The vice of self-loathing

From the town halls of Vermont to the mass demonstrations of Havana, freedom receives universal praise.  Yet if the word means anything, it must be a proliferation of life choices.  I can study and go to college, or eat, drink, and be merry.  I can marry and have children, or live for my own pleasure.  I can work, or beg, or steal.  I can accept bullying by those in power, or I can fight back.  I can live selfishly, or take account of others in my life decisions.  I can become a doctor, a poet, or a priest.

Most such choices won’t be available in Havana, or in many other places around the globe.  Freedom is universal in praise, but very local in practice.

Our country happened to be founded on freedom, which was identified with a specific set of principles and practices.  The principles included equality — understood by us to mean equality of opportunity, not of condition — rule of law, and the right to meet, speak, worship, and own property free of government meddling.

The practices embrace everything we call the free market, frequent elections, public education, and a government structure guaranteed to checkmate itself.  That’s American freedom.  It is unlike Cuban or North Korean freedom in that it provides most individuals with a multitude of choices.

I consider this to be self-evident:  literally the evidence of my own eyes.  The vast majority of Americans, I feel certain, would agree.  Because we prize freedom as we understand it, and consider ourselves free in just that way, we take a natural pride in our country.

Some, on the other hand, have been troubled by our imperfections, and struggled to reform them.  In this class can be found many pests, but also the noblest Americans:  Lincoln, for example.

A small group of Americans loathe their country.  They believe American freedom is a lie, the American people are self-indulgent dupes, and American power is the greatest source of evil in the world.  I find this attitude perplexing.  Flag-waving and chauvinism may not be attractive, but it’s understandable behavior.  One roots for the home team, sometimes with excessive vehemence.

I don’t understand rooting for the other side.  I can’t fathom applauding defeat.

On Times Online (via RealClearPolitics) Gerard Baker has written this amusing reflection on the subject:  “The US is a great place to be anti-American.”  After noting the praise, awards, and worldly glory heaped on Al Gore, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and the Dixie Chicks, Baker concludes:

The truth is that America not only harbours the most eloquent and noisy anti-Americans in its own breast, it provides a safe haven for people to come from all over the world to condemn it.

Take a stroll through almost any American university campus and you will hear a cacophony of voices in a hundred different languages, slamming everything America does, from fast food to hedge-fund capitalism. For years one of America’s most celebrated academics was Edward Said, the Palestinian agitator-cum-professor, who lived high on the hog at Columbia University, near the pinnacle of the American intellectual establishment, dispensing his wisdom about US wrongs in the Middle East.

Hollywood is the global mecca for angry denouncers of everything American. From all over they come, forcing themselves to live in their green-lawned mansions carefully tended by cheap migrant labour from south of the Border. This autumn, unsuspecting Americans (and everyone else, of course) will be treated to an especially unsettling stream of antiwar, anti-American propaganda, much of it produced in Hollywood by foreigners — such as this weekend’s likely box-office hit, Rendition.

While the psychological roots of such self-loathing are hard to fathom, the implications are clear enough.  Self-loathers like Gore and Chomsky believe the American people are too dim to be allowed their choices.  They must be led by wise guardians, holding the reins of power of a Leviathan state.  Let the guardians make the choices, and the people will be released from their Platonic cave of ignorance and selfishness.  Let American power be destroyed, and the world will be a peaceful, happy place.

I’m an optimist.  I don’t believe these strange and dismal voices have any influence in our country, beyond their seduction of impotent elites.  But to the degree that they do have influence, they pose a danger to freedom, American-style.  To the degree that Gore, Chomsky, or Moore affect the course of the present conflict, it will be to the benefit of America’s enemies.

To the degree, finally, that they are successful, the rest of us who don’t share their aristocratic vision will encounter fewer choices, and more compulsion, in our future.

Self-loathing isn’t a quirk or an eccentricity.  In this instance, it’s a vice like drunkenness, no less dangerous to our way of life than the corruption of government by money.  As Baker, a Brit, is quick to note, the dangers are just as great for the pursuit of freedom in the rest of the world.

Al Gore wants the US to give up its economic autonomy and submit to rule by binding international obligations to curb its carbon emissions. Some of the Democratic candidates for the presidency want to tie down the American Gulliver under a web of global treaties. The British Government, if recent speeches by ministers are to be believed, is now apparently seriously committed to the idea that only the UN has the legitimacy to determine how nations should behave. In other words, that a system that gives vetoes to China and Russia and honours the human rights contributions of countries such as Syria or North Korea should be accorded a full role in the promotion of the dignity of mankind.

There’s a larger irony in all this. Even as the US demonstrates the openness of its own society, its unrivalled capacity for self-examination and self-correction, a free system based on the absolute authority of the rule of law, it is told it must submit itself to the views of Moscow, Beijing, and Brussels.

Fortunately, while the American system may be forgivingly tolerant of people with wild and dangerous ideas, it doesn’t generally let them run the country.

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