Commentary at jeromehuyler.com
The Goodness That Greatness Begot
"Cultures are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and America is struggling to find a new national story, one that can acknowledge past injustices without becoming defined by them. The old all-or-nothing morality tale of Good America has too often been superseded by an all-or-nothing morality tale of Evil America, which proclaims that every apparently positive accomplishment disguises a sadistic reality."
Virginia Postrel, NY Post Feb 6, 2017
America's critics look out and see not millions of individuals striving to better their conditions, but so many segregated "classes" targeted for discrimination and worse.
They decry the corrosive effects of capitalism on the social fabric. No longer do people come together or care for one another, so they say. In the space once occupied by the "common good," they bear witness to a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest, look-out-for-#1" wasteland marred by racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, white privilege, rape culture, toxic masculinity, and rampant police brutality. As Robert Reich, a former Commerce Secretary and long-time critic, concluded, "This is not a society, it's not even a civilization, because there's no civility at its core."
And, all this in a land allegedly devoted to "liberty and justice for all." Oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited, that is all the country's detractors can see.
You've heard, by now, of "fake news." This is fraudulent cultural criticism on a mind-numbing scale. The race, of course, has always had to contend with scoundrels, heartless two-legged beasts willing to prey on the innocent, the gullible and the weak. They would line their own pockets with other people's money, the fruit of other men's labor, and do it by all available means. But nothing in reality answers to the overall depiction the Progressives proffer.
No, it isn't wrong to point out how the nation's founding principles were compromised and violated from the start. The past was a brutal and cruel place filled with injustice in many respects.
What America's academic and media critics fail to notice is
(1) how historically unprecedented the founders invocation of equality was,
(2) the remarkable progress the country made in realizing all the founders' dream of equality promised, and
(3) that it was precisely that dream, proclaimed over and over by courageous Civil Rights and Women's Rights leaders, that made progress toward full equality possible.
Martin Luther King had a dream, "that one day this nation would live out the meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal."
And, after launching the women's rights movement at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also recalled Jefferson's July 4th Declaration, demanding: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, That all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . "
Yes, it took far too long for these great Americans to have their hopes realized, but it was the nation's first principles that accompanied every mile post of progress the country passed on her journey to fulfill tohse noblest of all ideals - Liberty and Equality. Thankfully, the greatest battles are behind, us.
ABOUT AMERICA'S DEPLORABLE SELFISHNESS
If America became a nation of self-interested movers and achievers, she also became home to a nation of joiners. Americans united over a multitude of worthy causes, never hesitating to lend a neighbor in need a helping hand.
If men were at last free to live FOR themselves,
it did not mean they had to live BY themselves.
From the earliest years, Americans formed deep fraternal bonds to further their shared values and mutual interests. Only now, the friendships, partnerships, associations, righteous crusades, and commercial projects would be of voluntary and mutual accord.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French aristocrat who captured and chronicled the American experience in the early 19th century, found that Americans "have . . . carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires, and have applied this new science to the greatest number of purposes."[i] Echoing that very sentiment, but writing half a century later, James Bryce wrote:
Democracy has not only taught the Americans how to use liberty without abusing it, and how to secure equality; it has also taught them fraternity . . . [T]here is in the United States a sort of kindliness, a sense of human fellowship, a recognition of the duty of mutual help owed by man to man, stronger than anywhere in the Old World and certainly stronger than in the upper or middle classes of England, France of Germany[ii]
Writing thirty years later the noted visitor and philosopher George Santayana, observed:,
Everywhere co-operation is taken for granted, as something that no one would be so mean or so short-sighted as to refuse. Together with the will to work and to prosper, it is of the essence of Americanism, and is accepted as such by all the unkempt polyglot peoples that turn to the new world with the pathetic but manly purpose of beginning life on a new principle.[iii]
ABOUT WE "DEPLORABLES"
Americans today form or join associations for every imaginable purpose under heaven (and, viz. astronomy clubs and space travel enthusiasts, above it, too). There are trade associations, labor unions, fraternal orders, service societies, veterans organizations, self-help groups, medical societies, alumni unions, campus sororities and fraternities, think tanks, animal rescue groups, and gun, fan and auto clubs, to name a few. Leisure and a vast treasure of disposable income make it possible.
But the largest association of all, the one to which American belongs, is the free market, itself. While it is most often associated with the fierce competition it fosters, it is really a vast cooperative endeavor allowing millions of voluntary, mutually rewarding deals to be struck daily. One puts one's products or services on the market in the hopes of becoming successful and growing rich. Those hopes are driven by the confidence that others will appreciate the benefits those products and services offer and be eager to acquire them. The most successful entrepreneurs happily attract and retain the capital needed to expand their enterprises and put even more people to work. Americans simply believe there's nothing inherently wrong with making money.
Men built businesses, honed valuable market skills, entered a dizzying variety of trades and salaried professions, or just found daring, enterprising spirits in which to invest their freely-acquired capital. Honest ambition was no vice. It consisted of offering a quality product or service at a reasonable, mutually-rewarding price, of striking a bargain and keeping one's word. There was one critical caveat.
Equality was not to apply in all circumstances. Equality of opportunity could not guarantee equality of result. All were not equally inquisitive, talented or fixated on self-advancement. The laissez faire economy guaranteed an eventual inequality in the distribution of wealth. For the founders that posed no moral or actual difficulty. Jefferson expressed it best,
"To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and [possession of] the fruits acquired by it." [i]
There is something else about the "selfishness" Americans practice. It leaves millions with the financial means to contribute to public-spirited projects or just partake of charitable good works in one's local community. Why not share one's good fortune with those who have less and are in need? That amounts to no great sacrifice.
A nation is as great as it is free. Prosperity is the material expression of a nation's greatness, and a free people's greatest practical reward.
Americans, the freest and most prosperous, became the most generous and caring people who've ever peopled the planet.
We need look no further than to what was a near-universally viewed annual American tradition,
The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. Between 1956 and 2010, this indefatigable entertainer brought the world's greatest talents to perform for millions of TV viewers. In the intervening years, $2 trillion was raised to help "Jerry's Kids" In fact, day in and day out, Americans dropped their loose change in countertop containers for MD in nearly every diner and deli in America.
That is but one example of America's great goodness. To this day, St. Jude's Children's Hospital raises the sums it takes to tell every family whose child's life their dedicated staff saved, "don't worry, we won't send you a bill." It is the milk of human kindness on ever-present display. The statistics tell the fuller story, as reported for the year 2015 by the highly-regarded "Charity Navigator," Despite a stagnant economy, a flat income stream, rising medical expenses, and sky-high taxes, Americans didn't tell the phone solicitors, "I gave at the office." No,
Charitable giving continued its upward trend in 2015, as an estimated $373 billion was given to charitable causes. For the second year in a row, total giving reached record levels, and taking 2014 and 2015 together, charitable giving has increased over 10% (using inflation-adjusted dollars). This increase and the overall size of charitable contributions is further testament to the integral role charities play in our society, a role which continues to grow." Giving increased in every category of giver (individual, foundation, corporate and bequest). As in previous years, the majority of that giving came from individuals. Specifically, individuals gave $264.58 billion, accounting for 71% of all giving and Corporations donated $18.45 billion for an increase of 3.9% (or 3.8% when adjusted for inflation). Historically, as we saw in 2014, donations from individuals account for over two-thirds of all donations. If you add in gifts from bequests and family foundations, which are essentially gifts from individuals, then the category accounts for nearly 80% of all giving. In other words, the donating public, not big foundations or corporations, is responsible for the vast majority of annual donations." In 2015, these beneficent tidings were allocated to: Education ($57.48 billion), Human Service charities ($45.21 billion, Health Charities ($29.81 billion), to fix the Environment and rescue animals ($10.68 billion). among others.[i]
[i]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Washington Square Press 1954) p. 182
[ii] George Santayana, "Character and Opinion in the United States," Quoted in Henry Commager, Living Ideas in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951) p. 202.
[iii]Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Milligan 6 Apr. 1816, in Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson in 20 vols. Washington: (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905) Vol 14: 466
4Charity Navigator, https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm/bay/content.view/cpid/42