The just-concluded 40th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society, held in Chicago, featured a panel on US foreign policy. Midge Decter, the controversial new president of the society, praised the United States as embodying universally applicable principles, and endorsed the aggressive foreign policy that is the hallmark of the Bush administration. On the same panel, Claes Ryn, the 20012002 president of the Society and the author of the recently released America the Virtuous, criticized this kind of universalism as “neo-Jacobin” and as incompatible with traditional American views on government, not to mention peace in the world. Professor Ryn’s remarks follow:
Quite often I have lunch at a McDonald's in one of the most affluent and pretentious suburbs in America just outside of Washington, D.C. The residents are ambivalent about having a McDonald's in their community it undermines their self-image so the restaurant is tucked away inside a little mall and almost impossible for outsiders to find.
I like to arrive just after 10:30. I am up very early, and before 11:00 my McDonald's is still quiet. I eat and read in peace. Later, mothers drive up in their luxury SUVs with their preschool children, and, if schools are closed, older children too. Some high-schoolers show up. On Saturdays many fathers do McDonald's duty and older children come as well. My French café is transformed into bedlam. Near the playpen especially the noise rises dramatically. I have learnt when late to shut out the din, but sometimes I watch the scene in fascination. At the counter toddlers in strollers scream when parents do not give them French fries fast enough. Older children crawl on chairs and tables or rush about shouting and shoving while waiting for mom or dad to bring the food. Mothers and fathers scurry around, anxiously solicitous of their princes and princesses. They comfort the crying and apologize to little Ashley and Eliot for having taken so long. By now I know well the difference between the crying of a child in distress and the importunate crying of a child who won't wait or take no for an answer. At the playpen the "hell-hole" it is obvious that playing without throwing yourself about and making lots of noise would not be real playing. Sometimes the playpen emits such piercing screams that the Asian-American children look at their parents in startled surprise. Deference to grown-ups seems unknown. I used to take offense, but the children have only taken their cue from their parents, who took their cue from their parents. The adults, for their part, talk in loud, penetrating voices, some on cell phones, as if no other conversations mattered. The scene exudes self-absorption and lack of self-discipline.
Yes, this picture has everything to do with U.S. foreign policy. This is the emerging American ruling class, which is made up increasingly of persons used to having the world cater to them. If others challenge their will, they throw a temper tantrum. Call this the imperialistic personality if "spoilt brat" sounds too crude.
But, surely, this rising elite has wonderful strengths. Are not its adults highly educated about history, philosophy, geography, and world affairs and masters of several languages? Do they not travel widely and have a keen understanding of other countries and regions of the world? Are they not sophisticated cosmopolitans suited to running an empire.
Pardon the sarcasm. I am well aware that a different type of American still exists. That American aspires to character traits virtually the opposite of those on display at my McDonald's. Americans used to admire self-restraint, modesty, humility, and good manners. They were acutely aware of original sin. They feared the self-indulgent ego, in themselves and others. Americans of an earlier era stressed the need to check the darker potentialities of human nature, the unleashing of which could wreak havoc on the individual and society. They hoped that in personal life moral character would restrain the desire for self-aggrandizement, just as in national political life the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution would contain the all-too-human desire for power. Personal self-control and constitutionalism were but different aspects of the effort to subdue the voracious ego. Human beings could not be trusted with unlimited power.
The old Americans were not so foolish as to try to extinguish the will to power. Nothing good could be accomplished without power in some form. But they recognized the great danger of the will to power being diverted from its legitimate ends and breaking free of checks.
The Framers assumed that, for the Constitution to work, its institutions had to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit. These individuals had to be predisposed to virtues like self-restraint, respect for law, and a willingness to compromise. They had to have what I call a constitutional personality. The spirit of the written Constitution stemmed from America's unwritten constitution, that is, the religious, moral, and cultural life that had inclined Americans to constitutionalism in the first place. The Constitution could not survive without character traits that the Framers hoped would be wide-spread. All know Benjamin Franklin's answer to the woman who asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced: "A republic, if you can keep it." The primary reason why today the U.S. Constitution is a mere shadow of its former self is that it cannot be sustained without the constitutional personality.
The new imperialistic ego is shrugging free of the old American self and corresponding constitutional restraints. The desire for self-aggrandizement has transformed limited, decentralized American government into a national Superstate, which has given the will to power a scope far beyond the worst fears of the anti-Federalists. The Tenth Amendment, that ironclad guarantee against improper expansion of central power, is a dead letter, like so much else in the Constitution. Decision-makers in Washington reach into virtually every aspect of American life. But not even power on this scale can still a desire that is insatiable. Today it contemplates dominating the entire world.
Needless to say, the will to dominate does not present itself as such to the world. It wraps itself in phrases of benevolence and selflessness. There is always another reason for government to do good. The greater the caring, the greater the need to place power in the hands of those who care. It is, of course, sheer coincidence that this benevolence invariably empowers the benevolent. So well does the will to dominate dress itself up that it almost deceives the power-seekers themselves.
The ideas of the French Jacobins provided a sweeping justification for exercising unlimited power. As followers of Rousseau, the Jacobins were not content with reforming historically evolved ways of life. "Freedom, equality and brotherhood" required the radical remaking of society. Because of the scope and glory of the task, the Jacobins had to gather all power unto themselves and deal ruthlessly with opposition. Good stood against evil, all good on one side their side. The Jacobins called themselves "the virtuous." In the twentieth century, their communist descendants offered an even more blanket justification for wielding unlimited power.
Although the classical and Christian view of human nature has eroded, big government still has a bad name in America. Challenging the Constitution outright remains risky. Americans attracted to the Jacobin spirit have therefore sought instead to redefine American principles so as to make them more serviceable to the will to power. They have propounded a new myth the myth of America the Virtuous according to which America is a unique and noble country called to remake the world in its own image. The myth provides another sweeping justification for dominating others.
An effort has been long underway to transfer American patriotism to a redefined, Jacobin-style America, seen as representing a radical break with the Western tradition. According to Harry Jaffa, "The American Revolution represented the most radical break with tradition . . . that the world had seen." "To celebrate the American Founding is . . . to celebrate revolution." In Jaffa's view, the American revolution was milder perhaps than the "subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or elsewhere," but it is, "the most radical attempt to establish a regime of liberty that the world has yet seen." America thus reinvented is founded on ahistorical, allegedly universal principles summed up in such words as "freedom," "equality," and "democracy." These principles, the new Jacobins assert, are not just for Americans; they are, as Allan Bloom insisted, "everywhere applicable" a theme echoed today by George W Bush.
The French Jacobins appointed France as the Savior Nation. The new Jacobins have appointed America. Its great, benevolent cause is to rid the world of evil. This cause gives the appetite for power the moral cover it likes to have. One kind of universalist ideology, communism, has been replaced by the ideology of American empire, and the stage is set for another cycle of crusading. With neo-Jacobins shaping U.S. foreign policy, whether as Democrats or Republicans, America and the world can expect an era of chronic conflict.
Could any goal be more appealing to the will to power than ending evil? The task is not only enormous but endless. No conservative would need to be told that evil cannot be "ended"; Rousseau's notion of the fundamental goodness of man and his vision of society transformed are pernicious figments of a childish imagination. Evil can be tamed to some extent, as the Framers knew, but even Sunday schoolers used to understand that it cannot be ended. You wonder why, if America is called to end moral evil, it should not, while at it, also do away with poverty and illness.
Do the new Jacobins ever reflect on the remarkable coincidence that they should be alive at the precise moment in human history when the one valid political model was finally discovered and that, furthermore, they should happen to live in just the country that embodies that model and is called to bestow it on the rest of the world? But such questions do not bother ideologues who are arguing toward a preconceived conclusion: that they should preside over armed American world hegemony for humanity's sake, of course.
The word "empire" does not yet have the right ring in American ears, so the new Jacobins try not to appear too grasping. But even when feigning modesty the will to dominate has difficulty keeping up appearances as when Ben Wattenberg said, no, no, no, we Americans do not want to "conquer the world." We only wish to ensure that "the world is hospitable to our values."
The arguments for bold American assertiveness are familiar: We live in a dangerous world full of odious political regimes. Terrorism is a serious threat to America and its allies. America must, as the world's only superpower, play a leading role in the world.
But why keep repeating the obvious? Yes, the world is dangerous; it always was, more or less. Like other countries, America must be prepared to defend itself and its legitimate interests of course and as a superpower she will indeed have to carry a heavier burden than other countries. It does not follow that America must impose its will on the rest of the world.
But 9/11 changed everything, the neo-Jacobins cry. Well, not quite everything. The human condition has not changed. Terrible events do not cancel the need for those personal qualities and social and political structures without which the will to power becomes arbitrary and tyrannical. Unfortunately, 9/11 gave the imperialistic personality another pretext for throwing off restraint.
American unilateralism represents a reversal of the old spirit of constitutionalism and checks-and-balances. Just as, domestically, particular interests need to accommodate other interests, so, internationally, states need to check and balance each other. The notion that America knows better than all other nations and has a right to dictate terms to them betrays a monumental conceit. It also guarantees that other nations will see a need to arm themselves just to have some protection against American bullying. Already the Muslim world is seething with hostility. China, which has long found Western hegemony intolerable and is already strongly prone to nationalism, can be expected to respond to American assertiveness by greatly expanding its military power. If present trends continue, the time should soon be ripe in 50 years perhaps? for a horrendous Sino-American confrontation.
For Christians, the cardinal sin is pride. Before them, the Greeks warned similarly of the great dangers of conceit and arrogance. Hubris, they said, violates the order of the cosmos, and inflicts great suffering on human beings. It invites Nemesis. On the Apollonian temple at Delphi two inscriptions summed up the proper attitude to life. One was "Everything in moderation," the other "Know Thyself." To know yourself meant most importantly to recognize that you are not one of the gods but a mere mortal. As for the old Hebrews, in Proverbs (16:18) we read: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."
To the new Jacobins, such calls for humility have the quaint sound of something long outdated. Why should those who know how humanity should live question their own ideas or right to dominate? The world needs "moral clarity," not obfuscation. Many of those who shape the destiny of America and the world today are just such "terrible simplifiers" with absurdly swollen egos.
How very different the personality that defined the old America and conceived the Constitution! In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for all the good bestowed by Almighty God on the American people. He asked his fellow Americans to unite "in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions." This is the voice of the America that is passing. Today, increasingly, the imperialistic personality of Ashley and Eliot is being unleashed upon the world.
May 5, 2004