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Wednesday, March 31, 2004


Dean Douthat

The Enlightenment was concieved in Europe but brought into practice in America. Europeans like to claim that Americans are stupid and don't understand subtle Europeans. But that is exactly backwards: America has embraced the European Enlightenment and is its full flowering; Europe today is a massive retreat from its own Enlightenment. Not only do Americans understand that which is best about Europe and not only do Europeans fail to understnd American "nuance" but, most damningly, Europeans fail to understand European culture.


What amazes me is that highly educated people in Europe don't understand America. How is that possible? There are more books and documents written about America that only willful ignorance is really the answer. I can't think of any nation, in the entire history of the world, that has been so introspective.

Perhaps what's needed is a guidebook for foreigners. Some suitable chapers:

Why America despises the UN
Why America wants out of NATO
America and it's love of Cheetos

Add more of your own. Anybody looking to write a book?


I will tell any of my fellow non-Americans that, to really understand America and the American soul, visit the Claremont Institute's website and read their articles. This *is* the soul of Americanism (Hollywood, Coca-Cola, and even Noel Webster don't really count) and you are at your perils if you aren't even aware of their existence.

Scott Harris

Here is an article I wrote 12 months ago, just afeter Baghdad fell:


By Scott Harris

A fundamental reason America is misunderstood by other societies, regardless of race or continent, is that many throughout the world view America as dishonorable. This is due to the fact that the way Americans relate to one another is not based on the historical concept of honor, or "face."

How can the United States tolerate insults from every corner of the world? Americans differentiate between insults and threats. We happily tolerate insults, because we do not perceive the need to "save face." But to those who live according to the historical concept of honor, any insult is a threat to honor and must be vigorously defended.

The nasty fact is that the concept of historical honor is inseparably linked to the darker concept of historical dishonor. In rejecting this concept, Americans do not view defeated enemies through the lens of honor. Hence, Americans have an unusual capacity to forgive former enemies and contribute to their rehabilitation. We do not perceive their defeat as “losing face.”

Americans look at issues based on merit. When criticized, we tend to examine the merits of the criticism. Is there any truth to the accusation? If there is, we thank the critic, change and move on. No loss of face is perceived or recognized. If untrue, we dismiss the accusation. I am personally fond of saying, "I would rather be right at the end of the argument than at the beginning." But for those whose identity is built upon the concept of historical honor, the challenge itself is cause for violence regardless of the merits of the challenge.

Many hold us in contempt for our refusal to defend our honor, and then become blind to the line we draw between insult and threat. Indeed, our current suspicion of France is based on our uncertainty of French motives – is France merely insulting us, or do they play a complicit role in the threat of terrorism? This explains why American wrath is so dangerously underestimated and misunderstood. Furthermore, our casual dismissal of unwarranted criticism is itself seen as a threat to the honor of the critic. Our misunderstanding of their concept of honor contributes to the general confusion about motives and what constitutes mutual respect.

Americans find pictures of Iraqis slapping the images and statues of Saddam Hussein with their shoes humorous. We laugh. Arabs don't. They understand this is a grievous insult, which MUST be responded to with force. Otherwise, the person being slapped loses face and is discredited.

You see this concept of historical or collective honor throughout the Oriental cultures; you see it in caste-conscious India; you see it in most tribal situations, which includes many of the Middle Eastern, African, and Native American cultures. It is very pronounced in Latin America. You see it in urban ghettos. And finally, you see it in Europe and Russia, with their historical ideas of royalty, landed gentry, and working classes.

We like to pretend that Europe shares our sense of democracy, but government and society are two separate concepts. Europeans share our form of government - representative democracy. But they do not share our sense of society, defined as how we relate to one another in the absence of government and regulation.

The fundamental difference between the American and French revolutions, both of which spawned modern democracies, lies in the underlying values that spawned revolt. The foundation of the French Revolution was its citizens’ feelings of inferiority. In its ravenous hunger for the literal physical destruction of the nobility via the guillotine, the French revolution did not require a demonstration of personal responsibility for oppression. Nobles were condemned merely on the basis of their class membership. Hence, the French Revolution was explicitly a class-conscious revolt.

Contrastingly, the American Revolution was built upon our collective sense of individual competence. We had been effectively self-governing for 150 years, and saw no further need to retain our allegiance to a King who refused to recognize our equality as Englishmen. Our desire was not to punish, but to be left to fend for ourselves. Indeed, we did not reject all things English, but retained things we found useful, such as English common law.

In his little pamphlet that helped spawn the American revolution, "Common Sense," Thomas Paine discusses government versus society, goes so far as to describe hereditary monarchy as "sinful", and declares the concept of hereditary honor as totally without merit. Honor cannot be bequeathed; it must be earned anew by each generation. America was founded upon that concept.

This is not to say that Americans do not have a sense of honor. But our sense of honor is based on personal achievement and integrity, not hereditary position. The son of a rich man may have more privileges, but in America he is not automatically accorded more honor than the son of a poor man. In fact, the opposite is true. Rich heirs are seen as soft, coddled, and not fully tested. Hence the practice of leaving home to "make it on your own."

I watched an interview with former President and Barbara Bush in early 2001 just after their son, George W., had taken office. The interviewer asked the "Bush political dynasty" question. The senior Bush bristled, saying he rejected the concept of dynasty because it implied a hereditary right to govern. Barbara Bush added that while public service was a family tradition, another family tradition was even more important. Before a Bush family member is considered qualified for public service, he must first pass the prerequisite of proving himself in the private sector.

How very American of the Bushes. And how foreign a concept to other societies. Unlike other nations, our Constitution specifically guards against the idea and practice of any protected class of citizens. That is why many neo-liberal ideas like multiculturalism, affirmative action, and trans-nationalism, all of which rely on classifying and assigning benefits and/or penalties based on group membership, are so repulsive to Americans on a gut level.

The political left has ceased being liberal in the classical sense. Individualism and property rights must give way to group imperatives. You see this illiberality exposed in the Socialistic anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-globalization movements. In group think, if you belong to an over achieving class of people, then your personal level of success is immaterial. Those belonging to “lesser” classes must be given greater rights, and your rights must be limited so that the classes become more equal. Your personal situation is therefore defined according to your class membership, not your personal integrity, effort, and achievements, or even your lack thereof.

Overachieving capitalists challenge this historical concept of honor on all three levels of society. First, they challenge the position of the ruling class by demonstrating that those outside the ruling class have the ability to attain the highest level. The Elites only grudgingly give recognition to someone who has newly achieved, and more often than not, sneeringly demean them on social grounds such as not being a true gentleman, being uncouth, being a barbarian, being crass or vulgar, or some other character accusation. Interestingly, the children of the "barbarian" capitalist are easily accepted as true members of the elite specifically because they did NOT attain their status on the basis of their own personal effort or merit.

Secondly, the successful capitalist challenges the status of the privileged class, and their complicity in keeping down the working class. The privileged class is usually the most vigorous in defending the status quo, and they tend to view individual liberty as a threat. Their status is maintained by virtue of their relationship with the elite, and their willingness to perform the daily management of the working class.

Perennial middle managers, they bend and scrape in front of the ruling class to maintain their positions. Acting as a buffer between the elite and working classes, they blame each in turn for the plight of the other. To the ruling elite, "Yes your royalness, it is terrible that you must bear the heavy load of ruling such an unworthy, ungrateful horde." To the workers, "I am not personally responsible for oppressing you, I am only following orders."

Lastly, the working class is kept in a state of perpetual servitude, subject to the whims and desires of the elites. Government programs are created by elites, and administered by the privileged to pacify their occasional revolts. They have come to accept their role, and expect to be taken care of by those "above" them. The successful capitalist challenges their laziness, and introduces a concept of personal responsibility that is, in fact, personally repugnant to those who only wish for success and are not willing to work for it.

Capitalists exist outside this class system, and are assumed bad because they transcend the traditional honor system. Rather than examine the merits of someone's success, and emulate their behavior, people in class-based societies are encouraged to forego self-examination and vilify those who achieve and even those who attempt to do so. Instead of personal justice, the concept of collective or “social justice” is emphasized.

In Europe, you see this class system played out on all levels. The ruling elite chastises those who presume to challenge their authority, a la Jacque Chirac in his tirade against Eastern European leaders. The privileged classes, in the form of government bureaucrats and Old corporations whose vitality is long gone, are kept in place by the pleasure of the ruling class. The ruling elite passes regulations creating such onerous burdens on new enterprise that the old companies have a completely unfair advantage. Simultaneously, the privileged bureaucrats are empowered to enforce these regulations effectively holding down the working class for no other reason than personal maliciousness.

Those in the working class live within this system occasionally decrying its inherent unfairness, and then they lapse back into embittered complacency, too lazy to take matters in their own hands. They clamor for more government support, not fully realizing that the support money is collected from themselves, and both the ruling elite, and the privileged take a commission for collecting it.

In this class-conscious type of society, the only thing an individual has is his concept of honor, or "face." It is the only area where he can declare, "I am worthy of respect." In the Third World (and in First World ghettos), this includes a hyper-machismo that values reputation over responsibility and degrades women. In Europe, it is more subtly demonstrated in the affinity for Socialism.

In Socialism, the working class is awarded status by being "underprivileged." This begs the question of just who awards the status. To try to achieve would be a tacit admission that their current position is less than honorable. This cannot be admitted, therefore they embrace Socialism - honor bestowed by being a member of a class. This allows the ruling elite and the privileged class to maintain their elevated positions insulated from popular revolt.

Is it any wonder that those who are suckled on this class system do not, even cannot understand America? The genius of America is not in our form of government, but in our reliance on personal integrity and personal responsibility. It is a concept of honor that is foreign to most of the world. It is why they don't understand us. It is why we don't understand them.

It is also why America is the cradle of creativity, vitality, and strength. Much like a fruit tree must be regularly pruned so that it produces more fruit, American civil society demands a constant reevaluation of one's status based on his RECENT achievements, and his personal integrity. We regularly celebrate those who are newly successful more than to those whose success is more distant. And we ruthlessly destroy the reputations of those who are discovered to have achieved success by compromising integrity.

The operative phrase in America is "What have you done for me lately?" To maintain status, you must continuously have new successes. And this concept is not limited to monetary issues. Someone who does voluntary philanthropic work is awarded community honor for his recent contributions. Another very American phrase is "Don't rest on your laurels."

The American folk hero, the cowboy, has been derided across the world in the last two years. But he is an American hero because he embodies rugged individualism combined with personal integrity. He relies on no one but himself, refuses to compromise his personal integrity, and yet still is convinced that achievement is not only possible, but inevitable. He bows to no man, but gives respect to all. He represents American society.

I believe that we have mistakenly promoted democracy as the cure to the world's problems. Democracy, as an expression of individual value, is a vital structure for building a modern society. But I agree with Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek when he warns of creating a form of government in Iraq without the substance to support it.

Modern democracy is many things to many people. But our manner of relating to our fellow citizens, our society, is what determines the ultimate success or failure of democracy. It is our values, not our form of expressing them, that provide the foundation for American success. Only by adopting our fundamental principles of mutual respect, professional honesty, personal integrity, individual responsibility, and hard work can others expect to truly copy our success. And the ruthless destruction of the concept of hereditary honor is required. How much better would this world be if more nations were as “dishonorable” as America?


In addition to my previous post, I think another reason many parts of the rest of the world don't understand America is because institutionally, America could be said to have the oldest surviving political institution. The rest of the world's institutions are much newer even their national history or culture maybe much longer than those of the USA.

case in point:

1) France: yes, the spirit of 1789, and Nepoleon Code pervades France's institutional sys, but its current political arrangements dates from 1958 or with some contests, 1871.

2) Britain: British institutions undergoes continuous "evolutions" but anything that remotedly resembles today's Britain was not in place until the Great Reform Bill in 1832. A book on comparative politics once emphasised that Bill Clinton's place was essential the same as George Washington (this was written when Clinton was in power), but Queen elizabeth II is merely a figurehead while her great-great-great-great-grandfather King George III had wideranged real power.

3) China: the Qing court of Qianlong is definitely another world from either the authoritarian and nominally Communist People's Republic of China (institution dated from 1954, or 1982 the date when the current constitution was put in place) or the democratic Republic of China in Taiwan (institutioan dated from, well you can say 1947, or 1996, or even 1999 depending on what institutions were in place)

4) New Zealand: didn't even exist then!

5) Kenya: there was no Kenya but a group of tribal kingdoms that covered parts of modern Kenya.

6) Czech Republic: it was a province under Austrian Empire.

7) Chile: a Spanish colony back in 1789.

8) Netherlands: essential same situation as Britain.

So you can see that since the current institution in most of the rest of the world is much more recent, they expect America to have the same short memory on institutions, so that's why they ignore American Founding Fathers to their peril.

Andrew Schouten


I would not be so quick to claim that Europeans don't understand themselves. For a number of reasons (too many to go into in this space) they developed on a different "track" than the United States. But what resulted in the rejection of the Enlightenment was a reaction to its perceived excesses. I say perceived because it's arguable whether or not Romanticism was a desirable thing. What is certain is that the pendulum of American culture did not swing as far into the direction of Romanticism as European culture.

Moreover, the 20th Century was, for the United States, a hard-fought but essentially triumphalist affirmation of the "rightness" of its collective beliefs. Europe, during that same time spawned the two evils embodied by Stalin and Hitler. I believe that they are only too intimately aware of the problematic nature of their culture.

It is terribly unfortunate that "Old Europeans" mistake their exhausted resignation of mediocre loserdom for some kind of enlightened worldview. We can only hope that "New Europe" brings to the EU with dynamism, vitality, and frankly, cojones that is desperately needs.

Andrew Schouten


Thanks for the link to the Claremont institute.

As for the question of institutions, I'm not sure that I can agree with you, completely.

Yes, it's true that the American system of government is arguably, as you point out, the "oldest surviving political institution" in the world. And it's precisely because of the separation of powers, distributed power, and regime change through meaningful elections that constitute the American system of government which are responsible for it's longevity.

Having said that, when it comes to other institutions, the U.S. is most definitely the new-comer. Consider the following three examples:

1) France: The cathedral of Notre Dame is older than the U.S. by 580 years.

2) Britain: The Anglican Church has been the established, state church of England since 1534's Act of Supremacy, 242 years prior to the independence of the American colonies.

3) China: The Nei Jing is the earliest book written on Chinese Medicine. It was compiled around 305-204 B.C. So, taking the soonest date, that means that acupuncture was a medical discipline in China some 1,980 years ago.

It's not that surprising, then, when the rest of the world looks at the U.S. as boorish, uppity, johnny-come-latelies. I mean, it's understandable. When I lived in Egypt the history of that country was downright oppressive and suffocating, especially because it was everywhere you went.

And it is the (relative) youth of American culture that further contributes to misunderstanding -- because once upon a time, we were yokels. But now, because we're so dynamic, and imbued with creative destruction, we jettison cultural structures that are obsolete, a hindrance, or just plain over; whereas other nations are not just content to retain their culture, but they fetishize it. That's why other nations in the world actually have "Culture Ministries".

They feel the need to preserve their identities as bestowed unto them through cultural artifacts, whereas we keep moving, working, and hustling, and in doing so, forge our own identities.


How many Frenchmen, Britains and Chinese were alive to experience any of that? None, you say?

You overestimate the value and effect of acient history on modern opinions. We are hated because of our success vs their failures over the past couple hundred years. We are great. They are the turds on the bottoms of our shoes. They resent that and would resent it no matter what our seperate ages might be.


Andrew, I think my point should be that despite other nations may have much longer national history (I'm ethnically Chinese and am based in NZ BTW), paradoxically their current political cultures are "complete clean breaks" from their past. For example, France of Henry IV basically is a different country from the France of Jacques Chirac politically. So while France has a much longer national its current political institution and culture could be argued to have been a development from 1871 onwards. Similarly, it can be argued that for contemporary China (both the mainland and Taiwan), any political thoughts and developments prior to the 1911 revolution were just as relevant as King Arthur England to today's Britain.

In contrast, George Washington is not merely a curious historical figure for studies (as Louis XIV is for France), his actions and ideas still have lots of influence in the USA even cicra 2004.

Andrew Schouten

Dear PGT and Joel:

I'm not sure that we disagree, but we are speaking at cross-purposes. Let me try and see if we can't come to an agreement, and barring that, an agreement to disagree.

There can be no doubt that the current populations France, Britain, and China were not alive for the establishment of some of their enduring cultural structures. Nor could anyone really argue that these three nation's current governments bear any significant resemblance to to earlier forms of political rule. There has been, as you say Joel, "complete clean breaks"in their political cultures, and there has not.

French and Chinese political culture have been characterized by periods of foreign invasion and rule alternating with heavy-handed centralization. Sure, the People's Republic of China bears little idealogical resemblance to The Middle Kingdom of the Tang Period, but all roads lead to Beijing, as it were. Moreover, the terrible injustices of China under Mao echo and resonate with the cruelty of another self-made ruler, Qin Shi Huangdi, First Chinese Emperor, who unified China in 221 B.C.E.

And, while your point about Henry IV is well-taken, surely you would agree that, at least, from the time of Louis XIV to Napoleon, to De Gaulle, to the present malcontent, the French people have been subjects to hierarchical, supra-centralized governments with insufferable pr!cks comfortably ensconced at the top, ruling in the spirit of "L'Etat Cest Moi!"

And Britain, it's safe to say, still likes to strike out on its own and assert its Anglo-Saxon roots, if only to annoy their pretentious neighbors on the continent. And, we can say will full confidence that this independent streak manifests itself in matters of religious doxa as well as adopting joint currencies.

What I'm trying to get at is not the continuity of political regimes, customs, or traditions. Because, in those cases, yes, the United States has a remarkably resilient system of government, which, let's admit, is not for the faint of heart!

Instead, what I was trying to get at is the psychology -- no, the philosophy -- of the American people. How is it that Americans think differently than the rest of the world? And how does this contribute to being misunderstood?

While there can be no doubt that the intrinsic philosophies of a people and the expressed political ideologies and institutions are in fact, co-comitant and mutually reinforcing, a consideration of political institutions, on their own, will always fail to explain why it is how it is. It will describe it, it will point out its constituent pieces, and will contribute to our greater understanding of the possible forms of political organization.
And from there, we can, like de Tocqueville, make conclusions and generalizations about the "spirit", i.e. "philosophy", of a people.

How do people approach the world? How do they approach each other? Let's consider, what the inner, byzantine workings of the institution of the High Priesthood of Huitzilopitchli can tell us about the Aztec psyche will only point to this: The Aztecs sacrificed millions of people -- because they thought that their gods were angry, gods whose thirst for blood had to be satisfied with human sacrifice, and the more, the merrier! And, whats more, they had a real flair for pomp and circumstance. Because only a people with that kind of philosophy would suffer endless "flower wars" and tens of thousands sacrificed to dedicate a new temple.

Similarly, the study of a the workings of the Supreme Court tells us nothing about the American people, unless we look at the presuppositions which American political life is founded upon which make something like SCOTUS such a singular, powerful, and respected institution: Americans believe in the rule of law and a neutral judiciary. Knowing that there the numbers and structures of courts in the Federal judiciary (94 district, 13 circuit, and 1 SCOTUS) will not necessarily give you access to that idea.

It seems to me that it is only in the case of America and its former colonial siblings (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) can one speak of a nation without "ancient" history. All four of these nations have made (and remade) the land, themselves, and their culture, such that these nations are not condemned to be smothered by their history.

What remains, then, is to explain the fundamental value at the heart of these worldviews, and how it differs from other nations around the world.

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