The Constitution As An Unprincipled Document

Introduction - American Idealism and Xenophobia

I could begin with an apology for another blog dedicated to topics of American history and idealism, except that no apology is necessary. We have reached a stage in national and cultural development in which an incredible diversity of opinion about the nature and meaning of the American experiment. These are inevitably colored by the politics of the moment, the need for an agenda or even a crusade. There is also the unfortunate need for a villain that is an essential theme of the romantic politics that dominates the American tradition, with the result that every campaign tends to become a crusade. There is no such thing as a problem without a Bad Guy.

My object here is a little different. The premise of this blog is that xenophobia, the fear or distrust of strangers, and its sub-categories racism, tribalism, and all the rest, is an basic element of human nature. It isn't unnatural. It isn't a moral failing. You don't have to be carefully taught (in the words of the Hammerstein lyric) - quite the contrary, it's the default human response to any encounter with a stranger.  Back in the  day, my bet is that along the long, dark evolutionary road that ultimately produced blog writers, this tendency to identify with groups (family becoming tribe becoming nation) was a valuable, perhaps essential, survival trait.  Resources were scarce, the environment harsh. Apparently it's an anthropological fact that the prehistoric wars and conflicts just over the horizon were grimly, relentlessly, purposefully genocidal. 

That the most loving and tolerant among us are likely the products of the cruelest and most insular. We human beings are peculiar critters - an all too solid flesh, conjoined with a rational faculty apparently capable of surmounting any biological constraint ( a delusion?). If you want to go highfalutin' for a moment, we are also blessed and cursed with the ability of sensing infinity without any corresponding capability to assimilate and comprehend it. (In this last paradox lies the foundation of all religions and metaphysical systems, and also all metaphysical and religious controversies. But that's another conversation)

So where does American idealism - meaning in essence the Enlightenment ideals so beautifully expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence - fit into this scheme? Simply put, American idealism has become the antipode of that default xenophobia, the rejoinder to the universal might-makes-right organizing principle of ALL nations and societies known to history and pre-history. More than that, by some sort of historical miracle, those utopian ideals have replaced the old real politik models.

You can't insist on an historical insight so broad and universal without immediately qualifying it. Of course I do not mean to imply that the creation of this new paradigm wrought any change in human nature. Obviously it did not. In fact, that's the whole point. The United States has been so triumphant, militarily, politically, and ideologically, over the old-style European ethnocentric nationalism and new-style Communist faux-universalism, that a huge number of incautious individuals have come to assume that the aspirational ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence set forth a principle of natural law. All men (and women) ARE created equal (they believe); the premise is indeed self-evident; and any failure of earlier societies to recognize the fact, any expression of the biases of the day by an antiquarian thinker (no matter how wise or visionary in other respects), requires instant condemnation. This historical and cultural absolutism is reserved for Western nations and thinkers, and particularly the United States, by persons wishing to make a political point.

Except that American idealism is not self-evident and it's anything but natural law. There are all sorts of perspectives from which all men (and women) are not created equal. Anyone who's ever lost a foot race, or played a mind game with someone with a greater innate gift, knows exactly what I'm talking about. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the Jeffersonian formula as a simply political North Star. It does represent an aspiration of human society at its brightest and most lucid. Its rationality is as natural to humankind as our darker instincts, since we are rational animals. But it is not a definition of the default state of human society, the angle of repose at which nations and communities will arrive absent some evil or malicious force. It's the product of our better angels. But that certainly doesn't mean there aren't worse and darker ones.

These are hardly new thoughts. The dichotomy between mind and matter, as it affects behavior, as it challenges the delusion of an unfettered will, is as old as recorded time. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. I love my wife, but oh you kid. Where the perspective advanced here differs is the suggestion that those dark angels were valuable, perhaps essential,  at various ancient points during the long evolutionary trek. At one time, they were survival traits. That's why they endure.

That's a non-controversial point with most of the fleshly weaknesses. Human beings tend to eat too much, because food was scarce in Darwinian pre-history, and storage of nutrients in the form of surplus body fat a desirable evolutionary characteristic. I don't even have to discuss sexual desire. The appeal of addictive substances (nicotine, alcohol, all the rest of the goodies) has to do with appeal to pleasure centers that doubtless had their day. Even if the pleasurable sensation is a random by-product of the evolutionary path, which happens, they still have to be assessed in terms of the biological history of our species. 

Where my perspective is unusual is that I perceive the xenophobic tendency of homo sapiens as also based in evolutionary history, and also at one point in ancient time a positive trait in terms of species survival. I don't dispute the need to approach subjects such as racism and tribalism from an historical and cultural perspective. But it is also necessary to use an ethological -  that is, defined loosely, the extent to which human character is formed by natural and biological factors - framework. At the end of the day, the human animal is an animal. To lose sight of that elemental fact is to be lured into an absurdly utopian critique, from which the inevitable failure of any human society to conform to an ideal is intolerable. Put in those terms, the absurdity of the critique is obvious. But many modern intellectuals stumble into it, particularly when discussing the United States. 

From that same perspective, the historical battle against xenophobia in its various forms is not a battle that can be won. It is a process, a progress, towards a goal that in its purest version is unreachable - the force of gravity, if you will. There is no such thing in practice as a utopia. Our better, brighter angels can never entirely escape our worser, darker ones. (They may in fact be related, though that speculation is an unprovable proposition.)

Lastly, and again from the same perspective, the triumph of the better angels over the last three centuries in the form of the near complete acceptance of the American ideal as the paradigm of human society seems to me near miraculous and cause for celebration - and so I shall do just that, with appropriate decorum. The fact that the triumph is not, and can never be, complete and absolute is neither here nor there. One accepts the ineluctability of the force of gravity, 

So that's the subject of this blog - the importance and significance of American idealism, its triumph, even with its essential limitations, a triumph, nonetheless, and of supreme importance to the future of mankind.


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