ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy Birthday, America!

Here's a great article in The Scotsman:

Revolutionary principles stand the test of time
Alex Massie

IT'S NOT easy being an Atlanticist these days. Turn on the BBC or read almost any newspaper and it seems all but certain that you will find some pundit quietly, if rarely openly, rejoicing in George Bush's difficulties in Iraq.

Many of the thousands of protestors gathering in Edinburgh this week will not be so coy. You know the script: Bush This is curious as only the US president and Tony Blair among western leaders appear still to believe in the existence of Kipling's "white man's burden". That politically incorrect term is nonetheless an apt description of US-UK policy and a recognition that wealth and power imposes certain demands and responsibilities upon the world's most successful nations.

The mission cannot be accused of selling itself short. It is, as the 2002 US National Security Strategy put it, "to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world". Heady stuff, indeed. Will it work? It's impossible to say. But you either believe in these values or you don't. And if you do, it seems incumbent upon you to do what you can to promote them. To do otherwise is to deny the less fortunate citizens of the world the luxuries of freedom we take for granted.

As Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has put it, we are engaged in a great struggle in which "both our security and our moral conscience tell us that this [the Middle East] is a part of the world that can no longer be isolated from the prosperity and human dignity that freedom brings".

In Paris this year, she said: "This is not an issue of military power. This is an issue of the power of ideas."

Those ideas are what made the American revolution. The idea that all men - and now women too - are conceived in liberty and granted certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Revolutionary stuff in 1776 - and still, alas, far from self-evident in the dark corners of the world today.

Two centuries later these ideas have not lost their power, or their appeal, which helps to explain why young men from Tulsa or Omaha are giving what Abraham Lincoln called "the full measure of devotion" in far-off Mesopotamia.

Michael Ignatieff noted in the New York Times recently that Thomas Jefferson's final letter, written just before the Republic's 50th birthday celebrations in 1826, expressed the desire that the great American experiment would spread across the world, "to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all".

Mr Jefferson died before Queen Victoria was crowned and in some respects America is the world's last great Victorian nation. This goes beyond the American belief in a supreme deity benevolently watching over the United States.

Unlike every other western country, the US retains a purpose greater than maintaining the comfort of its present circumstances. Highfalutin words such as liberty and progress have not been stripped of their meaning and - at its best - modern America still looks to the future with confidence, not trepidation, confident in its ability to stare destiny in the eye and not shirk from the challenges ahead.

This confidence can be disconcerting when first encountered but - as any honest survey of public opinion in eastern Europe or the world's remaining dictatorships will demonstrate - it is also inspiring.

But if modern America retains many of the confident virtues of the 19th century, so too does it exhibit some of Victorian Britain's vices. The greatest of these is hypocrisy and a weakness for humbug; there are dangers in proclaiming one's own virtue.

The promise of the American Revolution was not fulfilled until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s - yet that failure scarcely prevented a succession of American presidents lecturing the world's other countries on their shortcomings.

Thus the damage done today by Abu Ghraib is not measured by the pain felt by maltreated prisoners but by the gulf between those too-familiar pictures and the promise of America. Once again the charge of hypocrisy - familiar from Chile to America's support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s - can be heard.

The Bush administration has declared an end to the hypocrisy of preaching the virtues of democracy while pandering in fact to tyrants who promise an elusive stability.

But if the administration's rhetoric has changed in a fast-moving, internet world where access to information is freer than it has been in human history, its actions - from Saudi Arabia to Uzbekistan - have struggled to keep up. Realpolitik keeps trying to muscle rhetoric aside.

But it is also important to say, this 4 July , that one need not have ever visited the US to feel in tune with what it means to be an American. It is an empire of the mind (and the imagination) as much as it is a military and economic superpower. The principles of the American Revolution remain sound. The World Trade Centre no longer stands, but the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights does.

No other country has embedded the "pursuit of happiness" - the great goal of mankind - in the foundations of the state; nowhere else is the idea of liberty so revered. There is such a thing as an American sensibility and it can be felt from the Baltic to the Pacific.

Could the United States be doing better? Wrong question. If not America, then who? No-one, that's who. At its best, America and American ideals remain, in Lincoln's famous words, "the last, best hope of mankind". The United States still believes in a place called hope. As it celebrates its 229th birthday today, we should too.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler