Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Mouse That Roared

Flag grand fenwick

One of the unusual things about the United States is the reaction that can be expected from an American to these lines from The Mouse That Roared:

Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy:  I move we declare war on the United States of America.
Benter:  As leader of the party of the common man, I say that war is reprehensible, barbaric, unforgivable, and unthinkable. And I second the motion. 

or to this line from The Outlaw Jose Wales:

Lone Watie:  We thought about it for a long time, "Endeavor to persevere." And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.

That is, an American can be fairly reliably counted on to say, "Yeah!"  I don't think the same reaction could be expected of any other country -- certainly not with the same certainty. 

So what's going on?  I think the difference is that the United States is not just a nation.  Heck, from an ethnic point of view, the United States really isn't a nation at all, at least not the way the English and the Cherokee are.  But the point is, the United States is not just a political regime or even a political philosophy, though it is those, too.  

The United States is one of those few(?) countries that is also a World View.  In particular, it is the World View of a frontier people:  a people whose ancestors not only sacrificed the familiarity of Europe* to make a new start for themselves, in many cases they were specifically trying to get away from something that could not be escaped in "civilization", whether that was political or religious oppression, family or class expectations, or even bad personal decisions.  As time went on and the coasts became more "civilized", the same pressures pushed more recent generations across the Appalachians, then across the Mississippi, and finally across the Rockies.  There was always the idea that if things got too bad, one could escape to the frontier and start over again, and a corresponding distrust of the institutions that were being fled.

Such attitudes sat comfortably at least until the Spanish-American War.  The US was still expanding into the wilderness, immigration was contributing significantly to population growth, and the US was only a regional power.  Those same attitudes fit less well to a settled country with cell phone and internet access practically everywhere, where immigration is not so much causing growth as preventing the population from shrinking, and which is not merely a superpower, but has arrogantly (and mistakenly) declared itself to be the only remaining superpower.  There has always been something of a tendency to see the US government as precisely the kind of bully that the very spirit of America rebels against, going back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and of course most prominently displayed in the War Between the States. 

 In light of these considerations, several questions suggest themselves. 
  1. Do other countries with historical frontiers think the same way?  Russia has Siberia, but the two cases certainly do not seem to be parallel.  What about Australia?  Australians seem to have the same kind of love of frontier independence, but I'm not sure it manifests itself so much in distrust of their own government. 
  2. What effect has almost 70 years as a clear superpower had on this part of the American personality?  (My guess is not much.)
  3. As the frontier fades into memory and the ability to escape and start over is lost forever, what effect will this have?  (My guess is we will look more and more like an EU country and less and less distinctively American.)
  4. How many other nations can be said to be not just a particular place and people, but a kind of World View?  Some revolutionary countries might fit that description -- France just after the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, for example -- but to me at least they don't retain that identity for long.  It's tempting to say Israel, but in many ways they are the opposite of what I mean; the philosophy of Israel is particular to the extreme rather than being universal to the extreme.  Any other suggestions?

* Yes, I know that not everyone's ancestors came from Europe.  That doesn't really matter, though; the World View I am describing is, or at least has been, as ubiquitous in America as the English language, even though not everyone's ancestors spoke English, either.
The only practical definition of a superpower is in terms of what it can destroy, and Russia still has enough nukes to wipe out us and the rest of modern civilization. Fortunately, it seems much less likely that anything like that will happen than it did when I was a child.


  1. Definitely not Canada - though we are a recent country too, with less of an identity than the English and the Germans, and we did have a sense of starting over. Canada holds strongly to its govt as a source of "benevolent guidance", at least that is how it is sold to us.

  2. In response to a reaction I received privately, let me add that this "World View" is in fact merely one component of the World Views actually held by most Americans. It *is* a part of our historical heritage going back to the Revolutionary War, and it *does* enter into the American way of looking at things, but it is in tension (if loosely held) and in flat contradiction (if strictly held) with Romans chapter 13. This attitude has also been used (both in the past and in the present) to foster opposition to the Catholic Church, so there are strict limits to how far I am willing to entertain that attitude. (The Church provides a very different means of "escape" and "starting over": the sacrament of Confession.) Finally, the past few decades have shown how an attitude of rebellion, when taken too far, can be come an absurd and ultimately suicidal rejection of the logical, moral, and material principles of reality.

    So my point was not to completely endorse or completely identify with the attitude of frontier suspicion of civilization, but really just to identify it as characteristically American. Different countries, like different people, have characteristics that can be turned to good or evil purposes. It's not hard to make a list of how (for example) the English, German, French, and Italian national characters have all produced both great men and monsters, all according to a style appropriate for their own nations.