May 8, 2012

The American Argument

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For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. --- Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Sometimes small notions indicate issues of larger moment. In the discussion of a previous post, a commenter delivers a vest pocket critique of America seen from abroad. The salient part reads:

As for the last paragraph - well, personally, I don't give a damn whether Americans kill themselves through gross overeating and under-exercising, filling their food with chemicals for short-term profit or turning their cities' air into poison gas - not to mention handing terrorists billions of dollars to kill Americans (and others) with.
What I do mind is that Americans are setting a bad example for everyone else; as a small example the streets of Britain are filled with grotesquely large 4x4s. I am quite sure the fashion comes from across the pond. As another, the Chinese might well ask why they should restrict their economic growth when America already uses many times more fuel than they do - and they'd be right.

What I do mind is various American corporations not only trying to foist their Frankenstein food on us, but trying to make it impossible for us to tell that they are doing it - did you know that Monsanto are claiming in various court cases that labelling of food containing GM soya is against free trade treaties?
I could go on - but I won't, except to say two things. Americans' bad habits are a poor example for everyone else - and America's gluttony for oil in particular, and their actions to make sure it gets fed, and the money transfers resulting from it, make the rest of the world much more dangerous
Some observations strike me as fair, others as dubious. Most strike me as those a reasonable man might form on a daily diet of the American media melange. It is a dangerous diet; a diet rich in junk and toxins. In large doses it might make your head fill with harmful fat.

Just as it was when the Soviet Union lived -- and is still to be found on the islands of socialist utopias still extant -- once the propaganda mills are relentlessly anti-American, a real picture is hard to come by. One is pretty much a slave to one's choices of input. Not much can be done to change a mind fed a constant drip-feed of plaint from the current America-based "My country wrong or wrong" crowd.

I can see how the commenter comes by his impressions. I grant that he comes to them fairly by using what he is given to draw his conclusions. They simply don't map well to my experience of ordinary life in America in 2007. As American life, or a simple driveabout will teach you, "the map is not the territory."

It is not my purpose here to flense his critique point by point, only to note that his intellectual malnutrition is, of necessity, determined by what he feeds his head.

By way of example, my day-to-day experience tells me that while the lumbering results of having "way too much food" are more than visible in America, so is the cult of "way too much exercise." The buffed anorexic and the wobbling obese are the opposite ends of the bell-curve. In the middle I see that most Americans are mindful of what they eat because they can afford to be. Making this possible is a system of food production and distribution that delivers such a wide-spectrum of food choice at cheap prices (organic, non-organic, and junk) to every niche of the landscape. Indeed, the system is so advanced and sophisticated that we have achieved a society in which one of the major problems among the poor that remain is obesity.

The impression that Americans are "turning their cities' air into poison gas" is likewise well meant but ill informed. It is demonstrably not true.

It is not true from a glance at the steadily declining levels of emission in a steadily increasing and mobile population over the decades. It is can be seen to be obviously untrue from the simple fact of living in America for six decades -- decades that have seen more deep and lasting social change than at any other time in the history of the country, perhaps the world.

I was, as constant readers may know, born in Los Angeles six decades ago. I remember the poison air of the 1950s. I remember the smog alerts, the soot that would settle on the windowsills and grind its way into the clothes. I remember the black smudge that would be visible within a block of my front yard. I saw it that same black smudge some three decades later, not in Los Angeles, but in London.

Today there is still a haze over Los Angeles on most days, but you have to stand back some to see it. You also have to stand back in your mind and know that Los Angeles, depending on how you define it, is now home to between 10 and 18 million people (Up a tad from the 4 million of my childhood when only every family and not every individual had a car). The only way that air in Los Angeles today could become perfect would be if you gave every resident a unicycle for transportation, a mandated vegan diet, and forbid flatulence under pain of death.

In short, the air in American cities is today more than acceptable and is not, by any stretch of an imagination not twisted by false impressions, "poison." And it improves daily. Could it be improved more? Certainly it could and inevitably it will.

The same observations hold true for our rivers, our reservoirs, our parks, our homes, our communities, and for all other nation-wide measures by which one might discover the true quality of life. We tolerate high gasoline prices in large measure because we will not drill and pump our vast reserves nor will we build new refineries. This indulgence can be reversed whenever the political will to do so arrives. And it will.

At the same time, as it would be in any imperfect human society of 300 million souls, it is perfectly possible to find the pockets of poison and the ghettos of despair in this protean country. Viewed over an inch of time you would note they are shrinking, but you could still stand on a street corner in South Central or Harlem and focus a camera in such a direction and frame the images in such a manner you could deliver the impression of a vile and selfish society in which the poverty-stricken obese were crushed under some corporate oppressor's boot.

You could, and many still do, ferret out an example of racism daily if you look hard enough. But it’s an evil juju only the most poisoned of our people waste their lives in pursuing. It is the witchdoctor’s feathered fetish shaken in America’s face daily by the race-hustlers and rent-seekers in the Democrat Party and the present administration in order to preserve their plantations of colonized minds. Free men know it is only skillfully shaped propaganda and does not represent anything close to the truth of the American experiment and environment in 2009. Here even our poor are filthy rich measured against the world's poor.

As is often the case in the envious world today, we encounter -- in my critic’s plaint and elsewhere at home and abroad -- a mindset in which "the perfect is the enemy of the good." It is a mindset that views anything less than some imagined perfect state as somehow failing and worthy of excoriation. It is a mindset in which, if the real world falls short of the imagined perfection, it is the real world that is ill rather than the mind of the imaginer. It is a mindset which finds nothing is impossible as long as others do the work and pay the price. It is a mindset forever doomed to disappointment; a doom in which it takes a strange masochistic pleasure. A country that permits all perversions will not shy away from perverted politics. Instead it will seek to fund them in perpetuity.

The commenter seems to feel that it is there is some implicit global responsibility of America to set a "good" example rather than, as he feels, its current "bad" example. He seems to feel that as America goes, so goes the world; that the Brits drive big cars in Britain not because they make that choice as free people but because some bizarre 'American mind waves' force them to do so against their will; that the Chinese, if impressed by some future America's return to some eco-idyllic state, will shrug off the desires that the increasing wealth and semi-liberty of their situation affords them and peacefully return to the days of the ox-cart, the rickshaw, and root-grubbing famine. In short he places too much power in the hands of America and too little in the hands of the human individuals in the rest of the world. To this way of thinking the example is all, and that only if the example is a "good" example can the world be perfected.

To a small extent he is correct. The global reach of American media is a force in the world, but a deeply confusing one. Our media's main export is a mixed message. It constantly tells the world about our shortcomings ("Alas, we have not yet perfected our country. Here's how..."), but at the same time shows the world our achievements ("Check out the good life, the very good life, and get some for yourself. Here's how..."). What he fails to note, or perhaps perceive, is that the American Story rises out not out of agreement but out of the American Argument, an argument that we've been having here in the land where men have been able to freely speak and vote their minds for well over two centuries. It is an argument we're not finished with yet.

There are many ways of stating the American Argument with itself -- indeed, it is many arguments -- but one of the most straightforward is "How shall men be free and how shall a society of free men then be structured?"

From time to time the passions that animate the American Argument run to blood, such as the era that led to the Civil War and, to a much lesser extent, our current era. At other times, the Argument is pitched at a much lower level of intensity. But the Argument is ever present and any number can play. If you can get here and become a citizen you can participate as well. Hell, we'll let you participate even if you are here and not a citizen. We might even allow millions of you to become citizens overnight in order to join the Argument. You don't even have to learn English any longer.

We just had a big argument over that last concept and, even though it's over for now, it's not over yet. Now we are on to arguing over matters of life and death and who will, in the end, pay the reaper's bill. Indeed, the great thing about the American Argument is that it is never over. The Argument will go on and on prompting every generation to add to it and shape it as that generation wills -- for good or ill -- and trusting that America will self-correct over time as long as the Argument endures and is not won by either side.

The reality is that the American experiment continues its pursuit of the good and its flirtation with perfection. In this pursuit of happiness the American experiment continues to demonstrate to the world what a real egalitarian and free society actually looks like and is. Not what such a society could be, but what one actually is here, now, today. And we arrive there by our constant political argument about "the perfect" vs. "the good;" a "utopia tomorrow" via government intervention in all aspects of life versus individual liberty and the best "possible" world here and now. It is an argument that seeks balance rather than predominance, but when one side of the argument seeks a permanent win the social fabric that binds the country begins to tear. When this happens good citizens of either side will endeavor to patch it once again and continue the Argument.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes, the Argument is the American Revolution today. The Argument is an artifact of the American Revolution. It endures because the American Revolution endures, 233 years later, as the most successful revolution in the history of the world. The American Revolution did not start in 1776 -- that was just the shooting phase. The American Revolution began when men from the Old World first came to the New World and decided to make it new; when men of that world set foot here and came “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder.”

The American Argument emerged from the impact of this land on the Old World. This impact is chronicled in the first visions that the New World could be more than the extension of the Old; that it could be truly New. The vision of a world made new is an ancient one in this land. It predates the Revolution and the formal founding of the United States. The roots can be found in such documents as "The Mayflower Compact" and most clearly in John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "City Upon a Hill."

Many consider the Declaration of Independence to be the key document in the creation of the American experiment, but the seeds of it are to be found in many earlier expressions of what it was like to be new in the New World. Of these, the closing words of Winthrop's "City on a Hill" stand for most of the others:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. "Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil," in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity.

"Therefore let us choose life...." That's pretty much what we try to do here in America some 233 years out. We try in our halting, shambling, faltering way to always choose life; life with all its flaws and complexities and victories and defeats.

We don't try to be perfect -- although there are many among us who urge it upon us and expect it from us in order to feel more perfect themselves.

At the same time I would not deny that we are by default an example to the world -- if not the perfect example so many would prefer. Instead we are simply, warts and all, the best society in all its multifoliate aspects that currently exists or has ever existed upon the Earth. We are a nation that has never been perfect but always, if you could walk the land and know the lay of it, the warp and the woof and the thought dreams of it, much better than we have any right to be. If you could look at the world from orbit and see the people of the world flowing over its surface in some sort of schematic, you would see, when you came to gaze at the borders of America, many footprints going in and few coming out.

That's why I am always amused by the exhortations from within and without to "get perfect or get gone." They always seem to me to be filled with spleen on the surface but with an incredible yearning on the inside; a yearning that acknowledges in its very bitterness; in its very existence that this country of all the others is still "the last best hope of Earth." America-loathing knows in its bones that, no matter how much it dislikes the world with America in it, it would be a much less perfect and much more dangerous world with America out of it. Then again, given the shape of the world and the nature of the American argument, perhaps this wish may some day be granted and the world can again sink back into the tyranny of individuals, faction, and totalitarian state-control.

Perhaps. But that day is not yet. With all the rancor now on display, I still believe that we've got about two to five more centuries left to continue setting our "bad example." Hell, give us one century more to argue and our "bad example" might even get you your "perfect world."



Revised and rewritten from July, 2007

Posted by Vanderleun at May 8, 2012 7:47 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I find it particularly poignant that a Brit would agonize that the U.S. is not a stellar role model for him or the rest of the world.

I would simply suggest that Brits, or anyone else, have a choice in the vehicles they drive. A choice in the food they eat (note: I always had trouble getting a table at TGIF when I had to go over there to work. I ate at TGIF frequently because my work schedule did not agree with the serving times of most Brit eating establishments. They seemed to eat there because they loved it. Big sign in front stated "Full American Menu".) It is not the American influence that causes the rate of teen smoking over there to be shockingly high.

Well, not to belabor the point further. It is pathetic when citizens of a presumably free society resort to blaming others for their perceived short-comings.

Here is what I say to the Brits, Euros, and others who don't like the culture that America allegedly exports: "'Cowboy Up' and develop your society the way you want it to be.

Posted by: Edward Gilkison at July 13, 2007 12:22 PM

Thank you for another on-target essay. I had an e-mail just yesterday from friends in the UK who spent a day with me while they were in New York two weeks ago (where they stayed with other American friends). They said that the trip really opened their eyes to the distorted view of the United States presented by the British media.

And thank you for quoting Winthrop-- that sermon is a keeper.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at July 13, 2007 1:56 PM

I quit agree with Fletcher on how addicted we in the US are to oil. For my entire adult life we have known this was a national security problem and we have done nothing about it.

But I refuse to take the blame for the 4x4s all over the land that invented the Range Rover.

Posted by: andrewdb at July 13, 2007 3:15 PM

Big, ugly, four wheel drives. I guess he's never seen a Land Rover. Maybe it doesn't count if they're hugely overpriced and and don't function much of the time.
But that does seem to be the european business model. I sometimes find it (ironic, infuriating, disorienting...pick one) the the US generally gets the most venomous damns for what is essentially picking up after the european colonial powers. Certainly the middle east wouldn't be quite the dog's breakfast it is without two centuries of enlightened choices made in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome.

Posted by: ed in texas at July 13, 2007 4:41 PM

To say the US is "addicted" to oil is a commonplace. But it is not so. It is true that oil is now, and for the immediate future will be, the thing on which our nation's standard of living depends, but that is generational. Even now it would be a blind person indeed who cannot see that that is changing as alternative ways are both sought and brought online. It is, however, an evolutionary process and not -- as many of the perfect worlders would have it -- a revolutionary process. The revolution is in the process of moving away, not in the instant nature of change. It simply won't happen. It takes around 15 years to cycle the current private vehicle stock out of the society. And this does not even begin to address the importance and the essential infrastructure element of trucks. Everything in modern life in America is in place because of trucking. To redo that will not only require the slow replacement of the entire trucking fleet but a vast upgrade to the national rail system. The reopening and extending of railroad right of way plus the upgrading of the tracks and the railbed is a 20 year process at the very least.

As for bio fuels and ethanol, they cannot as of now be pipelined. Therefore any delivery will have to be via.... truck or rail... which means at least for the last few miles... truck.

You want to make a real dent in dependance on oil? Figure out the truck problem.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at July 13, 2007 5:48 PM

Really wonderful essay, Gerard!

I saw it again some three decades later, but not in Los Angeles, but in London.
London's bad, but Milan can get as bad, too.

As far as gas guzzlers... let me think... Jaguar, Bentley... Land Rover... Aston Martin... Rolls Royce...

Posted by: Fausta at July 13, 2007 6:27 PM

If people of the past (pick a century} could see us now they would laugh themselves back to death. Humans, what a bunch of morons as bugs bunny would say

Posted by: jeffersonranch at July 14, 2007 6:03 AM

Hitting the nail squarely. Nothing to add to a perfect essay.

Posted by: kreiz at July 14, 2007 6:28 AM

And now for some good old fashioned arrogant American exceptionalism.

EU grade 4x4s wouldn't make a pimple on the bumper of a respectable American SUV.

Posted by: Old Dad at July 14, 2007 7:55 AM

Poor European, can't think for themselves, still completely under the control of AmeriKa. must be a hypnotic ray beamed from JW Bush!
non-responsible little Children, under control of big bad Sam.

Pathetic.

Posted by: John at July 14, 2007 8:50 AM

GVdL: "I can see how the commenter comes by his impressions."

Aye, Fletcher, did you see on the Beeb how the Queen strafed Annie Leibovitz?

What?

Rigged footage?

"Feral Beasts?"

Nevermind.

Posted by: stevesh at July 14, 2007 11:00 AM

Gerard:

Diverting high volumes of US truck loads to rail is a tough one – in part because so much of the freight that is easily transferred to rail has already made the move. The domestic intermodal industry has grown considerably over the last several decades, mainly in long haul corridors like LA – Chicago, where it may have a 70 percent market share with respect to highway. It is in the shorter haul markets where it becomes hard for rail to make a dent, no matter how much the infrastructure is improved and the service subsidized. This is particularly true in Europe, where governments have tried over many years to divert truck freight to rail without much success. It would be much the same on the US East Coast. The point to point distance at which intermodal becomes competitive is usually considered to be between 600 and 1,000 miles. This is due to terminal costs and trucking at both ends. These costs must be countered by lower linehaul costs on the rail segment. So the margin between direct truck and rail is often very thin – at times less than $50 for even an LA – Chicago move. If larger trucks were allowed in more states, the economics would shift back to truck for even the long haul moves. However, if we experience much higher fuel costs, the scales could tip in favor of rail, perhaps for shorter moves also, provided rail can keep service levels high. Some links:

BTS- Table 4-5: Fuel Consumption by Mode of Transportation in Physical Units: http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_04_05.html

Freight Facts and Figures 2006 - Table 5-7 and 5-7M: Fuel Consumption by Transportation Mode - FHWA Freight Management and Operations:
http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/freight/freight_analysis/nat_freight_stats/docs/06factsfigures/table5_7.htm

Overview of U.S. Freight Railroads:
http://nationalatlas.gov/articles/transportation/a_freightrr.html

Railfax Report - 2006 Summary of North American Rail Freight Traffic:
http://railfax.transmatch.com/rfax06/index.html#IndTable

Intermodal Freight Transportation
http://www.scag.ca.gov/goodsmove/pdf/truckrail/ch5.pdf


Posted by: Skookumchuk at July 14, 2007 11:08 AM

I have already commented, and possibly ought to have included this in the previous effort; but the general tone of the original post (ah diddums, little boy; never, mind, Daddy knows best and you don't understand) is an illustration of the problem. Americans - any Americans - are too close to the problem to see it.

And I do know just how great a power you haven't used yet. Evidence of this is the fact that Tehran isn't a solidified lake of Trinitite - yet. How many Americans, and (from my point of view) more importantly how many Brits are going to die before it is?

But if you do that, of course, there won't be anything left to steal.

The British Empire was a much greater force for good, in its time, than is the American Imperium. Which is probably one of the reasons why America has seen us off. You can't stand competition.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 14, 2007 7:27 PM

Weak Fletcher............Very Weak........

Posted by: Alexander James at July 15, 2007 7:20 PM

I know I'm a little late to the parade, but I can't resist making a comment on the entry by andrewdb: "how addicted we in the US are to oil." Call me an old fuddy duddy, but I like to make a point by using language that makes sense. Here is the American Heritage Dictionary definition of the word addicted: "1. To cause to become physiologically or psychologically dependent on a habit-forming substance: The thief was addicted to cocaine. 2. To occupy (oneself) with or involve (oneself) in something habitually or compulsively: The child was addicted to video games." How does that have anything to do with oil? I have never felt the desire either to get a high with oil or to hop in my auto and drive around the Beltway for six straight hours.

Do we use oil as efficiently as we could? For every argument that we do not - automobile size, public transportation use, community planning, and alternative energy production - there are equally valid arguments that our use of oil is appropriate. With the price of oil going up, and staying up, the economic incentives will drive the development and the roll out of alternatives to our current oil consumption patterns. If the "addicted to oil" crowd would like to make a point, they need to present evidence that we are using oil inefficiently, i.e. that better technology and/or consumption patterns exist to accomplish the same result using less oil. And don't for example say our cars are too big, because they are also safer and more responsive to the longer driving distances in the U.S.

Posted by: JohnSal at July 16, 2007 2:23 PM

We had to see Britain off as a competitor...would be farrrr toooo humiliating to see a country with 1/5 the population of the U.S. better us.

Based on the evidence of Iran's failing economy under the great mullahs, not sure there's anything of value left to steal. All the good rugs have probably already been stolen, er, I mean purchased.

Posted by: phil g at July 16, 2007 2:51 PM

The mutineer above appears to blame the demise of the British Empire on America. But that assertion is absurd, if one has even the most casual aquaintance with European History of the last 100 years.

I rather think that the Great War of 1914-1918 had more to do with the demise of the British Empire, (and frankly, the origin of most of the political problems the world is facing today), than anything the USA has managed to do in the last 100 years.

And the British did that to themselves, with no help from the US.

(Unless of course, one believes that all those war loans, and eventually the intervention of the US in WWI and WWII was all some sort of plot to destroy the British Empire. Seems to to be a roundabout way of doing it, eh?)

Posted by: Eric Blair at July 17, 2007 6:43 AM

Thanks, and happy 4th of July!

Posted by: Andy at July 4, 2008 9:20 AM

Thanks, Gerard, this essay is a good addition to my 4th of July experience. I hope yours is a good one too.

"As far as gas guzzlers... let me think... Jaguar, Bentley... Land Rover... Aston Martin... Rolls Royce..." I couldn't let that one by without adding that none of them would probably still exist if it weren't for the American market. There aren't that many Saudi princes....

Posted by: pete at July 4, 2008 10:43 AM

How old is the original post of this? I don't remember. Each country, of course, has its good and bad points - and equally of course, its effect on the rest of the world depends on both the power that it wields (now, America is unmatched) and which of those dominates.

Some things about the USA, I am impressed with. I remember the two weeks (yes, that's all) I spent as a guest of an expatriate Brit, living in one of NYC's dormitory towns and working in NYC itself. I was less than impressed with some of what I saw, and very impressed indeed with some of the rest. One thing that struck me; one day I spent a day sampling some of the NYC tourist traps, including Trump Tower (so OTT it's almost classy). That one day out of two weeks, it rained. What really impressed me was that, within a few minutes of the rain starting, every street corner had its resident umbrella-seller. Notably, every one of them was black.

The lesson? Entrepreneurism is alive and well in the USA - at least in NYC. But everyone, and every nation, ought also to be aware of his or its bad points as well - and in my humble opinion, stupidity, ignorance and arrogance are some of the bad points of the USA. And the higher up the social scale one goes the more they are evident.

The United States of America started as essentially British. Some of the things that define the USA still are; the rule of law, fair play, tolerance for dissent. Some are not.

The USA, for good or ill, is now an empire - whether you choose to admit it or not. Imperial privileges come with responsibilities, as the UK well knows. We discharged ours; notably in the largest democracy in the world. Will the American Imperium do as well? Who knows?

I think that every American ought to read Kipling. Particularly one line; "send forth the best ye breed". It isn't needed in the UK any more; we were the Light of the West for two centuries at least, probably more, and we're tired. And worn out, and on the sidelines. The torch is passed. If you want to get literary, we were Gondor to the USA's Rohan.

Lastly, consider this. The USA is one of a very few countries that can have anything to do with the real hope of humanity - the frontier that starts a hundred miles from anywhere. And one of the USA's bad points comes to the fore here; that of CYA bureaucracy as a replacement for courage. NASA ought to be disbanded. Tomorrow.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 4, 2008 2:26 PM

One year old. But still worthy of contemplation.

Posted by: vanderleun at July 4, 2008 3:47 PM

Well, a year later and the entity which call itself Fletcher Christian is still with us.

Fletcher, old chap, if you spent any time in NYC you would notice immediately that the USA has moved far past its British heritage. Unfortunately, from what I read so has England; and not in a positive way.

I strongly suggest that you use your superior powers of observation and expression to clean up the problems at home. If you do that with due diligence you simply won't have the time to worry about ours. I was the first respondent to the original post and stated then, and repeat now, that it is rather sad if citzens of other countries must actually look to the U.S. for their cultural direction; and even sadder if they then use our alleged influence as the excuse for their shortcomings.

One final comment. As a former employee of British Aerospace I couldn't help noticing that many Brits who obtained job assignments in the U.S. contrived to stay here permanently. I know of no Americans who contrive to emmigrate to England. Actions speak much louder than blog posts.

Posted by: Bob Gilkison at July 4, 2008 5:42 PM

I've been reading you site for a few weeks and have enjoyed it very much. Trenchant writing and fascinating links.

The amphi-oceanic contest about who has been the better mucker-upper or improver of global human affairs is just part of the continuous Argument. But how can one compare an Empire that annex'd huge swathes over centuries, subjecting their peoples to control by the Foreign Office, as against the United States, which has no real history of taking over foreign lands and later granting them an "imprinted" independence? When I think of "colonialism" or "imperialism" America is not the first country that springs to mind.

Are Britain or Germany or Netherlands proportionately better stocked with intelligent and thoughtful souls than America? Less violent and more sensible? Perhaps the perception problem is that the European intellectual elite has realized their dream of post-modern liberalism in the EU program, without much resistance apparently, and they seem to be smartly united in their abandonment of most of the Bad Things that Americans are still arguing about. By contrast, the counterpart intellectual class in the US has not yet convinced all of us that bureaucratic socialism is the way to go and because our political lifeblood is not of one universal type or vision. To me it seems our friends have traded their independence and liberty, what measure of these they may have once enjoyed, and exchanged them for a more comforting, if temporary, sense of humanity.

Posted by: Hannon at July 4, 2008 5:43 PM

To add to what Gerard originally said a year ago, just yesterday I bought a printer, ink, and a usb cable. Along with a pair of headphones which I'm now using to listen to music with (The Moody Blues, Sitting at the Wheel). And I have money left over. Me a fellow on government disability.

Of course, my rent is supplemented by HUD, I don't drive, and my medical treatment and my medication is covered by the Feds, but still...

I live in a country prosperous enough to keep me in a standard of living monarchs of centuries past would be amazed by, and what I do with this largess? I use it to maintain Mythusmage Opines, a blog dedicated to blogging about subjects outre and obtuse, and commenting on innocent blogger's sites.

Currently listening to: John Denver Windsong (Probably his best song)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at July 4, 2008 8:36 PM

Vanderleun; you haven't got five centuries left, you haven't got two, I much doubt you have more than fifty years. Why? Because in 2058, the shape of society will be unrecognisable one way or another. Some fates: despite the best efforts of NASA, humanity gets into space in a big way - and exponential growth takes over, and Earth never mind the USA starts to be irrelevant. Or the technological singularity has already arrived, and humans are no longer the dominant species on Earth. Or the jihadists do something truly unforgiveable, and what happens then could be nearly anything, none of it good. Or one of our toys (probably ill-designed nanotech) gets loose and nothing alive is left on Earth at all. Or any one of a number of things. The point is that the pace of history continues to accelerate, and it may not be all that much longer before we are not in control of it.

Hannon; oh, I thought the old "Imperialism" chestnut would be thrown in soon. Let's see, what is this evil imperialist power responsible for? Oh yes - habeas corpus; parliamentary democracy; modern science (remember a certain Mr. Newton?); the Industrial Revolution; the USA; Australia; Canada; the end of slavery; female emancipation; and fighting off one of the worst dictators in history twice and a large part of fighting off unquestionably the worst. And of course, turning a subcontinent full of warring mediaeval princelings into a modern democracy, the largest in the world. And when that country asked us to leave, we did. They even like us, most of the time.

As for taking over foreign lands and attempting to implant democracy; hmmm... Anyone here think that isn't what the USA is trying to do in Iraq?

The UK has a few things to be sorry about. The above aren't any of them. By the way, I agree completely about the ills of modern Britain - but there is only one of me, and I'm tired too, having survived two major life-threatening illnesses and having a struggling business to run. In an industry that the (largely American-controlled) pharmaceutical industry is trying to shut down, by the way.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 5, 2008 2:21 PM

My wife is Scottish and she detests the way the inmates have taken over the asylum in Britain. The cities are crime ridden, the people have no respect for each other, the police are repressive and PC, the healthcare system does not work and the hard working are taxed to death to support the lazy and stupid.

And that's what favorable things she has to say about it. She'd never leave the USA, for all its faults, for the looney bin that is today's UK.

Anyone who wishes to see how liberties die need not go to the UK just visit Canada.

Posted by: Thomas Jackson at July 5, 2008 3:52 PM

Fletcher C.--

Why do you slip the "evil" next to my "imperialist", and then proceed to issue great dollops of hyperbolic irrelevancies on top of my poorly qualified yet straightforward message? You've said nothing to refute my basic premise which is that your Empire was the most avaricious and imperious [different word this time] in matters colonial and global for many a year.

You assume that I have no reverence for England/UK and there you would be very wrong. I recognize that many of the best developments in the Western world owe to her existence, and our sensibilities and outlook are overwhelmingly shared even today. But it so happens that *often* one of your countrymen or another will go off bashing the Americans all and sundry because our foreign or domestic policy appears to be underwritten by baboons. And then you hand us another lesson in what pillocks we are and how we would be nothing without y'all for political if not literal ancestors. Honestly, hearing it and mounting a defense against it gets tiresome after a while.

We are a nation of great things Good and Bad, just as yours, but you have been at it longer. In much of my reading I get the feeling that Europe generally fears and loathes us, and with Bush & Co. trying to "democratize" the world for eight years that is not an unreasonable position. But please try to keep things in perspective and don't think that just because 72% of us can't find Britain on a map means that we don't care. Some of us really do and it is painful to see your island nation degrading into a real Hell on earth.

Posted by: Hannon at July 5, 2008 6:54 PM

In retrospect I am sorry that I dignified Fletcher Christian's efforts with a response. He is just another little man in a little place who makes himself feel big by bashing the United States. It is safe; it is cheap; and it means nothing. Really not worth taking note of the buzzing of the flies.

Posted by: Bob Gilkison at July 6, 2008 2:24 PM

But as long as we're at it, this from Diana West's blog:

"The most senior judge in England--Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips (oh, please)--tonight gave his most Lordly, Chief and Just blessing to the use of sharia law to resolve disputes among Muslims.

Another reason to be glad we declared independence."

Posted by: Hannon at July 6, 2008 6:33 PM

I sadly missed this essay first time around; it is gem of philosophical profundity and very inspiring. I hope you can forgive my compatriot whose remarks prompted it; in fact you appear to have done so in your response. I am less forgiving; as a beneficiary of American hospitality, largesse and professional generosity over several decades, as someone who has lived under the US umbrella that has protected me against potential annihilation for most of my life, I deplore the ungracious remarks - probably penned by someone who has never visited America. Our country is now sadly peopled by a majority who have squandered their heritage and handed the reins of power over to modified Marxism. Beware my transatlantic friends and do not make the same mistake; I see troubling signs, but it is not too late, even though time is short.

Posted by: Frank P at September 2, 2009 2:39 AM


The fascination with finding one piece of commentary and extrapolating that to determine what entire nations think is borne out by the post, the very first and subsequent comments. Not sure if that was what you intended Vanderleun but that is increasingly what the internet seems best at and more widely Americans seem fascinated with and hurt by.

Just a read a piece over at The Times where I understand they are selling t shirts in NYC hating on the Brits. Not our PM or our government but us, as a nation. In my whole life of seeing various criticism levelled at the US (for the simple reason being you export your culture globally warts and all and thus naturally invite commentary), I have NEVER seen anyone selling t shirts hating on the US. Why?

Because there are far more people who enjoy the plusses in your/our shared cultures than there are detractors.

Frankly I hate the Britneys and the porn culture you shelved up via MTV but enjoy the big fat 4x4s out of town. I could live without crap McDonalds and god-awful Starbucks peppering our high streets but enjoy a decent American style burger and like jazz. The UK far more than any other European nation subsumes the warts and all of US culture because we share the same history and language whether we like it or not.

Naturally seeing British culture totally subsumed by American culture is as perplexing to some Brits as it to others to see the Left destroy our proud history, invite in sub cultures and determine that British Empire was all baaaaaad for which we must forever pay the price. And not through the Commonwealth as a good ‘institution’ which nations belonging to it actually love and respect, but by weeding out all the Brit Empire bashing naysayers and making their whiny finger pointing voices the definitive voice for all. Which is exactly what you are doing here.

Speaking of anonymous voices, you guys seem to enjoy taking the lesser critical voices and propelling them into unnecessary 'stardom'. I used to trawl through the internet diatribes on pathetic tiny little lefty sites and poke them with a stick about their "anti americanism". I’ve had arguments in San Francisco trams where some jumped up Dutch twerp starts off on one about American cars and how ‘much better the US is doing now it’s understood how much damage they do” standing next to my father, a Englishman, who loved bug fat fuck-off US cars all his life and ripped the Dutch man a new asshole.

But why do we bother? It is obvious by the comments you prefer to dismiss voices like my father’s, who loved British culture and American culture and saw them as worth defending.

He wouldn’t merit a whole post such as this.

In the end there is as much if not more hatred from your side of the Atlantic. Just admit you utterly hate and despise us and are just as good at it and quit pretending that this about fending off wider criticism.

That way we can all let the people doing their best to destroy western culture using simple jetplanes, leftism and religious gusto get on and see us all off once and for all. At which point the Chinese can step in and fill the void. Their culture will be so much better than thousands of years of our own I'm sure but it won’t be the Left we can solely credit for ushering in THAT brave new world.

For every jerk levelling boring drivel about US 4x4s, there are two or more Brit soldiers fighting out in the dust to secure our collective civilisation of which we jointly play a part. But I see far more vitriol spewed embellishing the jerks than I ever do saluting the brave.

"a commenter delivers a vest pocket critique of America seen from abroad"

And finds himself worthy of your eloquently written posts Vanderleun. In the end he is what YOU want to believe is representative of opinion on America. Far away from the reality of the people I work with, am friends with and grew up with. Far from the reality of a man like my father and many others like him here. The voiceless majority get drowned out to give voice to the extremes. As usual.

Posted by: alison at September 2, 2009 5:00 AM

Fleth,

This is a great quote you bring up:

"send forth the best ye breed"

I wish our US government and public school personnel would read this. It seems to me they spend a lot of their time trying to figure out how to prevent this concept coming to fruition. In fact on June 8th the powers to be have decided "the one" will address them. I can't imagine what he could possibly offer them. "Read Marx kids, he knew people!"

Or: "Hey kids. I'm bankrupting you future taxpayers for your own good. You'll thank me someday".

Posted by: JD at September 2, 2009 8:10 AM

Most European non-conformist acheivers reflexively avoid provoking the majority, but anyone going to the trouble of owning and driving a large 4X4 in Europe is not being influenced by some omnipotent American cultural taste. He is sticking his middle finger in the air to the Nanny state and all its obedient citizens. This is a man who must appreciate each scowl of disapproval, and is willing to pay though the nose for them.
Let us form a registry and give them all citizenship.

Posted by: at September 2, 2009 8:57 AM

My American flag is snapping more brightly for having read this piece. Dazzling.

"The reality is that the American experiment continues its pursuit of the good and its flirtation with perfection. In this pursuit of happiness the American experiment continues to demonstrate to the world what a real egalitarian and free society actually looks like and is."

I've been watching Victor Davis Hanson on You Tube as he is interviewed by Berkley's Harry Kreisler in Conversation With History, Feb. 15, 2008.

This tired, determined classicist discusses the Greeks' pragmatism, their acceptance of the tragic in man's life, the imperfect world that we must live in and their arguments as to how best a society might navigate the shoals inherent in a democracy.

I pray your optimistic envisioning of a continuing American Argument is fulfilled by those who follow. I want to say that I hope they will be worthy of the gift, but honestly - I'm not sure that I am.

Posted by: cathy at September 2, 2009 12:29 PM

Thank you, Gerard. The idea of The Argument helps clarify what we are experiencing. It doesn't help me feel more hopeful at the moment - but, still, clarity is a great good.

We got into a health care debate on Independence Day with some of our British friends. At one point, after fighting back on the "American Imperialism" charge and the terrible exploiters we are, I said something in defense of Britain which startled my friend. He simply didn't understand that we were arguing over the future of Western Civilization, not just America. This is the great tragedy of the ascendancy of the Left. Westerners can barely take their own side in an argument.

Posted by: Western Chauvinist at September 2, 2009 12:36 PM

Footnote: When the whole global warming panic started about 15 years ago, there were no SUVs in Germany. Now they are everywhere, and most of them made by German carmakers. Did they copy this from the Americans? Why would they, when they take care to express their disdain for other things American, like low taxes, silly movies and support for Israel? When you see boxy 4WD vehicles in front of every other house on every hill around Heidelberg (where it rarely snows), you know these are educated, liberal people who may well vote Green. Your reader is writing about his own neuroses; not reality.

Posted by: El Gordo at September 2, 2009 12:48 PM

Interesting that FC has now moved over to Belmont Club, where he continues to spew about SUVs, American greed, and general wishes that someone will take down the USA.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at September 2, 2009 3:56 PM

I find it interesting to read the comments on these reposts of Gerards; seeing both the same names and new ones.

Neat idea, Gerard: starting the conversation and leading people back to it repeatedly.

I bet there's a book in there someplace.

Posted by: Eric Blair at September 3, 2009 2:42 PM

Did you hesitate at all over reposting this line?

"The Argument will go on and on prompting every generation to add to it and shape it as that generation wills -- for good or ill -- and trusting that America will self-correct over time as long as the Argument endures and is not won by either side."

I'm thinking of recent statements by Bill Clinton and figures in the MSM about Beck, Palin and tea partiers being seditious. The Left has so successfully vilified conservatives as to now get away with equating us with Timothy McVeigh.

Really - is it necessary or wise to argue with gun and Bible clinging racists, homophobes, xenophobes, sexists and traitors? The Left doesn't care to engage in the Argument anymore. It just wants us to STFU! After the seizure of extra-constitutional authority in the Obamascare bill and holding majorities in both houses until January 2011, what is to stop them from shutting us up? The First Amendment? Hah! That only applies to Leftists. I hope to God I'm wrong.

Posted by: Western Chauvinist at April 19, 2010 1:46 PM

The Left hasn't won. Indeed, it has finally overplayed its hand. It also stands naked and ugly before the seat of judgment.

Posted by: vanderleun at April 19, 2010 2:13 PM

Western Chauvinist:
...what is to stop them from shutting us up? The First Amendment?

No, the Second. That's what it's for.

Posted by: rickl at April 19, 2010 5:11 PM

I like your way of thinking, rickl. I really do. But have you read CREEPING TYRANNY in Gerard's sidebar? I know so many good and decent middle-of-the-roaders who have no sense of danger. They live in the belief that America is too big to fail. That, if we just reduce the Pentagon's budget, we can begin to address the budget deficit and national debt. Their kids are getting small federal grants to attend nuclear disarmament conferences.

Try talking to these people about the dangers of big government or the real hazard to liberty with the transfer of more power to the feds and they think you're a conspiracy nutter. George Bush, God love him, didn't help our position with budget increases for virtually every government agency.

These frogs have been swimming around in tepid water for so long, they have no idea the heat got drastically increased with Obama's election.

You tell me when to jump.

Posted by: Western Chauvinist at April 19, 2010 5:56 PM

"The Left hasn't won. Indeed, it has finally overplayed its hand. It also stands naked and ugly before the seat of judgment."

I hope to God you're right, Gerald.

Posted by: Aquila at April 19, 2010 6:09 PM

I don't know, Western Chauvinist. I know some of the people you mentioned. Some of them are longtime friends and I've frankly gotten tired of trying to talk to them. Lately I've even been distancing myself from them.

Posted by: rickl at April 19, 2010 8:16 PM

My goodness, what a poetic essay, elegiac and hopeful at once. Bravo Van der Leun.

I'm pleased to see you support the point that the Left has this time inevitably overplayed its hand, an observation I made in the same terms recently at Camp of the Saints (dot com, of course.) The exposure engendered by their presumed vindication of 2008 has resulted in public awareness of the essential emptiness and resentment that is the core of socialism since 1789, and the Web means there ain't no hidin' place down here no mo. Teehee.

For those who somehow believe the American Argument (damn that's a pretty illustration) is in the process of being stifled, no more illustration needs be offered than the existence of this conversation.

Gawjuss.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at April 19, 2010 9:50 PM

Re; Fletcher's post:
His comment re the revolutionary war:
"When they asked us to leave,we did."
Excuse me??!!
I seem to remember something about some guns, a war for independence....something along those lines.
Is this person stupid or crazy?

Posted by: flannelputz at April 20, 2010 5:28 AM

' Re; Fletcher's post:
His comment re the revolutionary war:
"When they asked us to leave,we did."
Excuse me??!!
I seem to remember something about some guns, a war for independence....something along those lines.
Is this person stupid or crazy?'

Actually, neither. Or at least not on the basis of my comment. Which just, to some extent, makes my point (American self-centredness) for me. My comment was not about the revolutionary war. And the USA is not the world's largest democracy, not by a very long way. Ever hear of India?

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at April 20, 2010 6:26 AM

"American self centeredness" has nothing on Euro self centeredness.

All one has to do to see that in action is read Fletcher Christian's comments.

It is OK, though.

Europe is about to learn a very harsh lesson, one that they will probably not survive long enough to benefit from. No one is going to save them from their fate, either. They will have to do that all on their lonesome.

Posted by: Nahanni at April 20, 2010 9:20 AM

"What I do mind is that Americans are setting a bad example for everyone else; as a small example the streets of Britain are filled with grotesquely large 4x4s. I am quite sure the fashion comes from across the pond."

He would prefer Volkswagens?

Posted by: B Moe at April 20, 2010 10:11 AM

When America's exceptionalism rubs non-Americans wrongly, we can debate. But when it rubs our own president wrongly, we need to check our vital signs.

Posted by: RedCarolina at May 14, 2011 3:09 PM

If you don't like large 4x4s, don't buy one. I don't have much use for them myself, but I won't tell someone else not to buy one if that's what he wants to drive. Same thing with American-style fast food, which really has proliferated throughout the world. Not my usual choice in restaurants, but if you want to eat there, knock yourself out. I'd point out to the original poster that the reason these 4x4s, fast food joints, Hollywood films, and so on thrive is that people like them, not that there's some great trans-Atlantic conspiracy to squeeze out local competitors. Deal with it.

To Alison, if you're still reading this blog, I'd like to say that most Brits and other Europeans that I've known throughout the years think as you and your father do regarding us Yanks. Not all, but most. Where I've run into hatred of all things American is at what I'd call the "elitist" (not elite) level, people who view things like patriotism and religion as oh-so-gauche and passe. These are the same people who say nothing when Muslims demand that Danish cartoonists be murdered for publishing Mohammed cartoons, but consider Ayaan Ali Hirsi and Geert Wilders as having committed "hate crimes". Go figure.

As for the British Forces currently deployed to Afghanistan, may God bless them, protect them, and give them the fortitude to carry out their mission.

Posted by: waltj at May 15, 2011 6:55 AM

I for one, think shoving our fast food, gas guzzling culture across the pond onto the Brits is justified, as revenge for stuff like that Royal Wedding and all that Diana hoopla distracting our women-folk all those years. And for inflicting Benny Hill on us too. And really crappy and unreliable cars like the Jaguar.

And NOW, we had the non-stop Kate and Willy show for the past month. We did not watch by our own free will. Oh no. We were brainwashed, just like those Brits who traded in their Wimpy burgers for Big Macs, and their Bangers and Mash for Pizza Hut.

So that does it. Time to open up few dozen Dunkin Donut franchises in England, pronto.....and then Captain Bligh's bitch can whine about how the Brits no longer follow their hallowed Imperial tradtion of sipping Chinese Tea (stemming from that lovely, moral, and oh so honorable and upright Opium trade war thingy -- oh but let's ignore the ugly bits, when looking back on our Empire with fond nostalgia) - and little cookies they call "biscuits"..but instead are gulping down Dunkin Donuts coffee with a couple of powdered donuts.....mmmm....addicting...and fattening....Heh, heh, heh...

That'll show em.

Posted by: southernjames at May 15, 2011 10:23 AM

We use more gas here because either our places of work are in a high rent district, or because they are in a area that is unsafe.
It seems an impossible dream to imagine that our inner cities will once again be places of peace and convenience.or that our centers of wealth will once again welcome the working class. Our major highways are crowded and dangerous, not exactly the best place for say, a Smart Car.
London has some of the worst traffic on the planet, while not a fan of big suv's,their owners may feel safer in them in London traffic.

Posted by: della street at May 15, 2011 6:52 PM

I wish I could write like this.

Posted by: Larry at May 20, 2011 4:13 AM

Betcha most of those Brits who steer 4X4's through London would trade them for a big gun and the right to carry it.

Posted by: james wilson at May 8, 2012 9:42 AM

My country, Australia, has much in common with yours, mostly good. For example, we cop some patronising from Europeans, all of whom, except Britain and maybe Denmark, live under new and still untried political systems. Ours existed a hundred years before we were founded. If you count the EU as a new and experimental system, it would be fair to say that Australia, NZ and the US now have the oldest and most stable forms of government. (Canada's not stable - too Euro with its entrenched regional/racial divides.)

Another thing we have in common with the US: our biggest nutritional problem is obesity. I take pride in that, when I consider all the alternatives.

When Australians are getting on leaky boats and crossing the Indian ocean to get out of the place, I'll have to revive my opinions. As will you, when those Central American republics can't take any more gringo refugees. Old World sophisticates will then be able to wag the finger at us - if they're not to busy with their latest catastrophic upheaval.

Posted by: Robert at May 8, 2012 3:06 PM

Save all that typing Gerald. Tell the Brit there';s a good reason why we ran their sorry a***s out all those years ago.

P.S. 14 of my ancestors were there. Well armed.

Posted by: glenn at May 8, 2012 6:58 PM

Mmmmm...pie.

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"closed"

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