April 11, 2007

Worth It: The Unsung Merits of the West

America in the past was never shy about singing its own praises. Everyone wanted to come to America, the Land of Opportunity, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. America threw itself parades, gave itself monuments, wrote songs about itself, wrote books about how great it was, and hung banners all over itself to let the whole world know, "I Am America!" America has done this from the very beginning, but after a time this praise began to be taken for granted. "Of course America is great, but do we have to say it all the time?" "Of course we love America, but do we need to have flags everywhere?" And once people began taking it for granted, they no longer sang as loudly or spoke as boldly: "America is great" became like saying "the sky is blue". But takinga thing for granted is often the surest way of losing the thing, and so it was that without people hearing that America is great, people no longer take it for granted.

Europe faced a similar problem, but for Europe the loss of self-confidence was compounded by the aggressiveness of the Germans. In the first half of the 20th century, millions of people would die because Germany and later Italy would think too highly of themselves, think themselves too great, and demanded the world give them their due. Europe learned the danger of thinking too highly of yourself and recoiled to an opposite, self-depricating extreme to avoid perpetuating another global war.

But both America and Europe have gone too far and forgotten why they are so successful, why they are so wealthy, and why everyone from the rest of the world is clamouring to immigrate. Without people singing their praises anymore, the West has begun to suspect that there is something flawed or even criminal about their success, and while every nation has its skeletons, the West has forgotten that it is the greatest construct in human history and has done more good for the planet than any human institution before it.

What has the history of the West done for this world? Why does the West deserve to survive when other civilizations would destroy it? Because the West has done more to better humanity than anything else. Greece gave us democracy and Western Philosophy, one of the bedrocks of a free society. Rome gave the world running water and public sanitation. Germany gave the world the printing press, contributing unbelievably to the proliferation of literacy and education. The Catholic Church gave us public hospitals, schools, and orphanages. The Reformation taught us individual responsibility, free thinking, and accountability. France gave us literature from Chrétien de Troys, England gave us drama from Shakespeare, Italy gave us art from Michelangelo, Austria and Germany gave us music from Mozart and Beethoven. Italy, Germany, France, and England gave us the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, doing more to further the proliferation of art and science than anyone before. Europe gave us codified law that, as a rare anomaly in history, derived its power as a mandate from the people and not the will of Kings.

And of America? She is the inheritor of the long tradition of industrious work, ingenious creativity, a personal liberty. Though Europe had long given many of her powers to her people, America was a rare creature, formed entirely from the will of the people to be free and ruled not by a distant King, but by their own voices. America, having very little history and social structures at its start, welcomed everyone from distant shores to come and be what they would be; to make their own lives in the New World. American meritocracy rewarded hard work, and so those who would make their living through hard work flocked to America. And because America rewarded industry, it produced some of the most industrious minds, establishing its presence in the world through invention, hard work, and democratic rule of law. Though she had her failings, and they were many, it was hard to lose sight of what America was and what she represented: the hope that anyone could do or be anything in America so long as they had a dream and the determination to make it come true. America based itself on the premise that everyone was created equal and deserved life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and though it has struggled to live up to this dream it has never stopped pursuing it.

And what of the modern America? America does far more good across the globe than any country in history.
- America is the single largest contributor to global charity on the planet, giving $260 billion dollars in private donations in 2005, and combined with US government aid that came out to roughly $285 billion dollars.
- More citizens volunteer their time and money for charity in the US than in any other nation.
- The US is the single largest contributor to Africa for the fight against AIDS.
- The US is the single largest contributor to global defense, stationing military installations across the globe to protect many nations that cannot protect themselves.
- America offers more opportunity and social mobility than any other country, including the countries of Europe. America is the only country that has created a population of "self-made tycoons."
- Work and trade are respectable in America. Historically most cultures have despised the merchant and the laborer, regarding the former as vile and corrupt and the latter as degraded and vulgar. Some cultures, such as that of ancient Greece and medieval Islam, even held that it is better to acquire things through plunder than through trade or contract labor. But the American founders altered this moral hierarchy. They established a society in which the life of the businessman, and of the people who worked for him, would be a noble calling. In the American view, there is nothing vile or degraded about serving your customers either as a CEO or as a waiter. The ordinary life of production and supporting a family is more highly valued in the United States than in any other country.
- America has achieved greater social equality than any other society. True, there are large inequalities of income and wealth in America. In purely economic terms, Europe is more egalitarian. But Americans are socially more equal than any other people, and this is unaffected by economic disparities. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this egalitarianism a century and a half ago and it is, if anything, more prevalent today.
- Of the world wars of the 20th century, the United States became involved in what many called "Europe's War" at great cost to herself and for no other reason than a national, cultural altruism never before witnessed on Earth.
- Of the global powers, the United States is the most powerful and the least imperial, relinquishing control of nations more often than claiming it. The US was magnanimous in victory with its enemies after WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The US at times intervenes to overthrow a dictator, but never stays to rule the country: Grenada, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the United States has invaded and gone out of its way to relinquish control to the local people. And when the United States does get involved, their troops take great pains to avoid harming the civilian population, selectively targeting military and enemy targets with a care that is unprecedented in world military history.

The United States deserves her share of blame, but if she is to be blamed it is for her inaction more than her action: her failure to live up to her obligations as the superpower rather than her malice. America is uncomfortable in its role as the greatest and people have begun to retreat from that responsibility, much to the detriment of the world. Since World War II some of the greatest atrocities of humanity arose because of America’s inaction, America’s failure to uphold its promises, and America’s discomfort with its own power. People die in greater numbers when America abstains than when she acts. The atrocities of Soviet Russia, Communist China, Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Darfur stem from an inaction on the part of America: a trepidation in the face of Soviet murder, a lack of will to support nationalist China against communism, a retreat from Vietnam that led to the slaughter of millions, a hesitance to get involved in Africa leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Nearly 200 million people died in the 20th century from the actions of tyrannical regimes: many of them borne from collapse of American will.

After WWII we began to lose our faith in America. If America has one failing since the end of the last world war it is a failure to believe that their place in the world is important and that they have an obligation to the world as the greatest power. Failure to recognize its own value and its own strength has contributed to some of the greatest acts of horror in the modern age. America has never started an atrocity, but more than once she has let one happen because she did not believe she had the right or the obligation to interfere. It is a failing that America must overcome if there is to be peace, but it is a failing that grows with each generation of Americans who do not know the good America represents in the world.

The West deserves to survive and to succeed. More than that, the West must succeed for the good of the planet. If the heritage, the creativity, the generosity, the might, the ingenuity, the industry, and the philosophy of the West fail, it will be a terrible blow for humanity. No other culture has contributed and continues to contribute as much as the West, and despite its failings Western Culture is the greatest culture yet produced by human kind.

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