Saturday, February 21, 2009

The American habit of self-congratulation and the temptation of optimism

Interesting commentary by Daniel Larison (via Andrew Sullivan) about optimism, responsibility, the American habit of self-congratulation, and dismissing critics for “blaming America first”:

… many of us still today remain critical of or even hostile to certain episodes in American history, because so many of these episodes derived from this habit of self-congratulation and were valorized in historical memory as part of the same habit to glorify ourselves as exceptional. Many of us are more skeptical of the ‘Good Wars’ in our past because we see plainly how the mythology of the ‘Good Wars’ covers over gross injustices and feeds into national self-righteousness that is in turn used to justify other exercises of power.


… If Americans have had a habit of self-congratulation, we also prefer it when our politicians flatter us. Perhaps that is an inescapable part of democratic or quasi-democratic politics. No one likes to hear that he is contributing to grave national problems, much less that he must change something about himself rather than demand action from the government on his behalf. Private irresponsibility hardly fuels demands for public probity and prudence, but instead seems to give license to reckless policies. The old stump speech boilerplate about making the government’s budget more balanced and like a household budget will still win applause, but when private indebtedness is so great it means nothing.

One of the most tired accusations is that so-and-so “blames America first,” which in a more sane world would be understood as taking responsibility for one’s own flaws. One would think that a more damning charge would be to say that someone never blames America, and so refuses to take responsibility for anything done in her, our, name, but even this use of the word blame is misguided. In fact, most of the people who “blame America first” go to great lengths to identify the flaws of America only with the parts of the country unlike theirs and only with the people on the other side of cultural and political divides. The more comprehensive the critique, the fewer people there are who want to hear it. When making a cultural critique of private habits, the resistance becomes even more fierce. The more prophetic and less convenient the warning, the less political traction it has because it unites more enemies against it. To call for self-restraint, rather than self-congratulation and self-rewarding, from everyone is necessarily to be a voice in the wilderness.

You can read his entire piece here at The American Conservative.

1 comment:

Paul Hammond said...

Obama's speech last night was chock full of flatter. It's his job to inspire confidence and playing to our better selves may be the way to do it. All in all I thought it was a good speech, but I have felt for a long time we digging ourselves a hole (or better yet blowing ourselves a bubble), but we were having too good a time to care.

It used to be said when America sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold. In the world economy it has been in the rest of the world's interest to keep America solvent by buying our debt. Now that we have the flu, will China be able buy us out to save their own economy? Is that wise.

I didn't hear those subjects come up. I'm pretty sure most people are not interested in the fine details.