“Never to be roused is to forget what honor demands.”–Cicero
As of this moment, the American Left no longer carries sole imprimatur to publish recursive screeds dispelling American exceptionalism. The American Right is hereby officially in on the act (from an opposing angle, naturally) with a single noteworthy reservation: the sui generis manner of our national birth was as exceptional as can be. The founding being a historical wraith as dead as Jefferson or Washington, still it remains a differentiating American feature carrying its own implications into the present. Yet in all other dimensions of our political culture—where we Americans rely on principles any more contemporary than founding ones—we might as well be Europe. Even reliance on founding principles, without contemporary genius, is too little and too late.
With that single archaeological exception which lives on for the few who labor to remember it, I declare American exceptionalism “expired.” The announcement comes tardy not early, after all: rigor mortis sometime ago stiffened the 21st Century American spine –in death, that is—whereas resolve could not do so in life.
The average conservative sees little correlation between the conditions for the possibility of the ascendancy of the Obamian redistributivism they deride (almost recreationally) and the withering prospect of continued American exceptionalism. They see precisely as little interplay there, for example, as they do between the answer to the grievances of 1770’s American colonists and those of 2010’s American citizens. That is to say, they miss the important connections. And so they just keep talking the talk, as if they forgot that their braggadocio must designate something actual to be warranted. Visit Rome, Italy, if you have the chance: 21st Century Italians constructed the Coliseum just as much as their counterparts in America penned or signed the Declaration of Independence.
Yet one still hears the coarse ballad of American exceptionalism played around every corner—that which I heard stepping into breakfast this morning, and which prompted this vituperative invective—yet bafflingly most manage to hear it without any of its notes of discordant irony or unbounded polyphony. They hear none of the pulsing bass undertones which insinuate our doom. The tarnish has eaten into the brass.
A million symptoms tell our American tale of woe, our fall from grace. Look anywhere. A simple glance to the Obamian state of the union (or even the fact that he is President) should do the trick, prompting conservatives to acknowledge the stark implications of such a state. But with most conservatives, it doesn’t seem to. And no, skipping over acknowledgement is not optimism. It’s delusion.
Whatever “American exceptionalism” meant when it was true, it had much to do with the notion of ubiquitous involvement by the citizens in their republic, a shared value, a common venture. Other countries, not comprising true republics, have always lacked the commonly shared value of liberty waning in America for most of the 20th Century until it dried up early in the 21st.
Loath to recur to the concept of “community” long hijacked by the Left, let’s just call the needed thing I designate “public spiritedness.” As cited by fellow The Imaginative Conservative author Brittany Baldwin, John Adams equated such public spiritedness with the “only Foundation of Republics.” He continues: “There must be a positive Passion for the public good…established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty… Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasure, Passions and Interest.”
In short, public spirit rests upon private discretion and freely volunteered civic virtue. A republic can neither force upon, nor live without, the public spirit of its citizens. Conversely, community as conceived of by the Left has involved coerced participation of citizens by a grand state and its utopian designs. While indeed, as any conservative avers, no man communally cares for the skins of strangers near as much as his own or his family’s, public spiritedness invites each citizen vigilantly to look after (if not other citizens) at least the ideas which keep the republic cohesive: rule of law, liberty, the natural law philosophy liberty requires. And once upon a time, this was actually a realistic expectation in America.
Whether one identifies as the stumbling block to American public spiritedness a) Sex and the City or b) suburban soccer, it is beyond doubt that for most Americans, something’s in the way. In all American climates, there’s a general lack of toughness required by civic vigilance. No longer sustainable is the flattering dichotomy portrayed by conservatives of a manly, familial, self-reliant life in the suburbs versus a metrosexual, solipsistically self-involved, (yet) codependent one in the metropolis. Experience proves the latter characterization to cover both dominions in its ignominious cipher.
Honestly, I’m not sure what’s worse for republican involvement: the half-gentrified squalor, the impoverished and sterilized sense of the sexual organs, the vapid conversationalism, the overweening half-beards, the moochiness, and the cartoonish androgyny of the city… or the effete risk-aversion, the humdrum of Sisyphian routine, the (new) mother-knows-best socialism in sports, the “play dates,” the petty acquisitiveness, and the cowardly chub of the surname-first-named ‘burbs. But I know this: there’s not a carbuncle of Jeffersonian DNA in any of it. Not the vaguest specter of Washington or Adams. Not a drop of blood or a single summoning of vigorous spirits. Not a scintilla of thoughtfulness or of good cheer. Not the briefest flash of the fangs. No guts. No love.
Most of my conservative friends ask me why I’m so tough on the suburbs. My response: “Why are you so hard on the city? Because it’s all true!” It’s just urban versus suburban materialism, two sides of the same faded, counterfeit coin. And make no mistake, by the way: the materialist is necessarily a coward. Both the principle of bravery and the set of principles for which this virtue can be mustered are immaterial and, as such, worthless and insensible to the cowardly materialist—no more than magic beans to his pleasure-addled senses. As such, he’ll refuse to stand for anything, one hundred out of one hundred times. The fop does not crusade or revolt to earn his pleasure, but rather he “takes it if he can,” as the Cranberries once sang. He takes it as and if he finds it…and lays low the rest of the time.
As such, America has fathomed up generation after generation of apolaustic sissies so destitutely uninterested in any words or concepts not initiated by the lower-case “i” that one is convinced they have forgotten the existence of twenty-five other letters in the Latin alphabet. In 2013, you’re always being reminded there’s absolutely nothing exceptional about looking out for “number one.”
My initial stipulation above was quite unnecessary, after all, considering that I’ve written of American exceptionalism that it “expired,” not that it never existed. Plain and simple, we Americans are the “lesser sons of greater sires,” living off the valor and honor of the Forefathers. Both these virtues–valor and honor–were absolute exceptions to the usual human rule of risk-averse self-interest. A small band of Virginia planters, Pennsylvania Quakers, and New York aristocrats risked their own once-luxuriating skins in the name of big ideas. Such founding ideas were propagated in the manner most prone to duration, succeeding such that they have already carried multiple inferior generations in their drift.
But, without a new generation of genius—intrepid genius, don’t forget—to rejuvenate those ideas, they’re unable to carry us any farther. Recall the manure of the “tree of liberty,” described by Jefferson: blood. Republics are not for the fainthearted, after all; they’re for the exceptional. (People in the ‘burbs, cover your children’s ears and eyes: even the sage imagery of our genteel, gentleman-planter President are too “TV-MA” for your rugrats, I’m sure—even the crucifix too “extreme” or “graphic” an icon.)
But the question of whether or not our people is worthy of our republic has been lost in all the lounging, wont as the reclined position is to drop behind forgotten relics and knick-knacks not looked after. Each generation since the founders seems to have asked not how to become worthy of our progenitors, but rather: “Are we the generation for whom the ambrosia runs out? If not, we shall drink down the storehouses until the day we die! Hang the republic! There are no future generations!”
Some—too few—have begun to reject this attitude in the realm of economics; none have begun to do so in the field of political morality. In America today, one sees precious little of the brave or the ingenius, let alone both together. To look near or far—to the ‘urbs or to the ‘burbs—is to be disheartened.
Make no mistake: America was entirely exceptional at its birth and baptism in 1776 (a revolution based on Natural Law morality and minimal government!). America was mostly so at its confirmation in 1789 (although the broad equity power of the courts imbued in Article III was a diseased seed sewn). But in its young to middle-aged adulthood in the 1800’s, it became increasingly flaccid, complacent, and pragmatic. In its post-New Deal twilight, it became a flagrantly expectant ward who refused to convalesce. Now, on its Obamian deathbed, it casts its scaly eyes back to Europe—not as it once did, the scornful firebrand and flashing-eyed exile—but instead, longingly. It looks to take up its status as her young novice once more, mimicking her movements as it did before it began taking exception to Mother Europe’s senseless rules of table and etiquette. America would be Europe again. But alas, death takes it first.
As conservatives, we must guard and champion the truth, even if it means announcing that the heavens fall (which, as it were, they seem to do presently). America, being still a young country, must and will “learn that to die is a debt we all must pay,” as the eminent Euripides penned before the age of Greek philosophy. Human beings, unlike the animals, pay that debt both jointly and severally. The latter is a religious moment (“each one comes before God individually”) and is a topic for another thread. The former, the joint or communal death of a people, is called the end of a republic, a juncture throughout history which has come to pass whenever republican peoples become, well, exactly as Americans have become: “scattered, divided, leaderless,” as Tolkien once wrote of Men in the declining age. Scattered into their own private lives in the city or in the suburbs. Scattered unto republican death.
The conservative takes no joy in announcing this truth. Yet who else would do such unseemly work? The Left happily admits it as a function of their open self-loathing (embracing each opportunity to besmirch ourselves). But their admission is peppered with calumnies and slanders—extra sins of which we are not actually guilty. And we ought not forfeit our own status as guardians to the ungodly stewardship of the Left just because as one articulates this particular truth, one grieves. There is nothing unjust or unnatural in America, being still a young country, grieving a little extra for its own untimely descent. Euripides wrote also that “youth holds no society with grief.” Really, the lack of concomitance between America’s youth and its grieving furnishes the tension one detects everywhere in America—in the ‘burbs and in the ‘urbs—where American exceptionalism once lived and died.
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