Deprecating in Europe
By Joseph Randolph
In speaking to the European Parliament in Brussels, the perpetually misspeaking Joe Biden also showed that he is poorly informed about the nation he represents: "As you probably know, some American politicians and American journalists refer to Washington, D.C., as the 'capital of the free world.' But it seems to me that this great city, which boasts 1,000 years of history and which serves as the capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union and the headquarters for NATO, this city has its own legitimate claim to that title."
On a less important occasion and with a less important individual, one could easily attribute such a comment to dreaming that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but with the Vice-President one suspects that he may actually believe his own revealing admission. His statement thus may be judged as in the same category as President Obama's eye-opening assertion, made months ago, that there is no exceptionalism that attaches to America anymore than it does to any other country.
Both speakers evidence troubling voids in the high offices of American government these days. The President and Vice-President are scarcely true believers in their own country, which may explain many of the changes they are inflicting on the country. Perhaps they are unbelievers regarding their own country because they are inexcusably lacking in significant knowledge of the history of a country that therefore remains foreign to them. Noting something of what both of these American leaders amazingly lack might explain why both men seem to prefer peoples and countries other than their own.
Their lack may be an ignorance of the governing idea that government works for the people and not against them. This does not mean, as the President and Vice-President seem to think, that citizens rely on government for their every need and desire, but rather that citizens expect their government not to tie the hands of the people as people go about their business. Government should ensure that the people own the labour of their hands, something that Joe the Plumber brought to national attention when he noticed it missing in candidate Barack Obama.
This belief about the importance of property protection, associated with the name of the Englishman John Locke, has been hugely influential, for example, in the American disdain for crippling taxes. Proposition 13 was enacted in California in 1978 to prevent older home owners from having to sell their houses in order to pay outrageous property taxes and exemplifies vintage American rebellion.
Writing in times when tyranny was perhaps more commonplace than today, Locke was naturally and rightfully suspicious of some tendencies of government, because the history of most prior governments was to fashion government indifferent toward and often expressly against the people. The English Parliament of the opening decades of the 1600's gave teeth to the notion gaining ground in the prior century in England, that the people should have a say in how their country governed the people. Free-wheeling monarchies of course were rattled by this idea and so too, despots and aspiring despots still today.
The belief that people should be in charge of themselves is an extraordinarily optimistic idea and also makes of the majority of Americans exuberant optimists, for the idea presumes that people prosper most when they are put in charge of themselves. This idea is also genuinely democratic, and, not, as the critic may charge, a forcing of every man woman and child to fend for themselves—a kind of barbaric and cruel ultimatum of sink or swim, live or die. That dour interpretation of freedom could not even faintly dream of a revolution for democracy, for it has little or no faith in people and holds only fear of what will become of people when you let people take charge of themselves. Despots disdain the faith that optimists have in ordinary people. Despots therefore presume to rule over those whom despots presume should not rule themselves because they cannot rule themselves. This bleak view of citizens, though often modernized and hidden in skewed notions of compassion, is in effect the justification of tyranny today and tomorrow, though masked by a manipulative moral rhetoric that describes itself as "progressive."
The general American hesitation toward government being too large and too busy and too presumptuous is still strong among the American population, even today. To keep the balance of government on the side of the people, Locke argued that property affords people protection against the hazards that may come their way. Therefore government should function to protect the property of its citizens. Locke, moreover, argues that people can be in charge of themselves and their lives—which most people would have as their preference—when they have the means to do so. Take away the means, one dangerously undermines the end. This is the argument of political conservatism today against too much dependency of the citizen upon others, for when the pendulum swings too much to the side of dependency, the freedom of the individual recedes, because the ultimate ground of the freedom of the individual is in the ability of the individual to care for himself. If he concedes that responsibility to someone else or to an institution such as government, then he is at the mercy of a caretaker. Beggars-in-waiting will rarely have choices, but waiting lines.
From such features of the American character another grows: the general American hesitancy to believe that the destiny of an individual is dictated or doomed by the society in which he lives. I would contend that this belief is ultimately, again, one of an optimism refusing to buckle under nearly impossible circumstances and an optimism willing to remake the world so as to make the world work. The belief is that the resources of the human spirit are of unimagined strength, and sufficiently so as to merit making the individual rightly responsible for himself. There is no denial of the obvious here, that is, that people are without a doubt conditioned and impacted hugely by their environment, but it is to deny that people are pawns of factors outside themselves that immobilize or relieve them of responsibility. This idea was splendidly captured in the words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she said—and was attacked for saying—"I don't believe in Society. There is no such thing, only individual people, and there are families."
However, when a relatively young country like America tries to retain some of its optimistic youthfulness, it may nevertheless begin to look culturally backward and older to the truly older indeed. That is, when, for example, previous American Presidents on occasion referred to certain rogue regimes as "Evil Empires," the utterances were scolded as hardly civil to anything-but-civilized governments. However, such a term of judgement does not imply that America is always right, but it does imply that Americans—and some Americans in its highest office—boldly take real dangers for what they were. Rewording descriptions of real "terrorists" into a more polite designation does not sit well with most Americans who do not think nuance makes evil go away. That is, America does not desire to toy with the dangerous notion of not taking evils seriously by claiming, for another example, that one man's terrorist is another man's patriot, while the fate of large sectors of the world may hang in the balance. America's bold idealism is thus born of realism about the world in which we live.
America is currently trying to hold onto such "outdated" notions, though subjected to current slighting from some of its own highest government officials. However, for Americans still cherishing their freedom, this state of government presents a chilling possibility of compromise to the American character I have been describing. Americans, however, particularly disdain seeing themselves as locked into something about which they may appear powerless and especially so when that obstacle is an overbearing and overreaching government. Confronted with such a political obstacle to their freedoms, Americans have been traditionally bold and quick to act—and to exercise their right of free assembly, such as we witness these days in the Tea Party Movement. Naturally their opponents mock, but Americans do not typically stand by and watch or wait for the approving nod; they act. Americans are thus not as much anti-intellectual, as is sometimes asserted, as they are bold. The do not generally dither for too long; they decide and move. And they often have when few other countries in the world would.
This boldness that issues from people who love their freedom is, however, sadly under fire these days from high places in American government that lack understanding of that boldness. Frankly, the negative reaction to the reaction of people such as the people of the Tea Party Movement—who love their freedom and are demanding that it stay—should come as no surprise. As noted by Locke over three centuries ago, the history of most prior governments was to fashion government indifferent toward and often expressly against the people.
To date, liberal European political traditions that compromise individual freedom and motivation too much have had minimal following in America. Thus socialism in name and substance has never been strong in America, because of the negative impact upon the freedom of the individual packaged to go for sale in the caretaker society. However, I fear that the American President and Vice-President are more filled with belief in equality than with a belief in freedom. This is perhaps why both find themselves more at home in some European countries than in their own country. For those of us who want to continue to live in America, however, their ignorance of their own is appalling. That ignorance, however, may make understandable their slighting of a country they purport to lead.
Joseph Randolph is an academic and writer living in Wisconsin. His 2010 book Debilitating Democracy: Power From The People, is available from Wasteland Press and Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble. His email address is email@example.com.