EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2013, issue of National Review magazine.
If you hang around a British person long enough, you are practically guaranteed to hear him make a derisive quip about Americans.
In all likelihood, he won’t even notice that he’s done it. I have been at many dinner parties at which it has been baldly stated, without embarrassment or regret, that Americans are “all fat” or “all stupid,” or . . . well, you can pretty much choose your epithet at random, and I have watched with irritation as the line was met with general agreement. It is a peculiar thing that reflexive anti-Americanism is tolerated in Britain and beyond to a degree that no other rudeness is. On occasion, I have tried to point this out, puckishly inquiring as to whether the speaker would make the same charge with a different nationality. “Nigerians are all stupid,” perhaps? I think not.
Ugly as it is, this tic is unlikely to change anytime soon. Making jokes about Americans has been endorsed and indulged by the British literary and political classes for over 200 years now. Here is a fairly typical crack, from Oscar Wilde: “America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up.”
Ha ha! Europeans knew it was there, you see, but they kept it quiet. Why? Because the inhabitants are so frightfully uncouth, daaahling.
Here’s another one: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
That’s from Oscar Wilde, too. And it’s funny because somebody witty and sophisticated said it, and because everybody just knows that Americans aren’t witty or sophisticated. Indeed, even witty and sophisticated Americans are happy to confirm this . . .
Casual discourtesy of this sort has been a staple of the European chattering classes since pre-Revolutionary days. The most famous European scientist of the 18th century, the spectacularly named Count Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, wrote earnestly in his seminal Histoire Naturelle that North America’s climate must inevitably make all of its animals and people weak, diminutive, and degenerate. Beyond anecdote, Buffon had no evidence for this — something that an irritated (and tall) Thomas Jefferson pointed out masterfully in Notes on the State of Virginia — but that didn’t really matter because Buffon’s audience, possessed of the same powdered-wig derision that led Buffon to make the claim in the first place, didn’t know any better. Worse: They didn’t want to know any better.
The sad truth is that, at one level or another, a majority of Europeans still believe in the inherent inferiority of the United States and its people, and they reject all evidence to the contrary. In the public imagination, America is the brash young houseguest: violent, forthright with opinion, unimpressed by pretentious tradition, and permanently unable to shake off an unfortunate background in trade. Europeans sigh patronizingly at the United States as a knowing parent would at an unruly child. They are envious of America’s success, yes. But envious in that peculiarly hateful sort of way in which a man might resent his ex-wife’s newfound riches.
With the notable exception of my parents, I grew up around people who displayed these prejudices openly. My schools, in Cambridge and in Oxford, were interesting places: beautiful, old, sometimes unkind, and often eccentric. They were also hotbeds of upper-middle-class condescension and — at least when it came to America — conventional wisdom. And yet, for whatever reason, none of the reflexive anti-American bias of my peers ever much resonated with me — even when it was justified with what I believed to be legitimate criticism. At six, at ten, at thirteen, at fifteen . . . I just never bought into the disdain. I would think, “Well that’s not true.”
In one form or another, I suppose, I have been in love with the United States for as long as I have been in love with anything at all. As a small child, I watched in awe as the Space Shuttle took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. I had a stencil of Apollo 11 on my lunchbox and a photograph of the Grand Canyon on my bedroom wall. We took regular family holidays to California and Arizona to see a couple of retired sisters, both of whom I called “Grandma” even though they were not blood relations. I collected postcards featuring skyscrapers.
Insofar as I was political at all, as a teenager I was probably of the Left. As my mother puts it, I had “some pretty funny ideas” in my awkward phase, and I found the aesthetic of socialism and of leftist rebellion to be pleasing. The National Health Service made perfect sense to me when I knew nothing else, and I believed the politicians who told me that it was the “envy of the world.” I wasn’t really sure why anybody “needed” a big military, and I instinctively sided with those who would have traded guns for butter. I never questioned whether global warming was real or inquired as to the motives of those for whom it was an obsession. I didn’t like school.
All told, I absorbed the British distaste for America’s politics even as I continued to love the country. Until I took the time to look into the issue, I believed as a matter of course that America’s gun laws were inherently ridiculous; until I bothered to know better, I thought that Americans routinely died on the steps of hospitals; until I was a young adult, I accepted that American presidents were all both insipid and dangerous. But, I suppose, I never much cared.
“Most human beings,” Aldous Huxley noticed, “have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” I was no different temperamentally, and I wasn’t helped by the ritual abundance of the era in which I grew up. The 1990s were an astonishing time to be a child in the West. For a time, we lived in those broad, sunlit uplands to which Churchill alluded desperately in the darkest days of the 1940s, and nothing seemed much to matter. By the time that I was seven, history had been declared to be over. The Cold War was won. Budgets were balanced. Economies were booming. You could almost feel the confidence in the air. Who had time for politics?
And then, on a day that at first felt like any other, terrorists flew four planes into my innocence and changed my life forever.
I was 16, and living just outside Cambridge. I had never considered the possibility that anyone in the West might equivocate after such an atrocity, let alone that some would side with the perpetrators. Nor had it occurred to me that there would be anything but full-throated support for the United States in the aftermath. At first, I was correct. Most people I knew were respectful, and most of my friends were horrified. We knew something big had happened when even the French national newspaper Le Monde took a break from worrying about “Anglo-Saxon economics” and ran an astonishing headline: Nous sommes tous Américains, or “We are all Americans.” I remember writing to my American “grandmother” with a similar sentiment — and meaning it more than ever.
But, as we moved toward the end of September, I started to hear ugly comments here and there. “It was awful,” people would clarify, “but you have to wonder if the United States had it coming.” By October, voices on the radio that was always on in my parents’ kitchen began to articulate this sentiment less guardedly — sometimes to applause, sometimes to boos. I found to my surprise that the public figures who were supposed to be “stupid” and “simple-minded” were the ones who were making sense, while the people I was supposed to look up to were not. I heard a lot about “nuance.”
I was still stunned, and I suppose I was looking for leaders who shared my disposition. Rudy Giuliani’s defiant speech to the United Nations is burned into my mind:
Look at that destruction, that massive, senseless, cruel loss of human life, and then, I ask you to look in your hearts and recognize that there is no room for neutrality on the issue of terrorism. You’re either with civilization or with terrorists. On one side is democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human life. On the other, it’s tyranny, arbitrary executions, and mass murder. We’re right and they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that.
George Orwell wrote admiringly of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy” that “it would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep.’” Coming from a family with deep roots in the military, I had certainly never made mock of uniforms or of the people who wore them. But I had taken them for granted. I’d taken everything for granted.
I quickly realized that the West’s position was the product of concrete choices and explicit sacrifices. Before September 11, it had never occurred to me that the stability of global trade, international peace, and the integrity of transnational communications were in some regard the product of a naval supremacy that the United States silently inherited from the British. It had never occurred to me that the world would look dramatically different if another country or axis enjoyed this power, and that it was in my interest to ensure that this never happened. I had never considered, in other words, the importance of the Pax Americana. From now on, I would never forget it.
Neither, until when, three years later, I took a course in British colonial history at Oxford, did I have much of an idea as to quite how exceptional and extraordinary the United States was in world history. Reading through all the documents that I could find, I quickly gained an appreciation for the classical liberalism of which I had never quite realized I was an adherent. It is no exaggeration to say that, discovering the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, and the men who, in Frederick Douglass’s immortal words, “preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage,” I felt as the heathens of old must have when they discovered the Bible. This, this was my cause — not all that teenage fluff.
I was hooked. However vehemently my leftist friends tried to relegate the virtue of a nation to the sum of its spreadsheets, the fact remains that the United States is the only country in the world that was founded explicitly on a proposition, and that in consequence has a set of values to which it can return and to which its immigrants may hew. The Declaration of Independence, Chesterton wrote, is “perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.”
It is true that, at its heart, the American Revolution was really a restoration — the moment at which “his Majesty’s subjects in the colonies,” as the Massachusetts House of Representatives referred to themselves until the very last moment, chided the mother country for “abolishing the free system of English laws” and set about resuscitating them in the New World. But, because the Revolution was eventually hijacked by a group of extremists, it was so much more than that. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln wrote in 1859 as the ongoing evil of slavery loomed large, for he had
the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
A few buildings away from my rooms, the Oxford University Labour Club met on Thursday evenings for astonishingly dull weekly debates in which speaker after speaker took to the podium to contort the English language into ever more jejune forms, and to say without the slightest embarrassment things such as, “I’m in favor of freedom of speech, but . . .” or, “Well, we really have to think about the collective.”
Compare this with, say, James Madison’s enthusiasm for “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation,” whose “governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
If you have been accustomed to this idea from birth, it might feel insignificant — prosaic, even. But I would venture that this is among the most radical sentences written in the history of mankind — and not only when put into the context of the time. Until I looked into it properly, I had never quite managed to get on board with the Second Amendment, and I am ashamed to say that I had not so much remained neutral as bought hook, line, and sinker into the fallacious conceit that it protected only a collective right that was inextricable from its time.
How wrong I discovered myself to be. How abjectly, completely, dramatically wrong. As I read and read, I realized that there was simply no way to honestly look at the Second Amendment — or its drafting, or the jurisprudence and common law of the time, or the attitudes of the men who debated it — and to conclude that it was anything other than an individual right. I recognized, too, that the idea of an armed and, ultimately, sovereign public is a beautiful and radical thing, and one that needs protecting above all others.
In comparison, all of that posturing from Robespierre and Marx and Keir Hardie — and my undergraduate peers, for that matter — struck me as abject nonsense; as another way of saying “trust us to live your lives.” Read the founding documents and you will see free men declaring in no uncertain terms that they are free men, and affirming too that they must be neither treated as subjects nor expected to submit to the caprice of the powerful or to the zeitgeist as the condition of entering into the social compact.
Here are men who were willing to fight a revolution over abstract legal theory — for principle and for birthright. “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased,” argued Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, “nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.” How refreshing are these words when one is accustomed to hearing one’s prime minister asked in earnest to account for an increase of 3 percent in the instance of influenza at the hospital in Brighton.
‘It’s sometimes easy to forget how special America really is,” Marco Rubio says in almost every speech, regardless of the topic. And then he thanks his parents for raising him to “clearly understand how different America is from the rest of the world.” Rubio is a Cuban American, and his parents watched a fanatical regime destroy their country. It is no surprise that Cubans have historically been so much in love with America.
But I’m not Cuban. I’m not even French. I’m British. I grew up in a country with regular elections and solid institutions. I grew up with food in my mouth and a roof over my head. Most important, perhaps, I never feared that midnight knock at the door. And yet, like Marco Rubio, I understand how peculiar this place is — how necessary and how particular.
Trying to articulate this, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Swimmers” that
France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.
The “idea” is obvious — it is written down in one place, accessible for all to see. The “willingness of the heart” stuff, however, is where things start to get trickier — where things, you might say, become “harder to utter.” Being asked to explain why I love America is sometimes like being asked to explain why I love my fiancée. There are all the tangible things that you can rattle off so as not to look clueless and sentimental and irrational. But then there is the fact that you just do, and you ultimately can say little more than that.
I don’t know why I love the open spaces in the Southwest or Grand Central Terminal or the fading Atomic Age Googie architecture you see sometimes when driving. I don’t know why merely glimpsing the Statue of Liberty brings tears to my eyes, or why a single phrase on an Etta James or Patsy Cline record does what it does to me. It just does. I have spoken to other immigrants about this, and I have noticed that there is generally a satisfactory explanation — religious freedom, the chance at self-expression, the country’s size — and then there is the wistful stuff that moistens the eyes. Show me a picture of two canyons, and the fact that one of them is American will make all the difference. Just because it is American. Is this so peculiar? Perhaps.
Irritating as this must be to the hyper-rationalists of the consequentialist Left, I have come earnestly to believe in all of that stuff I’m not supposed to. When Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination in Detroit in 1980, he took a bit of a risk. “I have thought of something that is not part of my speech and I’m worried over whether I should do it,” Reagan said. Then he did it anyway:
Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely? Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity.
I am not a religious man and I cannot put my finger on why exactly I find myself nodding each time I read these lines, but I pretty much believe this too. I believe that America is the last, best hope for mankind, the “shining city upon a hill,” as Winthrop’s famous sermon put it.
I have been told on more than one occasion by people who do not know that I am foreign-born that I believe these things only because I know nothing else. This is a variation on a theme by George Bernard Shaw, who quipped that “patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.” For some people, I am sure that this is true. But Shaw should have known better, for this conviction could not explain the millions of his own countrymen who, during his lifetime, streamed away from Ireland, bound for the promised land. And it cannot explain me, either.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.