Monday, October 8, 2012

Thoughts on the City on the Hill

There has been a lot of discussion about the concept of bringing freedom around the world, specifically to the middle east in the past years. We moved into Iraq under the theory that we would be greeted as liberators bringing the light of democracy to the people. We saw this not to be the case.

I cannot think of any examples of that actually working.

In our own history we saw slaves stand up against the northern soldiers there to free them. If you will indulge me to a slight expansion of the concept, you have the Europeans and Americans both trying to bring "civilization" to the natives on this continent with bloody and terrible results. A people will fight against an outside instigator, even if it is against their own personal best interest.

And yet, when faced with the atrocities of dictatorships and theocracy, one cannot justify on a moral level a tolerance of such things. Genocide, violence, and cruelty will always follow in the shadow of these things.

The question is, what can be done to fix this; to stop these evils and promote freedom and social justice into these darkest of places. It is problematic at best.

I would posit that freedom as a concept is infectious; it has gone viral, if you will. We see it in European history as well as American history; there is a pattern. In Europe there has been a slow, constant push against monarchy and theocratic rule since the Renaissance driving towards more and more secular, egalitarian and humanitarian political and social systems.

In America we have extended rights to more and more groups of people as time has moved along; African Americans, Women, Immigrants, various religions and now we are on the cusp of giving Gays full marriage rights.

There is a inexorable march towards freedom and liberty.

We equally see this march moving through the Middle East. What has come to be known as the Arab Spring was the most obvious example of this, but not the first. The youth of Iran have been in rebellion of one form or another for years now. They are pushing for a more western nation and government, and have been slowly making progress. While they may not say it, they are looking to be more like us, and without our direct involvement at all.

We may not have invented the concepts of democracy and freedom. We aren't the first to talk about inalienable human rights. We weren't even the first to ban slavery, but we have popularized these ideas, and through American Exceptionalism we have silently, almost insidiously pushed these ideas upon the world. Western culture has permeated the world.

Which brings us to the whole idea of the City upon the Hill. Originally from the bible, but used by American politicians as a philosophy for America to follow; and we have. The effects can hardly be denied: American culture has changed the very nature of the world we live in.

So after this long introduction, we come to the point. The best thing that we can do is to be better ourselves. If we make ourselves stronger, more just, and kinder, then we further strengthen the lighthouse on our shore that shines as a beacon of freedom.

Let me be open and pragmatic. I love my country, but I do not feel that it is without fault or problems. I will speak more to the problems because, well, the good stuff can stay good; we need to acknowledge and improve on our weaknesses.

We have a country that glorifies the soldier and the "just war", but leaves thousands of veterans in the streets. They lack medical care, housing and mental care. On a base moral level, this is unconscionable. At the very least, we owe it to those who put their lives on the line for us that they should be cared for.

And both morally and philosophically, that concept should be extended. We believe in the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With life, comes care for life, and to my mind it is truly that simple. While the numbers are difficult to nail down, most studies I have seen claim that tens of thousands of people die annually in this country due to a lack of healthcare. Many more are driven into poverty.

Our education system has slowly been falling apart, leaving our youth less and less prepared to deal with a global market. There are many that blame the unions for this, and some of that blame is probably fair. More importantly though, is the fact that we have been cutting funding for education left and right. We have cut art and music classes, dulling the creativity that has always been at the core of what makes our country great. We talk about the liberal arts as being worthless, as if culture, literature, history and philosophy were not fundamental to our founders. Our students now learn from outdated books in crowded rooms catering to tests and the lowest common denominators. How can we hope for advancement if we don't expect it of the future generations and hold them to that expectation?

Our government has started cracking down on our base freedoms more and more. Rights to protest have been limited. Privacy in many forms has been attacked, and are still being attacked as I say this. None of this is to say that we are less free than many of the countries that we are standing against, but we are less free than we have been in the past.

So outside of the philosophical and moral issues with these problems, we have to look at the bigger picture. This is propaganda for the nations we wish to improve. These are things that can be used against us, showing our hypocrisy. It gives them the ability to say "what right do they have to come here and tell us how to live when they can't keep their own house in order?"

And that argument is absurd, because we are far better off than those living within these theocracies and dictatorships, without question. But perception is as important as reality, and propaganda does have the capability of changing perception.

So rather than attacking these countries with our military, I posit that we must turn inward and take away the propaganda tools that are used against us. Let us inspire those around the world to fight for their own improvement. We cannot bring them freedom; invasion only inspires people to fight against you. What we can do is show the revolutionaries, the freedom fighters and the youth that the freedoms they desire are real.

Let the idea be a virus sliding through their borders. In this day and age, information cannot be stopped. The flow of information can be slowed, and diverted, but never stopped; like water, it will always find a way. And the idea of freedom, once it finds a bit of fertile soil, cannot be stamped out. It is a long game, without question, and one lacking in the sense of glory of direct involvement. It doesn't let us feel like the great heroes, but it will also lead to real success.

And it will be hard, because a regime will have terrible death throes before giving up its control. We need to be cautious and defensive, with great focus on our intelligence community to keep us safe from attacks meant to instill fear and create regressive reactions. We have to be strong, and brave, and truly stand for the ideas that have, and can once again, make us the greatest nation on Earth.

And by holding those principles above all else, we show the world what freedom means, and what it is capable of. We remove the easy propaganda and let the people see that we are truly what they can be. We need to be the beacon again; the City upon the Hill.


  1. What are your thoughts on the smaller forms of military action, such as what we did for Libyan revolutionaries? As much as I agree that we cannot force freedom on anyone, I also cannot stomach the idea of watching while a dictatorship slaughters its people.

    What do you think is the role of our government when it comes to providing non-military aid to developing countries? Being a beacon is great and inspiring, but an inspired people without resources is only better in spirit, not fact. There are many NGOs that work to improve education, sanitation, small business opportunities, ect- does our government have a role in supporting this kind work?

  2. You bring up a good, if very complicated issue.

    I think that we should always try to play as small a role as possible, and exist only in a support role when working within other countries, particularly hostile ones. People have to feel that it is their accomplishments that are achieving their goals, not the outside force giving it to them.

  3. I have a theory about the circumstances which are prerequisites to success of revolutionary movements. What we fail to consider in the American revolution was that it was not a movement initiated by the laboring class. The revolution was inspired and led by the merchant class. And this occurred in an environment where religious and cultural diversity was more or less the norm. We were already English, German, Dutch and French. It is only by chance that the language of the U.S. is not German.

    A Turkish/Muslim business associate of mine was baffled by the Amish of Holmes County, Ohio. While they lived an alleged simple life, it was apparant to her they were comfortable operating computers in their tourist stores where they sold cheese and other Amish produce. I suggested to her, their personal lifestyle notwithstanding, they didn't let religion get in the way of commerce. And I believe the same was so for colonial America. Commerce and personal achievement were king. The merchant class was a well established oligarchy.

    Likewise, the congregational nature of American Protestantism prevented the rise of a religious elite class. The influence of clergy was highly localized. We can be grateful that the British, Dutch and Germans weren't Catholics.

    Fast forward two hundred and some years and look at Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia. While there wasn't a strong merchant class in eastern Europe, there was a strong intellectual class, and a Catholic church that was tolerated but not privileged in the atheist Soviet system. By comparison to the Muslim world, clergy is vested in the status quo and receives support and privilege from the ruling class, the military in Egypt and Iraq, while the clerics have assumed more or less complete control in Iran but are backed up by the Revolutionary Guard (an ersatz Gestapo).

    What the Arab spring is missing is a cohesive educated leadership. So their revolution is more akin to anarchy than the intelligent revolution of the American colonies. What merchant class there is functions in a regime of corruption. Were they to ascend to position of leadership, they would simply be quashed by the incumbent regime consistently supported by the military.

    Revolution in Egypt will be hamstrung for years to come because much of the means of production are controlled by the military class. Libya will suffer for lack of a merchant or intellectual class. Insurgent groups and religious tyranny will be persistent impediments to progress with the rule of law.

    The notion that we, the U.S., can simply wish democracy upon these regions by providing weapons and money to presumed democratic revolutionaries is a hopeless dream. These places will be in turmoil for decades to come absent strong merchant and intellectual classes who can fend off the clerics and break down intrenched religious strife.

    1. So I'm not sure exactly where this argument goes.

      I agree it's going to be a long unpleasant trip from where they were in Egypt to where they are now, and where they hopefully will end up. They do have a lot working against them.

      The question is, what is there to do about it?

      I am often squeamish about the idea of sending weapons to the revolutionaries, and I don't think I actively spoke in favor of that overly.

      But the fact remains that putting soldiers on teh ground hasn't worked out real well for us either.

  4. Wow...
    well, honestly, i havent the battery life or the time to respond to that right now... so i will mull it over.

    But really, thank you. I like intelligent, well thought out things, and that was elegant.