Don’t Live Thoughtlessly

The American philosopher John Dewey argued that for most people, most of the time, thinking is a last resort. They only think when a problem or obstacle blocks their path.

And he wasn’t wrong. Most of the time, we live on autopilot. We do either:

  • What we’ve done before,
  • What other people are doing,
  • What other people say they’re doing (but really aren’t),
  • Or what some authority told us to do.

That thoughtless approach to life works okay when our actions are helpful or harmless. But when our actions cause harm — especially long-run harm that won’t show up until later — we need to stop and think.

Our degenerate culture boasts many examples, but one of the most obvious is subjecting children to gender ideology, such as the idea that sex is “assigned at birth” rather than a natural biological feature.

Yes, I know we’re supposed to say “gender” instead of “sex” to keep the alphabet people from throwing a tantrum. But “gender” as applied to humans is a misleading anti-concept that’s used to obscure the legitimate concept of biological sex. It’s easier to deceive and manipulate people when no one can be sure of what anyone else is talking about.

But I digress. It’s hard for people to recognize insanities of their own societies because they themselves live in the insane asylum.

Therefore, to clarify, consider an example from China. Harvard historian John King Fairbank reported his observations:

“When my wife and I lived in Beijing in the early 1930s, all women of middle age or over had bound feet, stumping about awkwardly on their heels as though the front sections of their feet had been amputated …

Imagine yourself a girl child who — for some six to ten long years, beginning at age 5 to 8 and lasting until 13 or 15, the years of your childhood and getting your growth — has her feet always bound in long strips of  cloth night and day with no letup in order to deform them …

Under this constant pressure your arches have gradually been broken and bowed upward so only the back edge of your heels can support your weight … The result is that you will never run again and can walk on the base of your heels only with difficulty. Even standing will be uncomfortable.” (China: A New History, Chapter 8; Harvard University Press, 2002)

Mothers had suffered through it as children, so they did it to their own daughters because it was just “the thing to do.” They didn’t think about it, any more than many Americans think about the cruelties and insanities that they embrace as normal or at least acceptable.

By the 20th century, China had abolished foot-binding. But the Chinese now look back with shame and horror at a practice that their society once considered sane and normal.

How will people in the year 2100 view our own era? Will they gasp in horror at the atrocities we were willing to commit for wokeness and its unholy trinity of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE)?

We don’t have to wait until 2100 to find out. We can start thinking now.

We can insist on clarity and proof. We can question authority. We don’t have to believe whatever we’re told by people on television just because they’ve got expensive suits and bodyguards. We don’t have to let social media giants manipulate us.

Let’s not, in our old age, look back in shame that we failed to reject the evils of our era.

Let’s instead look back with pride that we fearlessly sought the truth, and then acted on it.

Posted in Life, Political Science, Psychology, Society | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beware of “Exceptions” to Freedom

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder wrote a short book called On Tyranny that’s quite good. Each of its 20 chapters explains a way to preserve freedom and civilized society in the face of attacks by tyrannical government.

The book came out in 2017, so it’s clearly meant as a warning about The Devil Trump. But apart from the author’s political partisanship, the content is valid. And it’s a quick read.

None of it is about 2021, of course, but a lot of it could be:

  • “Do not obey in advance.”
  • “Be wary of paramilitaries.”
  • “Believe in truth.”
  • “Investigate.”
  • “Make eye contact and small talk.”
  • “Be a patriot.”

Chapter 17 isn’t about 2021, but almost sounds like it is:

“The most intelligent of the Nazis, legal theorist Carl Schmitt, explained fascist government. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state into a permanent emergency. Citizens will then trade real freedom for fake safety.”

That sounds uncomfortably recent and familiar. It’s worth pondering.

Posted in Political Science, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

For The Chinese, Context Is Everything

It ain’t much, but it’s the first story I’ve written in Chinese.

I’d wanted to write about Chinese political philosophy, but I found that my vocabulary was too limited to do it. Surprisingly, some Chinese ideas about governmental legitimacy are the same as those of our Western tradition, just dressed up in different language.

My story is kind of pointless, but it’s what I could write at my current skill level:

“Yesterday evening, I bought a new truck. I drove it to the airport. There, I discovered a party. I met Mr. Fish. I said to him, ‘Excuse me, do you have a business card?’”

As television host Johnny Carson used to say when his audience didn’t laugh, “These are the jokes, folks. I get paid either way.”

Literally translated, my story says:

“Yesterday evening, I buy (the verb is followed by a completed action marker) one unit new of truck.

I drove to go (“go” was omitted, so it’s in red) airplane field. I at that location (I had put “at that location” in the wrong place, so it’s crossed out and re-inserted) discovered one unit of evening meeting (i.e., a party).

I meet Fish Mister (the context indicates that I did it in the past). I say to him, “Please may I ask (I had omitted the little square in the middle of the character for “ask”), you have name card (yes/no question marker)?”

It wasn’t until I studied Chinese that I realized how similar all Western languages are. English, French, Spanish, German, and even Russian and Hebrew all do the same things in basically the same ways. Not Chinese:

  • The most obvious difference in spoken Chinese is that pitch changes indicate the meanings of words, so speaking Chinese is a little like singing. We English speakers tend not to hear the pitch changes because we don’t expect them and don’t listen for them. It takes practice to do it.
  • Written Chinese is not phonetic. From the way a word is pronounced, you can’t tell how it’s written, and from the way it’s written, you can’t tell how it’s pronounced. Depending on the context, the same written word’s meaning or pronunciation can change a lot. You simply must learn all the different meanings, pronunciations, and when to use them.
  • Chinese verbs do not have tenses for past, present, or future. The context shows when the action occurred. Sometimes, a completed action marker follows the verb, but often not. You just have to know the context.
  • Chinese nouns are usually preceded by “measure words” that indicate what type of object is under discussion. For a car, it’s lee-ahng; for a party, tzi; for a person, ge, and so on. My “concise dictionary” has a seven-page list of measure words for different kinds of things. Heaven knows how long the list is in dictionaries that aren’t “concise.”

The bottom line is that if they work at it, most people can learn to read and understand some Chinese. But to speak or write it correctly takes much more knowledge. I’m slowly getting there.

If I were to draw one lesson from studying the Chinese language, it’s that for the Chinese, context is everything. Nothing is seen in isolation. Even the word for “nothing” can mean half a dozen other things, depending on the context.

Whether as our ally or adversary (probably a little of both), China is going to be a player on the world stage. The more we know about it, the better we can play.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Life, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Character Is Destiny — For Nations, Too

China is our geopolitical adversary, but the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius had some advice that might help us in these difficult times. He said:

“Only after a person has demeaned himself will others demean him. Only after a great family has destroyed itself will others destroy it. And only after a country has torn itself down will others tear it down. The T’ai Chia says:

‘Ruin from Heaven,
We can weather.
Ruin from ourselves,
We never survive.'”

To survive, let alone to recover, our country must regain its sanity and self-respect.

As American Founder George Washington said, “Labor to keep alive in yourself that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Posted in Philosophy, Political Science | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kathy Shaidle, R.I.P.

Blogger Kathy Shaidle died yesterday, but she lived long enough to write her own obituary. It’s a classic of class. R.I.P., Kathy. I hope to meet you someday (but not too soon):

“Kathy Shaidle 1964 – 2021

Following a tedious rendezvous with ovarian cancer, Kathy Shaidle has died, wishing she’d spent more time at the office.

Her tombstone reads: GET OFF MY LAWN!

She is relieved she won’t have to update her LinkedIn profile, shave her legs, or hear ‘Creep’ by Radiohead ever again. Some may even be jealous that she’s getting out of enduring a Biden presidency.

Kathy was a writer, author, columnist and blogging pioneer, as proud of her first book’s Governor General’s Award nomination as of her stint as ‘Ed Anger’ for The Weekly World News.*

A target for cancel culture before the term was coined, she was denounced by all the best people, sometimes for contradictory reasons.

Kathy did not lead a particularly ‘full life,’ her existence having been composed mostly of a series of unpleasant surprises. Her favorite corporeal pleasure was saying, ‘I told you so,’ which she was able to utter with justification multiple times a day. A bookish movie-buff and agoraphobic homebody, as a child Kathy ‘always preferred the little couch ride on the merry-go-round.’ Yet Kathy managed to acquire a reputation for mouthiness, a side effect of her bullshit allergy.

Contrary to cliche, Kathy did not conduct herself with particular ‘grace,’ ‘dignity’ or ‘courage’ in her final months. She didn’t ‘bravely fight on’ after her cancer was pronounced terminal. All she did was (barely) cope, and then only with assistance from her generous employer, and some energetic and selfless friends whom she’d somehow managed to acquire over the years, much to her astonishment. Of course, the greatest of these was her stalwart beloved of over 20 years, Arnie, with whom she is now in the ultimate long distance relationship. They can all finally catch up on their sleep.

Donations can be made to the Dorothy Ley Hospice, Toronto.”

  • The Weekly World News was a parody newspaper, similar to The Babylon Bee or The New York Times. “Ed Anger” was a perpetually enraged columnist for the newspaper.
Posted in Life | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t “Other” Other People

Most people aren’t familiar with the idea of “othering,” but they are familiar with what it is. They’ve seen it. They’ve done it to other people, and they’ve had it done to them.

To “other” a group of people is to devalue their lives, welfare, and concerns. It’s not new, nor is it done only by humans. In their own way, lower animals do it too.

The reason it’s so common is that it’s hard-wired into our biology by evolution. Animals tend to help their genetic relatives, and they tend to fight or flee non-relatives. They use group membership as one way to identify their genetic relatives.

As a result, animals tend to help members of their group and to fight or flee non-members. Whether the animals are beetles, bats, chimps, or humans, it works the same.

The difference of humans is that we can recognize and understand what we’re doing. Unlike lower animals, we can choose not to do it.

You might think that bias applies only to groups like race or political party, but it can apply to any kind of group. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed in The Social Conquest of Earth:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Now do a thought-experiment: Think of a group you dislike. It can be a political party, another race, another nation, or another religion. How do you feel about them?

Do you rate them as “less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, and less competent”? That’s your group bias talking: you have “othered” them. It prevents you from seeing them as they really are and from taking their concerns seriously. Even worse, it prevents members of different groups from cooperating for mutual benefit. Instead, they vilify and fight each other when rational people could make peace and work together.

Yes, some people actually are unfair, untrustworthy, and incompetent. But if you’ve othered all the members of their group, you won’t be able to distinguish the good from the bad. You will see only “the other.”

Othering people is especially dangerous when minds are clouded by misinformation and anger. It can lead to violence and can destroy good societies. We face that situation right now.

I don’t care which “side” you think you’re on. Don’t let your emotions overwhelm your reason. Stop and think.

Do you really believe that members of opposing group X are all homicidal maniacs who must be destroyed before they destroy you? That there’s no way to live in peace — or even better, to cooperate for mutual benefit?

That kind of grim situation doesn’t happen nearly as often as people lead themselves to believe — right before they embark on their own sprees of mindless destruction.

Stop and think. Please. You’re a human being. Don’t act like you’re just a stupid animal that can only hate and fight because that’s what its instincts tell it to do.

Don’t “other” other people.

Posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science, Psychology, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Be a Winner in 2021

Life is like a game of chess.

I was going to say “life is like a box of chocolates,” but apparently someone else has used that already.

In high school and college, I played a lot of chess. A chess game can end in two ways:

  • One player wins and the other loses. The winner gets 1 point. The loser gets none.
  • Nobody wins or loses, called a “draw.” Both players get one-half of a point. Draws occur when neither player can force checkmate, and in a few other situations.

Over the years, I discovered that there were two kinds of chess players.

The first kind of player wants to win. The late Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) was like that. He was fiercely aggressive on the chessboard. He once said “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” As you might guess, he was not a very nice guy. But he was one of the greatest chess players who ever lived.

The second kind of player hates to lose. That player takes a more passive approach to avoid losing. If it looks risky to try for a win, he won’t take the risk. He’ll try for a stalemate or some other way to get a draw.

Neither approach is right or wrong. Aggressive players like Fischer get most of the attention because they’re more interesting. Their moves are sometimes brilliant and unexpected. But many grandmasters have played passively and still won tournaments. They’re called “drawing masters” because they draw so many games.

Each player’s style reflects his or her own personality and values. One element of chess strategy is to force your opponent to play in ways with which he’s uncomfortable. You try to make an aggressive player defend, and you try to make a passive player attack.

And chess is like life. Some people want to win. Others hate to lose. Most are probably in the middle. It affects how they live.

My view of life matches my view of chess: “Not losing” doesn’t equal “winning.” Likewise, not dying isn’t the same thing as living.

But I can’t tell you the right approach for your life, any more than I can tell you the right approach for you to play chess. That depends on what you think and how you feel. How I feel only applies to me.

In 2021, you should live in the way that your heart tells you is right.

If you do that, then you’ll be a winner.

Note: Chess grandmaster Reuben Fine (1914-1993), who was also a psychoanalyst, wrote a good book on The Psychology of the Chess Player. It’s still in print.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

Posted in Life, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Christmas Conundrum

(The photo shows the Japanese pop music group E-girls, which disbanded in 2020 but reunited for a Christmas farewell video.)

At Christmas, it’s natural to think of Jesus, whose life and example inspired the Christian faith. Christians believe that in addition to being a great man and moral teacher, Jesus was also God in human form.

That’s the most obvious disagreement between Christianity and Judaism. Personally, I think it’s much ado about a metaphor, since both faiths say that God is beyond human understanding. Would the “Sermon on the Mount” be any less true if its preacher were merely a great man with a noble vision? Hardly.

But there’s another difference that has more practical impact. It’s a difference in emphasis: What, exactly, does “the Golden Rule” tell us to do?

The version that most people know comes from the Christian Gospel of Matthew 7:12. Phrased in modern English, it’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It refers to “others,” that is, to everyone. And it tells us to do good things.

Most people, including Jews, don’t know that Judaism has a slightly different version. It comes from the Talmud, in which the ancient Rabbi Hillel was challenged to define Judaism concisely. He replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Hillel’s version refers not to “others” in general, but to our neighbors. And it tells us to refrain from doing bad things.

It’s obvious that each faith has one half of the complete answer.

Christianity is universalistic. It emerged in an ancient world of competing religions and needed to attract members. It believes that everyone can be Christian and everyone should be Christian. It affirms our moral duties to all people, no matter what their religion, group, or nation.

Judaism is particularistic. It evolved in a small nation that was constantly in danger of annihilation by more powerful countries such as Babylonia and Rome. It does not seek converts. Like Christianity, it affirms our moral duties to all people. But it adds a proviso: We have a greater duty to “our neighbors” — family, community, and country — than we have to strangers on the other side of the planet.

Similarly, it’s not enough to do good things: we must avoid doing bad things. And it’s not enough to avoid doing bad things: duty often requires us to do good things.

So if you put it all together, you get the full answer:

  • Everyone’s welfare counts. Other things being equal, we should do good things for people and avoid doing bad things to them.
  • When people are connected to us by family, community, or in some other way, then other things are not equal. We might have a greater duty to them than to people in general — though we still owe the same basic respect and consideration to everyone.

Yes, everyone’s welfare counts: But if the welfare of your family doesn’t matter more to you than the welfare of total strangers, then I think there’s something wrong with you.

The Japanese do a pretty good job with both sides. They are welcoming to strangers, but fiercely loyal to their own people. And though few Japanese are Christian, they celebrate Christmas as a universalistic holiday. So did the E-girls. So do I.

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Christianity, Judaism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Minding Our Own Business

I’m pretty sure that the Dalai Lama quote is fake, but it’s still true.

“Not my effing problem” can be a path not only to inner peace, but also to social peace.

Think for a moment about what it means to see everything in the world as “our problem.”

First, it’s incredibly conceited. It implies that we know better than everyone else what’s good for them and their societies. We are the smart ones and they are the dummies. In fact, we are so much smarter than they are that we have a right to force them to live as we think they should.

It also implies that we’re immensely powerful and have unlimited resources. If there’s a problem anywhere in the world, we not only know how to fix it, but we have the ability to fix it. The people whose lives and societies we “fix” should just shut up and do what we tell them. Then everything will be just fine.

It starts to sound like we think we’re God, since we’re responsible for the entire world and we have authority over it.

But we’re not God. We are people with limited knowledge, limited resources, and imperfect morality. We can’t fix every problem, nor do we have the right to do it.

And that leads to point two: it’s impractical for us to think we can fix everything. Finite creatures like us simply cannot do it. We can’t spend our lives running around the country or the world trying to “solve” what we think are problems by forcing our beliefs on people who don’t consider them problems.

If we do try to fix everything and force everyone else to obey, then only two things are guaranteed:

  • We ourselves will be unhappy. We’ve assigned ourselves an impossible task. We will be frustrated and angry at the people we’re trying to “help.” We will blame them, but we’ll also blame ourselves.
  • We’ll cause needless social conflict because people who have self-respect don’t like to be pushed around. They will be unhappy like we are, and they’ll be angry at us for our arrogance in assuming we are their masters.

In the words of British author C.S. Lewis:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Let’s not torment each other. Some things that other people do are none of our business, even if we think they’re wrong.

Obviously, there are exceptions. But the default should be for us to leave other people alone to live their lives as they see fit. The result will be imperfect, but we and other people will be happier, while society and the world will be more peaceful and livable.

Posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope and History

A review of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay

Originally published on May 25, 2019 here.

What is the purpose of history? Is it merely a record of facts—of dates and kings, wars and voyages? Or is it something more?

Evaluating a history textbook must begin with knowing what history is.

A nation’s history is more than just a list of facts to memorize. It weaves the facts into an intellectual and emotional tapestry that tells us who we are, what our lives are about, and what kind of people we should aspire to be. It should be:

  • Informative: Helping us understand the past by telling us what happened, when, and why.
  • Enlightening: Helping us understand the present by comparing it to the past.
  • Inspiring: Helping us develop moral character by learning stories of past heroism and villainy.
  • Supportive: Helping our countries flourish by legitimizing the social order.

In his History of Rome, the ancient Roman writer Livy explained those four goals in a way that eerily foreshadowed America’s current predicament:

My wish is that each reader will pay closest attention to how men lived, what their moral principles were, under what leaders and by what measures our empire was won; then how, as discipline broke down bit by bit, morality at first foundered, subsided in ever-greater collapse and toppled headlong in ruin—until the advent of our own age, in which we can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them.

An honest account of the facts is essential, but it’s not enough. To survive, any country must believe that it is good (even if imperfect) and that it deserves to survive. Truthful and inspiring historical stories about the country’s origin, leaders, and ideals provide that foundation. Conversely, stories that are biased and negative tend to undermine the foundation.

Any history book must balance those goals against each other. Some books are unabashedly patriotic, such as Our Island Story in Great Britain and A Patriot’s History of the United States in America. Others are very negatively biased, such as Howard Zinn’s bestselling and influential People’s History of the United States, which depicts the United States from an enemy’s viewpoint, as an unrelenting criminal enterprise of genocide, racism, and exploitation.

McClay’s new textbook Land of Hope, on the other hand, strikes the right balance. It is optimistic without being jingoistic, acknowledging America’s mistakes without reading like a brief for the prosecution. It celebrates America’s achievements, but not uncritically: “celebration and criticism are not necessarily enemies.” And its goals are explicit:

To help us learn . . . the things we must know to become informed, self-aware, and dedicated citizens of the United States of America, capable of understanding and appreciating the nation in which we find ourselves, of carrying out our duties as citizens, including protecting and defending what is best in its institutions and ideals.

The most popular competing textbooks are Jill Lepore’s These Truths and James Fraser’s By the People. McClay’s book eschews Lepore’s globalist glibness and Fraser’s array of textbook-y features. But how does Land of Hope fare by the criteria of good history?

It Is Informative

Land of Hope gives an accurate account of America’s history that is undistorted by the selective emphasis and omission found in other textbooks. One key piece of evidence comes in McClay’s description of the U.S. Constitution, which:

… is not, for the most part, a document filled with soaring rhetoric and high-sounding principles. Instead, it is a somewhat dry and functional document laying out a complex system of boundaries, markers, and rules of engagement, careful divisions of function and power that provide the means by which conflicts that are endemic and inevitable to us, and to all human societies, can be both expressed and contained; tamed; rendered harmless, even beneficial. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s spirit is undeclared, unspoken; it would be revealed not through words but through actions.

Implicit in McClay’s description is that the United States was influenced but not formed by Enlightenment rationalism. The Founders had studied the history of failed republics to learn what worked and what didn’t. And they were the heirs of a British legal and social tradition from which they learned that well-informed pragmatism was wiser than well-intentioned rhetoric.

Napoleon Bonaparte had dismissed England as “a nation of shopkeepers,” preoccupied with the practical issues of life instead of lofty ideals. Napoleon was wrong, and the British defeated him. The lofty ideals that led to the horror of the French Revolution had mostly been avoided in America by a Constitution designed for practical issues. McClay highlights that fact.

It Is Enlightening

Learning about our history reveals that many current quandaries are neither new nor unique. President Trump’s alternating use of provocation and conciliation seems strange until we learn that earlier presidents (like many world leaders) used the same strategy. McClay describes how Abraham Lincoln followed a similar path:

His initial thinking began to emerge more clearly in his eloquent First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861. Its tone was, in the main, highly conciliatory. The South, he insisted, had nothing to fear from him . . . But secession was another matter. Lincoln was crystal clear about that: it would not be tolerated.

Compare that to President Trump’s inaugural address on January 20, 2017:

We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country . . . Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.

That was the conciliation. “We” are joined in a national effort. The Obamas “have been magnificent.” And then comes the crystal clear:

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today . . . we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.

Apart from the tweeting, almost any of that could have been said in 1861 just as easily as it was now. By 2017, Washington had virtually seceded from the United States, and it was time for it to come back into the fold.

It Is Inspiring

Land of Hope is short on emotionally stirring tales, but the reason is obvious: it’s a textbook, not The Children’s Book of American Heroes. It says nothing about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Paul Bunyan creating the Grand Canyon, or Davy Crockett catching a bullet in his teeth (that was only done by actor Fess Parker in the movie version).

Instead, it tells factual stories about people who achieved great things. Quietly, humbly, and often without fanfare, they shaped our national character. Land of Hope portrays them not as saints or fanciful superheroes, but as prudent and courageous Americans trying to do their best.

One of the first would have been approved by the Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote that the only people who could be trusted with power were those who didn’t want it. George Washington, who led the American colonies to vanquish the mighty British army, became America’s first president. But he didn’t want the job:

Nearing the age of sixty, after enduring two grinding decades of war and politics in which he always found himself thrust into a central role in determining the direction of the country, he wanted nothing so much as to be free of those burdens . . . [but] if the task before the country was a great experiment on behalf of all humanity . . . how could he refuse to do his duty?

The only omission with which I disagreed was the story of Nathan Hale, an American soldier captured in 1776 by the British and executed as a spy. His final words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” were echoed almost 200 years later when newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It Is Supportive

The final criterion of good national history is that it help our country flourish by legitimizing the social order. We don’t usually think of history as doing that, but its importance is evident when we consider books that do the opposite.

Take, for example, how Jill Lepore’s book portrays the United States and its origin. After noting correctly that “a nation is a people who share a common ancestry,” she claims “the fiction that [America’s] people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over” — a statement that is technically true but highly misleading, since the vast majority were British. Then comes the indictment:

The nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds . . . Against conquest, slaughter, and slavery came the urgent and abiding question, by what right?

That’s how Lepore sees America. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have an endowed chair as a history professor at Harvard. But her view leads only to the question of whether America should be destroyed now or later.

Land of Hope presents our country’s history in an affirmative way that is more than just “technically true.” Founding Father Alexander Hamilton identified the stakes in Federalist 1. America is a great experiment to decide:

. . . whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Amid the tumult and hysteria of 2019, it’s tempting to say that the decision has yet to be made. But the American record, checkered like that of all great nations, shows the answer to Hamilton’s question is a qualified “yes, we can.”

Perfection exists only in Heaven. If the United States has sometimes fallen short of its heritage and its ideals, it has more often shown itself as a worthy heir and sturdy practitioner of both.

Land of Hope stands squarely in that American tradition.

Posted in Political Science, Society | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments