November 6, 2002
THE EUROPEAN IDOL:
The American Idol
(THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, November 6, 2002, NY Times)
Bill Clinton is viewed by the world as the epitome of American optimism--naive optimism maybe, but optimism. And the Bush team--the President, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice (Colin Powell is an exception)--strike the world as cynical pessimists who believe only in power politics, much like 19th-century European statesmen. For the world, Bill Clinton is another J.F.K. and George Bush is another Thomas Hobbes, a man who, after witnessing Europe's religious wars, became deeply pessimistic about human nature and concluded that only one law prevailed in the world: Homo Homini Lupus--every man is a wolf to every other man.
If I've learned anything from living abroad, it's that while other nations often make fun of or scoff at America's naive optimism, deep down they envy that optimism and rue the day we would give it up and adopt the tragic European view of history. Because our optimism about human nature and its commitment to the rule of law, not just power, is the engine of the modern West. It is also a huge source of U.S. strength and appeal--the soft power that comes from technologies, universities, Disney Worlds, movies and a Declaration of Independence built on the assumption that the future can bury the past.
It just is not possible to be more wrong than Mr. Friedman
is in this column as regards the nature of the American experiment. The very essence of our Constitution is the assumption that men are completely untrustworthy and only by playing off their various selfishnesses against each other can freedom be protected. Socialist Europe on the other hand is premised on the utopian belief that you can have a healthy polity by assuming that folks will work hard and remain connected to the community around them despite a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that effectively dissolves most of the strands that bind a society together
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 6, 2002 10:53 AM
Well, the simple foundation of secular humanism is a belief in the perfectability of human institutions. Man might err, but good politics can make the aggregate outcomes "good", however that is defined.
Secular humanism is then the foundation of much of modern day liberalism, excluding various liberal religious skeins of thought. That is where Friedman comes into conflict, as a modern liberal, with those liberals of two centuries ago who had just fought two wars with a liberal monarchy who wished to hang the lot of them. Was it Ben Johnson who remarked "hanging tends to clarify one's thoughts"? Might be a bit extreme to recommend to Friedman as a corrective to his errors, but then sometimes his errors are equally extreme.
Samuel Johnson: The prospect that one is to be hanged in the morning....
What could possibly be more optimistic than the notion that ordinary people are able to conduct their own affairs?
Or more pessimistic than the view that in order for society to function it mut be organized by priests or aristocrats or democratic central committees?
It was Reagan who said you cannot be moral without kowtowing to some deity, Harry who says, "O yeah, I didn't knock up any unmarrried women."
It's the difference between control and self-control, discipline and self-discipline.
Ordinary people are quite specifically distanced from power; that's the vital feature of our Republic.
On the contrary, ordinary people are in charge. Steyn had a wonderful column on how it works, I think at Jewish World Review, and using as an example the township he lives in, in, I believe, Vermont.
Yesterday, for example, in my county we had a race for mayor between the incumbent, who ran for mayor because he needed a job when his small coffee shop failed; and a councilman, who ran for council when he got into a dispute with his county bosses when he was a sewage treatment plant operator. They made the general by defeating a man who moves pianos and a heavy equipment operator in the primary.
In this county, no lawyer -- to take an example -- has ever won an election, with the exception of one who sat on the more or less meaningless Board of Education.
Steyn lives in NH, one town over.
Perhaps, by idolizing Clinton, the Europeans are actually showing their appreciation of American values, since he's walking proof of the "very essence of our Constitution [that assumes that] men are completely untrustworthy...."
Ha! Except that they trust him...
Europe is what America would be if we were 90% Democrats, 4% Republicans. They love Clinton for the same reasons Manhattanites love him. I don't think it's any more complicated than that . . . I don't hear any ideas from Europe that don't also come from our left.