Although the United States is a young country compared with the nations of Europe, we have the oldest standing government; that is, our government is unchanged since its birth. I may well be wrong about this. Apolitical by both temperament and conviction, political history is not my strong suit.
Nevertheless, I think that what is unique about the country is not its age, but its genesis: Founded not so much on the overthrow of English tyranny as on the establishment of an entirely new national identity based on the perception of liberty as the natural state of man, as ordained by God and God’s natural law. That is both the origin and the essence of America. Because that perception is based on belief in God, it has no relation to Rousseau’s “natural” jungle morality, a concept repugnant to Americans. Freedom as perceived by other countries has been the product of long political evolution rather than the very source of their identity. Had King George chosen to grant the colonies freedom, the United States would not exist today, except possibly as part of the Commonwealth. You can’t give freedom—to anybody. One country cannot free another; one race cannot free another. Thus, Lincoln’s Emancipation was a failure, despite the rivers of blood and destruction. As addicts and their counselors both know: You can’t free anybody–from anything or anyone. Moreover, anyone who attempts to bestow freedom usurps the divine option. We are born free. You can’t give someone what God has already given. As simple—and as simplistic—as it sounds, that is the core of American political conviction.
Since I’m not a political philosopher, I tend to look at political topics through a literary lens, and it seems to me, excluding the early American poets, that the American psyche is best understood through Emerson and Thoreau. “Self-Reliance” by Emerson is a map of the American mind. No departure from the principle articulated in that essay, which was once universally anthologized, is native to the American mind, a mind which, while it may understand, appreciate, and even admire other points of view, such as communism, socialism, monarchy, theocracy, it will always see those views as foreign. However admirable some of them may be, they are not American.
Self-reliance is not a dramatic or romantic cry for freedom, despite pop culture’s elevation of those aspirations to depictions of human glory. It isn’t a demand for something, but an acceptance of it. We accept responsibility for ourselves. Far from the romance of revolution, this attitude is mundane, certainly not thrilling. It’s as mundane as getting up in the morning to feed the chickens, or milk the cows, or go to work. And indeed, it’s very off-putting to those who demand, as an intrinsic right, that other people—government, society, community—should be responsible for them.
When government encroaches on our freedom, we have the self-reliant option of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” exercised in modern times by Martin Luther King’s example of how we should respond to laws that encroach on our freedom. His life affirmed that acceptance of personal responsibility inherent in the American concept of freedom.
To be sure, the question of how much responsibility we have for our fellow human beings has always been debated. And that’s as it should be. There should be no greater communal concern. Our Judeo-Christian conscience has always held charity as paramount, but obligation is not charity. If charity is enforced, it becomes something else entirely. The encroachment of government on conscience is, by definition, an encroachment on our freedom, and, like any other tyrant, it usurps the divine option.
This is not Marlboro-man individualism, of which socialist Europeans, et al, so often accuse Americans; it is the same philosophy we’ve seen in modern times in Ghandi, Mandela, and King. It’s also the philosophy of their predecessors, Emerson and Thoreau. It regards divine authority and human dignity as the basis of all political philosophy.
Many years ago, I was acquainted with an African-American poet of some renown. She wrote a good deal of victim poetry. I told her that I grew up in a segregated South, but I never heard the ugly “n-word” until I went north as a young woman. If we had said that word, if we were rude to black people (or anyone else), if we repeated racist jokes, my grandmother would have given us a spanking. “How,” she asked, “did you regard black people as a child?” I answered, “I didn’t. I guess you could say I was indifferent.” She seemed to regard this answer as some kind of confession. “That’s the problem,” she pronounced. “Your indifference!” I thought about this for a good long while, and sincerely tried to feel some guilt for my indifferent childhood, but I couldn’t. I thought about my grandmother, who had her faults as we all do, but I couldn’t see her—or myself–as “racist.” Finally, I said, “I guess, if I’d thought about it, I would have believed that your freedom is your business, not mine.” I remembered her lately and finally understood that her idea of freedom and my own may not be reconcilable. And even now, I believe I have a right to be indifferent. I don’t think I could give up that right without giving up my freedom.