American Exceptionalism

Link, and part of a journal for my Ethics class:

The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism

The advent of the Obama administration brings this question before the nation: Do we want the United States to be like Europe? President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.

I read a great article this week (Charles Murray, “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” in The Atlantic) that I’d like to address. I summarize the critical points below, but please find the full text hyperlinked here.

The article argues against adopting the European mentality; not for economic or even demographic reasons, but because the European model does not play to men’s strengths. The author begins by defining the purpose of government as seeking the people’s happiness, then defining happiness as transcendence, i.e., fulfillment and deep satisfaction. Murray goes so far as to say that only four institutions can lend life this transcendence: family, community, vocation, and faith.

Murray argues that social democrats’ agenda mirrors the European method, where the government meddles with human affairs. Murray categorizes democrats’ twin premises as the “Equality Premise” and the “New Man,” adapted from communism’s New Man, an infinitely malleable model of human nature. These premises simply don’t comport with biology. Women react differently to babies than do men. Changing institutions requires changing parts of our nature that biologically are often simply not malleable.

Maybe (hopefully) it’s obvious why this ties in to Ethics, but perhaps less obvious why it’s a personal journal entry. The reason is that a few days ago in my Evidence notes, I wrote: Be Smarter. Be Smarter, Kat. Let me just add that on my To Do list. I had done the reading, and was following in class, but I was struggling with a particularly counterintuitive concept. So c’mon, just be smarter.
Murray concludes by stating that when the government meddles in individuals’ affairs, it makes everything slightly easier to come by, and cheapens these institutions slightly. We are less able to own those things for which we have worked. My writing “Be Smarter” in my notes is like a vote for someone else to implement change. It reeks of fatalism, helplessness, a blurring of the lines drawn in the Serenity Prayer.

For me, that’s the difference between the European model and the American model. The latter I find almost holy in its attention to human nature, its deference to those parts of human nature that are not malleable. Even Alexander Hamilton, my least preferred founding father, argued at the Constitutional Convention that government must pit “ambition against ambition.”

I spent my last year of business school in Toulouse, in southern France, studying economics and finance. Students came from all over, so I found myself one of two Americans in a very small school, where half of my group of about 40 close friends were French, the rest from South America and the rest of Europe. My French friends teased me that the key characteristic to Americans is that we always want more. More education, more sleep, more time with friends, more wine, more cheese.

By contrast, Murray characterizes the European model as viewing humans as a collection of dust and atoms, here one day and gone the next. If life is short and pointless, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Cigarette? Yes, please. But some belief in a higher power? What’s the point?

Comparing these two models feels a little like that age when boys and girls have been dating just long enough to understand each other. Boys are always totally, painfully straightforward. Girls are always so full of metaphor and deeper meaning as to border on duplicity. But these two groups do compromise on a wavelength sufficient to communicate. So do the European and American (“More, please!”) models both speak to the same entity, humans, with the same biological structure across the pond as here.

I realize that characterizing politics as ethics is a category error, but certainly there is some articulation between these groups. This note, “Be Smarter,” is exactly the kind of appeal from perceived helplessness that bothers me about those individuals who will not donate an hour of their time to their community, but still vote for mandatory community reform. Murray’s article is tremendous because it speaks precisely to that. If we remove individuals’ choice from the equation (do I prefer to buy stock, or invest in my children’s education? Oh thank you Government, for this gift of GM stock!) then everything is that much more easily achieved, but means that much less.

Murray’s four fulfillment institutions are effectively subject to emotional inflation. Yes, outsourcing personal ethos to politicians is an easy fix and may make us feel virtuous, but it only raises the bar for what we need to feel fulfilled.

Personally, my conclusion is that the crux of ethics requires taking responsibility for our destinies. This conclusion may seem obvious, but I really don’t think that it is. Stephen, my once and future love, is struggling with this concept now as he prepares to leave the Army. For eight years (having gone through ROTC) he has been a soldier. Colleagues salute him because of his rank (Captain) and his bronze medal for valor. America has been the end and the means are just…orders. He is really struggling with leaving all of that, and suddenly having to find his own satisfaction in his own personal choices, absent rank and salutes.

As long as I allow myself to wallow in the things I can’t change, rather than read more or further or better, my admonitions to Stephen to seek personal responsibility for his own fulfillment (rather than through the respect of his peers) are disingenuous. There is a story where a mother asks Gandhi to tell her daughter to stop eating sweets. Gandhi asks them to return in two weeks, and, after telling the daughter two weeks later to stop eating sweets, Gandhi reveals that two weeks prior he was addicted to sweets, and could not earnestly advise anyone against it.

To that end, I’ve embarked on a concerted effort in the interest of being the change I’d like to see, rather than merely outsourcing the change via vote. I’ve started running, to sharpen my brain and “be smarter,” i.e., more efficient at reading, thinking, etc. I’ve been sleeping more, so I’m better equipped to work with my peers—read, more patient in general. Many lawyers find themselves unhappy throughout their careers, and discover too late that they never got it; they never understood that their moral relativism was just wrong.

Coming out of this winter into blessed, welcome Spring, I’m feeling brittle. At some point in the last few months (maybe Election Day), I started growing negative, and gave up faith in a lot of ways. I don’t think my brittle state comes from having missed the point of Ethics, but rather from trying to control so many things that are simply out of my hands. Trying to control politics or other people’s attitudes is like waiting for someone to come endow me with “smarts.” It’s simply not going to happen. As long as my hands are stretched wide trying to grasp the entire world, my fingers are like a sieve and everything important slips through. In other words, if it is “turtles all the way down,” I feel like I’ve reached a new, satisfying, albeit possibly obvious ethical height by addressing one turtle at a time, rather than the totem pole at large.

One last quote saying effectively the same thing:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

And, since you asked, my once and future love:

Baby blues

Baby blues

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