America the Paradox

On this Fourth of July, I’ve been giving careful thought to what this day signifies. For Americans, this is a date that means more than barbecue grills in the backyard or colorful stars blossoming in the night sky, more even than patriotic music and red-white-and-blue flags rippling in the breeze. These are time-tested symbols, but if we do not look closely and remember, we risk seeing the symbols only and not the underlying reality at which they point.

America’s history is far more than spidery letters on crackling yellow parchment. Our past is a living past, one that still shapes our present in intricate and subtle ways, and we forget it to our detriment. We who have the privilege of being citizens of the United States of America should consider ourselves patriotic, for in truth, we have a great deal to be patriotic about.

At our country’s dawning, we fought a revolution that threw off the yoke of tyranny and shone out like a fiery beacon to freedom fighters all across the world, prevailing heroically over seemingly insurmountable odds. We were the first to proclaim that government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. We are the country that reintroduced liberal democracy to the world after its long sleep during the dark ages of medievalism, reviving the rational spirit of the ancient Greeks and fusing it with the best thought of the Enlightenment. We set a precedent by writing natural law and human rights into our founding Constitution, building our new republic on what is still the strongest and best scaffolding of ideas ever devised.

America’s achievements did not end with its founding. A serpent of slavery had lain coiled around the heart of our nation since its founding, and when it finally arose to exact its debt, we faced and defeated it. We were nearly riven asunder in a terrible civil war, but those on the side of right won out, and our union was recreated stronger than ever. We fought against nativism and xenophobia to create a multicultural society, crowning our harbor’s gates with the symbol of liberty, not of conquest.

When humanity faced its darkest hour, America answered the call. We stood up to tyranny from both the extreme left and the extreme right, smashing the genocidal Axis powers and prevailing over Communism in a test of will. We ended two world wars and won the Cold War, carrying the world safe through the dark days of nuclear brinksmanship, and nurtured the democracy that flourished after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In recent years, we have brokered and defended peace in ancient trouble spots, including Northern Ireland and the Balkans. Today, we still have stronger protections for freedom of speech and freedom of religion than almost anywhere else in the world, and we are still a multicultural society explicitly built on welcoming immigrants of all nations and cultures.

Not just in statecraft, but in science has America given back to the world. We can fairly claim to have invented the light bulb, the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, the personal computer, and the Internet. We were first to split the atom, first to walk on the Moon, shared the honor of discovering the structure of DNA, first to crack the genetic code. We are still one of the scientific leaders of the world, making countless new discoveries every year that hold out hope to improve the human condition. Likewise, in the marketplace of ideas and culture America dominates. Whether for better or for worse, our symbols and our language have spread across the world, such that even those who resent and loathe them cannot deny their influence.

And yet, the United States has far too often been less than a shining example. Despite all that we have done, there are still many things we failed to do.

In social progress, it cannot be denied that we have often lagged other nations. We were latecomers in freeing our slaves and granting women the right to vote. Even after the institution of slavery was toppled, the taint of racism lingered, giving rise to an agonizing and burdensome scheme of segregation that took another revolution to eliminate. Even today, decades after these unjust laws were struck down, women and minorities still suffer from their pernicious legacy.

Today, we still have tens of millions who are trapped in appalling poverty, dwelling in the shadows of our society, their predicament largely overlooked and ignored. We still lack the basic guarantee of universal health care, a right that most citizens of industrialized countries have long since taken for granted. We still imprison vastly many more people than almost any other country in the world, meting out draconian sentences to non-violent offenders with scarce evidence of any deterrent effect. We still lavish enormous amounts of money on military spending while the basic needs of so many go begging or go unmet. We still, far too often, turn a blind eye to poverty and human rights violations around the world. In a country that has given the world so many scientific achievements, we still have a populace that suffers from pervasively high levels of scientific ignorance on even basic matters of fact, and a leadership that refuses to confront the looming problem of global climate change. In America, as in virtually no other industrialized nation, intolerant, militaristic religion still wields a frightening degree of influence.

Just as our history has its high points, it has its low points as well. Our nation’s founding generation visited terrible cruelties on the native people who inhabited this land. We have started many wars of belligerence and imperialism. In times of war and crisis, we sometimes came perilously close to becoming what we stood against, blacklisting or imprisoning countless individuals without benefit of trial. On many occasions we betrayed our own stated principles by seeking to limit free speech, deport foreigners, deny accused people the rights they are due, that are supposed to protect us all. Far too often, we have voted for leaders who used prejudice and demagoguery to divide us, who governed by appealing to what is worst in people rather than what is best.

Despite this catalogue of national sins, I do not hate the United States of America. On the contrary, I love my country. The good works we have wrought in the world are vast, and I do not think the black marks in our ledger outweigh them. It would take a far worse act than any we have yet committed to do that.

Instead, I mean to call attention to America’s uniquely paradoxical nature. We are a democracy that for decades denied the right to vote to over half its citizens. We are a nation founded on the idea that all people are created equal, and yet one that enshrined slavery and discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin. We have fought against tyranny, and yet we have so often been tyrants ourselves. We have made great, pioneering scientific achievements, and yet we still wrestle with primitive religious superstitions that most rational people long since ceased taking seriously.

When I say I am a patriot, I do not mean that I give my support to America blindly, regardless of its actions. Blind allegiance is the worst form of false patriotism. Instead, I owe allegiance to America’s ideals and founding principles, more so than to any action it is taking at any given time. When we as a nation have lived up to those ideals, we have accomplished truly great things. When we have fallen short of those ideals, we have committed grievous wrongs. America is a paradoxical place, but it is the one I call home, and I am not ashamed of it. When we go astray, I think of the famous words of another great statesman and reformer of our past: “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Excellent post as usual. There are so many wonderful things about America. I would like to see us lead by example. If we could just manage to throw away the arrogant imperialism and be a model for the world, I think we’d not only restore our reputation but build it into something greater than it has ever been before.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Excellent post as usual. There are so many wonderful things about America. I would like to see us lead by example. If we could just manage to throw away the arrogant imperialism and be a model for the world, I think we’d not only restore our reputation but build it into something greater than it has ever been before.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    Could someone please define “imperialism” for me? I thought it had something to do with going to foreign places and taking them over to enrich the home country at the expense of the “imperialized.” Think Great Britain and India and Indonesia. They went there, oppressed the natives, took their stuff and shipped it back home, and lived amongst them like kings.

    I know people try to pull out the imperialism card with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq but I don’t see us getting much (unless you count dead soldiers and opium) out of those places and we sure aren’t running them to any extent. In fact, it is costing us more to be there than not.

    Now if you mean cultural imperialism, where our music and movies do better than the local arts and crafts, I say that people buy what they want and not what they are supposed to buy. If the French don’t like McDonalds, nothing is stopping them from passing it by and moving off to the baguette store down the lane. I don’t think we have anything to be sorry about in that case. Maybe if other countries and cultures had better stuff, they might make something we want to buy as well.

    So, please, don’t pull out the imperialism canard without saying exactly what you find objectionable in America’s actions and what you would do to return us to “model” behavior.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    Could someone please define “imperialism” for me? I thought it had something to do with going to foreign places and taking them over to enrich the home country at the expense of the “imperialized.” Think Great Britain and India and Indonesia. They went there, oppressed the natives, took their stuff and shipped it back home, and lived amongst them like kings.

    I know people try to pull out the imperialism card with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq but I don’t see us getting much (unless you count dead soldiers and opium) out of those places and we sure aren’t running them to any extent. In fact, it is costing us more to be there than not.

    Now if you mean cultural imperialism, where our music and movies do better than the local arts and crafts, I say that people buy what they want and not what they are supposed to buy. If the French don’t like McDonalds, nothing is stopping them from passing it by and moving off to the baguette store down the lane. I don’t think we have anything to be sorry about in that case. Maybe if other countries and cultures had better stuff, they might make something we want to buy as well.

    So, please, don’t pull out the imperialism canard without saying exactly what you find objectionable in America’s actions and what you would do to return us to “model” behavior.

  • TheMightyThor

    Corsair: No one is “playing” the imperialism card. I apologize for my present laziness, but do yourself a favor and look into the history of Hawaii, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, etc. You will find plenty of evidence of American imperialism.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Corsair, have you ever heard of Haliburton?

  • Alex Weaver

    Corsair: Attempted imperialism need not be successful to qualify as such.

    Thor: You forgot the Philipines. ;/

    Adam: I’m quoting this extensively. :3

  • Curiosis

    “we still have tens of millions who are trapped in appalling poverty”

    Trapped how? Who has trapped them there? Is someone keeping them in poverty against their will?

    The truth is that most in poverty are there because of terrible decisions. Drug use, missed educational opportunities, or a simple lack of desire to better one’s self.

    We know of people who have made something of themselves who were born into just the poverty described. It can be done. Obviously, it takes much more effort than someone born into wealth, but it can be done.

    By pretending that the poor hold no responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to blame the rich or the successful. And it makes it easier to take what they have earned and give it to those who haven’t.

  • Curiosis

    “we still have tens of millions who are trapped in appalling poverty”

    Trapped how? Who has trapped them there? Is someone keeping them in poverty against their will?

    The truth is that most in poverty are there because of terrible decisions. Drug use, missed educational opportunities, or a simple lack of desire to better one’s self.

    We know of people who have made something of themselves who were born into just the poverty described. It can be done. Obviously, it takes much more effort than someone born into wealth, but it can be done.

    By pretending that the poor hold no responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to blame the rich or the successful. And it makes it easier to take what they have earned and give it to those who haven’t.

  • Curiosis

    Thor,

    Texas a victim of American imperialism? Well, as a ninth generation Texan, that’s news to me. Texas joined the US voluntarily.

    Corsair is right. Our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of imperialism only if you change the meaning of the word.

    We have not taken over either country or made it in any way a territory of the US. We have actually helped them form an independent government that does not answer to our own.

  • SM

    Curiosus, consider who owned Texas in the nineteenth century before a large population of illegal immigrants (and a few legal ones) arrived, quarreled with the government, and successfully rebelled against it. The lack of total social mobility (most people end up in about the same social class as their parents) in North American society disproves the idea that wealth goes to the deserving, and poverty to the undeserving. And the US wants Iraq to remain a puppet state- a fairly common form of imperialism.

  • SM

    Curiosus, consider who owned Texas in the nineteenth century before a large population of illegal immigrants (and a few legal ones) arrived, quarreled with the government, and successfully rebelled against it. The lack of total social mobility (most people end up in about the same social class as their parents) in North American society disproves the idea that wealth goes to the deserving, and poverty to the undeserving. And the US wants Iraq to remain a puppet state- a fairly common form of imperialism.

  • SM

    Back on topic, happy Independence Day EbonMusings. America was a great country once, and it still has admirable features.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    We have not taken over either country or made it in any way a territory of the US. We have actually helped them form an independent government that does not answer to our own.

    Curiosis, if you read books like The End of Iraq, you’d know that the Coalition Provisional Authority repeatedly prevented the Iraqis from holding elections because they feared the election results would not be to their liking. We’ve also drafted – that is, “we” as in the American government, not the Iraqi parliament – and are currently pressuring the Iraqi government to pass a law dividing up Iraqi oil fields among foreign corporations.

    By pretending that the poor hold no responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to blame the rich or the successful.

    And by pretending that the poor hold sole responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to avoid taking one’s share of the blame.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    We have not taken over either country or made it in any way a territory of the US. We have actually helped them form an independent government that does not answer to our own.

    Curiosis, if you read books like The End of Iraq, you’d know that the Coalition Provisional Authority repeatedly prevented the Iraqis from holding elections because they feared the election results would not be to their liking. We’ve also drafted – that is, “we” as in the American government, not the Iraqi parliament – and are currently pressuring the Iraqi government to pass a law dividing up Iraqi oil fields among foreign corporations.

    By pretending that the poor hold no responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to blame the rich or the successful.

    And by pretending that the poor hold sole responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to avoid taking one’s share of the blame.

  • OMGF

    …meting out draconian sentences…

    Don’t forget that we are one of the last remaining first world countries (if not the last) to have capital punishment.

  • SM

    Checking the encyclopaedia, I see that my assessment of the leadup to the Revolt of Texas was too black and that most settlers were let in legally by the Mexican government. I was thinking of more blatant attempts at imperialism such as the Mexican-American War, plots to conquer Cuba, and the like. I recently took a course on 19th century American history, so I’m sorry for the mistake.

  • SM

    Checking the encyclopaedia, I see that my assessment of the leadup to the Revolt of Texas was too black and that most settlers were let in legally by the Mexican government. I was thinking of more blatant attempts at imperialism such as the Mexican-American War, plots to conquer Cuba, and the like. I recently took a course on 19th century American history, so I’m sorry for the mistake.

  • Pi Guy

    Great points, Adam.

    I’ve noticed some of the contradictions that you highlight myself. IMO, the problem is that we have forgotten the most basic motivation that our immigrant ancestors left Europe and elsewhere: freedom. Now, much as the word imperialism appears ambiguous in this comment section, freedom has taken on new meanings that were not anticipated by the founding fathers.

    I fear that we are becoming too nationalistic and less rational. Current administration has succeeded in tying faith to patriotism (you should’ve seen the church floats in yesterday’s parade – man, there are some severely confused and completely incorrect positions being fostered in here my local communities…) and, using the double-edged sword of the church and the law, have begun to go backwards again, slowly limiting freedoms which don’t fit into their vision of the Judeo-Xian-U.S. culture. (Is it just me or is it weird that one never hears a person of the Hebrew persuasion refer to the “Judeo-Christian” culture?)

    Best quote: “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” Thanks to Adam for using this forum to remind what is right and what is wrong in this great nation and to urge us to be vigilant and active in protecting that which has made living here special.

  • Pi Guy

    Great points, Adam.

    I’ve noticed some of the contradictions that you highlight myself. IMO, the problem is that we have forgotten the most basic motivation that our immigrant ancestors left Europe and elsewhere: freedom. Now, much as the word imperialism appears ambiguous in this comment section, freedom has taken on new meanings that were not anticipated by the founding fathers.

    I fear that we are becoming too nationalistic and less rational. Current administration has succeeded in tying faith to patriotism (you should’ve seen the church floats in yesterday’s parade – man, there are some severely confused and completely incorrect positions being fostered in here my local communities…) and, using the double-edged sword of the church and the law, have begun to go backwards again, slowly limiting freedoms which don’t fit into their vision of the Judeo-Xian-U.S. culture. (Is it just me or is it weird that one never hears a person of the Hebrew persuasion refer to the “Judeo-Christian” culture?)

    Best quote: “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” Thanks to Adam for using this forum to remind what is right and what is wrong in this great nation and to urge us to be vigilant and active in protecting that which has made living here special.

  • James Bradbury

    From what I saw of it, Dan Cruickshank came to a similar conclusion: That America was founded on admirable principles that it didn’t always manage to live up to. No reason not to aim high, though.

    On Northern Ireland, I heard the (perhaps apocryphal) story that America’s main contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was to abruptly crack down on its citizens funding the IRA following 9/11. Since then the IRA have been militarily inactive, compared to previous years.

  • James Bradbury

    From what I saw of it, Dan Cruickshank came to a similar conclusion: That America was founded on admirable principles that it didn’t always manage to live up to. No reason not to aim high, though.

    On Northern Ireland, I heard the (perhaps apocryphal) story that America’s main contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was to abruptly crack down on its citizens funding the IRA following 9/11. Since then the IRA have been militarily inactive, compared to previous years.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    Thor:

    Were we “imperialist” in the past in regards to territories contigous to our (then) country as in California, Texas and such? Sure we might have been, but in a lot of those cases it was one “imperial” power us) taking land away from another “imperial” power (Spain or France). But in most of those case you cite, I don’t think it was “imperialism” that drove people but expansionism. We didn’t go to the places you name in order to exploit the natives, we went there to make them us (granted, whether they wanted to or not).

    Current uses of the word “imperialist” seem mainly to get thrown around regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you seriously want us to believe that we plan on making those places states or territories like Florida or Puerto Rico? If not, then what we did before was not imperialistic or what we are doing now is not imperialistic. Words mean what they are. You can’t subsitute the meaning of one word onto another just because you don’t the like the first word and want people to have the same reaction to the second.

    I put it that we are not imperialstic today (we may have been in the past but that is up for debate. Again, see Great Britain, France, Russia, and Spain for real imperialist powers). Today we are trying to project power and make the world into something more to our liking. Not much different than all other countries (Israel, Venezuala, Syria, France, Iran, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Libya, Brazil). In fact, show me a major (or for that matter minor) power in the world who isn’t trying to have things their way. That is what countries do. Some do it better some worse. Should we just pack it up and let the world hang? If we were to do that we would be accused of some other heinous crime by glib poseurs.

    So when Hillary or Obama wins, see if one of them doesn’t have some international adventures which many will not approve of. Just don’t accuse them of doing something they are not.

  • http://www.merchantenterprises.net Christopher Merchant

    After Corsair’s second post, I am somewhat forced to agree. Imperialism is defined through a militaristic overthrow and replacing the potential child-country with the doctrines of the parent. However generally confusing and ‘twisty’ (for lack of a better word) the middle-east situation is, it’s not imperialistic in the common sense of the word.

    Rather than getting hung up on that one word; I congratulate your effort to remind Americans of their place in the world. I fear more for the current generation as days go by.

    Chris

  • http://www.merchantenterprises.net Christopher Merchant

    After Corsair’s second post, I am somewhat forced to agree. Imperialism is defined through a militaristic overthrow and replacing the potential child-country with the doctrines of the parent. However generally confusing and ‘twisty’ (for lack of a better word) the middle-east situation is, it’s not imperialistic in the common sense of the word.

    Rather than getting hung up on that one word; I congratulate your effort to remind Americans of their place in the world. I fear more for the current generation as days go by.

    Chris

  • Curiosis

    Ebonmuse,

    Curiosis, if you read books like The End of Iraq, you’d know that the Coalition Provisional Authority repeatedly prevented the Iraqis from holding elections because they feared the election results would not be to their liking.

    These actions were taken in our role as caretaken since we had just toppled the only working Iraqi government. How would this be any different from our actions in post-WWII Japan or Germany?

    We’ve also drafted – that is, “we” as in the American government, not the Iraqi parliament – and are currently pressuring the Iraqi government to pass a law dividing up Iraqi oil fields among foreign corporations.

    We pressure countries all the time. If we pressure the UK to do something, is that also imperialism?

    And by pretending that the poor hold sole responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to avoid taking one’s share of the blame.

    How am I to blame? I have never acted to deprive someone of their basic needs. You seem to think that having money while others do not somehow makes me guilty of robbing them. You are wrong. If I steal your wallet then I hold the blame for that act and owe you restitution. If you piss your money away on gambling, then I owe you nothing.

  • OMGF

    Imperialism is defined through a militaristic overthrow and replacing the potential child-country with the doctrines of the parent. However generally confusing and ‘twisty’ (for lack of a better word) the middle-east situation is, it’s not imperialistic in the common sense of the word.

    Huh? Isn’t that exactly what we are doing in Iraq? We went in, overthrew the government there, and are now installing our brand of democracy.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hello all,

    Regarding the topic of imperialism, I have a timely quote from Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason:

    We now know, for example, from a document dated just two weeks to the day after Bush’s inauguration, that his National Security Council was ordered to meld its review of operational policies toward “rogue states” (including Iraq) with the secretive Cheney Energy Task Force’s “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.”

    We know from documents obtained in discovery proceedings against that Cheney task force… that one of the documents that was receiving scrutiny by the task force during that same time period was a highly detailed map of Iraq – showing none of the cities, none of the places where people lived, but showing in great detail the location of every single oil deposit known to exist in the country, with dotted lines demarcating blocks for promising exploration – a map that, in the words of a Canadian journalist, resembled a butcher’s drawing of a steer with the prime cuts delineated by dotted lines.

    There’s further corroboration of this. According to Peter Galbraith’s The End of Iraq, in the first few chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad, American troops moved in to protect only one building, leaving the rest of the city open to rioters and looters. As a result, Baghdad’s main library burned. Iraq’s National Museum was looted and vandalized. The water ministry controlling the pumps and canals that brought water to most of the country went up in flames. We protected one building. Which one? The oil ministry.

    An overly cynical person would say that control of Iraq’s oil reserves was the sole reason we invaded. I don’t think it was. I think that was one reason, along with the neoconservatives’ foolish dream of creating a pro-American client state in the region, a desire to project American power throughout the world with an overwhelming show of force, and quite possibly some degree of personal animus on Bush’s part against Saddam Hussein. In any case, the result was the same: we initiated preemptive war with a country that had not attacked us, justifying that war through a sustained campaign of public deception, with the goal of creating a friendly client state that would obey our wishes and serve as a base for American power in the region (and quite possibly a launching point for additional wars). If that isn’t imperialism, I don’t know what is. The fact that these incompetent and poorly conceived plans shattered against the shoals of reality does not alter the obvious initial motivations.

  • Alex Weaver

    And what evidence, aside from the fact that believing it makes it easier for you to sleep at night while others starve, would you offer that this is in any way an accurate characterization of the plight of the typical poor person?

  • Alex Weaver

    And what evidence, aside from the fact that believing it makes it easier for you to sleep at night while others starve, would you offer that this is in any way an accurate characterization of the plight of the typical poor person?

  • Jeff T.

    Curiosis—

    There are numerous sociological studies that document that people born in a certain income bracket tend to remain in that income bracket. This is especially true for the lower quintile of the US population. Additionally, upward social mobility seems to be slower now in the US than in previous decades. Another interesting fact is that the US has less social upward mobility than some other western countries such as France, Denmark, and Canada.

    But, before I hear the typical ‘if you don’t love America than leave it’ logical fallacy, let me agree with you in the sense that I don’t blame myself for the world’s condition. Nor— did I depend on others to raise myself out of the lower quintile that I was born into and raise it at least 3 quintiles. Whether this was due to the great country I am living in or due to my own responsibility in accepting reality for what it is… I am not sure, but I will keep banking on myself and not relying on external factors to keep me ahead or at least afloat in this game called life.

  • Alex Weaver

    But, before I hear the typical ‘if you don’t love America than leave it’ logical fallacy

    Every time I hear that, I wonder whether the speaker would also berate me for “not loving” my daughter when I discipline her or treat her illnesses. The logic, if one can call it that, is at the simplest level equivalent.

  • Curiosis

    Alex,

    And what evidence, aside from the fact that believing it makes it easier for you to sleep at night while others starve, would you offer that this is in any way an accurate characterization of the plight of the typical poor person?

    My evidence is every person who has pulled themselves out of poverty. They prove that it can be done if one is willing to work hard and make good decisions.

    Everyone is this country is guaranteed a free education. The poor often can avail themselves of money to attend college or a trade school. There is ample opportunity for success. If someone fails to take advantage of that opportunity, I take no blame for that. If someone spends money on heroin rather than food, how is that in any way my fault?

    It is noble to want to help others. I don’t want to see anyone starve. But your answer is to force me under penalty of prison to render asistence, regardless of my own personal circumstances. How is that just?

  • Curiosis

    Jeff,

    There are numerous sociological studies that document that people born in a certain income bracket tend to remain in that income bracket. This is especially true for the lower quintile of the US population. Additionally, upward social mobility seems to be slower now in the US than in previous decades. Another interesting fact is that the US has less social upward mobility than some other western countries such as France, Denmark, and Canada.

    This only proves that poor people tend to stay poor and raise children who stay poor. It says nothing about the culpability of the rest of us. And, yes, I would expect to see more upward mobility in in the more socialized countries. Taking money from those who earn it and giving it to those who haven’t tends to jostle the income brackets.

    But, before I hear the typical ‘if you don’t love America than leave it’ logical fallacy, let me agree with you in the sense that I don’t blame myself for the world’s condition.

    You will never hear that from me. Even socialists can love America, and I would expect no one to leave because of a differing opinion. The problem is that the left is too much like the far right. The ultra-conservatives want everyone to live just like them. It is not enough for the left to give money to charity, they want to force everyone to do so as well. How about a little freedom to decide for oneself?

    Nor— did I depend on others to raise myself out of the lower quintile that I was born into and raise it at least 3 quintiles. Whether this was due to the great country I am living in or due to my own responsibility in accepting reality for what it is… I am not sure, but I will keep banking on myself and not relying on external factors to keep me ahead or at least afloat in this game called life.

    There is nothing wrong with depending on others. So long as those others are helping voluntarily. But when they have to help or go to prison something is terribly wrong.

    I admire your tenacity in bettering your life. You are an example of what everyone in poverty could do if they wanted.

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    Eh, you may have made the Internet, but it was a Brit that made the World Wide Web ;-).

    I’m extremely unpatriotic about my country, and have always found the whole saluting the flag and ‘My country right or wrong’, of America, slightly barmy, though I do think the way Carl Schurz puts it is a good motto to have. There is many a good thing to be said for the dreams and aspirations of America, but, sadly, those aspirations are not always fulflilled.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    My evidence is every person who has pulled themselves out of poverty. They prove that it can be done if one is willing to work hard and make good decisions.

    It proves nothing of the sort. How do you know that there aren’t people working equally as hard who simply lack the opportunity or good fortune that others have been lucky enough to get? Hard work may be a necessary condition for getting out of poverty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sufficient one.

    But your answer is to force me under penalty of prison to render asistence, regardless of my own personal circumstances. How is that just?

    To belabor the obvious, it’s because you live in America, and those are the rules for people who live in America, as agreed to by our democratically elected government. It is a just result because it was arrived at in accordance with the Constitution and through the process of democracy in which you have a say equal to everyone else’s. Your taxes pay for the social services which benefit all citizens, including you. That’s part of the social contract you implicitly agree to by living here. This is one case where the old saying actually is appropriate: if you don’t like it, you’re free to leave.

  • Polly

    The question regarding the poor comes down to: How do we help people without making them dependent on government? And, how do we prevent the phenomenon of freeriders?
    Private charity would seem to be one major component of the answer. But, can it suffice all on its own? Probably not.

    To belabor the obvious, it’s because you live in America, and those are the rules for people who live in America, as agreed to by our democratically elected government. It is a just result because it was arrived at in accordance with the Constitution and through the process of democracy in which you have a say equal to everyone else’s

    Technically, wasn’t the US founded as a Republic? Direct democracy didn’t even arise until 1913 with the 17th amendment. Coincidentally, that’s the first year for the imposition of the income tax. (I have a copy of the original tax form – a 1% tax rate on income over $20K…in 1913!)
    The debate has mostly been settled in the direction of greater democracy (and that’s for the best I think), but that doesn’t mean the republic is entirely up for grabs. If 98% of the population voted to ransack the top 2%, it wouldn’t make it right or legal. Those who argue against “government theft”, I would surmise, are coming from this point of view, i.e. the country should be ruled by law, rather than “mob rule.” And the law, of course, respects property holders – always has. Please note I am NOT a libertarian. But, the historic view of the US shows us a hybrid: a republic AND a democracy.
    In California, (and other states, I think) initiatives are sometimes voted on en masse on ballots and may even contain proposed amendments to the CA constitution. This is the evolution of democracy to its purest form, direct democracy. In the last election, there was a ballot initiative to raise taxes on oil companies and cigarettes significantly – basically penalizing unpopular businesses and sending more money into govenment coffers without oversight. This is exactly the sort of populous excess that can ensue when democracy goes unchecked. It’s a bit reckless. No one is safe when everyone, potentially, has a say in what happens to people’s property. You never know when everyone will turn on you in hard times.

  • Curiosis

    Ebonmuse,

    It proves nothing of the sort. How do you know that there aren’t people working equally as hard who simply lack the opportunity or good fortune that others have been lucky enough to get? Hard work may be a necessary condition for getting out of poverty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sufficient one.

    I’ll admit that luck can sometimes play a part, both for good or ill. I never said that hard work alone is sufficient. One must also make good decisions. If you make 50K a year but spend it on frivolous pursuits, then your hard work is negated by your poor decisions.

    You can’t keep a good man down. Someone who is willing to work hard to better their life will succeed.

    To belabor the obvious, it’s because you live in America, and those are the rules for people who live in America, as agreed to by our democratically elected government. It is a just result because it was arrived at in accordance with the Constitution and through the process of democracy in which you have a say equal to everyone else’s.

    Hmmm, just like the patriot act. So I should expect you to never criticize that democratically enacted law, right? Are you really so statist that you think that every law passed is automatically just? BTW, please point out the section of Article I that gives Congress the power to redistribute wealth. “Accordance with the Constitution” my ass!

    Your taxes pay for the social services which benefit all citizens, including you. That’s part of the social contract you implicitly agree to by living here.

    I’m more than willing to pay for the services that benefit us all equally, like police, fire departments, and roads. But I get nothing from the welfare system. It only takes from me.

    I’m very disappointed. I suppose that you would have told Frederick Douglas to just do what his master told him because “that’s part of the social contract you implicitly agree to by living here.”

    This is one case where the old saying actually is appropriate: if you don’t like it, you’re free to leave.

    Yes, I am free to leave, but I’m not going to. I’m going to stay and fight the socialists who value equality of outcome more than personal responsibility.

  • James Bradbury

    “America, the land of the free, they say.
    Land of opportunity, in a just and truthful way.
    But where the president is never black, female or gay…”

    – America Is Not The World, Morrissey.

    Surely the aim is to provide equality of opportunity? Unless you can provide that it is unfair to blame everyone for their situation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’ll admit that luck can sometimes play a part, both for good or ill. I never said that hard work alone is sufficient. One must also make good decisions.

    The error in this is that there are many people who literally cannot make good decisions because their extreme poverty means that the only options available to them are all bad ones. Consider this case of a Cambodian family:

    Nhem Yen’s eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get medical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.

    The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5 — and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out.

    “It’s very hard to choose,” Nhem Yen told me. “But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice.”

    What “good decisions” would you recommend this woman make to lift herself and her seven-child family out of poverty?

    So I should expect you to never criticize that democratically enacted law, right? Are you really so statist that you think that every law passed is automatically just?

    To the degree that the Patriot Act, or any other law, violates the Constitution’s guarantees of civil rights, it is unjust. On the other hand, there is and should be a strong presumption of justice in favor of any law passed through the democratic process – particularly in this case, where the law is actually a constitutional amendment passed by a super-majority. This doesn’t mean we can’t criticize it, or advocate changing it – those are parts of the democratic process. What one can’t do is imply, as you have, that this law somehow unfairly dropped on you out of the sky. A law is not unjust simply because you disagree with it.

    BTW, please point out the section of Article I that gives Congress the power to redistribute wealth.

    I’ve got a better idea – I’ll quote the Sixteenth Amendment.

    The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”

    Which reminds me of something Robert Ingersoll said in praising the abolitionists,

    He loves his country best who strives to make it best. The bravest men are those who have the greatest fear of doing wrong. Mere politicians wish the country to do something for them. True patriots desire to do something for their country.

    Americans today seem complacent about doing wrong — at least judging by the majority’s lack of concern about torture or denying habeas to suspected terrorists. Nor, it seems, do we care much about making our country best (except in weaponry). We’ve fallen behind the European democracies in just about all measures of public health and welfare, but I don’t see much concern about it among Americans.

    Instead we have a libertarianism which repudiates the notion (found in the Preamble to the Constitution) that government should have power to “promote the general Welfare” of the people.

  • http://blog.atheology.com Rastaban

    “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”

    Which reminds me of something Robert Ingersoll said in praising the abolitionists,

    He loves his country best who strives to make it best. The bravest men are those who have the greatest fear of doing wrong. Mere politicians wish the country to do something for them. True patriots desire to do something for their country.

    Americans today seem complacent about doing wrong — at least judging by the majority’s lack of concern about torture or denying habeas to suspected terrorists. Nor, it seems, do we care much about making our country best (except in weaponry). We’ve fallen behind the European democracies in just about all measures of public health and welfare, but I don’t see much concern about it among Americans.

    Instead we have a libertarianism which repudiates the notion (found in the Preamble to the Constitution) that government should have power to “promote the general Welfare” of the people.

  • ex machina

    But in most of those case you cite, I don’t think it was “imperialism” that drove people but expansionism. We didn’t go to the places you name in order to exploit the natives, we went there to make them us (granted, whether they wanted to or not).

    While there are many technical differences between the imperialism of the past and the imperialism of today, they are still effectively the same. I can shoot you myself or build a robot to do it, either way I am a murderer. The US is not annexing Iraq because it no longer has to in order to exploit it. The invasion paved the way to foreign investors and developers whose profits will benefit the corporate interests of the United States and others. The game has not stopped, it has become more sophisticated.

    You can use another word if you like, but the behavior is still unethical for the same reasons.

  • Alex Weaver

    I never said that hard work alone is sufficient.

    Let’s examine your original post.

    Trapped how? Who has trapped them there? Is someone keeping them in poverty against their will?

    The truth is that most in poverty are there because of terrible decisions. Drug use, missed educational opportunities, or a simple lack of desire to better one’s self.

    We know of people who have made something of themselves who were born into just the poverty described. It can be done. Obviously, it takes much more effort than someone born into wealth, but it can be done.

    By pretending that the poor hold no responsibility for their position, it makes it easier to blame the rich or the successful. And it makes it easier to take what they have earned and give it to those who haven’t.

    Sure looks to me like you’re saying that anyone who’s poor is in that state because they aren’t trying. How is this different from “hard work is sufficient” to get one out of poverty?

  • Tom

    With regard to poverty: In previous centuries, certainly before widespread industrialisation, the argument that anyone could get out of destitution simply by working was probably quite true, but it is far less so in the world of today. This is because industry is constantly striving to increase its work output and decrease the number of people that need to be employed in order to produce it, typically by heavy automation, mechanisation and improving process efficiency. This is, in theory, a highly laudable pursuit, as it increases net production of goods and services and reduces their cost, so that the overall quality of life gets dramatically better. There’s just one problem: only those people who haven’t been put out of a job by all this are still actually able to buy all these new, cheaper things and enjoy that quality of life – someone with no work at all cannot pay for even the basics of existence no matter how cheaply the remaining, dwindling workforce can produce them. They cannot self-employ, either, because in a free market they would always be undercut by the more efficient established industries.

    Simply put, we live in a society with increasing population and decreasing numbers of available jobs as processes become ever more efficient and autonomous. Neither of these can be easily stopped or reversed except catastrophically; they might be slowed at best. At the same time, however, we live in a society which requires everyone to be employed. If this situation continues then the point will inevitably be reached, if it hasn’t already, where there just won’t be enough jobs to go round and it will therefore be impossible for the unemployed and destitute to simply work themselves out of their situation if only they have the drive and ambition, as too many people dismissively like to proclaim. Sooner or later, this stance is going to become untenable, and the longer it takes before people recognise that, the worse the situation is going to become before it is fixed.


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