American Expectationalism

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When the American colonies erupted in revolt against the Stamp Act (1765), poor King George could not understand.  Weren’t these subjects well-treated?  Did they not prosper as a result of benign neglect? As for this taxation they were incensed about, part of it was to cover the expense of defending them, and what was their problem?

Our problem is basically the same now as it was then: whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure.*  The colonies were jealous of their liberties as Englishmen first.  All those stamp act protests, some of them very ugly and violent, stemmed from the assumption (not the revolutionary idea) that they could not be forced to fork over money involuntarily.  By the time the shooting started ten years later, the issue had crystalized: they were fighting for their rights as Americans.

Whatever that means.

Americans have always disagreed about what that means.  Has a nation ever clashed so often over what it means to be at peace?  Since we born unsettled, I suspect our differences will never be settled, even though they come from the same source.  Because they come from the same source.

O my America!  My new-found land!  John Donne described a woman that way (before getting into bed with her).  Not a bad metaphor for the nation, though: a new-found land for all conflicted ideals and idealists; “America” as the undiscovered utopia humanity is blundering toward.  Even those who hate her do so for what she might have been: O my America—you let me down.

Think of all those extravagant hopes, from 1630 until now:

A City on a Hill . . .

We hold these truths . . .  

The Last Best Hope of Earth

Give me your tired, your poor

That’s not who we are

We’re better than this!

Do other nations refer to their founding ideals anywhere near as often?  Are other citizens as prickly about their rights, as contentious over memes, as we are?  Do other peoples expect so much?  From their government, no less—from men and women inside a beltway who pursue their own interests first, as officials (with a few notable exceptions) always have?

I don’t know Colin Kaepernick and can’t judge his motives.  But when he takes a knee during the national anthem, his stated motivation springs from the same root as that of the flag-waving right-wingers (or presidents) who denounce him.

O my America . . . you’re not living up to your promise.

O my America . . . you’re not living up to her, buster.

High ideas make for high expectations.  And crushing disappointment when they’re not met.  The vitriolic chatter among the left is an echo of the vitriolic chatter from the right four years ago, and both sides are dreaming too big to be satisfied.

“Liberty and justice for all” can never measure up to our competing visions of what that looks like.  And yet, even from the beginning, there was a less extravagant vision: out here in the hinterlands we mostly just want to get along with each other and prosper a bit.  Never before, I venture to say, have so many accomplished their commonplace dreams through the efforts of so few.  Our founding fathers, scorning utopian dreams, set the ideals just high enough to strive for.  And then they set careful checks and balances on the powers that could hold people back from reasonable striving.

Humanity being what it is, we’ll never quite get there, and our failure to get there may have the unlovely consequence of pushing the bar ever higher.  The right pushes for liberty; the left for justice.  We in the middle can’t hear much but the shouting, and it leaves us feeling helpless and confused.  But listen: perfect justice will never happen here on earth, nor perfect liberty.  Bring down the bar, and let us reach what we can.

*A. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

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