Ryn – Which American?
The Philadelphia Society
40th! Anniversary Gala
Chicago, Illinois May 2, 2004
Quite often I have lunch at a McDonald’s in one of the most affluent
and pretentious suburbs in America just outside of Washington, D.C. The
residents are ambivalent about having a McDonald’s in their community—it
undermines their self-image—so the restaurant is tucked away inside a little
mall and almost impossible for outsiders to find.
I like to arrive
just after 10:30. I am up very
early, and before 11:00 my McDonald’s is still quiet. I eat and read in peace.
Later, mothers drive up in their luxury SUVs with their preschool children, and,
if schools are closed, older children too. Some high-schoolers show up. On
Saturdays many fathers do McDonald’s duty and older children come as well. My
French café is transformed into bedlam. Near the playpen especially the noise
rises dramatically. I have learnt when late to shut out the din, but sometimes I
watch the scene in fascination. At the counter toddlers in strollers scream when
parents do not give them French fries fast enough. Older children crawl on
chairs and tables or rush about shouting and shoving while waiting for mom or
dad to bring the food. Mothers and fathers scurry around, anxiously solicitous
of their princes and princesses. They comfort the crying and apologize to little
Ashley and Eliot for having taken so long. By now I know well the difference
between the crying of a child in distress and the importunate crying of a child
who won’t wait or take no for an answer. At the playpen—the
“hell-hole”—it is obvious that playing without throwing yourself about and
making lots of noise would not be real playing. Sometimes the playpen emits such
piercing screams that the Asian-American children look at their parents in
startled surprise. Deference to grown-ups seems unknown. I used to take offense,
but the children have only taken their cue from their parents, who took their
cue from their parents. The adults,
for their part, talk in loud, penetrating voices, some on cell phones, as if no
other conversations mattered. The scene exudes self-absorption and lack of
picture has everything to do with U.S.
foreign policy. This is the emerging American ruling class, which is made up
increasingly of persons used to having the world cater to them. If others
challenge their will, they throw a temper tantrum. Call this the imperialistic
personality—if “spoilt brat” sounds too crude.
this rising elite has wonderful strengths. Are not its adults highly
educated—about history, philosophy, geography, and world affairs—and masters
of several languages? Do they not travel widely and have a keen understanding of
other countries and regions of the world? Are they not sophisticated
cosmopolitans suited to running an empire.
sarcasm. I am well aware that a different type of American still exists. That
American aspires to character traits virtually the opposite of those on display
at my McDonald’s. Americans used to admire self-restraint, modesty, humility,
and good manners. They were acutely aware of original sin. They feared the
self-indulgent ego, in themselves and others. Americans of an earlier era
stressed the need to check the darker potentialities of human nature, the
unleashing of which could wreak havoc on the individual and society. They hoped
that in personal life moral character would restrain the desire for
self-aggrandizement, just as in national political life the checks and balances
of the U.S. Constitution would contain the all-too-human desire for power.
Personal self-control and constitutionalism were but different aspects of the
effort to subdue the voracious ego. Human beings could not be trusted with
Americans were not so foolish as to try to extinguish the will to power. Nothing
good could be accomplished without power in some form. But they recognized the
great danger of the will to power being diverted from its legitimate ends and
breaking free of checks.
The Framers assumed that, for the Constitution to work, its institutions
had to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit. These individuals had
to be predisposed to virtues like self-restraint, respect for law, and a
willingness to compromise. They had to have what I call a constitutional
personality. The spirit of the written Constitution stemmed from America’s unwritten
constitution, that is, the religious, moral, and cultural life that had inclined
Americans to constitutionalism in the first place. The Constitution could not
survive without character traits that the Framers hoped would be wide-spread.
All know Benjamin Franklin’s answer to the woman who asked what the
Constitutional Convention had produced: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The primary reason why today the U.S. Constitution is a mere shadow of its
former self is that it cannot be sustained without the constitutional
The new imperialistic ego is shrugging free of the old American self and
corresponding constitutional restraints. The
desire for self-aggrandizement has transformed limited, decentralized American
government into a national Superstate, which has given the will to power a scope
far beyond the worst fears of the anti-Federalists. The Tenth Amendment, that
ironclad guarantee against improper expansion of central power, is a dead
letter, like so much else in the Constitution. Decision-makers in Washington
reach into virtually every aspect of American life. But not even power on this
scale can still a desire that is insatiable. Today it contemplates dominating
the entire world.
Needless to say,
the will to dominate does not present itself as such to the world. It wraps
itself in phrases of benevolence and selflessness. There is always another
reason for government to do good. The greater the caring, the greater the need
to place power in the hands of those who care. It is, of course, sheer
coincidence that this benevolence invariably empowers the benevolent. So well
does the will to dominate dress itself up that it almost deceives the
The ideas of the
French Jacobins provided a sweeping justification for exercising unlimited
power. As followers of Rousseau, the Jacobins were not content with
reforming historically evolved ways of life. “Freedom, equality
and brotherhood” required the radical remaking of society. Because of the
scope and glory of the task, the Jacobins had to gather all power unto
themselves and deal ruthlessly with opposition. Good stood against evil, all
good on one side—their side. The Jacobins called themselves “the
virtuous.” In the twentieth century, their communist descendants offered an
even more blanket justification for wielding unlimited power.
classical and Christian view of human nature has eroded, big government still
has a bad name in America. Challenging the Constitution outright remains risky.
Americans attracted to the Jacobin spirit have therefore sought instead to
redefine American principles so as to make them more serviceable to the will to
power. They have propounded a new myth—the myth of America the
Virtuous—according to which America is a unique and noble country called to
remake the world in its own image. The myth provides another sweeping
justification for dominating others.
An effort has been long underway to transfer American patriotism to a
redefined, Jacobin-style America, seen as representing a radical break with the
Western tradition. According to Harry Jaffa, “The American Revolution
represented the most radical break with tradition . . . that the world had
seen.” “To celebrate the American Founding is . . . to celebrate
revolution.” In Jaffa’s view, the American revolution was milder perhaps
than the “subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or
elsewhere,” but it is, “the most radical attempt to establish a regime of
liberty that the world has yet seen.” America thus reinvented is founded on
ahistorical, allegedly universal principles summed up in such words as
“freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy.” These principles, the new
Jacobins assert, are not just for Americans; they are, as Allan Bloom insisted,
“everywhere applicable”—a theme echoed today by George W Bush.
The French Jacobins appointed France as the Savior Nation. The new
Jacobins have appointed America. Its great, benevolent cause is to rid the world
of evil. This cause gives the appetite for power the moral cover it likes to
have. One kind of universalist ideology, communism, has been replaced by the
ideology of American empire, and the stage is set for another cycle of
crusading. With neo-Jacobins shaping U.S. foreign policy, whether as Democrats
or Republicans, America and the world can expect an era of chronic conflict.
Could any goal be more appealing to the will to power than ending evil?
The task is not only enormous but endless. No conservative would need to be told
that evil cannot be “ended”; Rousseau’s notion of the fundamental goodness
of man and his vision of society transformed are pernicious figments of a
childish imagination. Evil can be tamed to some extent, as the Framers knew, but
even Sunday schoolers used to understand that it cannot be ended. You wonder
why, if America is called to end moral evil, it should not, while at it, also do
away with poverty and illness.
Do the new Jacobins ever reflect on the remarkable coincidence that they
should be alive at the precise moment in human history when the one valid
political model was finally discovered and that, furthermore, they should happen
to live in just the country that embodies that model and is called to bestow it
on the rest of the world? But such questions do not bother ideologues who are
arguing toward a preconceived conclusion: that they should preside over armed
American world hegemony—for humanity’s sake, of course.
The word “empire” does not yet have the right ring in American ears,
so the new Jacobins try not to appear too grasping. But even when feigning
modesty the will to dominate has difficulty keeping up appearances—as when Ben
Wattenberg said, no, no, no, we Americans do not want to “
conquer the world.” We only wish to ensure that “the world is
hospitable to our values.”
The arguments for bold American assertiveness are familiar: We live in a
dangerous world full of odious political regimes. Terrorism is a serious threat
to America and its allies. America must, as the world’s only superpower, play
a leading role in the world.
But why keep repeating the obvious? Yes, the world is dangerous; it
always was, more or less. Like other countries, America must be prepared to
defend itself and its legitimate interests—of course—and as a superpower she
will indeed have to carry a heavier burden than other countries. It does not
follow that America must impose its will on the rest of the world.
But 9/11 changed everything, the neo-Jacobins cry. Well, not quite
everything. The human condition has
not changed. Terrible events do not cancel the need for those personal qualities
and social and political structures without which the will to power becomes
arbitrary and tyrannical. Unfortunately, 9/11 gave the imperialistic personality
another pretext for throwing off restraint.
American unilateralism represents a reversal of the old spirit of
constitutionalism and checks-and-balances. Just as, domestically, particular
interests need to accommodate other interests, so, internationally, states need
to check and balance each other. The notion that America knows better than all
other nations and has a right to dictate terms to them betrays a monumental
conceit. It also guarantees that other nations will see a need to arm themselves
just to have some protection against American bullying. Already the Muslim world
is seething with hostility. China, which has long found Western hegemony
intolerable and is already strongly prone to nationalism, can be expected to
respond to American assertiveness by greatly expanding its military power. If
present trends continue, the time should soon be ripe—in 50 years
perhaps?—for a horrendous Sino-American confrontation.
For Christians, the cardinal sin is pride. Before them, the Greeks
warned similarly of the great dangers of conceit and arrogance. Hubris,
they said, violates the order of the cosmos, and inflicts great suffering on
human beings. It invites Nemesis. On
the Apollonian temple at Delphi two inscriptions summed up the proper attitude
to life. One was “Everything in moderation,” the other “Know Thyself.”
To know yourself meant most importantly to recognize that you are not one of the
gods but a mere mortal. As for the old Hebrews, in Proverbs (16:18) we read:
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
To the new Jacobins, such calls for humility have the quaint sound of
something long outdated. Why should those who know how humanity should live
question their own ideas or right to dominate? The world needs “moral
clarity,” not obfuscation. Many of those who shape the destiny of America and
the world today are just such
“terrible simplifiers” with absurdly swollen egos.
different the personality that defined the old America and conceived the
Constitution! In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for
all the good bestowed by Almighty God on the American people. He asked his
fellow Americans to unite “in most humbly offering our prayers and
supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon
our national and other transgressions.” This is the voice of the America that
is passing. Today, increasingly, the imperialistic personality of Ashley and
Eliot is being unleashed upon the world.