Revolution as Fulfillment

by Kieran Healy on November 7, 2008

Via Cosma, Canadian historian Rob MacDougall on a characteristic American tendency to see radical social change as the inevitable expression of values expressed and promises made at the country’s inception:

“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” said Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. … King went on: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note … a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And here Sancho [Panza] or Sacvan [Bercovitch] whispers to the guy standing next to him, “Were they? Really? If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree? … Because it would have saved a lot of trouble if they’d spelled all this out in 1789.”

The black belt rhetorical jiu jitsu of the “I Have A Dream” speech is that King pulls it off. He convinced the better part of a nation that dismantling segregation was not so scary, not so radical, but really what they’d all meant to do all along. They just hadn’t gotten around to it, like the laundry I need to sort, or those slaves Jefferson never quite got to freeing. … And this is an old and hallowed American trick. On July 4th, 1852, Frederick Douglass blistered the ears of his white audience with prophesy … Douglass reveals that, “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” the Constitution is in fact “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” He embraces and celebrates the Constitution as a bulwark against slavery. … At Seneca Falls in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton cribbed Jefferson’s words for her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, the intimation being that “of course” the patriarchs of 1776 must have intended equal rights for women. … And so on and so on down through history, with every kind of American reformer looking backward to move forward, couching their goals as nothing more radical than America’s alleged founding ideals.

Barack Obama’s big speeches live firmly within this tradition. He’s all about “change,” but it’s change that reaffirms the traditional virtues of the nation. “In no other country on earth is my story possible,” he says … Obama talks about fulfilling “the American promise,” about living up to “the American creed.” “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution,” Obama said, almost quoting Douglass, in “A More Perfect Union,” his masterful speech on race in Philadelphia last March: “Yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part–through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk–to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

I try to explain this maneuver to my students, to show them how it returns again and again in American rhetoric. And then they are free to make up their minds about it. It is logical and entirely defensible to decide, as I think Bercovitch does, that the whole thing is a kind of put on. … But I like my students to at least try to hear the music. To imagine themselves Americans for a day. To contemplate the possibility that words like “all men are created equal” might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.

It almost doesn’t matter what Jefferson “really meant” by “all men.” No, that’s not it. It matters. It matters each and every time great and noble promises are broken. But here’s an idea Greil Marcus put in my head: the promises made in the Declaration and the Constitution are so great that their betrayal is an inevitable part of the promise. And that’s what makes them work. Marcus … calls that betrayal “the engine of American history.” The “more perfect union” is a limit approaching infinity. As each generation discovers–inevitably!–that the promises made to them were false, they battle to make them a little more true.

Canadians are not against life or liberty or happiness, in moderation. But we don’t hear the music, by and large. We see windmills where Americans see giants and damsels in distress. And because we do, we don’t have that engine driving us onward, those whirring pistons of the gap between the real and ideal. As a result, we can perhaps be more flexible and pragmatic than Americans: if something is worth doing, we ought to do it because it helps people today, not because of some marching orders we got from Sir John A. Macdonald in 1867. We can stay out of some trouble that Americans seem constitutionally (heh) incapable of avoiding: the world doesn’t always need saving. But, and this is a real but, we can also be passive and maddeningly smug. Here’s a heresy of heresies, buried all the way down in this ridiculously long and breathless essay where I expect few will read it: many of the best reforms in Canadian history (welfare state? multiculturalism? democracy?) snuck over the border from the United States. The Canadian mindset requires less of us. It asks little suspension of disbelief.

Anyway, I guess I must be a lost cause. Revoke my Canadian citizenship. Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.



Keith 11.07.08 at 7:53 pm

Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.

That right there is the core mystery of the American Myth: how is it that we as a country can inspire other countries to do greater and better things while trying and sometimes failing to do them ourselves? However we do it, I’m glad we do it. I only wish we’d live up to our reputation a little more often. But hey, we’re working on it!

(all this optimism is raising my blood sugar level to dangerous heights. But I have until January 20th before the sugar high of hope wears off).


Slocum 11.07.08 at 7:54 pm

And here Sancho [Panza] or Sacvan [Bercovitch] whispers to the guy standing next to him, “Were they? Really? If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree?

Some would have agreed, some would not. There was an active abolitionist movement in the U.S. at the time of the declaration. Five of the original states had already abolished slavery by 1783 (the year the Revolutionary War ended).

Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.

Well it’s nice to see proof (the best thing about the election from my perspective), but as an American, I didn’t really doubt it was possible at this point. I believe it’s very likely that Colin Powell would have won had he been willing to run in 2000 and I’m pretty sure he would have been a tougher match for Clinton in ’96 than Dole was. Once you’re to the point where minorities can serve in positions like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State, you’re already there in terms of acceptance — at that point it’s just a question of chance / the right person at the right time. Just as I’m sure the same is true of a female president as well.


Mitchell Rowe 11.07.08 at 8:29 pm

“Canadians are not against life or liberty or happiness, in moderation. But we don’t hear the music, by and large.”

I think homosexuals who can legally marry anywhere in Canada would disagree with you.


Martin 11.07.08 at 9:07 pm

While it’s not the same thing, to what extent does the US tradition McDougal is talking about derive from the English 17th and 18th century proto-Whig and Whig tradition of claiming that the rights and powers they were fighting for (and even hanging or chasing off the King for) for were just a fulfillment of the Magna Carta or stuff the Anglo-Saxons did?


Katherine Farmar 11.07.08 at 9:09 pm

Doesn’t it come down to the fact that sometimes myths are more important than facts? Myths can motivate in a way that facts can’t. Facts can be accepted as inevitable — the way things are and thus the way they must be; myths tell us how things ought to be. Myths, being larger than life, encourage us to be greater than we are. The US has the great fortune of having a founding national myth that’s amenable to a great number of progressive political movements.

(I don’t think the founding myths of the Irish state are particularly flexible in that way, for instance, since they mostly concern resistance to a foreign imperial power with which we are on pretty friendly terms nowadays. Not to mention the fact that the foundation of the state is recent enough that we have extensive records of what the founders wanted, and can guess pretty well at what they would have wanted, and frankly, I’d rather emigrate than live in de Valera’s vision of a perfect Ireland.)

(Also, just a side note: I actually liked the Star Wars prequels, which means I wince every time they’re used as a proverbial instance of a creator meddling foolishly with his own creation. Oh well…)


Watson Aname 11.07.08 at 9:40 pm

I think homosexuals who can legally marry anywhere in Canada would disagree with you.

Agreed. I think he’s off on that part of the analysis — I’ve found Canadians often tend to have very clearly held beliefs about the rights & freedoms (to use their parlance) that ought to be a citizens due. They’re by and large quieter about it, but the beliefs are as deeply held. They’re less concerned with the past, it’s true, I think.

Both countries are experiments in the mixing of peoples and ideas. In some ways the US has done a better job, in some ways Canada has. The relative population size relegates Canada to “little brother” status in many ways, but then again, it’s surprising how well regarded the country is most places in the world. It seems that due to cultural and economic effects, pretty much everywhere has a love/hate relationship with the US. Canada seems to be loved for less obvious reasons, but it is loved.


lemuel pitkin 11.07.08 at 9:47 pm

I actually liked the Star Wars prequels

Ban her! Ban her now!


notsneaky 11.07.08 at 9:49 pm

Re: 4 and in general, I think a lot of countries have these kind of traditions that they hark back to which are at least partly mythic. The French got the Revolution for example. If you look around other countries often have similar national myths. I think the exception here is not the US, but rather Canada which has a very boring genesis.


Hogan 11.07.08 at 9:54 pm

If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree?

So what if they didn’t mean it? They knew what they were saying it. What’s wrong with calling their bluff?


Dan Simon 11.07.08 at 10:17 pm

I must admit, it’s hilarious to read Crooked Timberites getting all misty-eyed over the greatness of America, its founding myth, and its glorious promise. Or rather, it would be, if you hadn’t all decided to celebrate what I consider one of the more pernicious characteristics of American political culture.

To put it simply, the problem with civil religion is that political disputes become religious ones. The idea that the Founders’ Vision is Holy leads directly to the idea that whoever doesn’t interpret it correctly is a heretic who must be kept from promulgating his heresy at all costs; to the idea that various stupid or clumsy details of American political structure and function are in fact magnificently perfect mechanisms whose Greater Wisdom is perhaps obscured to those of less faith; and, of course, to the idea that if the common people stray from the Vision (as properly interpreted), then it is they who are at fault, and we loyal guardians of the Vision must prevent them (and the heretics who encourage and confuse them) from interfering with the realization of the Vision.

Look, it’s nice that a black man can be elected president in the US. (Like Slocum, I’m completely unsurprised by this supposed revelation.) But it’s the American people, not the pieces of paper they worship, who opened up that possibility–just as it was the American people who closed it off for most of their history. A different country, given the same set of founding documents, would have behaved very differently, in many ways. (Just think of all the countries in the world running on the British parliamentary system, and the variations among them.) And the civil religion that has grown up around America’s founding has for the most part made America more rigid, more partisan and less democratic, not more moral or idealistic–regardless of who happened to have been elected president on Tuesday.


Nathaniel 11.07.08 at 10:17 pm

Shades of the Eighteenth Brumaire:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”


Kieran Healy 11.07.08 at 10:24 pm

I must admit, it’s hilarious to read Crooked Timberites getting all misty-eyed over the greatness of America, its founding myth, and its glorious promise. Or rather, it would be, if you hadn’t all decided to celebrate what I consider one of the more pernicious characteristics of American political culture.

Yeah, I know, freedom of speech and all that. We should have banned you earlier.


virgil xenophon 11.07.08 at 10:35 pm

Once again I find myself in COMPLETE agreement with Lemuel @7!


jcs 11.07.08 at 10:45 pm


Comapring Obama’s election to Powell serving as Joint Chiefs/Secreatry of state is somewhat off base. I am not trying to diminish Powell’s accomplishments, but he was afterall appointed to that position, rather than elected by over 60 million people in a country that has a very troubled history of race relationhips. I just do not see the two as comparable. I’m not sure that I agree with “you are almost there in terms of acceptance” regarding Powell’s role in the Bush administrations, there just seems to be a huge gulf between accepting a minority who was appointed to a high level adminsitration position, and actively electing a monority to the most powerful position in the world. There seems to be a huge gulf between a minority who serves at the pleasure of a white president and a minority who is the president. The latter requires that America own up to it’s shameful past regarding its treatment of minorities, whereas the fomer does not not.

Dan Simon:
I understand one of your positions be along the lines of “I wasn’t surprised.” Fine. If you weren’t surprised, you weren’t suprised. I am not sure anyone can argue against that. But when you claim that you were not surprised, it sounds as if you mean something along the lines of “I am suprised that everyone else is suprised that Obama was elected president.” IF this is the case, then I am not sure it is appropriate. My impression is not that people are suprised by his election, but that they are rejoicing in what his election represents. Even if four years from now Obama turns out to have been worse than Bush (and no ,I do not think that will be the case), that would not dimish the significance of this moment in America’s history.


strasmangelo jones 11.07.08 at 11:17 pm

I for one was shocked and astonished that the candidate with the superior rhetorical skills, the overwhelming fundraising advantage, the more organized and disciplined staff, the better ground game and the consistent lead in the polls throughout the campaign ended up winning the election. Praise be to the singular glory and promise that is America, shining freeopolis on a hill!


Leon 11.07.08 at 11:24 pm

I think bills of rights have a powerful role in the myth, which might explain the Canadian gay marriage thing, since their Charter (is that what it’s called?) is recent. Rights are infinitely flexible, re-interpretable, and contestable. In many cases, they give readers a warm fuzzy without suggesting any legal/institutional means of realizing them. The obvious other example of reading back into the founders’ intent, besides slavery, is of course abortion, although perhaps that’s less associated with the myth.

(I’m writing this from an Australian perspective — we still lack any bill or charter of rights at the federal level.)


Dan Simon 11.07.08 at 11:34 pm

Yeah, I know, freedom of speech and all that. We should have banned you earlier.

Actually, “freedom of speech” is a magnificent example of a fine, laudable concept that is generally honored in democracies without much fuss, but which has become in the US a bizarre object of Jesuitical/Talmudic exegesis by the high priesthood of the civil religion, the Supreme Court. The result is that pornographic art must receive government funding, but entire classes of mainstream political advertising are banned, among other absurdities. And the voting public not only can’t do anything about it, but actually accepts its helpless fate largely without complaint, thanks to the wild-eyed civil-religious zealotry of the minority, and the general civil-religious piety of the majority.

As for banning me–why would you? Your three colleagues only banned me for showing them up to be idiots.

My impression is not that people are suprised by his election, but that they are rejoicing in what his election represents.

The rejoicing only makes sense, though, to the extent that it originates in at least some degree of surprise. To explain by analogy: suppose that Barack Obama had been admitted to dine at a fancy Washington, D.C. restaurant. That’s a perfectly praiseworthy outcome, and no decent person would have it any other way. But it’s also sufficiently…unsurprising that we’d expect no special rejoicing to follow. Likewise, in my view, with Obama having been elected president. That’s just how America is today, and has been for some time, now.


Jamie 11.07.08 at 11:37 pm

Canadian myths do exist and are enduring.

Start with the wilderness, and how to successfully “rough it”– to endure, to survive, and to prosper.

Canadian myths don’t partake of the “I’m the best that ever was” foolishness that propels too many American myths, but they do recognize the excellence of Canadians in the face of a harsh unyielding environment.

Ah for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage,
And seek the hand of Franklin, reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one wild line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the Sea
— Stan Rogers


Kieran Healy 11.07.08 at 11:51 pm

@17, Chill out Dan, would you?

As for the substance of yours and some other comments, the following are not identical: what the post calls “a characteristic American tendency” described in MacDougall’s essay; the additional views of MacDougall about Canada and his own reaction to the election; and my own particular views on either of those things.

I am quite familiar with the idea of American Civic Religion, btw.


Hermenauta 11.08.08 at 12:18 am

Courting the risk of being banned, I have an agreement of sorts with #10.

Reading Healy’s post, I couldn’t help myself from hearing a little voice whispering “originalism”, “originalism” from the deeps of my brain …


Dan Simon 11.08.08 at 12:24 am

Sorry, Kieran–I get touchy (understandably, I think) when someone talks about banning me. Also when someone talks about the various sacred cows of the American civil religion, such as “free speech”. If it works better for you, think of it as directed at MacDougall, rather than you. (Actually, a Canadian academic waxing eloquent on America’s great Constitutional heritage is even funnier than a Crooked Timberite doing it. Note the comment on MacDougall’s “about” page: “I’m…one of the last three liberal Canadians who loves the U.S.A.”)

Canadian myths do exist and are enduring.

I must rise to the defense of my mediocre country. A few years ago, McLean’s magazine held a contest in which readers were invited to complete the phrase, “As Canadian as…” (as in, “As American as apple pie”). The winner was, “As Canadian as can be expected, under the circumstances.”

Canadians, by and large, take great (though naturally very quiet) pride in our complete unremarkableness. There simply isn’t any Canadian heritage to speak of, and certainly none to glory in. We’re just a bunch of pretty-nice-on-average people, who try not to make a big deal of anything. Please don’t lump us in with those other countries and their grand, smug chauvinisms.


virgil xenophon 11.08.08 at 12:37 am

Dan Simon:

I am good friends here in New Orleans with a husband-wife academic team who are both Canadians and McGill graduates. Once, when greeting them in a local watering hole I jibed: “What the hell good are you Canadians for except to send us a bunch of damn hockey players!”–to which the husband coolly, casually replied: “Come to think of it, I think that’s EXACTLY the BEST reason I can think of to justify our existence!”


virgil xenophon 11.08.08 at 12:50 am

PS to Dan: They were both big hockey fans and this was at a time when the short-lived New Orleans Brass minor-league hockey team was a going concern.


Charlie 11.08.08 at 1:16 am

We Canadians define ourselves by what we are not: We are not jingoistic arrogant war mongers (like Americans), nor are we prissy elitist aesthetes (like the French), nor are we rigid authoritarian workoholics (like the japanese)… I’m sure you get the picture.

The fact that none of these stereotypes is especially accurate is beside the point: Canadians look upon the worst features of other cultures, and then say “at least we don’t ________ , like those idiots in _______”.

And for the most part, we don’t. We muddle along by avoiding the dreadful mistakes that others make all around us, but we hardly ever come up with anything new, revolutionary, or fresh.

Seems to work.


James 11.08.08 at 1:26 am

We can stay out of some trouble that Americans seem constitutionally (heh) incapable of avoiding: the world doesn’t always need saving.
Not sure what this means. There aren’t that many wars Canada stayed out of (Vietnam and Iraq 2003 being the most prominent) and they joined WWII in 1939


Witt 11.08.08 at 1:30 am

The post brings to mind Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s remarks at the Watergate hearings:

Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.”

Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

You have to listen to get the full measure of majesty. (Starts about 30 seconds in.)


Righteous Bubba 11.08.08 at 1:51 am

We Canadians define ourselves by what we are not

Definers of Canadianness?


Dan Simon 11.08.08 at 1:55 am

Q: What is a Canadian?
A: A Canadian is someone who asks, “What is a Canadian?”


Western Dave 11.08.08 at 2:19 am

Come now, Canadians. Why so modest about your jingoism? You were just as good at killing Native Canadians as we in the US were at killing Native Americans. Stand up and be proud! Or ashamed, or whatever it is Canadians are supposed to feel about that kind of stuff.


Kieran 11.08.08 at 2:21 am

Q: What is a Canadian?
A: A Canadian is someone who asks, “What is a Canadian?”

Debate on Irish identity was a lot like this in the 1980s and 1990s.


blah 11.08.08 at 2:43 am

If you picked out the best attributes of the English and the Americans, you would get the Canadians.


Tom Hurka 11.08.08 at 3:09 am

Dan Simon: It wasn’t Macleans’s that ran that contest, it was Peter Gzowski on This Country in the Morning, his first CBC radio show, years before he returned to do Morningside. (And I hate the winning answer.)

Jamie: Right on with Stan Rogers (the rich man’s Stompin’ Tom).

And for Canadian identity, here’s a Canadian joke. The UN decided to commission a series of reports on the elephant, by researchers from different countries. The German researcher submitted Military Uses of the Elephant. The French researcher submitted The Love Life of the Elephant. The American submitted How to Get Rich Using Elephants. And the Canadian submitted The Elephant: A Federal or Provincial Responsibility?


virgil xenophon 11.08.08 at 3:15 am

BTW, I watched a GREAT PBS documentary last night (2007) about the Canadian-run world-wide WWII combat aircraft ferry service staffed mainly by Canadian civilian pilots and Headquartered out of Montreal. Fascinating stuff and very well done.


Seth Finkelstein 11.08.08 at 4:59 am

One could make the point much more concisely (though much less mistily) by saying American reformers have used the rhetoric of elitists and applied it to marginalize groups, in order to frame their proposed reforms as being an implementation of mainstream ideals.

Haven’t English reformers done something similar, e.g. with the Magna Carta?

But I’m overdosed on that sort of quasi-glurge. By now, it’d be refreshing to hear from an honest-to-Marx socialist, given the last week of the campaign.


rm 11.08.08 at 5:37 am

Y’all Canadians may be more pragmatic-with-a-small-p, but the idealism engine you’ve just described produced Pragmatism as the distinctively American philosophy — faith in an ideal as a constantly receding limit towards which our mundane, experiential, experimental arrangements are always tending towards in their fumbling way. I’m gonna bookmark this; it’s right on in describing something fundamental in Am. rhetoric.


rm 11.08.08 at 5:45 am

But, having read most of the comments, I should add that I’ve always loved going to Canada and being in a place where it’s not always “We’re #1!!!” all the time. I’ve always found it odd how we in the U.S. constantly proclaim our pride and specialness and difference when we mostly live our lives completely inside our own vast cultural bubble. It’s not like we live in Luxembourg or something. Just who in the hell has ever challenged your pride in America or tried to make these colors run, Mr. Pickup-Truck-Decal? Why so defensive, then?


Michael Turner 11.08.08 at 6:22 am

To some extent, I agree with what Dan Simon says, but I don’t know about defending to the death the way he says it. Let someone else take that bullet. (Any volunteers? Didn’t think so.)

Where I have to disagree is where he says that other nations just take this free-speech thing pretty much for granted, seeing no need to trouble themselves over points of interpretation of law, while the U.S. Supreme Court is some sort of High Talmudic Council on such issues, interpreting the First Amendment in ways that result in soul-shattering imbecilities. His objection doesn’t seem based on any analysis of court decisions, but rather on how the court appears to be handing down incongruous decisions in response to social changes that Dan either doesn’t like or doesn’t know very much about. Which is, come to think of it, your basic reactionary impulse.

The late William F. Buckley adopted the National Review motto, “Standing athwart history shouting ‘Stop!'” At least he knew what he was about, and could take a joke — indeed, he could even fly the joke on his flag. With Dan Simon, I’m not so sure. The Supreme Court doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and sniping loftily and sarcastically, no matter how conservative it might be. Things change, and they must address the legal issues that arise with those changes. Facing the reality of change might help explain something bemoaned by “movement” conservatives: the tendency of conservative appointees to become more liberal in their official opinions over time.


Lex 11.08.08 at 9:00 am

I’d just like to point out, in a completely non-prejudiced way, that ALL the best bits of both American and Canadian identities come almost wholly from the British tradition.

And so, too, do some of the worst…


engels 11.08.08 at 10:50 am

I’ve always loved going to Canada and being in a place where it’s not always “We’re #1” all the time

Why bother when you can get exactly the same ego boost just by smugly looking down on Americans?


Henry (not the famous one) 11.08.08 at 11:21 am

Returning this discussion to the United States’ founding documents (those Canadians are so goddamn pushy!), Lincoln played on this conflict between promise and practice throughout his political career:

Before the Constitution they prohibited its introduction into the Northwestern Territory, the only country we owned then free from it. At the framing and adoption of the Constitution, they forbore to so much as mention the word “slave” or “slavery” in the whole instrument. In the provision for the recovery of fugitives, the slave is spoken of as a “person held to service or labor.” In that prohibiting the abolition of the African slave trade for twenty years, that trade is spoken of as “the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” etc. These are the only provisions alluding to slavery. Thus the thing is hid away in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or cancer which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death,–with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at a certain time. Less than this our fathers could not do, and more they would not do. Necessity drove them so far, and farther they would not go. But this is not all. The earliest Congress under the Constitution took the same view of slavery. They hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity.

The sordid compromises of the Constitution were recast — through Lincoln’s careful lawyerly reading of the document itself — as a promise to apply the noble principles of the Declaration of Independence to all men. Expect to hear more of Lincoln in Obama’s Inaugural Address, delivered shortly before the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.


Slocum 11.08.08 at 12:14 pm

Comapring Obama’s election to Powell serving as Joint Chiefs/Secreatry of state is somewhat off base.

It’s not just that he served in that position, it’s that there were active efforts to draft him to run for president and polls showing very high levels of support. The report was he didn’t run because his wife wanted no part of it. What would have happened if he’d actually run is unknown, but the consensus was that the nomination, at least, was pretty much his for the asking.


novakant 11.08.08 at 12:43 pm

I have to agree with D. Simon on the basic point that “free speech” is a sacred cow in the US (that’s as far as my agreement goes, though, and I second Michael Turner’s analysis).

In talking to free-speech zealots from the US and I have routinely pointed out that:

a.) Speech in the US is only free in the very abstract sense of being able to say what you want in private. If you want to reach an audience beyond your immediate social circle, there are a multitude of factors that regulate speech, amongst them corporate media ownership and a whole host of written and unwritten rules. So if you are content with a Speaker’s Corner type model of free speech you’re in luck, but a comprehensive and genuine analysis of the reality of free speech in the US (and elsewhere) would have to take such factors into account and the conclusion can only be that the right to free speech is far from absolute.

b.) Not all restrictions on free speech are necessarily bad, e.g. for understandable historical reasons there are severe restrictions on the usage of Nazi insignia and texts in Germany and I happen to think that’s a good thing, because I would find it intolerable if a bunch of neo-nazis were parading through the Brandenburg Gate once a week brandishing swastika banners, if people were publicly peddling the lie that the Holocaust never happened or if “Mein Kampf” was freely available in book stores.


Matt McKeon 11.08.08 at 12:59 pm

As to the myths of the founding fathers: I read recently(I’m sorry I can’t cite it) that the promise of “all men are created equal” or creating “a more perfect Union” are so tremendous that they can’t be realized. They are ideals that are beyond a nation of imperfect people to achieve. That’s the point. That’s what generates the discontent with the status quo that leads to progress.

rm said nearly the same thing.

Western Dave: actually the Canadians have been sorely lacking in the murdering Native Americans(or First Nations)department. There has been killing, prejudice and squalid dealing, true, but on a very small scale. It’s almost like Canadians didn’t really believe in sweeping the savages out of existence.


virgil xenophon 11.08.08 at 1:25 pm

Matt McKeon:

Probably the only reason the European Canadians didn’t feel like “sweeping the savages out of existence” is that unlike in the US, the Canadian native non-Indian populations didn’t occupy much land the Europeans coveted–ice and snow not being in high demand for those seeking the “fruited plains.” BTW, aside from the Inuit/Eskimo populations, exactly how were the native Indian populations near the US border treated historically? Pretty much like their American cousins? Anyone? My memory is hazy to non-existent on this matter.


Matt McKeon 11.08.08 at 1:40 pm

I’m sorry, but I can’t accept excuses like “well, we really didn’t want a lot of that land.” Make a commitment to genocide, don’t make excuses.

One anecdote might illustrate Canadian weakness on this issue. Sitting Bull, the Latoka leader and victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, during a meeting withUS/Canadian white officials, deliberately walked away from the American commissioners and stand with red coated British military officers! Stating he preferred Queen Victoria to any American president. A damning indictment of Canada’s efforts at extermination.


Richard Simons 11.08.08 at 1:46 pm

The American founding myth is a lot more useful than the French one. There, all through school they are taught about the heroic public uprising and the storming of the Bastille, then are surprised that violent student protests seem to be more common than in other countries.

It is good for a country to be founded on noble ideals, but as an outsider, I am not sure how well the notion of free speech is respected in the US. I remember how reviled the Dixie Chicks were when they said that they thought a war against Iraq was not a good idea, and there seems to be an increasing polarization and intolerance on various matters.


sharon 11.08.08 at 1:51 pm

British identity: We Know We’re Shite Now But We Kicked All Your Lame Arses Once. So There.


a. y. mous 11.08.08 at 2:22 pm

The American Myth is singular in that it is the only nation where “melting pot” is by design and not by default. The “zeal of the converted” is at its maximum in America and hence so much jingoism. An artificial nation, in the positive, creative sense, that has sought to uphold its idealistic principles. At least, wants to think so.

As I’ve said earlier here and elsewhere the U.S. of A. is a Frankenstein in danger of becoming one. Obama’s Victor-ious intentions notwithstanding.

Off-topic: Firefox 3 on Windows shows Obadiah as the first option for an underlined and red Obama in the comment box. Truly fantastic, IMO!


Michael Turner 11.08.08 at 3:01 pm

An interesting feature of this past U.S. election was its unusual emphasis on a theological slant given to the Bill of Rights. Mike Huckabee in particular was adamant that these rights were from God. Of course, such views dovetail snugly with the Christian conservative narrative that America and its founders were divinely inspired, through Christianity, or at least that the U.S was founded on biblical principles. In fact, the Constitution speaks only of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness as Creator-endowed rights, and the Bill of Rights was something tacked on a bit later, and with a lot more precision and calculation.

I must say, as an American, raised Catholic but later turning atheist Libertarian (now lapsed from that religion as well), it took me a very long time to question the notion of rights as axiomatic absolutes. When I finally did (in my mid-thirties?), it was a revelation, even kind of a relief. Yes, freedom is good, I still felt; to reject absolute rights is not to reject freedom itself. However, acting freely can and often does conflict with other acting freely, and the ways in which those actions conflict have different negative impacts in different cultures. So it’s only natural that the legalistic expression of maximum practicable liberty at any given point in a culture’s history can end up being quite culture-specific.

The Axiomatic Rights myth dissolved for me, and ever since, I’ve looked at the rights-granting legal codes of various more-or-less free societies as something more akin to approximate solutions of roughly the same set of equations, only with different constants and coefficients in some cases. All of these cultures might be trying to maximize freedom (subject to other constraints, in varying degrees), but they’ll perform those optimizations in their own ways.

Take Japan. You can pass newsracks with magazines hinting at eye-blistering pornography, at eye-level to 4-year-olds in some places, but it’s a rare newspaper that will risk the harassment that comes with criticizing the institution of the Imperial Family. Around election time, trucks with really loud loudspeakers troll the avenues, blaring inanely repetitive entreaties to vote for various politicians of no particular appeal, and somehow this doesn’t break any public nuisance laws, but … nobody ever comes to your door canvassing for votes, or even offering to register you, because that’s illegal. This is a society with a very different take on freedom of expression and political speech, and I’m very hard put, sometimes, to decide whether it’s freer or more authoritarian than America in those respects. The more you understand about why it’s the way it is, however, the more it just seems like they’ve tried (and are still trying) to solve the equations differently.

Interestingly, although the present (U.S.-originated) Japanese Constitution is of relatively recent vintage, it has a kind of myth around it. It’s a very different myth. The majority view here is that the Constitution (lit. “Basic Law”) should not be revised. This rigidity is bewildering to Americans, who hold that one of the virtues of the U.S. Constitution is its flexibility, that it can be amended. Such flexibility is thought worthwhile to Americans, even in the face the risk of enacting something stupid now and then, such as Prohibition. After all, we can always change it back (and in that case, we did.)

Once soon learns that in Japan, this feared “revision” is mostly code for “changing the Constitution so that Japan can have an army.” Again, this is bewildering for Americans. Japan actually has one of the largest defense budgets in the world. I’ve actually argued this point with Japanese people while standing directly under Japanese armed forces recruiting posters! Oh no, they say, that’s different. That’s jietai (“self-defense force”) not guntai (“army”). It’s a semantic sleight-of-hand. The Japanese national myth that they don’t have an army is so pervasive that even foreigners are infected: lots of people outside Japan seemed to think Japan had no armed forces, at least until a deployment to Iraq made it pretty obvious.

After a while, though, you start to see that the Japanese anti-revision stance is just a form of continuing resistance to any further militarization. If anything, this notion of a Japan that has no army is rather like the American idea that we have perfect, total freedom of speech. The Japanese have a necessarily different national Constitutional myth — theirs emerged from the ashes of a decidedly ruinous defeat, where the American one rose from the ashes of an almost-ruinous rebellion. The similarities are nevertheless striking. The rejection of an old order is always a convulsive affair, and we sometimes forget how much dejection and shame and rootlessness and uncertainty that rejection can cause even in victory. There is something to be said for getting an entire people saying, “This piece of paper is what we’re about, now. Not those old rulers and their impositions, but how this set of rules might be interpreted impartially, for everybody.” The post-WW II Japanese and the post-Independence Americans had to confront (or work around) a great deal of post-conflict identity confusion, and to great extent, in their very different ways, they held up a piece of paper as much to obscure the past as to provide a (permanently elusive) target for the future.


Tom West 11.08.08 at 4:53 pm

“Canadians are not against life or liberty or happiness, in moderation. But we don’t hear the music, by and large.”

I think homosexuals who can legally marry anywhere in Canada would disagree with you.

Actually, the whole thing was quintessentially Canadian. No politician wanted to rock the boat by passing a law allowing homosexual marriage because that would make some people upset. Then the courts, who don’t have to face anyone’s wrath made it legal. Now, no politician wants to rock the boat by passing a law un-allowing homosexual marriage because it would make some people upset. More or less the same thing with our position on abortion (or more accurately, the lack of a position).

We might often get to the right place, but mostly by sort of muddling around. Certainly no heroics in the public sphere…

And yes, the Canadian identity has often been centered around a smug, unspoken feeling of superiority to our southern neighbours. Sadly, the unspoken part seems to be disappearing, which, oddly enough, strongly diminishes the feeling of superiority altogether. Something about “if you have to announce your superiority…”


strasmangelo jones 11.08.08 at 5:24 pm

Jesus Christ. Nothing makes me more sick to the stomach than watching American liberals get all huffy and defensive when someone brings up the essential hollowness of American nationalism. America is a thuggish, imperial bully, like every empire before it, and like every empire before it it thinks it shits gold. This is a country built on slavery, genocide, apartheid and class warfare, where a quarter of the African-American population is living in poverty and one in nine young black men are in prison, and after two hundred and thirty years of this crap one incredibly fortunate, incredibly well-funded black guy – who, let’s not forget, campaigned on a very conservative platform while going out of his way to distance himself from anything that looked like a genuine agenda for social justice, because America wasn’t ready for a black president who was that black – Americans are now falling over themselves and weeping over the glory of the Constitution and the Ideals Of Our Founding Fathers because “only in America!” This is not a cause for celebration and back-slapping, people. This is a cause for shame. It took two and a half centuries for this shitty little country to get far enough to make a wealthy, center-right biracial man president, while the rest of the African-American population still wastes away in ghettos and prisons. Only in America, indeed.


roy belmont 11.08.08 at 6:21 pm

Greg Craig is Obama’s “advisor” on Bolivia, he’s a neo-liberal stooge and information thug.
Obama’s been calling out the Cuban regime pretty stridently lately. Which puts an odd disconnect onto the tacit linkage of his image with the ubiquitous Che’s. Or maybe his picture’s supposed to replace Che’s?
Obama’s called or emphatically implied that Hugo Chavez is some kind of enemy of decent hardworking nice people.
Meet the new boss.
Abiding in Bolivia, on Craig Obama Bolivia:
“Obama is awesome, smart, unifying, and “transhistorical”- MLK´s dream fulfilled. Except Bolivians, like Americans, also elected in 2005 their first President from a group historically enslaved, racially segregation, and widely discriminated against. So Bolivia has been living a “postracial” politics ever since, right?
I am sorry to say this folks, but if Bolivia and Morales are any gauge, what we saw during the McCain-Palin rallies ain’t nothing compared to what is down the road in an Obama Presidency. Dig in, because now is the time …”


Randolph 11.08.08 at 8:22 pm

“If we went back in time and asked the architects of the republic–Jefferson and Madison and Washington and the rest–did you mean for this to apply to your slaves too, would they agree?” If you asked those three, probably yes. Madison was a Northerner. Washington freed his slaves in his will. Jefferson likely would have, but died bankrupt (oh, the humanity!)

“Because it would have saved a lot of trouble if they’d spelled all this out in 1789.” Sure, only they’d never have made a political union–they were the authors, not the only signatories of the documents, after all–if they had, and the former Colonies badly needed one. The USA has founding ideals, and political compromises needed to govern. Why is this so difficult to understand?


Lee A. Arnold 11.08.08 at 10:09 pm

The USA is sort of like the political version of the process of the early Enlightenment: the outer contours of the goal are stated, and a (hopefully) enduring framework for getting there, but nobody knows what it will end-up looking like. This I think was Jefferson’s understanding, too. It’s a sort of scientific attitude, in which the analytics are given, but the final synthesis remains to be seen. It is completely fascinating, and in its best moments it really does hold up a light of hope for less fortunate people in the world.

Inside this, it is helpful to understand that political rhetoric in the United States, (whether liberal or conservative,) often positions itself in relation to a lamentation from the Old Testament prophets and appearing in old Puritan sermons. It has been called the “secular American jeremiad” and has been studied since the 1950’s. David Howard-Pitney summarized its three-part structure:

1. THE PROMISE, which stresses America’s special destiny as the promised land — literally, its covenant with God;

2. THE DECLENSION, which cites America’s failure to live up to its obligations as the chosen people, its neglect of its mission, its failure to progress sufficiently — its national sin of retrogression from the promise; and

3. THE PROPHECY, which predicts that if Americans will repent and reform, the promise can still be fulfilled.

(From the book, Ronald Reagan, The Great Communicator by Kurt Ritter and David Henry, Greenwood Press, Great American Orators Series.)

Readers will recognize the structure from examples throughout the history of American rhetoric. What may not be so evident is that Reagan used it very carefully too, marrying the jeremiad to an apocalyptic fear of communism and shifting the blame for America’s failures from the people to their leaders.


John Quiggin 11.08.08 at 10:58 pm

Before we get too carried away about free speech absolutism, it’s worth remembering that you can sacked from your job or evicted from your rented house for exercising your right to free speech in the wrong way. There are a variety of protections, but they are limited and our libertarian friends advocate removing them.


J Thomas 11.08.08 at 11:42 pm

The point of free speech is that the government won’t persecute you for saying whatever you want, provided it’s true and it isn’t classified information — something they decided ahead of time you shouldn’t say.

Also you shouldn’t say true things that might incite riots or otherwise get people too upset.

This is a big improvement over governments that are likely to jail you if you say true things that they don’t want said.


virgil xenophon 11.09.08 at 4:31 am

Ever since the advent of the great Augustus Compte and the concept of logical positivism the intellectual “elite” in America have persisted in vehemently denying the existence of a “Natural Law,” of God given/derived rights. Funny thing, tho, this concept which they obdurately deny the validity of, and so agitate against, is the very FIRST thing these very same people seize upon outside the borders of the US when seeking to protect the downtrodden from the sweet ministrations of tyrants and despots.

Of course, they don’t exactly call it that, wrapping it up in euphemisms such as “Human rights,” and the like, claiming that these rights adhere from the very “essence” of “humankind” (must remain PC here, although tough to get “man” out of the equation altogether, isn’t it?) But the thorny philosophical question persists; from whence are such “rights” derived? Who or what bestows such “rights?”Aliens from other planets or other dimensions? Or is “Gaia” truly a living entity out of which homo sapiens spring forth like Athena from the skull of Zeus, fully armored to defend their existential “essence” complete with unconqerable soul? For if men’s “rights”emanate only insofar as acts of other men will allow in the collective, then any sort of depredations may be foisted upon unwilling masses as long as administered via other men–who are seen as a legitimate source of authority in their own right as much any other–indeed the ONLY source according to logical positivism–and hence efforts to source legitimacy eventually devolve into the “might makes right” source of legitimacy via the bigger battalions theory. So there is no little savage irony in watching those who sneer at the very concept of natural law in the halls of academe quickly seize upon it (albeit in disguised form) as their ultimate line of defense immediately they leave America’s borders in their attempts to provide the downtrodden masses of the world the armor of unassailable minimal “rights” as a (moral?) shield against those who would enslave them by citing this “essential quality” of “humaneness” as something that others have no moral claim against.


Michael Turner 11.09.08 at 6:02 am

Virgil, although I appreciate your participation in class, and still believe you have the potential to do well in Rhetoric 101, I’m afraid I can’t give you more than a B- on your most recent essay. Read the assignment — Lee Arnold makes it quite clear what a “secular American jeremiad” is. Your submission lacks the critical final section: The Prophecy. Also, those scare quotes …. we’ve talked about that before. What happened? Honestly, I’m giving you a B- mainly because I really don’t want to give you a C, even though you didn’t even turn in a finished essay in the required form. Did you leave out a page? For now, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you can make up for this as the course goes on.

P.S. I got a call from your chemistry professor, asking if I had seen any indications in your essays (or in other behavior) of some undue preoccupation with explosives. I told him I don’t give out details about students, even to other professors, and to take it up with the dean.


virgil xenophon 11.09.08 at 6:28 am

Gee, Michael, and here I thought I was responding to your esoteric BS@#49. How did those “culture specific” freedoms go in Hitler’s Germany for the Jews? Could you sort of review for us? Same for Stalin’s SU. Weren’t all the “culturally specific” freedoms those in the Gulag had to roam around to enjoy wonderful? Thanks for reminding me, I’d forgotten those culturally determined greater joys–there are even some people still alive to give witness. Perhaps you should talk to some of them just to REALLY firm up the validity of your views…….”myths” about the desirability of the existence of axiomatic rights being in the forefront of their memories I’m sure….


Michael Turner 11.09.08 at 8:09 am

Before I say anything about vx’s latest VX attack, I’d like to thank roy belmont and strasmangelo jones for joining the discussion, and for their input. When I hear conservatives talk about how Obama is “ultra left”, “hard left”, etc. I always want stuff like theirs to point to, so that I can say, “If Obama is ‘ultra left’, what do you call these people, who are stridently denouncing him as as a right-winger?! And we haven’t even gotten to Spartacist Youth League yet! I’m glad they don’t let conservatives run the zoo. There’d be, like, a squirrel and a dog, and maybe a couple of mice.”

Now, all I need to do is send them a link to this thread. I’m so grateful.

Special thanks go to roy belmont, for bringing up Obama advisor Greg Craig and his role in defending former Bolivian president Sánchez de Lozada against extradition. While I’m sure that Sánchez de Lozada is your basic corrupt fuck out of South America politics, I did some background reading about the era that featured the El Alto Gas War and that supposed “genocide”. Well, howdy doody, waddya know. Peasant unions springing a leader from jail, where he was serving time for … carrying out a death sentence that was handed down by his community for the heinous, monstrous crime of … uh, cattle rustling. Nice. Mineworkers who arrive in the capital city armed with slings and stones, ready to rumble, and who set off dynamite to “announce their presence” (according to New Left Review)? Or perhaps, if Wikipedia is to be believed, because this is only what aroused Bolivian mineworkers “traditionally” do when faced with a line of cops? (Gee, I guess Mahatma Ghandi never bothered to drop by.) A huge national uprising where the angered masses from all quarters could agree on one thing, at least: no way should gas shipments from Bolivia reach Atlantic ports through territory taken from us long ago by the Chileans! Those stinking Chileans! Far worse than the neoliberals!

Greg Craig held that de Lozada is not guilty of “genocide” or “crimes against humanity” because some troops he assigned to reprovision La Paz with gas started shooting into crowds. These were, I suppose, rational, peaceful crowds of nice people merely exercising their rights of peaceable assembly and free speech? I see. And those convoy troops just blundered into an isolated pocket of relatively civilized behavior in a sea of havoc, and at that moment, got the order from de Lozada to shoot anything that moved? Uh … yeah. Right. Let’s hand him over. Obviously, justice will be done.

OK, now: VX, let’s get our own Gas War on. You go all Godwin’s Law on me, but somehow you missed the “more-or-less free society” qualification in my musings on the respective national myths of the Constitution in the U.S. and in Japan. I would never call Stalin’s USSR nor Hitler’s Germany “more-or-less free.” I don’t know why you think I would.

Let me expand on an example I mentioned only briefly: that it’s illegal to canvas for candidates door-to-door in Japan. To an American, this might seem an egregious free speech violation. First let me note something — even now, in much of Japanese housing, a delivery truck driver can simply fling open your front door and announce himself. The Japanese have a foyer feature call the genkan, and it’s traditionally understood that this is quasi-public space. That’s right: random strangers can walk right into your house. Why don’t they stop? Because going much further is trespassing. (Not to mention rude.) The Japanese have enjoyed a “freedom-from” certain kinds of violent crime for so long they don’t even question it. (But how was this “freedom from” gained? Nothing is really free. If I digress further on this, it’ll go for pages; let me leave the puzzle here.)

Now, when Japan started having free elections and democracy and all that, there was canvassing door to door. Doors were being flung open. Voters were offered bribes. Behind the carrot was often enough a stick: if your district didn’t vote the “right” way, you could all forget getting in line when it came time to distribute the pork. Sometimes it got nastier than this, but the carrots and sticks were often enough. THough it helped to hire canvassers who were a little bigger and beefier than most Japanese. The Japanese voter, easily intimidated by elites, very group-oriented, inured to repression by elites from living for centuries under feudalism, took the attitude of “new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss” and mostly caved into the pressure. The ultimate judicial response was, I hate to admit it, pretty wise: although something is lost in outlawing door-to-door canvassing, at least it’s not tilting at the windmill of trying to legislate radical cultural change. Especially if it meant that citizens everywhere would have to start locking their front doors, as if Japan were some kind of crime-ridden society.

Does this give you an idea of what I mean? If not, well, maybe chemistry is more your thing. Simpler equations, more easily solved, and think of the amusing pyrotechnic possibilities!


virgil xenophon 11.09.08 at 10:10 am

Michael Turner@#60

I could quibble and say that Hitler’s Germany was “more or less” free by anyone’s standards in the early years of his reign; and that Stalin’s Soviet Union was certainly
considered “more or less” (and for many the operative word was MORE) free by a great number of those “on the left” for many, many years. In fact, many on the left in America considered the Soviet Union a far freer place than America even long after Stalin’s show trials. But to move the discussion along I’ll let that argument slide.

That each nation exhibits different and varying approaches to ordering society which reflects their history and sociocultural make-up goes without saying. But that being readily acknowledged, the recent “Human Rights Commission” imbroligo in Canada
in which logic and facts were stood on their head in a bureaucratic perversion of the concepts of free speech and liberty that would have done Orwell and Kafka proud should serve fair notice that when what are in today’s world considered “consensus,” “basic” human rights are seen to be less than absolute, there is no ultimate defense
against those who would pervert the meaning of these rights/freedoms except at great personal expense if one is lucky to have deep enough pockets to resist the power of the state. As the English actor and murder suspect Robert Blake stated, he was “innocent until proven broke.” Of course maintaining one’s freedoms under any social construct is always expensive–whether it be in time and effort, publishing costs, psychic energy, or attorneys fees– but when basic concepts are sufficiently malleable subject to bureaucratic whim and/or public opinion and support, one is ipso facto on a slipperly slope that can often lead to the sort of controlled, self-censored, cowed society that Orwell so presciently warned us about. And logical positivism not only is no ultimate bar to such a society, it opens the door wide to just such a possibility.


Michael Turner 11.09.08 at 10:51 am

More VX gas: “I could quibble and say that Hitler’s Germany was “more or less” free by anyone’s standards in the early years of his reign ….”

You could quibble that way. In fact you just did. Funny how that works.

Let me “quibble” back: to the extent that Germany was “more or less” free, Germany wasn’t yet Hitler’s. If I may also “quibble”: exacting war reparations against a population that was hardly culpable en masse for the acts of its leadership in WW I isn’t a native cultural condition, it’s an external condition in the realm of international political economy. To a great extent so was the Great Depression, which if anything afflicted Germany far more seriously because it hadn’t been allowed to partake in full measure of the preceding boom, and also to the extent that one of the reactions to the Crash was protectionist: reducing trade with Germany by raising trade barriers against it.

In ordinary rational conversation, what I’ve said about how freedom evolves in societies already featuring the necessary conditions for evolution would naturally and easily be understood by sane, balanced readers as a comment on societies where the necessary conditions are maintained long enough for that evolution to progress.

But this has been a conversation with VX Gas. So I guess not.


Slocum 11.09.08 at 12:38 pm

Before we get too carried away about free speech absolutism, it’s worth remembering that you can sacked from your job or evicted from your rented house for exercising your right to free speech in the wrong way.

Yes, if you exercise your free speech rights in the wrong way, you might get fired. Also, your girlfriend might leave you, and your friends might decide they’d rather start hanging out with somebody else on Saturday nights. It’s really shocking how little absolute legal protection we have for saying whatever the fuck we want whenever we fucking feel like it. As it happens, South Park highlighted this particular injustice recently:


J Thomas 11.09.08 at 1:20 pm

Virgil, the rights that people want to talk about are all easily violated. That’s the point, right?

I mean, everybody on the face of the planet has an absolute right to an acceleration of 32 feet/sec/sec, and we don’t talk about it much because it’s so dependable.

But the right to not be raped, the right to not be violently killed, the right to not have your property taken from you without your permission — these are violated every day in every large nation in the world.

And so we get agreements that people who violate particular rights are bad, and should be punished for it, and that governments should not do those crimes either. And we try to specify who should lose those rights. In general, people lose many of their rights when they are convicted of crimes, or often when they are accused of crimes.

So for example, in the USA we agree that people have an absolute right not to be raped. So we severely punish individuals who are convicted of rape. However, it’s generally agreed that if you go to prison you will very likely be raped and there is no effort to make that less likely. In some women’s prisons the rate of pregnancy is 15%/year, almost as high as women enlisted in the army, and it isn’t plausible that all of that is uncoerced. And lots of americans smirk at the prospect of males getting raped in prison. They think it’s what criminals deserve.

And to a lesser degree, any male american who’s accused of certain crimes can be required to provide a sperm sample. If he refuses he can be forcibly restrained and then the sperm sample will be taken from him via internal prostate massage. If you did that to someone it would be considered rape, but this is a mere medical procedure that he has imposed on himself by refusing to cooperate with the law. A US president has been given this choice in recent memory.

We have an agreement that no one should be killed unless he deserves it. Many americans keep handguns in their homes mainly to kill people who deserve it. And of course there’s the no-knock visitations. The right not to be killed unless you really deserve it is obviously going to be violated occasionally.

We punish people who steal your property, when the police catch them and the courts convict them. And we have a tradition that the government is not allowed to take your property without paying you what the government decides it’s worth. Unless you’re a criminal. If the government finds illegal drugs in your house, or your car, they can confiscate not only the drugs but the house or the car. And also they can take whatever money you have on the premises. (I met a prosecutor who was involved in an early case of that sort. They were doing a drug bust, and they expected to catch a man with a whole lot of illicit drugs. Instead they found him with $300,000 cash. Oops! So they searched his BMW and found a used marijuana roach. That meant they could keep the cash and the car. Justice was served.)

In reality, rights are granted by human societies. And these are relative rights that can be withdrawn by those societies at any time. They can be withdrawn by individuals, but if you refuse someone their rights and the society finds out you may be punished. In general, only noncriminals have rights, but our society allows criminals some rights or privileges also.

Believing in absolute God-given rights may be some solace. It can tell you that your absolute rights are being violated regardless what the society says. There’s a certain satisfaction in believing that you’re right and society is wrong. that plus a condom and a persuasive tongue can keep you from getting AIDS if you happen to get raped.


banned commenter 11.09.08 at 3:43 pm

” To contemplate the possibility that words like “all men are created equal” might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.”

I don’t know what’s more pathetic and absurd: the belabored effort to make an obvious and simple point about textual interpretation, whether of fictions or laws or religious documents, which are both, or that the second text invoked is Star Wars. Only a “geek historian” could be capable of such bizarre ignorance that his discovery of the obvious could render him so bubbly.
It’s called the intentional fallacy. Who the fuck knows what the authors of the Bible intended, but they certainly are not in agreement with each other. Can any of us even name all of conflicting, even warring!, sects that have come out of it? Still: “all men are created equal” would seem to an outsider to say what it means on its face. That “men” would only in time be seen as meaning “people” is just one example of slow change.

But change is inevitable. The only question is how to note it. “Cruel and unusual punishment” is pretty vague too. Why not: “No drawing and quartering, but tarring and feathering is cool”? Why not: “One hand for thieving and one foot for adultery”? Perhaps the authors understood something you don’t.
The Constitution is a revolutionary text, and its laced with ambiguities. Did you know that in Canada the Living Tree Doctrine states that Originalism is not a valid argument in Constitutional interpretation? Imagine how boring out country would be if the opposite poles of our legal discourse were suddenly shoved that much closer to one another? The moment Scalia opens his mouth to sing Zero Mostel shouts: “Th…ank you… Next !!!

The exceptional aspect of the American imagination is not its morality but its dynamism. We began as a nation of adventurers and religious fundamentalists, and you can’t get more contradictory than that. But somehow we managed to stay that way, while Canada grew into something approaching the banality of Sweden. How odd. And what happened to Australia? As barbaric as we are but not so well situated or suited for global hegemony.

Geeks have no respect for the inevitability of change in the meanings of words and things. They just like things. But we we don’t define the past or things, by interpreting them, we define ourselves. The past is a cypher. Objects are banal. But like reactionary catholics who pretend they live in a timeless past, geeks live in an imaginary present: the Platonism of facts. But after school they get stoned and babble, to let off steam. Maybe they play a little D&D. They leave it to others to place both them like their fundamentalist brethren in the historical context they imagine themselves free of: the culture of eternal preadolescence in the last quarter of the 20th century of Anglo American life.


Lex 11.09.08 at 4:43 pm

Wow, this thread is f-ed up.


a 11.09.08 at 6:03 pm

Here’s a data point. My paternal grandfather left Quebec 100 years ago because he was an atheist and, being one, he couldn’t get work in a province dominated by the Catholic Church. As least that’s what I was told. Where did he go? The U.S. of course.


Watson Aname 11.09.08 at 8:17 pm

On the other hand, a, your children could conceivably make the move in the other direction, for roughly similar reasons. I know couples who have moved to Canada over discrimination, and for being tired of church interference. We can reasonably hope the argument won’t be even stronger for your grandchildrens generation, or theirs.


a 11.09.08 at 9:30 pm

Watson – my children don’t need to, I already have. I emigrated from Reagan America more than 25 years ago.


virgil xenophon 11.09.08 at 9:49 pm

J Thomas

I don’t disagree with a single word you have written excepting for your concluding para. You see, I am an agnostic at best, so I am hardly one to “seek solace in absolutes.” I was rather attempting to make two points: (1) The logical inconsistency shown by those who deride the very concept of Natural Law in the abstract, yet seize upon it at their first opportunity as their main weapon to shield otherwise defenseless humans from the predations of their fellow men by appealing to the court of public opinion to remove/undermine the legitimacy of the actions of the oppressors, and, (2) once man, and man alone, is seen as “the measure of all things”–“all things” are indeed not only seen as possible, but, in addition permissible as well. And while many cruel things have historically been done in the name of religion, it seems to me that until we become Gods ourselves and enact the rise and fall and rise again drama all within our own psyche we will have no other ultimate restraint on our actions save that thought to be inherent in our very natures as guided by a superior being. “If God did not exist he would have to be invented” pretty much sums up the view that man alone is an uncertain reed upon which to lean to determine the survival of homo sapiens on this planet. Strangely, paradoxically, this puts both the “Greens” and the Marxists on the side of those believing in God, i.e., that something other than immediate gratification and personal individual benefit should be derived from man’s efforts to govern himself–the Greens in their belief that mankind should sacrifice it’s standard of living for the good of “Mother Earth”–and the Marxists who believe the individual should give up his individual rights for the good of the commune. So you see, it turns out that Marxists and Greenies are nothing so much as good Catholics after all–so what’s the beef with religion?–at least with the Catholic version of it. Isn’t the gripe the Latino community has about the inroads the evangelical’s are making on Latin Catholics and the Church the fact that Protestantism encourages individuals to keep the profits of their own labor to make themselves rich, instead of tithing to the Church to make the Church rich? It seems to me that those “on the left” are only arguing for the replacement of religion by the unrestrained collective of men unfettered by anything other than their own conscious. And when men have nothing but their own conscious to fall back upon they often fall into the abyss. Far better, it seems to me, to have a world and society governed by those who feel constrained in their actions somewhat by their own insights about belief in “self evident” higher powers rather than a society organized along the lines of the historical collectivist approach uninhibited by such appeals to self evident rights–whether by dint of the Catholic religion or scientific dialectics–both approaches using the “transmission belts” of received authority to bring order to the masses.


parsimon 11.09.08 at 10:42 pm

virgil, I’ve patiently followed this thread, and with some interest, but I must say: could you break up your paragraphs? Please? Realize that on the internets, visual spacing is even more important than it is for text on the printed page; few will persevere through neverending text. Just saying.


MQ 11.09.08 at 10:48 pm

Following up on 40, Lincoln is the key intellectual figure in this tradition (astounded he hasn’t been mentioned more often here). Faced with a Constitution silent on the question of the expansion of slavery (and clearly tolerant of its existence in the South), he filled in the lacunae by claiming a promissory note in the Declaration of Independence that he then used to interpret the Constitution as a temporary short-term compromise pending the expansion of the United States into the free territories of the West, where the Federal government would prohibit slavery and then the institution would die away. He might well have been right too, as I recall he had various other supporting bits of evidence. Anyway, he was quite lawyerly about this — he really claimed the promises in the Declaration as principles you could use for constitutional interpretation, and had a very worked-out way of doing it.


mijnheer 11.09.08 at 11:04 pm

This essay by Geoff Rector, “Flags, Fags, and Big Ideas”, casts a good light on the difference between the U.S. and Canada.

Rector says, “As different observers since Alexis de Toqueville have remarked, the U.S. is organized by a set of ideological tenets: liberty, equality, individualism, laissez faire, and so on. G. K. Chesterton wrote in What I Saw in America, for example, that ‘America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.’ Chesterton and many others have suggested this national creed shades over into the realm of the religious: The creed is not only a matter of civic practice, but it is venerated, pursued with missionary zeal, and offers solace from fear.
“Like most religions, the cult of the American nation, forged in the experiences of dissenting Protestant settlers and in the context of a War of Independence, carries with it a fear that borders on paranoia: a fear of foreign attack, a fear of enemies foreign and domestic. And like every religion, it can appear from the outside as irrational belief. …
“Canada is a scattered collection of regions formed by an act of political compromise, the Confederation of 1867. The country was founded on pragmatic negotiation: There was no national project, no national creed, and this continues to be expressed as a general suspicion of grand projects and romantic designs. This mistrust of idealistic motivations, of course, was a factor in the Canadian decision not to join the war against Iraq. …
“And while it has some nationalist sentiment, the Canadian flag is a purely secular symbol. The flag does not embody a coherent set of political or ideological tenets and it cannot offer solace. It may be associated with things that characterize this political federation, such as socialized health care, or its people, but there are simply no sacral qualities to the Canadian flag. It is part of a coherent public culture in which we also assign no sacral qualities to the government, to the Constitution, or even the nation. These are all pragmatically negotiated and fully secular institutions. ”

I lived in Amsterdam for several years and it seems to me that the Dutch are even more pragmatic. Does it work? Will it promote general health and welfare? If so, let’s do it. The Dutch, one might say, are Canadians on steroids.

Canadians, as has been noted, are a modest people — and damned proud of it! Just before the final presentations to the Olympic Committee that would decide which city was awarded the 2010 games, a Vancouver representative, interviewed on radio, said something like, “Our presentation is going to blow the other presentations away — but in a nice way.”

In the endless struggle of Canada to survive and assert itself in the face of U.S. manifest destiny, Stan Rogers’ song “Barrett’s Privateers” says a lot: it’s about the encounter on the high seas of a privateer from Nova Scotia with a U.S. gold ship in 1778, and the chorus, which begins with “God damn them all!” (not just the Yanks) from the survivor of this futile attempt to beat the Americans, is always sung at parties not with lamentation but with great gusto. To me, the way it’s sung (good cheer and defiance in the face of impossible odds) makes it the ultimate Canadian anthem. Or take the Canadian movie “Last Night”, with its much quieter, humorous and typically weird take on the end of the world (which cannot be averted), and compare it with any American heroic (almost) end-of-the-world movie.


J Thomas 11.09.08 at 11:16 pm

Virgil, I’ve noticed that some people care about not being evil and some other people only care about not being punished for it.

The ones who care about not being evil will likely care the same whether it’s God or society or their mamas who tell them what evil is. The ones who just don’t want to be caught likewise will not care about the source of the rules, what they’ll care about is how to avoid getting caught.

What I’ve found surprising is the people who have maintained the doctrine that says anything you do for yourself is good for the world unless you get caught. That somehow the market will make sure that anything you make a profit on will benefit humanity. A peculiar god they believe in, but I can see how they’d want to believe.


virgil xenophon 11.10.08 at 2:18 am


You are well named and your criticism/suggestion is indeed a valid one as I tend to get into stream-of-consciousness jags. I’ll try to be more parsimonious in the future.


Stark 11.10.08 at 6:51 am

My friends and I had a running joke that if Obama lost we’d all emigrate to somewhere in Canada; we’d spend drunken nights debating the pros and pros and cons for all of the major cities before eventually deciding on Montreal (Vancouver is too far and Toronto has a baseball team).

I was very happy with the Presidential election outcome because it was a sign to me that this country is not dense enough to put Sarah Palin one McCain heart-attack away from the White House. I was pleasantly surprised to see proposals pass in my home state of Michigan allowing the use of medical marijuana and the legalization of stem cell research.

And then I also saw that Proposal Eight had passed.

I hadn’t thought Obama’s election would actually make me feel worse about this country than had he lost. I’m not gay, and don’t have any family or close friends who are really affected by proposal eight, but the hypocrisy of it all has never left me as ashamed of this country as I’ve been the last few weeks. While the country sits around and pats itself on the back for painting the White House black, at least 11,000 same-sex couples in California just had their marriages declared invalid by their fellow Americans.


Stark 11.10.08 at 6:53 am

Correction: ‘the last few days’, sorry.


Chike 11.10.08 at 8:12 am

Truly amazing that, in #65, someone manages to diss the Living Tree doctrine, then go on to say in the next paragraph that America is exceptional for its dynamism.


ajay 11.10.08 at 10:23 am

to what extent does the US tradition McDougal is talking about derive from the English 17th and 18th century proto-Whig and Whig tradition of claiming that the rights and powers they were fighting for (and even hanging or chasing off the King for) for were just a fulfillment of the Magna Carta or stuff the Anglo-Saxons did?

Summersett’s Case, for example, decided that not only should slavery not be legal, but that it never had been legal.


Lex 11.10.08 at 11:45 am

Not legal IN ENGLAND. Every transatlantic colony had a body of duly-passed and royally-sanctioned statute-law defining and regulating the practice of slavery. As I said before, all the best and the worst bits come from the same tradition.


banned commenter 11.11.08 at 9:46 pm

From the introductory sentences to this post, referring to:
“a characteristic American tendency to see radical social change as the inevitable expression of values expressed and promises made at the country’s inception”

Divide that in two:
1- Radicalism and revolution.
2- The expression of values over time.
Those thoughts are distinct. There is no necessary relation of one to the other, and the difference between Canada and the US is in the former, not the latter; the latter being the standard model of interpretation as such. The debate over interpretation in the United States is one of dynamic extremes, the debate in Canada is not. The process itself is more or less identical.
There will never be one Constitution as there will never be one Bible, even one King James Version, as there will never be one history of the Revolutionary War or biography of Winston Churchill. There will never be one Shakespeare or Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In language and communication oneness is banality; words are not numbers.

This post and the one it links to in the context of academic discussion, is so supremely anti-intellectual as to be bizarre.

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