Politics & Policy

On The Shoulders of Giants

Giving thanks, post-9/11.

It’s a cliché that in matters of national security, law enforcement, medicine, and household chores — to name just four — it is the mistakes that get all the attention. The CIA or FBI or NSA may have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks, but we’ll never know because the tragedies never occurred. Instead, the focus is always on the exception to the rule, the September 11 attack being the obvious example. Police foil crimes everyday when they arrest or deter would-be criminals before any crime is committed. Doctors quietly save thousands of lives by prescribing an apple or an aspirin a day, but we only hear about the one misdiagnosed illness out of a million. And, closer to home, I could scrub the house from top to bottom, but if I leave one pair of dirty socks in the living room I might as well have turned the whole house into a mosh pit at an outdoor Metallica concert, as far as my wife is concerned.

In short, we live in a culture which for the most part spends a lot of time concentrating on the dogs that bark instead of the multitude of canines that don’t. The squeaky wheels get greased and we ignore the smooth-running ones.

And that’s good. One of the things that makes America so special, the jewel in the crown of Western Civilization, is that we can find fault with ourselves. We criticize, hector, debate, protest our ideas, our civil institutions, our employers, our governments, (Remember: Our republic has literally thousands of governments, if you count from the local to the national) and ourselves. Not all criticisms are fair or accurate and some are just plain silly. But when an idea is valid we pounce on it and nurture it. We discard bad ideas and bad habits as a matter of reflex, making us the most adaptable people in the history of the world.

This imperative toward self-correction doesn’t necessarily or even primarily take the form of political speech. Capitalism, the circulatory system of the West, constantly rewards improvement. But, whether it is in the private or public realms, the important thing to remember is that what defines Western Civilization is not the parade of horribles we get from the table thumpers of the academic world. Racism, greed, sexism, bigotry, slavery, etc. are universals in human history.

America, for example, was not unique for its participation in the slave trade; every corner of the globe saw humans in bondage at one point or another. But it was the British who stopped the slave trade at gunpoint, and we in United States fought our bloodiest war in large part to end human bondage on our soil. Until these two things happened, slavery was the norm around the globe, particularly in the Middle East.

No, what distinguishes America and the West is our relentless, if at times flawed, efforts to fix these problems. It is this grain in the wood of Western Civilization which makes us so special.

But while pointing out flaws is important, necessary, and even vital to our way of life, it is just as important to call attention to the wheels that don’t squeak. And since it is Thanksgiving, I think it’s worth saying thanks.

In 1676 Isaac Newton wrote to a friend, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

I’ve always loved that phrase — “standing upon the shoulders of giants” — because it so neatly captures the conservative, and correct, understanding of progress and history. Scientists understand — far better than the intellectuals who play with words for a living — that knowledge is cumulative and that we don’t discard old ideas simply because they are old. (If scientists worked like sociologists, we’d hear a steady stream of pronouncements that the Pythagorean Theorem needs to be replaced by a less phallocentric approach which takes into account the feelings of people who feel oppressed by triangles). Progress comes from building on the old, not from carelessly discarding it; from not fixing what ain’t broke.

In all of the post-9/11 discussions about civil liberties we are constantly reminded of America’s “troubled” or “less than exemplary” record on civil liberties during times of war. On the issue of military tribunals, we’re told that the president is, in the words of William Safire, assuming “dictatorial powers.” We’re warned of slippery slopes everywhere; in roving wiretaps and prolonged detentions for a handful of Arab Americans.

Fine, good, great; let’s have these arguments and these criticisms. But this Thanksgiving, it’s worth pointing out that we’ve been told that we are on a slippery slope for more than two centuries. And yet, from the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed to the moment you eat your turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day 2001, Americans have become more, not less free. Maybe not on a month-to-month basis but the trendline is undeniable. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women and blacks, the breakthroughs in technology which make Americans the most mobile — i.e. free — people in the history of the world: All of these things describe a society climbing up a slippery slope not swishing down it.

This monumental success story has many authors (starting with our Creator). We concentrate on the individuals who publicly forced change, the heroes in a culture which honors mavericks and troublemakers.

But, equally heroic are the untold legions of people who denied themselves the temptation to do wrong in the first place. We publicly lament the policeman who took a bribe or unjustifiably roughed up a suspect; the public official who crossed some abstract line between diligence and abuse; the businessman who cut one too many corners. Again: Fine, good, great, that’s what we do.

But let us remember that the success of America derives not just from the critics who denounce these exceptions to the rule but from the fact that these bad apples did not spoil the whole bunch in the first place. If our governments and institutions (which are nothing more than collections of people following specific rules to accomplish specific missions) were even a fraction as corrupt as the mavericks and troublemakers claim, then the mavericks and troublemakers would be silent and, more likely, in unmarked graves.

And, it is not just our political and military leaders, businessmen, and law-enforcement officials who on a daily, if not hourly, basis choose not to abuse their powers that we should be thankful for. It is the inherent integrity of the American people, the average citizens, we all owe thanks to.

The reason I don’t like much of the rhetoric about slippery slopes or the “looming threat of dictatorship” is that it assumes not merely that our elected leaders are all tyrants at heart but, more importantly, that the American people would tolerate tyranny. This assumption about the American character simply isn’t justified by the historical record. Americans are fanatical about their liberties, even if they are at times pragmatic about how best to defend them.

For instance, if George Bush did what the fretters fear most and turned military tribunals on American citizens, the system would stutter-stop to a halt, like a car with sugar in its gas tank. Military men and women would refuse to obey or resign, as would much of his civilian staff. Both parties and both houses of Congress would turn on the man. The Supreme Court would smack him with a gavel. And, most of all, the American people would have conniptions. In short, our system would work as it was designed to, we would all stand on the shoulders of the giants who founded this country and fix the problem.

But that’s not going to happen. Because, like so many other Americans — of all parties and at all levels of society — the current president has no desire to be the exception to the rule. And for that, and so much else, I give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Note: Because I have to pick up a turkey from the store — and pick up a lot of socks before the wife gets home — this column will in all likelihood be transformed into my syndicated column. So please, no grief about recycling. Also, please take this holiday to peruse the NRO Thanksgiving Extravaganza we’ve set up for you folks, including our symposium on the best war movies.


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