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Saturday, April 03, 2004


Scott Harris


I appreciate your criticism of my article. It helps to refine arguments when someone gives an intelligent rebuttal. Let me expand a little.

America is made up of immigrants who turned their back on family honor, and threw off their historical allegiances to their homelands. It is something we still demand of immigrants today. We demand that naturalized citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the United States. But we also demand that they renounce allegiance to their homelands.

This is not a triviality. It is why children of illegal immigrants, though American by birth, are held in suspicion. Their parents never officially and publicly renounced their homeland allegiance. It is necessary to be fully American to make a clean break. My wife is of Mexican heritage, but has zero emotional ties to Mexico. In fact, she resents the implication that she should have any allegiance to Mexico just as I would resent anyone implying I owe fealty to England. We are both fully and completely American.

But the very process of renouncing allegiance to family and country is one which requires a break with the historical concept of honor. It requires a commitment to self, and a commitment to an idea of personal liberty and freedom that differs from other countries. Citizens of other countries have a theoretical commitment to the ideas of freedom and liberty. But Americans have an experiential commitment. Americans have acted on the theory where citizens of other countries have not.

This requires a level of uncommon personal courage, and a certain ruthlessness. You are correct in identifying Fear as something Americans hate. We are descended from a stock of people that loved liberty more than life itself. We loved liberty more than family and more than country. Having braved oceans and enormous personal peril to arrive on the shores of America.

Americans from the early settlers to the Vietnamese boat people risked their all (including the lives of their families) on the hope of success and freedom in America. Is it any wonder we ruthlessly pursue excellence, and ruthlessly destroy obsolescence. Unlike many Europeans, I do not wax nostalgic about some old building. I want it torn down, so something better can take its place.

American "Preservation Societies" run a constantly losing battle because they are at cross purposes to our culture. Our culture demands continual improvement. Labor Unions were tremendously useful in overcoming the abuses of mangement. But they have lost their power because of their success. Their greatest contribution was and is in safeguarding the working conditions of Americans, not their economic conditions. Now may young Americans see them as impediments to progress exactly because preserving the status quo is not a dominant American value.

When the Republican party was perceived as a roadblock toward progress, they remained out of power for two generations. Today, it is the Democratic party that is seen as trying to protect its past accomplishments rather than moving forward. It is no wonder that they are losing power for they have lost the initiative.

In America, we fear inaction. We weigh the cost of passivity. We fear the lost opportunity, the loss of inaction as much as the potential loss of action.

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

~ Teddy Roosevelt

Americans demand courage. I personally hate fear. I despise it with a red-hot passion. When I find it in myself, I judge myself as less than a man. When I find it in others, it engenders disgust.

In my article, I did not really mean that Americans have no honor. But our idea of honor is foreign to most of the world. Our morality does not include preservation for preservation's sake. Instead of first asking "Why?", we first ask "Why not?" Our default position is the affirmative, not the negative. And even when we find negative reasons to delay progress, our internal conscience looks for ways to overcome the obstacles rather than view nagatives as permanent.

American society resembles a conveyor belt running backward, where one must continually be moving forward else one falls behind. It is not acceptable to stand still, for standing still moves you backward.

Andrew Schouten

Dear Scott,

Amen, bruddah!

Absolutely, Americans have, as you say, an experiential commitment to the ideas of freedom and liberty. And it is a rabid commitment to those ideas. The commitment is shared by the US's sibling, Anglosphere countries, but it gets configured a little differently, according to each locale (and, with varying degrees of fidelity).

Concerning the question of illegal immigration, I'm not sure that it is as cut and dry as you present the issue. I was thought that the resistance to immigration was dependent on the size of the émigré population, and whether they threatened the status quo, especially an economic status quo.

Let me explain. In the states that border Mexico, there is already an acceptance of illegal immigration. What is of concern is whether or not the state governments will be compensated by the federal government for the monies that it spends meeting what are essentially unfunded mandates.

The only voices that I hear appealing to "close the border" or -- God forbid -- militarize the border, come from places that, historically, have not had a large Mexican population, viz., New York, Utah, Illinois, etc. Here in California I'm not sure that you'll hear that argument made -- loudly, anyway.

Then, take the example of the Cubans and the Haitians. We have a long history of providing political asylum, just not a evenhanded one. Cubans, because of the accursed Fidel (when will he just die already?) have been welcome here, although, the rules have changed somewhat (you have to get to dry land, or they'll send you back). But, if you're Haitian, we won't take you under any circumstance. I'm not sure what to call that, but maybe "dishonorable" would fit the bill.

But this still doesn't address your main point, and that is,

America is made up of immigrants who turned their back on family honor, and threw off their historical allegiances to their homelands. It is something we still demand of immigrants today. We demand that naturalized citizens swear an oath of allegiance to the United States. But we also demand that they renounce allegiance to their homelands.

This is true. We don't recognize "dual citizenship". Unless, of course, they're Israeli. By special act of Congress, Americans can serve in the Israeli Army and not lose their citizenship. They can even accept a commission in the IDF. There is no other such agreement with any other nation. I don't really want to get into an argument on dual-loyalty, I just cite that as an example.

Having said that, I applaud you and your wife for being fully and completely American. So am I. But my families are Dutch and Mexican. No hyphens, thank you, but still recognition of where I come from, ya know?

And it warms my heart to see that we both hold immigrants and immigration in high esteem. It is, as you say,

This requires a level of uncommon personal courage, and a certain ruthlessness... We are descended from a stock of people that loved liberty more than life itself. We loved liberty more than family and more than country. Having braved oceans and enormous personal peril to arrive on the shores of America.

I think you're also pointing to something, in addition, that also leads to misunderstanding America -- other nations see us as being "too mercenary". And there is something to that (but I'm taking it with a grain of salt). But, consider that the Latin consumer has a more developed sense of brand loyalty than the American consumer, and you can kinda see the outline of the behavior that I'm talking about. Whereas an American buys for "good deal" value (and then talks about what a good deal he got!) a Latin will buy for "good brand name" value. Americans, are, as you say, "ruthless" -- we want a good deal.

Additionally, I also agree with you concerning the G.O.P. and the Democrats. Reactionary forces get no play in the U.S.A. -- even though, because of our national Liberalism (big "L", people) we are kinda reactionary. You can stick a fork in the Democrats because they are done. The only real question to ponder is this: Are their ideas bankrupt? Or is it a lack of forward movement that has caused their stagnation? Or is it that they achieved much-needed changes (e.g. Civil Rights Movement) which are now agreed to, but their current position (e.g. Affirmative Action) is veering away from the American sense of "what is right"?

And this is really what is at issue, isn't it? What is the American sense of "what is right"?

Our morality is different than others, yes. And that's what I was also trying to get at. But I don't see it so much as a matter of honor: although how our actions are viewed through the lens of a different world-view might be taken as "dishonorable", there are some questions of personal integrity that are universally esteemed. If you have a verbal, gentleman's agreement with someone, and you meet it, that is always and everywhere seen as a sign of personal integrity. Likewise, breaking that agreement is seen as a lack of a personal integrity. I think this is true everywhere.

What confuses other nations is how utilitarian we are. The way I see it, it's more like "Instead of first asking 'Why [use]?', we first ask 'Why not [use]?' My problem with "Why" and "Why not?" is that it sets up an anti-intellectualism in Americans, which, while historically accurate, seems to be going the way of the pet rock.

Also, Americans will be negative when "Why not?" is a bad value or is unproductive. I mean, one could ask, "Why sit around a sh!tty café and smoke cigarettes all day long and try to rehash the works of Marx, Dostoevsky, and Rousseau into a new leftist ideology for the masses?" and it would be the Parisian that would answer "Why not?" while the American would say something like "Get the f*ck out of here with that bullsh!t! What you need to do is get yo' stanky @ss a job!"

Having said that I don't think that we are a "progress" oriented society. It seems to me that progress, as stipulated by progressives, seemed to interfere too much with the individuals freedom of action. When "progress" becomes "progress for progress' sake" Americans tune out -- because what's the use?

And, by the way, that TR quote is genius!

Scott Harris


We get down into the definition of labels. I believe Americans are essentially liberal and progressive. At least according to the dictionary definitions of such terms. That leftists have co-opted the terms liberal and progressive is so much Orwellian double-speak. Leftists are reactionary by temperament, and cannot be honestly described as liberal or progressive.

Americans are not progressive in a political sense. But we give outlandish rewards to pioneers in industry and commerce. Witness Sam Walton - who would still be the world's richest man if his fortune had not been divided among his heirs, and Bill Gates. Americans are progressive in the sense that they do not highly value tradition.

This is a knife that cuts both ways, because we sometimes are too quick to discard good tradition and too quick to adopt fads. But because we are, as you say, utilitarian, we tend to reverse course fairly easily without loss of face. It is no shame in America to admit failure or defeat. The shame comes in wallowing in defeat. It is ever onward and upward, and those who fail to keep pace are ruthlessly left behind. Their is a certain Darwinian aspect to our society that is ultimately beneficial. Even our tendency to follow fads reinforces the necessity for continual improvement and the demand for a steady stream of new ideas.

Other countries fear our dynamism more so than our arms. We are at War in the Middle East precisely because Islamofascists feared our culture more than our military might. This fear is well-founded because any society which adopts portions of American culture will find a good portion of itself being destroyed and rebuilt. There is no greater threat to reactionary forces everywhere than the prospect of creative destruction. And American culture is the epitomy of creative destruction.

Where reactionaries go wrong is that they fail to comprehend that they can participate equally in the creative-destructive process. They are stagnant and are actually the biggest bigots against their own people. For they believe that their people cannot keep up with Americans in the idea competition. This is true only when their people are oppressed by either tyranny or bureaucracy, not when they are free.

America is not only the land of the second chance. It is the land of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, ...700th...4564th...etc chance. The only limit to one's ability to attempt success in America is one's own stamina and willingness to get up off the mat after being knocked down.

Scott Harris

One other comment Andrew. While it might be true that the average American is essentially conservative, it is also true that the average American is individually and specifically liberal in selected areas. So someone might be 90% conservative, and only 10% liberal, but that 10% gets to have its way without much societal interference. And another person might be 10% liberal in a totally different way.

For example, who would have thought former President Bush had a life-long dream of jumping out of airplanes. Certainly, it was not "conservative" for him to attempt his 1st parachute jump well into his 70's. But he did. And no one thought any less of him for doing so. In fact, most Americans probably applauded him for doing something so essentially and individually quirky.

We celebrate each others quirkiness. How often have you heard, "I never would have guessed that about him." But it is not said in a condemning way, but in an approving manner. We allow for each others idiosychrosies. And fairly often, one of those quirks turns into something revolutionary. It is why inventors come to America.

I had an idea just the other day about something to enhance trucking safety, and I have never been a trucker and do not hold a commercial license. But if I wanted to pursue my idea, no one would condemn me for it. We even are allowed to reinvent ourselves. Try that in other cultures. When I lived in Canada for two years, students had to decide their life's course at about age 14. What an unfair burden for a 14 year old.

Andrew Schouten


You're a great foil, do you know that?

As to the question of labels -- it's always problematic to use labels -- and a typology of American political belief, here's what I can offer:

In the history of political philosophy America -- and, indeed, the entire Anglosphere, to varying degrees -- is Classically Liberal. I'm sure that you and I agree on this. But, for arguments' sake, this means that Classical Liberalism believes in constitutional, limited government (limited insofar as civil liberties and rights are concerned, not necessarily small, government) that governs by the consent of the governed; and that operates according to the rule of law. This is grounded in an essential, subjective ego-self that enjoys natural rights by virtue of its ability to make moral decisions and the dignity that entails (or is it the other way around...dunno, natural rights are really difficult to find. I mean, have you ever seen any in nature?)

When I say that Americans are inherently reactionary its that our political philosophy is the highlight of the 16th Century. In that sense it is reactionary. That is to say, whenever you hear Fidel Castro calling the US reactionary, he's right, but only insofar as Marxism is a more recent development in the history of ideas.

I do think that the American people, are, as you say, rather quirky when it comes to their personal politics and beliefs. And that means that sometimes it is impossible (if not embarrassing) to ass-u-me someone's political stances, especially based on regional color.

You make a good point about how Leftists are essentially reactionary, too. Contrary to their own mythology, Leftists have been reactionary since Rousseau ("Man is born free, and everywhere enslaved"), and just as misanthropic. They profess to care for mankind, even as they loathe and despise the individual man for not conforming to their view of what proper humanity should look like. (As long as we're making gross and unfair generalizations, let me say that, conversely, conservatives tend to care for individuals because they positively disrupt unfortunately low expectations and run counter to the idea of a degenerating mankind that they secretly despise.)

Having said that, I don't believe that Americans, or America, for that matter, are progressive. When I say that, it's a very narrow sense of "progress" (which happens to be the prototypical sense of the whole concept). Progress, you see, is a descriptor for a teleological development of society. It posits an end goal to the process of development, which is predetermined -- and determined -- by an un-assumed and implicit principle. In the history of philosophy, this has meant the progress toward a rational humanity.

There can be no doubt that America has developed institutions which are rational, but often, the culture assumes configurations which are anything but rational.

What I am skeptical of is that society is the notion that somehow progressing along such a principle. Especially when one considers that the very reason that the American "Center"-Left is (violently) reactionary today is precisely because an increasing proportion of the American electorate is opposed to the excesses of the Democratic Party (both traditional New Deal and more contemporary Identity Politics dogma).

The idea of progress denotes a dynamism, but a pre-determined, if not soothingly safe, dynamism. It's the result of retrospective (i.e. hindsight) thinking: making sense of how things turned out the way that they did, and then projecting that "sense" into the future. This runs counter, I believe, to the very notion of creative destruction. There is no way that we could accurately know (in every instance) how things will turn out, em>a priori. Anyone that tells you differently is trying to sell you something.

When this becomes truly and terribly problematic is when the uncritically assumed "end" of progress is based in a an equally uncritically assumed starting point. There are two wonderful examples:

  1. The historical sense of "Manifest Destiny": this chauvinist sense of the triumphant end and Promethean character of American society necessarily failed to consider the legitimacy of other communities -- Native American, Canadian, and Mexican -- and their desires, by positing the supremacy of the American state.
  2. The eugenics program against the physically and mentally disadvantaged as well as the terminally ill that was implemented by Nazi Germany. Believing in the fulfillment of the destiny of the Aryan volk as a pure example of humanity meant that "undesirable" specimens had to be removed from the gene pool. In this case a number of buses were specially arranged to pipe carbon monoxide into the passenger compartment to kill eliminate "undesirables". Any claim that these unfortunates had was irrevocably erased with their death -- a death necessary for the fulfillment of Hitler's dream.

These two examples are, to be sure, singularly brutal historical examples. Still, they are effective expositions of the irrational results of taking the notion of "progress" to have cosmic significance.

But this does not refute your point: Americans are accepting and welcoming, if not ideologically committed, to change. Nor do I seek to refute it, because I agree with you on this matter.

I'm not going to address the current conflict with Fundamentalist Islam in this space. I intend to do so at a later date in this series.

As for the differences in educational curricula between the US and the World, what you say is correct. In my experience Americans are afforded a luxury of "finding themselves" and declaring their major later in their educational career than in other nations. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that this is the result of different sensibilities regarding public monies. I was always under the impression that the reason that there was a gross amount of pressure placed on 14-16 year olds in other educational systems was due to the more centralized and socialist inclinations of those governments. That is to say that the government requires students to accommodate themselves to the national educational bureaucracy for the sake of the State's convenience, and with little regard to the personal desires of the students. Such a devil's bargain is possible only in those States that promise free education to all -- the only way to make it work is to, metaphorically speaking, separate the wheat from the chaff earlier, and minimized wasted resources. It is an unfair burden for a 14 year old, but bear in mind that this case proves the venerable adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch."

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