French citizens if it were to allow 40 hour work weeks, make it easier to hire and fire workers, reduce the tax burden on businesses, etc., etc.

No thanks. I've no use for the engineers of souls, be they technocrats or free-marketeers.

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