“I’m proud to be an American.”
Those words are more than the refrain of a country-western song. This sentiment encompasses both reflection on our past and national aspiration. We look back on our history and see things we can be proud of as a nation, and we look forward to dream of pride in what we might become.
National pride might be called the daughter of patriotism.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
In this election year, candidates are expressing their American pride. Mitt Romney has proclaimed that he has a blueprint for “restoring American pride.”
A corollary of plans for restoring “American Pride” are calls for reviving “American Greatness”, and the candidates are promising that as well. Mitt Romney makes “the case for American greatness”, and Rick Santorum wants to “restore American greatness.” Even President Obama, who has been criticized for apologizing for America, and thus damaging American pride and lessening American greatness, made a case for his own vision of national greatness in his State of the Union address.
But all this talk of pride and greatness rings hollow: It smacks of something that goes beyond regard for past achievements and legitimate aspirations. This pride has become our besetting sin. It is equally embraced by right and left: Republicans and Democrats differ only in how they manifest it, but both have been seduced. If this pride is unchecked, it will be our undoing.
I am speaking of hubris. Hubris is “overbearing pride or presumption, arrogance”, or “an excess of ambition or pride… ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.” In Greek literature, hubris was the fault of those who did not acknowledge their proper place in the order of things, who placed themselves above mortal limitations. For the Greeks, the beginning of wisdom was found in the saying gnothi seauton, “know thyself”. In contemporary culture this principle was most pithily expressed by Det. “Dirty” Harry Callaghan in his dictum “A man’s got to know his limitations.” A man filled with hubris forgets his limitations, and usually comes to a bad end. This principle applies, I believe, to nations as well, and nations that forget their limitations also can expect to end badly.
Our national hubris is apparent in practically every aspect of our common life. For example, our adventures in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan might be described as adventures in hubris. In our rush to remake these primitive lands and peoples in our own image, warnings that the soil was non-existent, much less poor, for planting democracy there went unheeded. After a decade, thousands of American lives (and the uncounted innocent Afghani and Iraqi dead), and a trillion dollars later, our political leaders are finally beginning to admit that our campaigns to make Afghanistan and Iraq “safe for democracy” were exercises in futility. No one tries anymore to make a case for victory: the argument is all about managing or minimizing the chaos our departure will unleash.
The warnings against this desire to “thoroughly democratize the world overnight” have been sounding for at least forty years. The late Russell Kirk criticized the ideology of democratism – the belief that American-style democracy can be exported, by sheer dint of our will, energy, and military might, to almost any land and people so benighted as to lack it, whether they even realize that they want it or not. Kirk criticized this ideological bent in our crusades to bring democracy to Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Somalia. We know how those enterprises turned out. As Kirk and others warned, America’s political order of liberty and the rule of law came about as the result of long nurture in the history of Western culture. The American democratic republic is not easily transplantable. Experience, the only teacher of fools, should have turned us away from the Iraqi and Afghani fools’ errands. But hubris renders one incapable of learning even from experience.
That hubris blinds one to reality is symbolized in Greek myth by Oedipus, who ends his life in blindness, a fitting if tragic end for a man who refused to see and acknowledge the warnings against his folly. Oedipus thought that he could overcome the limitations of his circumstances by his own wits. He thought that, because of his cleverness, the ordinary constraints of reality did not apply to him. He paid for his folly with the ruin of his life.
We too, as a nation, have refused to see and acknowledge the limitations of our own circumstances. Wealth and might have led us to imagine that we can have everything we want, how and when we want it. So, we have spent, and spent, and spent. We have spent even when we didn’t have the money to spend: the Fed can buy government debt (monetization), or even create money out of thin air (quantitative easing), or, we can always borrow from the Chinese. We wanted prescription drug plans and F-35 fighters and bridges to nowhere. Regardless of the merits (whether dubious or real) of any of those expenditures, the spending of our government on all those things and countless others fails to take into account a fundamental reality: where is the money for all of it going to come from? Where is there a sense of any limit, any recognition of finitude? Where is there a sense of understanding the fact every child learns by age seven, that, to quote the song, “you can’t always get what you want?” In the topsy-turvy land of Washington, anyone can get anything he wants, if he can muster the political clout for it. And he can get someone else to pay for it.
Our government has imagined that it can repeal, by fiat, the fundamental economic rule of scarcity: the principle that there will always be more things that people want than there will be things to satisfy those wants. Our rulers have been loath to acknowledge that principle, because that’s not how one wins elections. Saying “no” does not win votes. But as Greek tragedies tell us, and as the tragedies playing out in Greece today (and in Italy, Spain, and Portugal) should tell us, reality always catches up and collects. Our collective denial of reality has made us, as Mark Steyn has written, “the brokest nation in history” owing more to everybody than anyone has ever owed anyone else before.
As a nation, we have pretended that the bill will never come due, or, if it does, we can always find someone else to refinance it. Whether it is next year or in twenty years (and does anyone really think it will take that long?), the bill collector will come knocking on the door, and we will not have the money to pay him. He will gladly take possession of our property to satisfy the debt: Get ready to go sightseeing at the Hoover Quongshiwa Collective Dam, and prepare to pay tolls on the Shianxiang Cooperative Interstate Highway System.
A government that can embark on wars of enlightenment and suspend the laws of economics is one that would laugh at mere moral strictures, especially those originating in outmoded myths of an all-powerful SkyGod and GodMan. So it should surprise no one that our all-powerful State claims to re-define the most fundamental of social institutions, such as marriage.
The recognition of marriage as a union of man and woman for the sake of begetting and rearing children is not a Christian phenomenon. It is a human one. No society, no government, in the history of humankind has ever arrogated to itself the authority to say that a “union” of two men or two women is a marriage. Indeed, most, throughout history, have declined to even recognize it as a “union”. No doubt, there have been varying degrees of tolerance in different societies for homosexual relationships. But they were degrees of tolerance. The effort to equate homosexual pairings and heterosexual marriage is a novelty introduced only in the West, and only in the last three or four decades. It is possible that the advocates and enthusiasts for gay “marriage” are boldly marching onto the horizon of a Brave New Age. But, given the universality of human practice regarding the marriage of man and woman, and the universality of disadvantaging homosexual relationships, it seems more likely that we are rushing headlong off a social precipice. Those in the grip of hubris usually see themselves as lone visionaries and innovators casting off hidebound narrow-mindedness and prejudice. That is, until their illusions come crashing down and reality comes to collect.
Until recently there was, in spite of growing tolerance and legal protections for homosexuals in American society, a reluctance to grant legal parity to their relationships. The Supreme Court held, in its 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, that “respondent would have us announce… a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy. This we are quite unwilling to do.” The Supreme Court that had found “emanations and penumbras” granting a “right” to contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut, and had declared the unborn child an unperson by judicial fiat in Roe v. Wade, nonetheless restrained itself regarding the fundamental nature of human sexuality. Indeed, the majority opinion of the court even recognized that “[p]roscriptions against [homosexual] conduct have ancient roots,” which the law should respect.
The “unwillingness” of the court to “announce… a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy” would last only 17 years. In 2003, the Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, reversed its holding in Bowers, and created a right heretofore unknown in Western jurisprudence. Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent from the ruling, predicted the wave of same-sex marriage legislation and judicial activism that would soon follow. In less than two decades, the gay activist agenda moved from a call for tolerance, to agitation for legal recognition, to the current demand for State sanction of homosexual unions and punitive actions against the insufficiently enlightened.
Hubris, once it takes hold, is autoparous: It feeds on itself, and induces those in its grip to ever-greater assertions of the will to power. Hence the latest manifestation, in the recent HHS mandate requiring the Catholic Church and other religious institutions to provide services they find morally repugnant. A State that believes itself competent to redefine marriage, we find, will not balk at dictating the bounds within which the Church may carry out her mission. The Obama administration has even resorted to “instructing” the bishops themselves on how they ought to interpret Catholic teaching.
The Church did not choose this fight. In essence, the Church asked the Obama administration to recognize its right to be itself, the “right to be left alone”, as expressed by Louis Brandeis in the 1928 Olmstead decision. But that is the one thing that hubris cannot do. Hubris cannot leave persons or institutions alone, because ultimately it sees only itself, and all else only as serving itself.
Our need is not for our rulers, or putative rulers, to assert their programs and schemes to expand or enhance “American Pride.” We will only return to national greatness through a rejection of national hubris. What we need is a candidate running on a platform of “National Humility”. Such a platform may be our only hope to avoid the precipice. National humility does not mean national weakness or national indifference. It means recognizing what nations and governments can and cannot do. It means recognizing a reality to which we are subject.
A nation’s got to know its limitations.