Column on Anti-American Paradoxes

An Anti-American Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

Over the decades, ever since I got smitten by the American experiment in
community life, it has been one of my more masochistic tasks to watch out
for criticisms, denunciations, derisions, ridiculing of and expressions of
contempt for the country, mostly by erudite intellectuals. It began with
my college professors who, nearly without exception, had only disdain for
the general ideas that have been associated with America. I am talking,
of course, the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of
Rights. Scorn is what a long line of such critics—well, that may be too
flattering a term for most of them since the bulk merely looked down their
noses at the place—expressed in class after class, book after book, paper
after paper, and article after article. Even as recently as the early
2000s I ran across a bunch of books in which the purpose was clearly to
invalidate notions of liberty, justice, and rights associated with
America. Thus we have professors writing books, published by the most
ious houses, on how ownership—the right to private property so prominently
featured in the U. S. Constitution, both explicitly and implicitly—is a
myth. Or how the rights listed in the Declaration and the Constitution are
far less significant than those invited in, say, the era of the New Deal.

Ok, so there are many critics of the American political tradition at
colleges and universities, at magazines that are sold to folks who
consider themselves sophisticated way beyond the simpletons who forged the
founding documents. That would be something to be expected. Colleges and
universities demand of their faculty “original research and scholarship”
and nothing passes better for that than tomes attacking the ideas and
ideals of the Founders and their teachers, like John Locke. It is beneath
the lofty self-image of the bulk of these educated people to actually
admit that those people who founded the country had identified true
principles of community life. No, instead what they are accused of having
done is incorporated their class biases into the foundations of American
society. They were, in short, mere ideologues, pretending that their
preferences amounted to basic principles—exactly as Karl Marx and his
followers had argued about John Locke and Adam Smith. (See, for the
clearest instance, Marx’s
posthumously published book, Grundrisse.)

Yet if you dig deep enough into the mass of critical works, there is
something rather peculiar that becomes evident. Nearly all the critics
deploy standards by which to denigrate American society, which are part of
the American political tradition itself. Take slavery. It is by reference
to the principles of the Declaration of Independence that this institution
turns out to be utterly peculiar, as Lincoln understood very well. Or take
the oft heard lament that American society has been unjust toward women
and minorities. This, too, is a complaint that gains its soundness from
taking the principles in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights very
seriously. All the concerns in the criminal law about the unjust
treatment of suspects make sense in light of the conception of justice
that the founding documents embody.

Even the more alien charges, say about the lack of equal pay for equal
work or the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, can be related, perhaps a
bit awkwardly, to certain notions in the American political and legal
tradition. Yes, some of those charges are based on a far more egalitarian
political stance that is incorporate in the American viewpoint but they
resonate with many Americans because they appear to be based on that
viewpoint—“all men [i.e., human beings] are created equal” and “they are
endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.” That surely includes
both citizens and foreigners!

Even criticisms of America’s frequently ill conceived foreign and military
policies gain their strongest backing from distinctly American principles.
Of course, from the inception of the country there has been a debate
afoot about how best to interpret the founding principles, with some
favoring a strong central government—including what this may imply for
foreign affairs—some championing limited (though perhaps not necessarily
small) government and how that would influence foreign policy. But the
basic notions about individual rights, due process, free markets, and
equal justice for all found few outright enemies apart from defenders of
chattel slavery and some reactionary male chauvinists.

The point to remember here is that anti-American lambastes tended and
still tend to rest on America’s very own distinctive principles, ones that
may be present to some extent in other societies (Great Britain,
Australia, France and some other European countries come to mind).
Foreign interventionism is ill fitted for a country that tends to rest on
the idea that force may only be used in self-defense. Never mind that
this has never been that closely adhered to, mostly with the excuse that
survival required expansion or humanitarian concerns imply exporting
American ideals abroad. The point is that the operative terms of debate
in all these instances arise from the American political and legal
tradition, not from those that form the basis of the countries in Europe,
Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. When the American government and
military are charged with the inhumane treatment, even torture, of “enemy
combatants” at Guantanamo Bay, the basic premise underlying the charge is
that individuals may not be
subjected to harm unless they have been shown to deserve this. Mere
“reasons of state” do not suffice to justify such treatment and that is
very much a tenet of the individualist social philosophy with which
American is so closely associated.

So all the while the intellectuals have frowned on the allegedly
simplistic and false 18th century notions drawn from Locke & Co., they
have not hesitated making use of those very notions as they have drubbed
American left and right. Not a bad record for such an awful system, me
thinks, comparatively speaking.

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