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Friday, 21 December 2012

What Makes a Nation Civilised?

 Here is a point raised by Geoff:

Unlike other, more civilized countries, they (the US) don’t see a responsibility for helping the truly needy and sick and I greatly emphasise the word “truly”.

The constitutions and laws of countries are often simply window-dressing. Can you think of any country which does not celebrate (in law) Democracy? There are something like 200 members of the UN – every one claims to be a democracy.

Actually there is one which does not in its founding documents: the USA. The founding fathers were not dressing their windows. They were attempting to create an unbreakable guarantee against tyranny. Benjamin Franklin said that their objective was a Republic. Democracy is a word unused by the fathers. Indeed, some of them would have been revolted by the idea. Unhappily, brilliant though they were, the US constitution left wormholes through which some in succeeding generations have undermined it. “The Commerce Clause” and “The General Welfare Clause” are notorious. So too is the concept of “A Living Constitution” (not the fault of the framers), whereby activists have essentially declared that what we now perceive to be desirable trumps the intentions of the framers.

Abraham Lincoln, whose legacy and reputation have come under critical scrutiny of late (by Thomas DiLorenzo et al) memorably claimed that the Civil War had been fought (at the cost of over 600,000 lives) in defence of “Government of the People, for the People and by the People”. It was a fantastic speech and has been a rallying cry for Democracy ever since. Indeed, to be suspicious of Democracy is enough to invite comparison with anti-democratic ideologies: Nazism, Communism and, latterly, Islamism. The fathers were as anxious about the tyranny of the majority as of monarchy. Hence the famous system of “checks and balances”.

The political thinkers of the eighteenth century include some pretty impressive minds. More later, perhaps.
Early Americans were overwhelmingly religious. Many went to the New World for the freedom to practise their religion. Morality loomed large in their thinking. They did not place their faith in political institutions. When they came to devise a better government than the world had previously known they beset the Presidency and the Congress with limits to their powers. Most Americans knew that a virtuous citizenry was the essential foundation for a prosperous and happy nation. The Constitution was a bulwark against the encroachment of the state on the citizenry. They insisted, in the Second Amendment, that citizens should retain the means physically to resist the state. I think that this argues for the supremacy of individual conscience over political institutions. Swiss citizens have comparable rights and Switzerland has a noble tradition of Liberty.

The existence of slavery is a blot upon humanity. It persisted for too long in the Anglosphere. Some Christians, disgracefully, defended it. However, it was the Christian Anglosphere which first declared war on it. Regrettably, in spite of the efforts and writings of many abolitionists, slavery persisted in the US for far too long. The Civil War was a war to preserve the Union against secessionists and only incidentally to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s writings are clear on this. He cared less about slavery than about the Union and was prepared to provoke war with the Confederacy. He may not have expected 600,000 deaths; but that is what it took to defeat the South.

So, religious and moral Americans did some bad things in the past. Religious and moral Americans today are almost unanimous in condemning slavery and the subsequent oppression of black Americans after the war. We cannot close our eyes to the hideous phenomenon of lynching.

“Progressive” Americans did bad stuff too. They enacted “union-friendly” legislation to exclude blacks from labour markets in the North. “Progressive” entitlement programmes (regrettably supported by black political leaders) have done much to undermine the integrity of black American families and to ensure the immiseration of millions of blacks. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams (two towering black American intellects) have much to say on the subject.

American Exceptionalism
What society is innocent of corruption and cruelty? None! The British Empire, more benevolent than any comparable empire, did bad things. From the Greeks we derive the idea of Democracy, and yet, they accepted slavery. We have inherited much from Roman administration and law, and yet, crucifixion was their standard form of execution.

The Genius of Catholicism (at least insofar as it relates to the polis) is the concept of Original Sin. We do not have it in our power to create The Kingdom of God on Earth. History is unequivocal: try it and you will find that you have built a Hell. The Anglosphere, imperfect though it is, incorporates ideas of Liberty and personal responsibility. Improvements will only ever be incremental and practical. Morality, not ideology, is the way forward. On these grounds, I propose the USA as the most civilised country ever – in spite of the missteps of her past and her present.

She has given the vast majority of her citizens the opportunity to improve their living standards to an extant never before witnessed. Free Enterprise, moderated by personal morality, has created philanthropic institutions on a scale never before even imagined. Free Enterprise rewards initiative, creativity, hard work, thrift, service to one’s fellows and honesty. Socialism does not! Oppressed people from all over the world have endorsed what I am not ashamed to call the American Dream. They endorsed it by choosing to live it.

Americans, particularly conservative Americans, take their personal responsibility to help the needy and the sick very seriously. They give and they give and they give. If some do not see this as a political programme but as a moral imperative, God bless them. If you think that putting a gun to their heads is morally superior, more civilised, I can’t agree.

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