A prouder year for America, and for me

Jul 4 JDN 2459380

Living under Trump from 2017 to 2020, it was difficult to be patriotic. How can we be proud of a country that would put a man like that in charge? And then there was the COVID pandemic, which initially the US handled terribly—largely because of the aforementioned Trump.

But then Biden took office, and almost immediately things started to improve. This is a testament to how important policy can be—and how different the Democrats and Republicans have become.

The US now has one of the best rates of COVID vaccination in the world (though lately progress seems to be stalling and other countries are catching up). Daily cases in the US are now the lowest they have been since March 2020. Even real GDP is almost back up to its pre-pandemic level (even per-capita), and the surge of inflation we got as things began to re-open already seems to be subsiding.

I can actually celebrate the 4th of July with some enthusiasm this year, whereas the last four years involved continually reminding myself that I was celebrating the liberating values of America’s founding, not the current terrible state of its government. Of course our government policy still retains many significant flaws—but it isn’t the utter embarrassment it was just a year ago.

This may be my last 4th of July to celebrate for the next few years, as I will soon be moving to Scotland (more on that in a moment).

2020 was a very bad year, but even halfway through it’s clear that 2021 is going to be a lot better.

This was true for just about everyone. I was no exception.

The direct effects of the pandemic on me were relatively minor.

Transitioning to remote work was even easier than I expected it to be; in fact I was even able to run experiments online using the same research subject pool as we’d previously used for the lab. I not only didn’t suffer any financial hardship from the lockdowns, I ended up better off because of the relief payments (and the freezing of student loan payments as well as the ludicrous stock boom, which I managed to buy in near the trough of). Ordering groceries online for delivery is so convenient I’m tempted to continue it after the pandemic is over (though it does cost more).

I was careful and/or fortunate enough not to get sick (now that I am fully vaccinated, my future risk is negligible), as were most of my friends and family. I am not close to anyone who died from the virus, though I do have some second-order links to some who died (grandparents of a couple of my friends, the thesis advisor of one of my co-authors).

It was other things, that really made 2020 a miserable year for me. Some of them were indirect effects of the pandemic, and some may not even have been related.

For me, 2020 was a year full of disappointments. It was the year I nearly finished my dissertation and went on the job market, applying for over one hundred jobs—and got zero offers. It was the year I was scheduled to present at an international conference—which was then canceled. It was the year my papers were rejected by multiple journals. It was the year I was scheduled to be married—and then we were forced to postpone the wedding.

But now, in 2021, several of these situations are already improving. We will be married on October 9, and most (though assuredly not all) of the preparations for the wedding are now done. My dissertation is now done except for some formalities. After over a year of searching and applying to over two hundred postings in all, I finally found a job, a postdoc position at the University of Edinburgh. (A postdoc isn’t ideal, but on the other hand, Edinburgh is more prestigious than I thought I’d be able to get.) I still haven’t managed to publish any papers, but I no longer feel as desperate a need to do so now that I’m not scrambling to find a job. Now of course we have to plan for a move overseas, though fortunately the university will reimburse our costs for the visa and most of the moving expenses.

Of course, 2021 isn’t over—neither is the COVID pandemic. But already it looks like it’s going to be a lot better than 2020.

A better kind of patriotism

Jul 5 JDN 2459037

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, but a lot of us haven’t felt much like celebrating. When things are this bad—pandemic, economic crisis, corrupt government, police brutality, riots, and so on—it can be hard to find much pride in our country.

Perhaps this is why Republicans tend to describe themselves as more patriotic than Democrats. Republicans have always held our country to a far lower standard (indeed, do they hold it to any standard at all!?) and so they can be proud of it even in its darkest times.

Indeed, in some sense national pride in general is a weird concept: We weren’t even alive when our nation was founded, and even today there are hundreds of millions of people in our nation, so most of what it does has nothing to do with us. But human beings are tribal: We feel a deep need to align ourselves with groups larger than ourselves. In the current era, nations fill much of that role (though certainly not all of it, as we form many other types of groups as well). We identify so strongly with our nation that our pride or shame in it becomes pride or shame in ourselves.

As the toppling of statues extends beyond Confederate leaders (obviously those statues should come down! Would Great Britain put up statues of Napoleon?) and Christopher Columbus (who was recognized as a monster in his own time!) to more ambiguous cases like Ulysses Grant, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, or even utterly nonsensical ones like Matthias Baldwin, one does begin to get the sense that the left wing doesn’t just hate racism; some of them really do seem to hate America.

Don’t get me wrong: The list of America’s sins is long and weighty. From the very beginning the United States was built by forcing out Native populations and importing African slaves. The persistent inequality between racial groups today suggests that reparations for these crimes may still be necessary.

But I think it is a mistake to look at a statue of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and see only a slaveowner. They were slaveowners, certainly—and we shouldn’t sweep that under the rug. Perhaps it is wrong to idolize anyone, because our heroes never live up to our expectations and great men are almost always bad men. Even Martin Luther King was a sexual predator and Mahatma Gandhi abused his wife. Then again, people seem to need heroes: Without something to aspire to, some sense of pride in who they are, people rapidly become directionless or even hopeless.

While there is much to be appalled by in Washington or Jefferson, there is also much to admire. Indeed, specifically what we are celebrating on Independence Day strikes me as something particularly noteworthy, something truly worthy of the phrase “American exceptionalism”.

For most of human history, every major nation formed organically. Many were ruled by hereditary dynasties that extended to time immemorial. Others were aware that they had experienced coups and revolutions, but all of these were about the interests of one king (or prince, or duke) versus another. The Greek philosophers had debated what the best sort of government would be, but never could agree on anything; insofar as they did agree, they seemed to prefer benevolent autocracy. Even where democracies existed, they too had formed organically, and in practice rarely had suffrage beyond upper-class men. Nations had laws, but these laws were subordinate to the men who made and enforced them; one king’s sacred duty was another’s heinous crime.

Then came the Founding Fathers. After fighting their way out of the grip of the British Empire, they could easily have formed their own new monarchy and declared their own King George—and there were many who wanted to do this. They could have kept things running basically the same way they always had.

But they didn’t. Instead, they gathered together a group of experts and leaders from the revolution, all to ask the question: “What is the best way to run a country?” Of course there were many different ideas about the answer. A long series of impassioned arguments and bitter conflicts ensued. Different sides cited historians and philosophers back and forth at each other, often using the same source to entirely opposite conclusions. Great compromises were made that neither side was happy with (like the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Connecticut Compromise).

When all the dust cleared and all the signatures were collected, the result was a document that all involved knew was imperfect and incomplete—but nevertheless represented a remarkable leap forward for the very concept of what it means to govern a nation. However painfully and awkwardly, they came to some kind of agreement as to what was the best way to run a country—and then they made that country.

It’s difficult to overstate what a watershed moment this was in human history. With a few exceptions—mostly small communities—every other government on earth had been created to serve the interests of its rulers, with barely even a passing thought toward what would be ethical or in the best interests of the citizens. Of course some self-interest crept in even to the US Constitution, and in some ways we’ve been trying to fix that ever since. But even asking what sort of government would be best for the people was something deeply radical.

Today the hypocrisy of a slaveowner writing “all men are created equal” is jarring to us; but at the time the shock was not that he would own slaves, but that he would even give lip service to universal human equality. It seems bizarre to us that someone could announce “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and then only grant voting rights to landowning White men—but to his contemporaries, the odd thing was citing philosophers (specifically John Locke) in your plan for a new government.

Indeed, perhaps the most radical thing of all about the Constitution of the United States is that they knew it was imperfect. The Founding Fathers built into the very text of the document a procedure for amending and improving it. And since then we have amended it 27 times (though to be fair the first 10 were more like “You know what? We should actually state clearly that people have free speech rather than assuming courts will automatically protect that.”)

Every nation has a founding myth that lionizes its founders. And certainly many, if not most, Americans believe a version of this myth that is as much fable as fact. But even the historical truth with all of its hypocrises has plenty to be proud of.

Though we may not have had any control over how our nation was founded, we do have a role in deciding its future. If we feel nothing but pride in our nation, we will not do enough to mend and rectify its flaws. If we feel nothing but shame in our nation, we will not do enough to preserve and improve its strengths.

Thus, this Independence Day, I remind you to be ambivalent: There is much to be ashamed of, but also much to be proud of.

What are we celebrating today?

JDN 2457208 EDT 13:35 (July 4, 2015)

As all my American readers will know (and unsurprisingly 79% of my reader trackbacks come from the United States), today is Independence Day. I’m curious how my British readers feel about this day (and the United Kingdom is my second-largest source of reader trackbacks); we are in a sense celebrating the fact that we’re no longer ruled by you.

Every nation has some notion of patriotism; in the simplest sense we could say that patriotism is simply nationalism, yet another reflection of our innate tribal nature. As Obama said when asked about American exceptionalism, the British also believe in British exceptionalism. If that is all we are dealing with, then there is no particular reason to celebrate; Saudi Arabia or China could celebrate just as well (and very likely does). Independence Day then becomes something parochial, something that is at best a reflection of local community and culture, and at worst a reaffirmation of nationalistic divisiveness.

But in fact I think we are celebrating something more than that. The United States of America is not just any country. It is not just a richer Brazil or a more militaristic United Kingdom. There really is something exceptional about the United States, and it really did begin on July 4, 1776.

In fact we should probably celebrate June 21, 1789 and December 15, 1791, the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights respectively. But neither of these would have been possible without that Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. (In fact, even that date isn’t as clear-cut as commonly imagined.)

What makes the United States unique?

From the dawn of civilization around 5000 BC up to the mid-18th century AD, there were basically two ways to found a nation. The most common was to grow the nation organically, formulate an ethnic identity over untold generations and then make up an appealing backstory later. The second way, and not entirely mutually exclusive, was for a particular leader, usually a psychopathic king, to gather a superior army, conquer territory, and annex the people there, making them part of his nation whether they wanted it or not. Variations on these two themes were what happened in Rome, in Greece, in India, in China; they were done by the Sumerians, by the Egyptians, by the Aztecs, by the Maya. All the ancient civilizations have founding myths that are distorted so far from the real history that the real history has become basically unknowable. All the more recent powers were formed by warlords and usually ruled with iron fists.

The United States of America started with a war, make no mistake; and George Washington really was more a charismatic warlord than he ever was a competent statesman. But Washington was not a psychopath, and refused to rule with an iron fist. Instead he was instrumental in establishing a fundamentally new approach to the building of nations.
This is literally what happened—myths have grown around it, but it itself documented history. Washington and his compatriots gathered a group of some of the most intelligent and wise individuals they could find, sat them down in a room, and tasked them with answering the basic question: “What is the best possible country?” They argued and debated, considering absolutely the most cutting-edge economics (The Wealth of Nations was released in 1776) and political philosophy (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense also came out in 1776). And then, when they had reached some kind of consensus on what the best sort of country would be—they created that country. They were conscious of building a new tradition, of being the founders of the first nation built as part of the Enlightenment. Previously nations were built from immemorial tradition or the whims of warlords—the United States of America was the first nation in the world that was built on principle.

It would not be the last; in fact, with a terrible interlude that we call Napoleon, France would soon become the second nation of the Enlightenment. A slower process of reform would eventually bring the United Kingdom itself to a similar state (though the UK is still a monarchy and has no formal constitution, only an ever-growing mountain of common law). As the centuries passed and the United States became more and more powerful, its system of government attained global influence, with now almost every nation in the world nominally a “democracy” and about half actually recognizable as such. We now see it as unexceptional to have a democratically-elected government bound by a constitution, and even think of the United States as a relatively poor example compared to, say, Sweden or Norway (because #Scandinaviaisbetter), and this assessment is not entirely wrong; but it’s important to keep in mind that this was not always the case, and on July 4, 1776 the Founding Fathers truly were building something fundamentally new.

Of course, the Founding Fathers were not the demigods they are often imagined to be; Washington himself was a slaveholder, and not just any slaveholder, but in fact almost a billionaire in today’s terms—the wealthiest man in America by far and actually a rival to the King of England. Thomas Jefferson somehow managed to read Thomas Paine and write “all men are created equal” without thinking that this obligated him to release his own slaves. Benjamin Franklin was a misogynist and womanizer. James Madison’s concept of formalizing armed rebellion bordered on insanity (and ultimately resulted in our worst amendment, the Second). The system that they built disenfranchised women, enshrined the slavery of Black people into law, and consisted of dozens of awkward compromises (like the Senate) that would prove disastrous in the future. The Founding Fathers were human beings with human flaws and human hypocrisy, and they did many things wrong.

But they also did one thing very, very right: They created a new model for how nations should be built. In a very real sense they redefined what it means to be a nation. That is what we celebrate on Independence Day.

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