The Strange, Optimistic Country

British writer Janet Daley explains Americans to “the world”:

Anti-Americanism has a new pin-up. “Pastor” Terry Jones, whose congregation may number as many as 50 on a good week, is holding the world in thrall with his on-again, off-again Koran-burning stunt…

Hello? Has anyone noticed how utterly ridiculous this is?…

That this absurdity became [such a phenomenon] suggests that the world (and not just the Muslim parts of it) must be very eager indeed to find a plausible excuse for casting America as a cartoon country whose heartland is dominated by bigoted know-nothings. Never mind that this is the same America which, only two years ago, was being hailed by ecstatic European liberals for having elected a black president, whose father and stepfather had been Muslims. I remember saying at the time that the victory of Barack Obama would provide only the most fleeting respite from the dominant anti-American mythology which is so essential to European self-regard….

The failure to make any serious attempt to understand the United States and its political culture is now more than smug, stupid and cynical (although it is certainly all those things). The perverse ignorance which allows the British liberal establishment to caricature America’s obsessive concern with its constitutional integrity as simply a front for bigotry (note the BBC’s derisive treatment of the Tea Party movement) is beyond silly: it now presents a real threat to the common cause which the nations of the Enlightenment must make if they are to see their way through the present danger.

So let me have a go at explaining why Americans are not kidding when they talk about the intentions of the nation’s founding fathers, and why their reverence for and constant appeals to the Constitution are not an excuse for prejudice, but the precise opposite.

The British, particularly – who feel that, for historical reasons, they should be in a better position to understand America than anyone else – find it almost impossible to believe that ordinary, not particularly well-educated, US citizens could be genuinely concerned about fidelity to an abstract notion of freedom embodied in a document that underpins their concept of government. (And no, Magna Carta is not the same thing: that was a deal between a king and a posse of feudal barons, not a legally binding social contract between a nation and all of its people.) But other countries – France, for example – have 18th‑century republican models of government, too, and their peoples do not seem to have elevated their constitutional nature to such sacred status.

What is unique about the US – and indispensable to the understanding of it – is that it is a country of the displaced and dispossessed: a nation which invented itself for the very purpose of permitting people to reinvent themselves, to take their fate into their own hands, to be liberated from the persecution and the paternalism of the old cultures they had left behind. Almost every American either is himself, or is descended from, someone who made a conscious decision to pull up his roots and take his chances in a land he had almost certainly never seen and which, until quite recently, offered no protection or security if the gamble failed.

And what a terrifying gamble it was: I had not realised until I visited the Ellis Island Museum that one of the conditions of entry to the US in the 19th and early 20th centuries was that the immigrant did not have a pre-arranged job. This was presumably to ensure that cheap labour gangs could not be imported to undercut indigenous workers. But the effect was that everyone who came to America had to be willing to take the risk of starting with nothing and making his own way in the world.

Can you imagine what the character (and the desperation) of these people must have been? To travel 3,000 miles in steerage, with all your worldly possessions on your back, to an unknown future – and all to escape from the demonic power of a state which had oppressed or demeaned or maltreated you? Not only is hatred and suspicion of over-powerful government embedded in the consciousness of ordinary Americans, it is inscribed in the Constitution, which provides, probably more than any document in human history, a literal embodiment of political values and a bond between disparate people which gives them a sense of national identity.

Perhaps the failure of understanding is incurable. America, they say, is an optimistic country because that’s where the optimists went. And most Europeans, after all, did not go. This is, indeed, a strange nation: its citizenry has been almost entirely self-selecting (apart from those who were taken there in chains, whose descendants have had such significant social problems). To be pessimistic or defeatist in the US is a sin against the Holy Ghost: an unforgivable waste of the opportunity which the country has offered you.

I wonder if the Obama liberals – in their eagerness to turn the US into a European country, complete with paternalistic interventionism and bourgeois guilt – realise what is in the rest of that package: passivity, resignation and the corrosive cynicism that makes it impossible for Europeans to believe that ordinary people can use words like “freedom” and “justice” without smirking, and are not prepared to give up on the attempt to reconcile their ideals with the difficult realities of human behaviour.

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