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“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.”
— Thucydides

“A civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.”
— Jean-François Revel


Friday, June 19, 2009

One nagging thought that’s troubled me for several years now has concerned the nature of “frontiers” — the character of those who strike out to populate them, what happens as the populace of a former frontier changes over time, and what to do when we run out of new frontiers to settle.

The United States began life as a frontier of far-flung colonies — colonies that came to be populated by people who were brave, bold, and/or desperate enough to give up every semblance of stability in their former lives and risk everything on the possibility of a new and, they hoped, better future on the other side of a formidable ocean — a future they knew full well they would have to fashion by their own exertions, at considerable risk, in a land of many unknowns.

Over the few centuries since, the US has become a new home to immigrants with similar circumstances, motivations, dreams, courage, and drive hailing from every reach of the planet. Many more who might have wished to begin new lives here, but were fearful of the risks this life entails, did not come, and in this way our melting-pot population became a self-selecting group largely characterized by a measure of boldness, guts, and — I dare say — genuine, honest-to-gosh audacity.

At the same time, of course, we’ve also set about increasing our ranks the old fashioned way. Those born here sometimes successfully absorb the spirit of the place, and grow up to share such courage, determination, independence, work ethic, and mettle as their immigrant ancestors bore. Others somehow don’t acquire these traits, and seeing as they’re already here, don’t have to get here, and typically stay, they end up edging our average bearings as a population a bit farther away from that rugged pioneer spirit.

Roughly speaking, then, relative rates of immigration and birth, coupled with our rate of success or failure at instilling a love of sweet Freedom in our newly minted Americans, combine to determine the vitality of the American Spirit. (I leave out emigration as a relatively insignificant contributing factor because — funny thing — that just doesn’t happen much here.)

This all leads me to a question that, to my scientifically-trained mind, is reminiscent of the grand cosmological question of whether we live in an “open” universe (one that will continue to expand without limit) or a “closed” universe (whose expansion will eventually be slowed and then reversed by mutual gravity, leading it to recollapse):

Does a frontier inevitably move?

Maybe the answer should be intuitively obvious. A frontier doesn’t stay a frontier forever. New places are discovered, and become the new frontiers, while the old, now-familiar places accumulate a sort of inertia and become stable.

Only, what happens when we run out of new places? What happens when the old, former frontiers become gradually less friendly to those who dare to dream the really big dreams, who aspire to wide-open unencumbered FREEDOM as far as the eye can see, but there’s nowhere else left for them to go?

Barring the discovery of an unforseen loophole in the laws of physics as we’ve thus far distilled them, we are prisoners of our own solar system, whose eight — er, strike that — seven other planets aren’t particularly hospitable to human habitation. At great cost and with enough of the hardy pioneer determination that birthed this nation it could be done, perhaps, but there is no other home remotely as cordial as this precious blue-green marble we inhabit within our grasp. Firefly fantasies aside, enterprising interplanetary homesteaders don’t have a whole lot of choices — or, really, any — right now.

This fact has been keenly on my mind as we watch our beloved United States of America become seemingly less and less recognizable to those of us who prize untrammeled individual freedom as the Founders did. As our population gradually loses that once-indomitable frontier spirit, and in the place of cherishing Sweet Liberty increasingly demands the safety, security, and closing of material equality gaps that are promised by a culture of regulation, entitlement, and coerced redistribution, so our dear country begins to seem less and less the kind of place for an intrepid frontiersman or frontierswoman to hitch their wagon to.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all about this “Europeanization” of America is the insistence on implementing such ideas here, despite the litany of nations in which they are already practiced (a fact it seems we’re incessantly reminded of by domestic critics of the classically American Way of life — you know, the ones who insist that Swedes, Venezuelans, and Cubans are somehow “freer than we are”). “Diversity” is not so much to be sought and celebrated, it seems, when it comes to socioeconomic policy — at least when doing so favors the continued existence of classically liberal (economically permissive rather than socially engineered) societies. Oddly, though the United States places no restrictions on emigration, proponents of Europeanization rarely seem to choose that route to obtaining the lifestyle they favor. There is something about this drive that seeks to transcend personal choice and impose that choice on others (ostensibly for their own good, of course).

Maybe the subduing of America is a “Holy Grail” of sorts for those who aspire to bring the benefits of benevolent statism to the whole world. Transnationalism has been a key aspect of Marxism from the get-go, and some ideas die hard. Today’s transnational progressivism, with its contempt for and active attempts to undermine international tax and regulatory competition, seems little different in this respect. Transnationalism seeks to seal off all avenues of escape for those who crave and seek greater economic freedom and commensurate responsibility for assuming risk. There would be no way out in a future world that agrees on and enforces the same set of laws, taxes and restrictions everywhere. The message from control-hungry transnationalists is clear: Tough luck, buddy. One Vorld Government vill be gut, und you vill like it.

If even the fiery, fiercely independent souls who inhabit the United States can be berated into giving up Liberty for safety, superficial equality, “fairness”, “niceness”, or just to be like everyone else, then there is truly no limit to statism’s ability to dominate a willing, submissive, or even just indifferent humankind. If we choose — on a personal, individual and not just national level — to continually seek the approval of others in an exceedingly self-conscious high-schoolish popularity contest, in the place of cherishing our right to scandalize the neighbors, then we are as good as done, and the American Idea is dead — much to the delight of its very vocal detractors.

Take a good look at the following piece of contemporary art, which I took notice of among the 2008 “Zero1” exhibits in San Jose. Study it until you see the message behind the message.

Going Out of Business?

In the final year of the Bush administration, this was shown as mockery and criticism of America’s conduct in waging the Global War on Terror, from the perspective of the sort of person who thinks we ought to be ashamed of ourselves rather than fiercely proud and doggedly committed to our nation’s defense in the wake of the 9/11 Jihadist attacks on US soil. The longer I studied this image, the more the eagle’s tear rang hollow. Is the artist’s intent really to express regret at the decline in opinions of America that he or she obviously feels is justified?

I think there’s a clear second meaning here, that’s picked up by those who go in for such stuff, and it is one of triumphant celebration. There are people — the artist included, I strongly suspect — who could not be more pleased by this development, who don’t merely feel ashamed of what they think we’ve become, but cannot stand even what we once were and have long stood for, and who cannot wait for the American Idea itself — the notion of your life on your terms — to fall in the world’s esteem, lose its luster and appeal, and fade away as an object of aspiration for millions upon millions the world over. They want mindshare for governing ideas of their own, and those ideas have little to do with freedom I’m afraid.

Friends, it’s no accident that the tongue-in-cheek “fire sale” that this exhibit advertised accepts “Euros or Mao Bucks”:

Get your Euros and Mao Bucks ready, comrade!

"Department of Homeland Graffiti": Oh how clever

Why is it that we keep seeing these folks among the ranks of anti-war activists? It’s hard to avoid supposing that they are more accurately pro-war, but on the other side.

Look at the image again.

Going Out of Business?

It is not a lament, but a victory banner. Those it speaks for feign disappointment, but in truth couldn’t be more pleased. America and what she represents falling in the world’s esteem. Mission Accomplished.

These fellow citizens and others like them aim to demoralize us with their moralizing — to tame, subdue, and crush the defiantly independent frontier spirit that makes us us — and I fear they may be succeeding.

How we got to this point from our ruggedly independent, defiantly freedom-loving, living-my-own-way who-cares-what-others-think frontier roots is a very long story. But the net change in our national character could hardly be more pronounced.

Living in the far-West former frontier “Gold Rush” state of California as I do, I feel acutely aware of the especially radical transformation my state has undergone since its settlement — crossing the full spectrum from initially wild and lawless open country to one of the most social-engineering-heavy and burdensomely taxed and regulated (or, if you prefer, most “progressive”) states in the Union. To some, this is desirable progress. To me, it is the slow, tragic dying of a cherished dream and ideal.

Western Star

When I contemplate the Frontier, the “Invocation” of Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem “Western Star”, which I first mentioned a few years ago, always comes to mind. I’ve read this passage at home in far-West California; I’ve read it on vacation on a horse ranch in Wyoming, a state whose wide-open vistas preserve some of the last remaining fragments of the old frontier spirit. And it gives me a deep shiver. Every time.

Not for the great, not for the marvelous,
Not for the barren husbands of the gold;
Not for the arrowmakers of the soul,
Wasted with truth, the star-regarding wise;
Not even for the few
Who would not be the hunter nor the prey,
Who stood between the eater and the meat,
The wilderness saints, the guiltless, the absolved,
Born out of Time, the seekers of the balm
Where the green grass grows from the broken heart;
But for all these, the nameless, numberless
Seed of the field, the mortal wood and earth
Hewn for the clearing, trampled for the floor,
Uprooted and cast out upon the stone
From Jamestown to Benicia.
This is their song, this is their testament,
Carved to their likeness, speaking in their tongue
And branded with the iron of their star.
I say you shall remember them. I say
When the night has fallen on your loneliness
And the deep wood beyond the ruined wall
Seems to step forward swiftly with the dusk,
You shall remember them. You shall not see
Water or wheat or axe-mark on the tree
And not remember them.
You shall not win without remembering them,
For they won every shadow of the moon,
All the vast shadows, and you shall not lose
Without a dark remembrance of their loss
For they lost all and none remembered them.

Hear the wind
Blow through the buffalo-grass
Blow over wild-grape and brier.
This was frontier, and this,
And this, your house, was frontier.
There were footprints upon the hill
And men lie buried under,
Tamers of earth and rivers.
They died at the end of labor,
Forgotten is the name.

Now, in full summer, by the Eastern shore,
Between the seamark and the roads going West,
I call two oceans to remember them.
I fill the hollow darkness with their names.

Is it possible to read the above and not feel it in your bones?

The Frontier lives on in Wyoming

All this has been on my mind for a seemingly very long time now, but it took this superb blog post by “VodkaPundit” Stephen Green to prompt me to finally compose my thoughts.

American freedom was a huge, sprawling, messy, brawling thing. It consumed everything and anything, and spewed out an unimaginable bounty. For some, the freedom was about growing their business and making money. For others, it was about growing their hair and making love. But it was always here, for anyone willing to risk the journey and leave behind the Old World and its old ways.

But now that we have this wonderful place, this precious idea — what are we doing with it?

Already, the government runs our children’s education and our parents’ retirement. Now we’re allowing it to usurp our banks and nationalize what remains of our auto industries. Within weeks, Washington promises a plan to dictate our health care. To do all this, we’ve let Washington run up enough red ink to impoverish our grandchildren. As if all that weren’t enough, the president still found the time to kick our friends in London and Tel Aviv while courting a genocidal, election-stealing maniac in Tehran. He even gave a speech in Cairo — that oppressed, impoverished Old World megalopolis — in which he assured the world that America really is no better than anywhere else.

Well, once upon a time, we were.

Absent a warp drive, a wormhole, or some other science fiction escape to an uninhabited Earth-like planet, it’s impossible to recreate the conditions which allowed the creation of these United States. It can’t be done; there aren’t any New Worlds left to discover. Our maps are all filled in.

If the Old World comes here, where does the New World have left to go?

When the Puritans were persecuted in England, they risked everything to come to America. When young Germans faced the Prussian army’s grip, they gave up their ancient towns to come here. When Jews faced the Czar’s pogroms, they gave up their bucolic steppes for the slums of New York. Rather than accept stagnant lives in their own countries, Latin Americans risked uncertain lives in America. Rather than accept far milder impositions than our own, America’s Founding Fathers risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor just to sign their names on parchment.

Anyone with nothing to lose and everything to gain — and bearing wits and character enough to risk it all — came here. They ventured here. To America.

Whatever liberty we have right here, right now, in America … well, for all practical purposes, that’s all that’s left anywhere. If France had our freedoms, there would be no French here. If China had it, there would be no Chinese here. If it existed in Latin America, there would be no Spanish spoken here. And so it goes.

And so if we, here in America, throw it all away in a fit of panic or pique, then what we once called “America” will become as false as a fairy tale.

By all means, read the whole, brilliantly worded thing.

One more thought in closing:

Remember the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, when many on the left threatened to “seek asylum” in Canada if Bush or McCain won?

Those of us who cherish the classically American commitment to individual Freedom have no Canada. America is our last, best hope. Our opponents know it. And if we lose this ground for good, it seems to me we will have lost everything that matters.

For the sake of all we hold dear in this life, we mustn’t let that happen.

Bill Whittle: The Dowd Conundrum

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bill Whittle has outdone himself again, boldly going where no news commentator has gone before: The Dowd Conundrum: Why Vulcans and Other Intellectuals Don’t Belong in the Big Chair A must-watch episode of Afterburner, on PJTV!

Phyllis Chesler: Obama Throws Muslim Women Under the Bus

Did President Obama sacrifice the interests of Muslim women in his Cairo speech? Phyllis Chesler thinks so, and says as much in a characteristically well-articulated piece at PJM:

It is a Catholic woman’s right to become a nun and shave or cover her hair; it is an Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish woman’s right to shave or cover her hair; and it is a Muslim woman’s right to cover her hair and her face–as long as those women who refuse to do so are not browbeaten, beaten, ostracized, stalked, stoned to death or honor-murdered. I have written about just such cases in the West right here, at this blog, cases in which young American- and Canadian-Muslim girls were tormented, then killed because they refused to wear hijab.

In Europe, where there are many more Muslims, there is a veritable epidemic of such exceedingly dishonorable and incredibly gruesome “honor” murders.

But there’s something more. Let’s face it: The Islamic face-veil and headscarf have become symbols of “jihad” and Islamic religious apartheid or intolerance in the West. And, it is spooky, even frightening to see women, (or are they men?), face-veiled or wearing full-body shrouds. Masked people, hooded people, have cut themselves off from human contact; they can see you, but you can’t see them. You cannot see their expressions in response to what you are saying. I would not want to appear before a masked judge, study with a masked teacher, hire a masked lawyer, etc. Would you?

Whether I approve of their clothing choices or not, Hasidic (ultra-orthodox or anti-modern) Jews and Catholics are not threatening western civilization and are not out there be-heading those who leave Judaism or Catholicism. Nor are they force-converting Muslims and Hindus. Muslims are doing just that at this very moment in history when America’s President has reached out to the entire Islamic world.

What’s more, Jews and Catholics are not honor-murdering their daughters and wives because they refuse to veil their faces, their hair, or their bodies. Mainly Muslims do that.

See the full article for more good argument, and quotes from a worrisome exchange between President Obama and French President Sarkozy on the subject of women’s rights and headscarves.

4th Bloggiversary!

Friday, June 5, 2009

I just now realized, while looking back through my archives for something, that yesterday was the 4th anniversary of my first post here.

I’m finding it hard to believe that so much time has gone by, and I feel there’s a great deal more writing that I’d have hoped to find time do by this point, but at the same time I’m glad to have started the project and kept it going at least somewhat steadily, if slowly. I still remember sitting in the back of a conference hall taking advantage of some downtime to draft and publish my first post. The feeling of casting out a proverbial sort of “message in a bottle” was a real lift to my spirits, and I suspect is much the same high that so many other bloggers have said helps keep them writing and publishing.

My biggest regret so far is not having continued the project of recounting key parts of my own life, and exploring the ways they have influenced my worldview, that I set out to begin. I wrote a first [awkwardly self-conscious and not highly recommended] post in the intended series in September 2005, and didn’t get any farther than that. I still have hope of picking that project up again and making something interesting of it, if I can make the time. Soon, I hope (eternal optimist that I am)!

There are also many thoughts in the realm of economics, entrepreneurship, cultural self-perception and self-doubt/confidence that have struck me over the years and continue to nip at my mind, waiting impatiently to be written down and developed, and I’m hanging onto the mental, electronic, and paper notes where I’ve jotted bits down, hoping to get to those someday too.

Meanwhile, I have greatly enjoyed the past six months (amazed that it’s been that long already!) of meeting and conversing with so many amazing, interesting, insightful and devoted fellow freedom-lovers and America-lovers on Twitter. I highly recommend giving Twitter a try, to those who may feel as ideologically isolated as I do. I find the Twitter experience has been a great complement to blogging, rather than a replacement for it — a suitable place for fragments of thought that don’t require lengthier exposition, or that I haven’t yet found the time to develop into something in-depth enough to be worthy of a blog post. The blog, meanwhile, has served me well as a more permanent-feeling structure of sorts, on which to hang my expression of love for the American Idea and way of life. I aim to convey in these pages, not just concerns and gloom that have tended to occupy my thoughts at times, but also a sense of celebration of who we are and the way we live. I hope that comes across in the design as well as in the content.

My sincere thanks to any and all who have popped in now and then to read the pages here. Please do stop by again; I intend to keep this project going and have more to offer in the future!

Charles Murray: Europe Syndrome

This Wall Street Journal piece by Charles Murray went by a few months ago, but is such an excellent bit of writing that I’m belatedly posting about it as I meant to back then. “Europe Syndrome” is well worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a highlight.

I, for one, am an American Exceptionalist at heart — so grateful to have had the good luck to be born right where I belong. I often fear we are a dying breed. We must figure out how to keep the shining beacon, the defiantly individualistic spirit of American Liberty aglow.

American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I’m thinking of qualities such as American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. That’s quite uncommon among the peoples of the world. There is the striking lack of class envy in America—by and large, Americans celebrate others’ success instead of resenting it. That’s just about unique, certainly compared to European countries, and something that drives European intellectuals crazy. And then there is perhaps the most important symptom of all, the signature of American exceptionalism—the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. It is hard to think of a more inspiriting quality for a population to possess, and the American population still possesses it to an astonishing degree. No other country comes close.

Underlying these symptoms of American exceptionalism are the underlying exceptional dynamics of American life. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous book describing the nature of that more fundamental exceptionalism back in the 1830s. He found American life characterized by two apparently conflicting themes. The first was the passion with which Americans pursued their individual interests, and made no bones about it — that’s what America was all about, they kept telling Tocqueville. But at the same time, Tocqueville kept coming up against this phenomenal American passion for forming associations to deal with every conceivable problem, voluntarily taking up public affairs, and tending to the needs of their communities. How could this be? Because, Americans told Tocqueville, there’s no conflict. “In the United States,” Tocqueville writes, “hardly anybody talks of the beauty of virtue… . They do not deny that every man may follow his own interest; but they endeavor to prove that it is the interest of every man to be virtuous.” And then he concludes, “I shall not here enter into the reasons they allege… . Suffice it to say, they have convinced their fellow countrymen.”

The exceptionalism has not been a figment of anyone’s imagination, and it has been wonderful. But it isn’t something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away.

The possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real. And so it is our job to make the case for that reawakening. It won’t happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor. The drift toward the European model can be slowed by piecemeal victories on specific items of legislation, but only slowed. It is going to be stopped only when we are all talking again about why America is exceptional, and why it is so important that America remain exceptional. That requires once again seeing the American project for what it is: a different way for people to live together, unique among the nations of the earth, and immeasurably precious.