Americans like to congratulate themselves on what a great country we are. We pat each other on the back because we got it right where others were off the mark. Our Constitution has lasted well over 200 years. We managed to effectively end the institution of slavery as a viable trade between legitimate nations. We have fought wars for the right reasons. Instead of plundering the conquered lands for booty, we re-built nations and endeared ourselves to grateful millions. We managed to create a political and economic model that defied the previous assumptions of men. Our mistakes are placed in the storefront window, not hidden from view. We study our errors and seek to correct them in a way no country has ever done.
Consider Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France in the beginning of the 19th Century. Bonaparte was one of the greatest military strategists of all time, but his strategies failed to take into account important aspects of campaigns. First, aggressive war makes enemies. Second, post-war occupation is a breeding ground for conspiracy.
People are remarkably pliable over time. As generations change, populations get used to their situation. But Napoleon was not much more benevolent than all previous dictatorships. The Roman Empire plundered and enslaved conquered territory, and so did Napoleon. The Romans did bring their culture to distant outposts, and some of the native populations managed to prosper under their command. But mainly populations chafed under Roman dictate. This was not the impetus of the empire’s crumbling. However, benevolent strength throughout their empire could have proven to be the necessary infrastructure of its existence.
This lesson was not learned by Napoleon. He thought he could do better. He attacked his neighbors and looted their riches. He did not institute governments or policies that improved the situations of the defeated nations and armies. Many of the dispossessed multitudes would have welcomed changes that improved their political landscapes.
The British, while the most progressive of the great pre-American empires, made the mistake of treating the populations in their colonies with contempt instead of endeavoring to create respect for law and equality. The one real exception to this was America, where the British viewed the colonists as semi-equals because they came from English stock.
What is important to understand, however, is that the United States has had the great advantage of history, timing and modern sensibilities guiding its destiny. Imagine how much recorded history had passed, like sands through the hourglass, before the U.S. came into being. England had crossed the seas, coming upon strange lands filled with mysterious, dark-skinned peoples. While the precepts of morality and goodness tell us that the English should have treated these populations with respect, it may be too much to expect the English race, faced with their own ignorance, suspicions and religious view of “pagans,” to act out in the manner God would intend. The English, imbued with a superior view of themselves, were not advanced enough to welcome non-whites as equals. Many have tried to blame Christianity for this, but one finds nothing in the Bible, or the teachings of Christ Himself, any justification for this behavior.
Holding historical people responsible for their acts, using modern knowledge, is a standard that few can live up to. There are exceptions, but they are rare. The American Ideal was born from what we knew about the British, but because we were colonists chafing under their authority, it gave us the principles that lie at the heart of our country’s foundation. Thank God for it.
This is not to discount our own dark moments. The slavery experience, and the Indian Wars, in retrospect could have been handled much differently. But slavery did not continue, and the Indian experience was not the holocaust it could have been. What other countries in the 19th Century would have handled the Indian confrontations in a manner substantially different from the U.S.? A reminder of the Spanish Inquisition offers some perspective. The American West was an unavoidable clashof civilizations.
Mainly, the history of America occurs side-by-side with enlightened times. The civil rights struggle, women’s suffrage, and modern religious, political, economic and psychological ideas are part of America’s growth. The question is worth asking, Has the world grown up because of America, or is America the by-product of a grown-up world? No doubt a little of both. This chapters endeavors to place credit where credit is due, by looking at historical figures whose writings and teachings influenced the formation of American political thought.
Dennis G. Dalton is a Ph.D. who teaches a course at Barnard College, Columbia University, called “Power Over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory.” Professor Dalton teaches in a beautiful, non-judgmental manner that seems to be devoid of the kind of political correctness and historical revisionism that colors so much scholarship today.
Professor Dalton endeavors to tell us who we are by examining the giants of political thought throughout history. He uses two major criteria: How important the questions are, and the responses to the questions.
Since America is at its core a Democracy, it seems to make sense that one begins with an examination of Democratic principles. This takes us to the cradle of Democracy, Athenian Greece. But the three great philosophers of Greece, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (and before them, the medical ethicist Hypocrites) did not just come to their conclusions without teachers of their own. Who and what influenced them?
Western political theory generally falls into three broad areas. The first involves the characteristics of human nature and interaction within society. But what drives human nature? Are we a product of internal or external matter? Does reason or passion drive us? Let us cut to the chase. Are people sinful or good? Violent or non-violent? Understanding these questions is as fundamentally difficult today as it was in Socrates’ time. It is the essential question that drives public policy today and in our future.
The attempt here is not just to gain some understanding of these tenets of the human animal. The purpose is to apply what we have learned to a study of the unique American character. The premise of this treatise is an acknowledgement that in the United States, we have made better and more moral decisions for the public good than any previous power. Still, we have not achieved a perfectly harmonious society. The quest for harmony goes back several Millennia. In order to achieve harmony, leaders must find a balancing act between coercive acts of power and the containment of conflict, as outlined by the laws written by institutions. Professor Dalton then asks, or really repeats the question, is social unity achievable? Is it even what we are looking for? Ah, as Shakespeare once said, there’s the rub. This is the nexus of struggle.
What about human rights? The American promise is based on the principle that man has unalienable rights. Legal theory has over the years ascribed the term “natural law” to this concept. It is brought up a great deal today. Natural law was a major part of the questioning of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. When the inevitable debate occurs over Roe vs. Wade, the abortion decision delivered in 1973, it will be the central theme of this question.
To understand the rights of man, one must address whether a Creator endows his rights. This requires that leap of faith religious people have made. But many do not take that leap. Furthermore, remember that throughout the ages, many people lived under the rule of people who thought they were gods. This premise creates further complicating dilemmas when addressing the question of equality and human rights in the context of social authority.
As somebody once said, the one constant is change. If this is so, should revolutionary thinkers be extolled for endorsing their cataclysmic ideals, or are they just historical conduits of necessity? Inevitable shifting sands of thought? To put it in plain terms, if Socrates, Plato and Aristotle do not come along, does somebody else take their place? Are we dealing with inevitability? If this is the case, one shudders to think that somebody like Adolph Hitler was inevitable.
So the question of dynamics is addressed, in the context of moral leadership and inexorable laws of history. The attempt here is to define some kind of absolute truth that exists as obviously in Athenian Greece as in 21st Century Iowa. Let us call this what it is, the question of good and evil. To determine a kind of universal, enduring code of ethics is to dispute a premise that makes its way around the modern landscape. This is the idea of moral relativism. Is it okay for Palestinian suicide bombers to blow up 50 Israeli men, women and children at a shopping mall, because Palestine has not achieved independence? Is it okay for the State of Texas to put another human being to death because that man killed another human being? Is it okay for a military commander to order his men to shoot into a crowd trying to break up a riot that would cause more casualties than those inflicted in order to stop it?
Are the answers to these questions founded in the realists’ grasp of hard facts, or some higher truth? This question has been framed at times as, What would Jesus do? One finds it difficult to imagine Jesus yelling, “Fire” at a column of soldiers who respond to His command by shooting at civilians, even if they are rioting civilians. If humans can operate on the premise that there is a God, and that the vagaries of life on Earth pale in comparison to an eternity in Heaven, then the quest for truth becomes operational. Perhaps we must simply acknowledge that while we have come a long way, the kind of understanding needed to avoid life’s hard facts is still far beyond our ken. What is realistic is that humans will not do the same things that Jesus did, because we are humans. Asking us to do what He did is not a viable expectation. Jesus had better information at His disposal than we do.
As we look at ourselves in the beginning of the New Millennium, it is important to address the nature of change. We live in a world of newspapers, cable televesion, satellites, the Internet, and information that is readily available to much of the world’s population. Change can occur much faster now than it did 300 years ago. Could the Communist Revolution have survived the kind of available knowledge we have today? National Socialism? Slavery? Or is technology a source of evil? This seems to be a strange question, but the Internet has turned out to be a place where child pornographers and terrorists communicate and readily find what they want. Is there some kind of universal dark message on the World Wide Web? The Web dislocates us from our communities, which have always operated as a kind of bulwark protecting us from ourselves. Believe me, I am a guy who uses the Internet every day. Maybe the Internet is just the way evil operates now. Through back channels. Via subterfuge. No more frontal assaults. I have a theory, based on my faith not only that there is a God, but that there is a devil, and that these forces of good and evil are constantly battling for the Earth. Maybe if the devil wins, that is when Armageddon occurs.
Or, maybe Armageddon has already happened, and we are just living in a post-Armageddon world. World Wars I and II could have been Armageddon. The atomic destruction in Japan could have been Armageddon. Maybe the build-up of opposing forces in the Middle East will lead to Armageddon. There actually is a place in the Holy Land called Armageddon. Maybe we averted Armageddon when we defeated the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War. Maybe the success of America thwarted the devil's Armageddon plans and he was forced into a rearguard action.
Great advances in science do not equate with morality. Look at the world we lived in 100 years ago. We made great strides during the 19th Century in art, culture and political philosophy. The work of Sigmund Freud symbolized a new Modernism, heralding a dawn of understanding among men of goodwill. The United States was an optimistic nation, led by Theodore Roosevelt, making its bid to be a world leader. We had settled the terrible slavery question on our own shores, and the feeling was that we had learned from our mistakes, our wars, and our misunderstandings. Hope sprung eternal.
But one might posit the notion that the devil had a plan. He might have seen the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution, and determined that man would just as likely put them to use for evil as for good. That is what happened during World War I. We ended that conflict and called it the "war to end all wars." We formed the League of Nations and told ourselves that civilized men and nations would keep the peace. The great expectations of the new century had simply been postponed by unfortunate old feuds between ancient European rivals. But evil has a face. It is the face of Hitler and Stalin. It was symbolized for years by the swastika, and the hammer and sickle. In the Roaring '20s, a group of Parisian-based writers called the Lost Generation sensed that the horrors of war had unleashed darkness that was spreading, not receding. The devil discovered, to his great delight, the machine gun, chlorine and mustard gas, the railroad line; these were weapons to further his work. It was heard in the cries of Armenians who died by the hundreds of thousands at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, in a genocide that the world ignored.
How wonderful, thought the devil. How convenient. A massacre of an entire people, all done under the color of “military
necessity,” and given the imprimatur of government respectability. The devil knew then and there that the selfish people of the world, concerned only with their own petty national problems, could be duped easily. We would just stand around while his work was done. The devil set out to find the most efficient regimes to carry out his plan.
The United States? Naw, said the devil. It would be great if he could get those people to carry out his work. He had had a few successful campaigns in the New World. Slavery. The Civil War. But the U.S. was too Christian, and those Founding Fathers were independent thinkers. Trying to overcome the Constitution was too difficult a task. So the devil looked at the two huge countries hit hardest by the Great War, Germany and Russia. How perfect, he thought. He would pit them against each other, and it would not matter who won. The devil was hedging his bets for both sides.
First, and how perfect was this, the devil planted the seeds of hatred in Germany against the Chosen People of Israel. By almost the middle of the century, over 45 million people were dead. Among them were 6 million Jews, plus another 6 million who died within the camps, and countless soldiers and civilians. Misery, disease, injuries, and displacement. The devil was on a roll, but he was facing his old nemesis, the United States. A chosen nation, given all the extra advantages that God could bestow upon it. The devil might not have expected the U.S. to come out of this latest war so well, but that is what happened.
Damn, thought the devil. Foiled again. Just when it looked like the 20th Century would be his greatest victory, America came along with its principles, its ideals of happiness and equality. The French had espoused these ideals in 1789, but the devil saw to it that greed and retribution would win the day. But these Americans kept doing the right thing.
The devil kept getting his licks in. He managed to divide this beautiful nation, just enough to keep us from achieving our goals in the rice paddies of the Southeast Asia. He smiled when Pol Pot’s minion’s killed millions in Cambodia. But when the Berlin Wall fell, the devil new the old techniques would not work any more. He needed to change the plan.
Now, the U.S. faces new challenges in a new century. Evil is a tricky thing. Like Communism, evil looks for disciples amongst the dispossessed, the losers, and the left-behind. Who better than the Arabs, who contributed little to victory over the Axis Powers, then aligned themselves with the Soviets in one of history’s poorer choices. These are the people who live in Third World squalor. They have occupied these countries for centuries, while the desperate, refugee Israelis moved into their back yard. Within a few years, they created the ultimate in your face: A thriving economic and military power.
The devil knew how to get to these Arabs. He planted seeds of hate, masked in the guise of destiny, within the little heads of Hussein, Arafat, Qhadafi, bin Laden, al-Assad. He found in these small people admiration for Hitler’s Germany. He told them that Der Fuhrer had been doing God’s work by massacring Jews, and that it was their chosen path to keep up the good work. This time, the Jews fought back, armed with better brainpower, moral authority, and partnership with the United States, who were now calling the shots instead of France and the ancient appeasers. The U.S.-Israeli alignment simply said no, and the little men were stopped.
In this new War on Terrorism, we are more and more facing an “enemy” that we call Militant Islam. But is this the real enemy? Is the devil just using the Muslims, a convenient group as it is, to hide his real agenda? He has, it would seem, just substituted the Jewish face, or the Armenian face, with the musky, bearded face of Islam. Something different and hard to understand. The enemy? Just as the Germans learned that the Jew was not their enemy, we will learn the Muslim is not ours. The key is to do it in time, before World War III breaks out in a massive misunderstanding of chaos and anarchy that sounds like the laughter of evil.
Who will say, “Never again?” Who will do the heavy lifting necessary to advance civilization in such a way that the devil retreats and cries “uncle” for 100, 500, maybe even 1,000 years? That is a pretty good guess, pilgrim. The answer: The United States of America.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism