Having put pen to paper, I tend invariably to gripe. I gripe about the state in which I live, and its feckless, arrogant governor. I gripe about the federal government’s endless attempts to control everything that moves. I gripe sometimes about the Supreme Court, and often about the nation’s universities, and occasionally about the things that prominent people say. I gripe about the train that runs from Connecticut to New York City. I gripe about my taxes. I gripe about the outlook of this president, which I find contemptible and myopic. I gripe, in other words, about America in 2015.
And yet I love America — and in an almost spiritual way. As I wrote a couple of years back in National Review, there’s the political stuff, and there’s the rest:
I don’t know why I love the open spaces in the Southwest or Grand Central Terminal or the fading Atomic Age Googie architecture you see sometimes when driving. I don’t know why merely glimpsing the Statue of Liberty brings tears to my eyes, or why a single phrase on an Etta James or Patsy Cline record does what it does to me. It just does.
On the face of it, this should appear paradoxical. Today, on July 4, I will celebrate the United States as if I had just come out of a Soviet prison. I will sing, and wax lyrical, and drink, and clothe myself in red, white, and blue. This year, I shall make fewer jokes about King George III than I did the last, and I shall find the celebrations more familiar in turn. And then, on Monday, I shall go back to griping like a whisky-sodden curmudgeon. As Americans well-versed in the vernacular might ask, “What gives?”
The answer is simple: I gripe so vehemently about America because I fear for her future. If, as seems possible at the moment, we were to lose the United States as a bastion of classically liberal values, we would in effect be losing classical liberalism per se. And then there’d be nowhere else to go. In no other country do political debates begin from first principles: “Should the state be doing this?”; “How does this affect the individual?”; “What does this say about us?” In no other country have the beautiful principles of the Enlightenment been written down and set above the government’s reach — there for the people to demand if they dare. In no other country is power so effectively fractured as to give the dissenters a fighting chance when the mob shows up at the gates. America is sui generis. It is eccentric. It is historically without equal. It is our one shot at freedom.
America is sui generis. It is eccentric. It is historically without equal. It is our one shot at freedom.
In the more self-satisfied of our cosmopolitan quarters, it is fashionable to sneer at the exceptionalism to which I am so attached, and to suppose caustically that the principles on which it is based are — and always have been — inherently corrupted. How can you possibly celebrate July 4, the sneerers ask bitterly, when it took more than a century to realize the promises made in the Declaration of Independence? How can America be great if it sanctioned slavery and then segregation for such a long time? How can we be “number one” when these charts I have show us lagging behind by the metrics I prefer?
There is, of course, nothing to be gained by ignoring these questions — or, for that matter, by downplaying the many historical blots that have sullied the American escutcheon. Our celebration of Yorktown is nothing if we do not rejoice also at Gettysburg and at Selma; our anger at Jefferson’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” is rendered hollow without a concomitant outrage at the debasements of Jim Crow; our passion for the first ten amendments is incomplete unless accompanied by reverence for the thirteenth and the nineteenth. But, over the long term at least, the cavillers’ criticisms are ultimately empty. That American liberty was initially restricted in its application tells us nothing about the value of that liberty itself, nor does it serve to diminish the role that the founders’ presumptions played as North Stars to which the downtrodden might appeal. Writing two years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln cast the central contentions of the American founding as no less than a “stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” What the fifty-six delegates who assembled in Philadelphia had achieved, he remarked, transcended the immediate and roamed virtuously into the divine. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln proposed, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” For perhaps the only time in the history of the world, Plato’s philosopher kings had come down from the mountain and done what they were supposed to do. Abroad, their words would be an inspiration to rebels as diverse as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Marquis de Lafayette, Lajos Kossuth, and Emily Pankhurst. At home they formed the basis of a new culture: “France was a land, England was a people,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.”
That America remains different to this day is, in this immigrant’s eyes, not a problem to be solved but a moral imperative to be championed and protected — most vehemently, perhaps, against those robotic, bloodless types for whom consequences and outcomes are all that appear to matter. In the United States we talk often of the “Shining City on the Hill” to which John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan both liked to allude. America, Reagan eulogized in his farewell address, must be a “tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.” This vision is a lovely one, and there is little to disagree with in its folds. But it might also be remembered that it is possible for a people to build a great and powerful polity without harboring a decent respect for that most crucial of ideas: Liberty. So often when we hear it said that “America is the only country in the world in which . . . ” we are in effect being told that our priorities are wrong and that individual freedom is an impediment to the dreams of the planners and the busybodies. In such cases our response should not be to work out how we can refute the data; it should be, “Good!”
That America remains different to this day is, in this immigrant’s eyes, not a problem to be solved but a moral imperative to be championed and protected.
In our hyper-technocratic era it may seem counterintuitive to record that there can be no great virtue in being the world’s most prolific exporter of grapefruits or in possessing the largest economy among nations or in improving healthcare outcomes at the margins if we are not in any meaningful way free. To the flawed men of the founding generation, this was self-evident. “You are not,” Patrick Henry told the Virginia Convention in 1788, “to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” From time to time I hear it argued that men who were at home in the 18th century could not possibly have understood how the world would evolve. This July 4, I would reply by saying, “You are right, but not in the way that you think you are. Nobody indeed could have imagined how prescient the horrors of the 20th century would prove the architects of America’s constitutional order to be. Nobody, likewise, could have known how solid is the hypothesis that the best ‘governments are instituted among Men’ in order to secure their rights, and not to deliver upon grand promises made in faraway cities.”
Overcome by affection as we are, immigrants such as myself can often struggle to express coherently why it is that the United States is so important to us. Pushed to account for ourselves we might run through the vital technical reasons: That here, we may speak freely, whatever we say; here we may practice our religion or lack thereof, and grumble about or praise the state without fear of repercussion; here we may keep and bear arms in our defense; here we may rely upon the rule of law; here we may feel safe in our possessions. I am from Britain, not Rwanda, and I feel these differences keenly. Goodness knows how much love the man from Kigali must exhibit.
In other circumstances we might fall back on our aspirations. The “American Dream” is often cast in narrow financial terms — as a synonym, perhaps, for economic mobility — the presumption being that newcomers to the United States are hoping primarily to take advantage of a culture that both praises success and thrills to the honest migrant’s rise. There is some truth in this, of course, but it’s an incomplete truth. A newcomer to Japan may do well in business; a settler in Germany may double his income; an alien in Peru may start a beloved restaurant. In time, he may buy a house and a car and a dog, and wrap his life tightly around his new home, as might vines around a staff. But he will never truly be of those places, and there will be little encouragement for him to try to become so. After five years, a Venetian in New York is a New Yorker, with all that that entails; after a decade, a New Yorker in Venice is a tourist who won’t go home.
That matters, especially for the liberty-minded man, for if he hopes to be free; if he hopes to see his natural rights protected and respected; if he hopes to agglutinate himself to the most beautiful set of ideas in the history of mankind — well, he has no choice but to stick around and fight. Today, I shall raise a glass to the last great hope of mankind. Tomorrow I shall go back to griping about all and sundry.
For America, of course.