Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

I will nod to you as an equal, but I will not bow to you as my better, for my better does not exist.

Nor, for the same reason, should you ever bow to me.

Running the wrong way

A decade or more ago, I read in the Santa Cruz local papers a guest editorial written by a young woman just graduating high school (as valedictorian) but endowed with a rare clarity of vision. On the subject of patriotism, she drew a distinction worth noting, for both its humility and its wisdom: “I am not proud to be an American,” she wrote. “I am fortunate to be an American.”

Phillies baserunners go wrong way from third

In a 1912 game in Brooklyn, Phillies baserunners get confused and run the wrong way from third base.
[ Image Source ]

By this, she went on to say, she meant that since she had no role in choosing where she was to be born, she could not justly take pride in her geographic origin. But she could feel that she was lucky in that origin, for in its own birth, her country embodied ideals that reshaped the world both in the 18th century and our own time.

As this article reminds us, we are indeed fortunate. Historically, to be an American meant that “your children would live”: Such abundance did we enjoy, in so many respects, that the prospects of one born here were, on average, far more hopeful than those of someone similarly situated in the Old World. This good fortune was compounded, for our separation from potential rivals by the barriers of ocean assured us relative peace; no foreign army has fought on our soil since the War of 1812. And then it was redoubled when, thanks to our geographic isolation, we emerged from two world wars that devastated Europe and much of East Asia not only intact, but richer (and more powerful) than we were before.

But this is only one element of our good fortune, the most phlegmatically economic one. We also had, for a long time, something far more vital to celebrate, which I think is fast melting away.

From the moment when our Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “All men are created equal,” we rightly prided ourselves on our contempt of aristocracy. It was our prime tenet that any man should be able to speak on equal terms to any other. As recently as the 1950s, John Wayne and Bugs Bunny shocked the nobility of Europe and cheered the hearts of democratic Americans when they spat in the face of protocol and jauntily shook the hands of foreign dignitaries, on the principle that one person was as good as another.

Now too often buried in the rhetoric of resurgent royalism by the insidious sophistry of a self-anointed elite and its hirelings is a fundamental understanding that too few of us can still understand. Since no two of us can ever really be alike — given that even genetically identical people will never share identical experiences of life — we are not equipped to judge one another’s relative worth. But there is now a corrupt fiction abroad among us: one that suggests that we are all essentially the same, but in varying degrees. “We’re just like you,” the aristocrats tell us through their toadies, “but thanks to our better work ethic and superior morals and intellect, we are the Elect.”

Quite apart from the inherent contradictions of this theory, it leads to horrific practical consequences. It is at the root of the “prejudice of privilege” by which people with money falsely assume that people without it are not debarred by their poverty from certain paths of action open only to those who can afford them. The deadly side of this was seen in 2005, where penurious New Orleans residents stayed at home — for want of transportation and anywhere to go — and died in Hurricane Katrina; the intellectually debauched blamed them for their own deaths, reasoning that they would have escaped, and unable to comprehend any reason why others couldn’t do the same.

Debauched is precisely what such thinking must be called, for it is twisted by the logic of the psychopath, who assumes that he is of a superior order of beings, the Elect, and that this gives him the right to do unto others exactly as he pleases. It is the logic of an Aleister Crowley: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

When did Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand replace Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine as the mentors of our republic? And how can we restore the principles that once made America a beacon of egalitarian liberty that shone and beckoned across the barriers of ocean?

Originally published as a review of an article on the negative side of national exceptionalism.

Peace, liberty, unity, justice, equality
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