So I keep reading that America is exceptional. That’s not surprising. And that unexceptional fact is both good and bad.
1. Tocqueville finds both religious madness and an insane materialistic restlessness in America. The French have pretty much stayed with that criticism, still viewing us as Puritanical workaholics. So to be a Eurocentric American liberal today—or to be for change our liberals now believe in—is for being less Puritanical (on, to begin with, sex) and for adopting the more laidback French work ethic (withe the assistance of a more generous public safety net).
2. But Tocqueville also thinks being Puritanical is something in which we should take pride. The Puritans weren’t all that nuts. And they took popular enlightenment, civic responsibility, familial morality, the dignity of worthwhile work well done for everyone, and the equality of all human creatures with dead, unprecedented seriousness. The idealism at the core of our idea of equality has an irreducibly Christian element, as do our strengths when it comes to the family, citizenship, work, and charity. So as I’ve said before: When some French or Spanish guy calls you Puritanical, the appropriate response is: “Yes, thanks a lot, you should be more Puritanical too.” (For what happens to young Americans when they turn to today’s Europe to cast off their repressive American moralism, see Woody Allen’s repulsive VICKIE CHRISTINA BARCELONA.)
3. But the French—and also our friendly English critic Chesterton—are right to criticize the excesses of Puritanical America—prohibitionism, for example. This just criticism, whether it comes from Tocqueville or Chesterton, is more culturally Catholic than anything else. (It’s the darn prohibitionism that kept our immigrant Catholics from voting for the moralistic isolationist Bryan that so many Porchers admire.) The French rightly saw (for a while) that our Puritanical prohibitionism had morphed in the direction of bizarre and tyrannical health and safety legislation—concerning smoking, for example. They also saw that it had morphed more broadly in the direction of our humorless political correctness.
4. But Chesterton should have appreciated more than he did that Bryan’s struggle against Darrow was finally on behalf of defending our creedal belief in the equal significance of every human being against a Nietzschean form of Darwinianism. Bryan and Chesterton certainly shared the view that our Declaration’s creed was really about the equal significance of every human creature, and it depended upon a foundation for that personal significance in God and nature. So for Eurocentric liberals today our “fundamentalist” Darwin denial seems to be a peculiarly American form of redneck insanity. But even if it’s finally misguided, there’s something profoundly dignified and genuinely egalitarian about it. It should cause us to think, more broadly, about the question of whether even “the Laws of Nature” of our Declaration really account for who we are as persons.
5. So I have a lot more to say. I haven’t touched on either our Lockeanism or our progressivism (except its perverse Darwinian element) yet.