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The Genius of America
by jános zoltán csák 
translated by thomas sneddon 
angelico press, 158 pages, $16.95

It sure pays to be a visiting European observer of the American scene. The Genius of America by János Zoltán Csák, Hungarian Minister of Culture and Innovation and self-confessed lifelong lover of America, has drawn lavish praise from an A-list of conservative endorsers—Larry Arnn, Rick Santorum, Christopher Rufo, Rod Dreher, and a foreword from Patrick Deneen—not to mention the inevitable comparisons with Tocqueville. It is, says one of the blurbs, a much-needed “love letter” to the U.S.

Csák covers much familiar territory: the founding principles of ordered freedom, equality before the law, property, and justice; the uniquely American fusion of Enlightenment reason with Protestant faith; the undeniable economic, military, and technological success of our country; our alpha-male, boisterous can-do-ness. His closing chapter summarizes today’s combat between Progressives and Conservatives, coming down decisively on the right-wing side. As he puts it, “the elemental power of the American genius is most evident in the fact that the goods it offers are considered by a multitude, both within the country and globally, as aspirations and objects of desire.” 

But what makes Csák’s volume stand out is his frank acknowledgement of America’s flaws, most particularly our hypocritical abuse of African Americans and Native Americans. This is the opening theme of the book. While studying drawings of Indian settlements during a visit to the home of Rev. Henry Whitfield in Guilford, Connecticut, he asks a museum employee, “Do Indians still live here?” When she replies, “They moved,” he asks her why. “They had a different idea of the future.” 

That encounter leads Csák to ponder her motives for “sanitizing” America’s past. Perhaps, he thinks, it’s a matter of “self-defense,” designed to “preserve a civilized and tolerant self-image.” More deeply, he concludes that unboundedness is “the existential essence of American life”: “In front of you lies infinite space, whatever corner of the world you were born in or come from. If you have the right outlook you can choose which way to go. Nor are you limited by time: you can leave your past behind, and behave both towards yourself and towards others like a person without a past.” The museum employee was right: Americans had a “vision of the future” that “simply had no place in it for the Indians.” 

He devotes two central chapters of this small book to painfully detailed scrutiny of these blemishes on American civilization, and returns to his theme throughout the book. “No metaphor of American unity has ever been devised to resolve the contradiction between [our] ideals and either the sin of slavery or the dispossession of the Indians,” he writes. After quoting a 1916 speech by President Wilson that celebrated “the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities,” he tries to imagine “how Black and Native Americans in the America of that time would have reacted to this obviously self-contradictory, hypocritical speech”—not to mention self-congratulatory. “Under American law [in contrast to contemporary Spanish law],” he observes, “a slave was not classified as a person but as an object, and as such had no rights whatsoever.” The clash between American ideals (all created equal) and American reality (Indians moved because they had a different vision of the future) has produced a profound cognitive dissonance in the American soul, papered over with myths of American innocence.

The strength of America’s institutions and character is the source of our greatest evils. Aggressive expansiveness is a key component of the American genius, but it inevitably tramples on others. We haven’t solved this dilemma. To be the energetic people we are, we need “hunger for profit, property, power and adventure, employing the mental and physical abilities that are humanity’s birthright.” American energies lead to success, as in our triumph over Mexican territories that are now part of the U.S. That success generates resentment. Overwhelmed, losers withdraw from the competition into “feelings of insult, envy, and self-pity” and develop an inferiority complex toward “Yankees.” The only way to “curb the hubris, arrogance, instability, and exaggerations” is to place limits on individual action, but that would inhibit the dynamism that makes Americans American, and might lead to tyranny. Yet, the inevitable success of America over her competitors “does not invalidate the devastating moral verdict” that must be rendered. 

Though he doesn’t mention Augustine, Csák offers one of the most Augustinian analyses of America I’ve come across. He doesn’t demonize our nation; he’s truly an admirer. Yet he refuses to ignore, explain away, or sanitize our sins, failures, and internal contradictions, and he discerns how both the splendor and the viciousness of our great civilization grow from the same root. He unmasks our hypocrisies and obfuscations as deftly as Augustine unmasked Rome’s. 

If Csák were an American Democrat, conservative reviewers would dismiss his book as dangerously woke, trash-talk rather than a love letter. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten an endorsement from Christopher Rufo. As I said, it sure pays to be a foreign observer. Csák isn’t a contestant for power, and so, like Tocqueville, is granted permission to be sharply critical. And, while he knows the whole world has a stake in what happens here, and while he takes a clear side in our current cultural and political battles, Csák’s outsider status frees him from the distortions of partisan interest. The Genius of America is a rare gift, a book that speaks the truth in love.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Swampyank, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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