COWBOYS

Bush is in Europe, and Europe is howling like scalded cats. Hey, Hans, make up your mind: do you want him to talk to you, or do you want him to ignore you?

Just today, in my e-mail, I'm lectured that European diplomacy is "a much more refined way of doing things than those boring kitschy monologues Americans prefer, about knights in shiny armor in their glorious fight against evil. We are civilized people after all, not cowboys."

Again with the cowboys.

Let's admit they're right. The Hundredth Meridian got into our blood. American individualism is the one quality that unites us -- across regions, generations, ethnicities. You hone your smarts and you trust your instincts. You stay self-sufficient, even in a crowd, and you keep your powder dry. We were the frontier's before there were cowboys, before the frontier broke out of the Ohio woods.

John Jay was among the Founders who feared the frontier was turning Americans into "white savages" who slaughtered the natives to get their land. Dispersed in isolated clearings, cut off from civilizing influences, "Shall we not fill the wilderness with white savages," he wondered, "and will they not become more formidable to us than the tawny ones who now inhabit it?"

There's a whole lot more to us than that. But there is that. We like it, frankly. And like any strong thing, it needs a firm tempering force. Not to stifle it, but to keep it flowing in the right channels. The essential counterbalance to this frontier quality in our national character is another feature of America that makes liberal, secular Europe cringe: religion.

Not our religion at its worst, which can be banal, bullying, and benighted (much like European secularism can be). But our religious nature at its best, when it embraces the social virtues of compassion. Make the world a better place, starting with your community. Honest self-sacrifice, compassion, public service, high-minded patriotism: When the Founders talked about virtues -- and they often did -- they meant this, not sex.

That quality doesn't spring from the intellectual Christianity, but from the enthusiastic, evangelical sort. It's rooted in John Wesley's new trinity: Gain all you can (without losing your soul), save all you can, give all you can. Early Methodism, a wildfire, frontier faith in America in the generation before the Revolution, placed religious emphasis squarely on personal charity and good works.

Christian, yes; conservative, no. Wesley railed against the "devilishly false" belief, then current, that the poor "are poor only because they are idle." Early evangelicals worked for prison reform and humane treatment of the insane, and they led the anti-slavery crusade in England. American atheists of my time seem to be able to organize only long enough to chase Christian symbolism out of the public square, but not long enough to, say, put up tents for tsunami victims. I have long lamented, in my personally heathen and publicly secular life, that all the good causes were dominated by devout and public Christians. Not because I resent them, but because I envy them.

Tigerhawk, reviewing Hugh Hewitt's book on blogs, makes a similar observation, with regard to the left and the right in America:

However, Hewitt is right that there is a substantial difference in tone and emphasis between left and right, quite distinct from substantive political orientation. Volunteerism, for example, runs through most righty blogs (see, for example, the Spirit of America, which has been essentially uncovered on the left), whereas the lefty blogs promote activism (they are always "meeting up," and covering demonstrations in the sincerest of tones). This is probably an echo of underlying political assumptions. Conservatives genuinely believe that much can be accomplished through volunteerism, particularly through churches. Professional activism, though, has been almost entirely the province of the left (with the obvious but virtually singular exception of the anti-abortion activists).
[Though this is written in political terms, yet I think the essential division here is between religious -- in this case Christian -- outlook and a secular worldview.]

That's one reason the Founders, the most powerful pack of secularists and deists in this nation's history, didn't fear Christianity, though they execrated its worst excesses. Christianity, in any form, is not an ideal civic religion. No existing religion is. But you go to self-government with the religion you have.

The moral qualities, the virtues -- to the extent that we really live up to them -- are the magic that turns our rugged individualism (especially as subverted now into free-market economics) into powerful forces for good. Europeans don't see the better half. To the extent that our religious life is based on personal salvation through good works, it is an ennobling force in America.

This marriage of morality and individualism terrifies Europeans, who see in us only a reckless monster, arrogant and ignorant. And yet when it strides it can leave their mechanical good-works-as-government socialism in the dust. The reaction to the tsunami crisis shows that much of the world can't even see America any more. While Americans as individuals were donating tens of millions of dollars, and Americans, as organized in our military, actually saved thousands of lives, much of the rest of the world only looked at our official government pronouncements and concluded we were "stingy." As if the government was the nation.

Over there, seemingly, it is. Europe, including Britain, has been essentially socialist for most of the past century. That makes it easy for us to forget how many of our essential national qualities came from them -- our religions of the social gospel, our sense of a natural moral sense in human beings. On a deep level, the Europeans do not seem to forget this; they recognize in us a people on a path they once trod and turned away from. In their loathing I see both a recognition of old embarrassments, and a secret dread that they forsook something wonderful.

What is now exceptionally "American" once was English. The French observers of the 18th and early 19th century saw it there: Voltaire, who admired England, saw it. Montesquieu wrote that the English "know better than any other people upon earth how to value, at the same time, these three great advantages -- religion, commerce, and liberty." De Tocqueville wrote that he "enjoyed, too, in England what I have long been deprived of -- a union between the religious and the political world, between public and private virtue, between Christianity and liberty."

"If America is now exceptional," Gertrude Himmelfarb ["Roads to Modernity"] wrote, "it is because it has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded and that other countries (France, most notably) have never adopted."

Thus the historical stage set for the modern misunderstanding across the Atlantic, which is played out in the media. As John Rosenthal writes about Arte, the jointly financed French-German public television channel:

"Those Americans inclined to react to every apparent expression of French rage at America by posing the proverbial and doleful question 'Why do they hate us?' might consider Arte and then realize that perhaps 'they' don’t know us. The problem with Arte in this connection is not that there is a lack of material on American society and politics in its programming, but rather that there is a wildly excessive offering of such material, almost all of it, however, being selected and spun in such a way as to caste the US in the most negative imaginable light and some of it consisting of outright disinformation."
Everywhere Bush goes this week, the protesters will be out in their hundreds and thousands. We'd be fools to treat them as honest and informed people who wish America well, but object to specific U.S. policies or attitudes. For all Europe's certainty of its own superiority and its arrogant mockery of our populist rube politics, the continent is deeply, willfully ignorant about us.

To read Euro-rage as simply America's "squandering the good-will of the world in the wake of 9/11" and to say it's all Bush's fault is just silly. What the average European knows, or thinks, about the United States is little better than a cartoon caricature. We know very little about them. They know a great deal about us -- much of it flat wrong, most of it severely twisted.

It's all in de Tocqueville. If Europe won't listen to Bush, or Condi Rice, maybe they'd listen to one of their own.

INDEX - AUTHOR



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© February 20, 2005 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"