Saturday, May 12, 2007

America is Good

IlliniPundit had the temerity to suggest that contrary to the assumption of many, America is a force for good in the world, and not of evil.

That brave suggestion presupposes agreement on the meaning of "good", however. In today's climate of Carrolinian redefinition, attaching meaning even, or perhaps especially to the simplest words requires a foundation built laboriously on the eroding sands of common understanding, subject always to the deconstructionist's indignant retort.

Words do have some meaning, as even the staunchest post-modernist would agree (though "post-modernist" is perhaps itself not well-defined). I submit that while it may not be possible for America's critics and her apologists to agree that any one particular thing is "good", we can at least agree that there is an adjective we use to mean we prefer one result to another, or one thing to its opposite.

But what does it mean for a nation to be "good"? Are we only saying that we prefer its existence to its absence? I think it's more than that.

When struggling to define "good" for a nation, it is tempting to fall back on what it means for an individual to be good. though nations are not individuals and must be held to different standards. On indulging the temptation, and recalling that almost all people everywhere have seen selfless giving as a high good, we can suppose that a pattern of selfless giving on the part of a nation, if such were possible, would tend to put that nation in line for the label "good".

The difference between personal morality and national goodness is that in a nation, people do not all hold the same views. That is part of why nations cannot be judged by the same moral standards as individuals: national governments must seek the good of all, if they are to last, and in doing so are often praised for things which would redound sharply against an individual, or criticized for that which would exalt an individual.

So does that conflict between standards for individual and national virtue apply to goodness? A national government cannot be as selfless as an individual, any more than a father or mother would be right to deprive and neglect his or her children to care for those outside the family. A single person can choose to live in abject and unhealthful poverty. The needs of a family, or those of the citizens of the nation, intervene.

Perhaps attractiveness in nations is a good meter for goodness, though here the bar is set so low for my argument that I may feel foolish completing it.

People don't allow themselves to be stuffed into the hold of cargo ships to get into China, or France, or Belgium. They come to America. But that only says that some people like the idea of America more than the reality of their homeland, which is not quite the same thing as being "good".

People come to America as they always have for two separate and inseparable reasons: the promise of prosperity, and the lure of liberty. Perhaps in the many generations who have journeyed here over the past four centuries there have been some who came only for liberty, or only in search of wealth, but each and every one of them also knew that if they were free to worship in their own way, they would likewise be free to turn their hand to whatever they wished. Similarly, those seeking wealth cannot but have known that here they would be free to worship, speak, write, and travel largely as they wished. One can hardly expect to prosper otherwise. And despite the growing tyranny of political correctness, in America one can still largely believe, say, and do whatever it is that strikes his fancy.

At present, we are still free. And that is a good thing about America.

America has for the past hundred-odd years been wont to engage in foreign wars not to gain territory or resources, but in defense of others. In particular, American lives have been expended to the ideals of others, and most especially their right to govern themselves. Sometimes our mission has been clouded in a kind of international conflict of interest, in which our dual goals of defending liberty and securing something else of value has been seen to sully our moral authority.

And yet this defense of liberty and the use of military force to extend commercial influence are similar, and in fact no different, from the desire of those emigrating from some impoverished or tyrannical country. For the desire to extend freedom to others and the desire for favorable trade climate are also inseparable. We cannot extend the social freedoms without also creating a free economy.

America has shown the world that a democratic republic could not only survive, but flourish. She has come to the rescue of nations beset by their own ill-constructed economies, natural disasters, and by other nations. And all America asks in return is that people be free.

America is good. It's almost a tautology.

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