Tuesday, April 24, 2012



I was nearly shocked as I read the editorial pages of this (i.e., Tuesday, 4/24’s, page A13) morning’s Wall Street Journal and read the following closing sentences of an article entitled “As Goes France,” by Bret Stephens (I say “nearly shocked” because such good sense is not completely foreign to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal; while the Journal’s opinion section has, over the last ten years or so, become little more than the propaganda wing of the War Party, it still manages, probably more frequently than I like to admit, to champion the causes of free men and free markets for which it was a lonely beacon for much of its life, but I digress.):

Above all, both in France and America, there’s a belief that, as exceptional nations, we are impervious to the forces that make other nations fall. It’s the conceit that, sooner or later, brings every great nation crashing to earth.”

Wow! Mr. Stephens has the intestinal fortitude to stand against the muddle-headed interpretation of American exceptionalism that permeates not only his own paper but also the parties (GOP and War) for which it propagandizes. Amazing. Note that Mr. Stephens was, at least in this article, limiting his observations to economic matters, and especially to the current Franco/American notion that easy money, and the inflation that inevitably accompanies it, is the cure for all that ails the world economy as opposed to a fleeting yet addicting dose of feel-goodism, or feel-not-as-badism, that it genuinely is. Mr. Stephens may or may not, but probably does not, share my wider beliefs on American exceptionalism and I don’t want to put words in his mouth or on his word processor; bear that in mind as I write the rest of this post.

America is, or at least once was until my generation took over and ran threw all the seed corn, and then some, in the pursuit of the hedonism and silliness that characterizes its modern condition, a great nation that has achieved much in the world. But American greatness does not mean that we are somehow super-human and can, as the oft-repeated drivel would have it, “achieve anything we want to achieve because, after all, we are America.” Great, seemingly exceptional, empires and nations have come and gone. They have all come when they had a sense of their limitations and an awareness of both their strengths and their weaknesses.  They have all gone when they lost the sense that they had limitations and weaknesses and, for example, came to believe that they could defy the laws of economics through careful planning by the politicians and bureaucrats, spend every dollar they can make or borrow from overseas and still remain prosperous, or impose their wills on nations that had proven to be the graveyards of former empires that were felled by similar hubris.

Those who believe in the chest-thumping, evidence and common sense be damned manifestation of American exceptionalism that seems to permeate much of modern political discourse would do well to consider the last four lines of the second verse of America the Beautiful:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Back in the first decade of the 20th century, when Katharine Lee Bates wrote that song, people realized that America actually had flaws and that, since we didn’t know everything, we had to practice the virtue of self-control. And they didn’t love their country any less, and probably far more, than the chest-thumpers who substitute the cry of “American exceptionalism” for rational thought.

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