Sunday, July 15, 2012

More on the American World View

I know from a private conversation that some of what I wrote earlier was misunderstood, so here are some further thoughts to clarify somewhat. 

Probably most people around the world tend to sympathize with the underdog.  So in 2007 when 1AA Appalachian State beat 5th-ranked Michigan, everyone who was not a Michigan fan loved it.  It was David vs. Goliath, and just like in the Bible story, the giant fell.  I'm a huge fan of Alabama football, so I was not happy with Alabama losing to Louisiana Tech in 1997 ... let alone again in 1999. 


Make no mistake, though:  I am disgusted when my team does not play to its potential, as happened in those two Louisiana Tech games, but I was delighted with the attitude shown by Bulldogs.  They could have come into those games convinced that it was hopeless, that defeat was foreordained and that there was no point in doing their best.  They didn't.  They played against Alabama on those two days, but they embodied the never-say-die spirit that I expect from the Tide.  In a way, they were more truly a concrete realization of the abstract ideal to which all Bama fans hold the Tide than our own team was; in a sense they were the true Tide that day.  Roll Tide!

So in honoring the play of Louisiana Tech that day, I am not relishing the defeat of Alabama -- far from it!  But there can come times when a concrete community -- an "ego", to steal the Freudian term -- can come into conflict with another community that better embodies the ideals -- the "superego" -- of the first group.

Now the American "superego" -- that "World View" of which I spoke before -- has always had a strong dose of David vs. Goliath.  It could not have been otherwise.  At the time of the American Revolution, and again in the War of 1812, the British Empire was basically a superpower.  The Monroe Doctrine was something of a joke when it was introduced in 1823; it's not like the US would have been able to do anything meaningful to enforce the doctrine.

1816 Constitution Escape engr byWHoogland NavalMonument LC

When, in the book and movie The Mouse that Roared, the tiny country of Grand Fenwick declared war on the United States, it was (almost) taking on the same archetypal role that the US took on in the War of 1812.  ("Almost" because the government of Grand Fenwick had no intention of winning the war, something no American would expect of his government until perhaps the Korean War.)  The declaration of war on the United States by the Cherokees that is mentioned in The Outlaw Jose Wales fits the bill even more perfectly, because the Cherokee were serious and the provocations against them had sadly been all too real.  (I don't succumb to the "noble savage" stereotype any more than to the "wild Indian" stereotype; like most stereotypes they each have a nugget of truth but fail to describe the individual variations.  However, I don't see any way to justify the Trail of Tears.)

So far, it's not clear how uniquely American any of this is.  After all, the world is full of small countries that enjoy seeing the big boys taken down a few pegs, and many countries have "outlaw" folk heroes, like Robin Hood or William Tell.

However, I think another part of American history comes into play, and that is the fact that this country was founded as a democratic republic.  This makes us different than a country like the United Kingdom, which would have been called a European monarchy two centuries ago and is called a European democracy today, though in fact little has changed in its form of government.  We are also different than France, which was originally and for most of its history a monarchy, then a republic, then an empire, then a monarchy again, etc.  The histories of Germany and Italy are even more complicated, and certainly unlike that of the US.  We are unlike Canada in that we had to fight for independence, rather than gradually and nonviolently drifting away from the colonizing power. 

As citizens of a democratic republic, we have an obligation summed up in three quotations:

  1. "Who will watch the watch-guards?"  -- Juvenal.  In our form of government, it is the responsibility of the citizenry to watch the watch-guards.  We do this by being well-educated, setting high standards for those in office, and seeing to it that they are held accountable for any abuses of power.
  2. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."  -- Thomas Jefferson.  This states directly the idea implied above. 
  3. "A Republic, if you can keep it."  -- Benjamin Franklin.  It is possible that he originally meant keep it from being overthrown by the British, but I have always thought he meant keep it from evolving back into another monarchy or dictatorship.  Since this was Ben Franklin, he probably meant both.

This attitude of watchfulness is certainly akin to suspicion, but perhaps slightly different from it, since there is no implied expectation of finding abuses of power that must be corrected.  However, history is so full of such abuses that that expectation is certainly present.  On the whole, it is probably healthier for the Republic to have a distrustful view of government in general and the presidency in particular, such as predominated in the aftermath of Watergate, rather than to have a worshipful attitude such as predominated during FDR's presidency.

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