Commentary Magazine


Topic: American exceptionalism

Whence Sacrifice?

“We live in a sacrifice-free bubble of volitional delusion.” If Mitt Romney put his private fundraising speeches through a syllable-multiplying machine he might come up with something like that—generalizing, demonizing, and dismissive of entitlement-happy American moochers. And liberal columnists would mug him for it.

But in fact a liberal columnist wrote it. The line appeared in Frank Bruni’s Sunday New York Times column about the lost American virtue of sacrifice. “It’s odd,” writes Bruni. “We revere the Americans who lived through World War II and call them the ‘greatest generation’ precisely because of the sacrifices they made. But we seem more than content to let that brand of greatness pass us by.”

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“We live in a sacrifice-free bubble of volitional delusion.” If Mitt Romney put his private fundraising speeches through a syllable-multiplying machine he might come up with something like that—generalizing, demonizing, and dismissive of entitlement-happy American moochers. And liberal columnists would mug him for it.

But in fact a liberal columnist wrote it. The line appeared in Frank Bruni’s Sunday New York Times column about the lost American virtue of sacrifice. “It’s odd,” writes Bruni. “We revere the Americans who lived through World War II and call them the ‘greatest generation’ precisely because of the sacrifices they made. But we seem more than content to let that brand of greatness pass us by.”

Indeed we do. And he certainly tells conservatives nothing new when he writes: “The size of the federal debt and the pace of its growth can’t be ignored.” And those of us who’ve long been dismayed by the Obama administration’s use of class warfare can only agree with Bruni’s contention that “[t]hese days sacrifice is what you recommend for others, not what you volunteer for yourself.”

But there is an extraordinary absence in Bruni’s discussion: the word “culture” appears nowhere. The column redefines sacrifice as a government ask, and not a personal or cultural virtue at all. For Bruni, sacrifice is to be reclaimed with an eleventh hour pronouncement from the president to render unto Caesar. Government will tell us to part with what is ours so that it can get America’s house in order. Simple as that. He wants Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk seriously about American sacrifice in the upcoming debates so that Americans will in turn think seriously about it themselves.

There is a great and growing divide between what our political reality demands and what our culture now produces, and Bruni gets nowhere near it. Sacrifice is vanishing because the cultural institutions that promote or sanctify it—family, faith, and patriotism—are on the wane. “In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all [American] twenty-somethings were married,” a 2010 Pew study found. “In 2008, just 26% were.” And in 2011, American births fell to a 12-year low. To previous generations the demands of family meant a life defined by self-denial, delayed gratification, and the giving of one’s time, energy, and money. Is a 42 percent drop in those who claim such an existence supposed to have no effect on the quality of our national character?  Can this be fixed with a White House call to duty?

To the snickering celebration of progressives, religious belief is tumbling in America as well.  Particularly among the so-called “millennial” generation. Among Americans 30 and younger, belief in God has fallen 15 percentage points in the last five years. With that belief  goes the divine endorsement of selflessness, charity, and sacrifice. Indeed, the simultaneous rise in youth devotion to the Occupy movement offers a beautiful illustration of a generation’s transition out of an institution of sacrifice and into a sub-culture of entitlement. Frank Bruni should try interrupting an anti-banking drum-circle chant to tell Occupiers they need to sacrifice more because Obama says so.

And of course there’s the fading belief in American exceptionalism, today considered by progressives to be a kind of imperialist thought crime. Last November, Pew found that 49 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others,” while 46 percent of Americans disagreed. (In 2007, 55 percent said American culture was superior; in 2002, it was 60 percent).  Why make sacrifices for a country that’s no better than any other on the planet?

It makes sense that Bruni avoids discussing the cultural underpinnings of our increasingly selfish citizenry. As Yuval Levin discusses in a brilliant essay in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, “the progressive view of government has long involved the effort to shrink and clear the space between the individual and the state.” Culture, in the progressive view, should collapse itself to make room for increased government as needed. It is not surprising then that Bruni not only looks to the president to simply decree a renewed sense of sacrifice but that he also considers the end of military conscription as a possible culprit for sacrifice’s waning.

The challenge of course goes beyond the nature of our government. One can rail against the entitlement policies of Barack Obama and others but in a sense those policies are a form of accommodation with a culture that’s turning away from the non-governmental institutions that promote personal responsibility, charity, and sacrifice. Frank Bruni finds it “odd” that we’re giving up on a virtue we praise only because he pays no attention to how that virtue was instilled and passed on. He quotes a string of presidents who spoke of American sacrifice in this or that light, as if “sacrifice” is an incantation or logic command to be programmed into our political life when desperately needed.  It is not. Sacrifice, rather, is the personal and cultural reality of people who’ve toiled in hopes of seeing its delayed rewards—for themselves or for others. A sense of sacrifice is what generations of Americans found in the institutions that they built and maintained specifically because they expected neither moral nor material elevation from their government.

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In Defense of the Poverty Narrative

By the end of the first night of the Democratic National Convention, many journalists and others watching these festivities and last week’s Republican jamboree had had enough. From both left and right there came a bipartisan consensus of kibitzers crying out for a halt to the endless stream of narratives about impoverished or difficult upbringings overcome by hard work and all the other all-American virtues that lead to success. Many a commentator noted that if they had to listen to one more sob story about growing up poor they would scream. Others facetiously promised that after the binge of Horatio Alger tales that they had been subjected to, they would support any candidate, whether liberal or conservative, who would avow they were born to privilege and had squandered a fortune due to laziness and indifference.

These understandable sentiments are the inevitable product of the repetitious nature of the speeches being aired at both conventions. Though Republicans and Democrats disagree on a great deal they all seem desperate to convince us they were born in the moral equivalent of a log cabin and that their emergence from their humble beginnings entitles them to our admiration as well as our votes. But as tiresome as this rhetorical feedback loop may be, we ought not to complain too much about it. The reason why politicians feel the need to say these things and why, despite our grousing about it, so many of us long to hear it, is rooted in our national identity. Social mobility is not, despite the efforts of some on the left to disparage the notion, a myth. It is at the core of what means to be American and though we may laugh about it, it is vital that we continue to celebrate it.

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By the end of the first night of the Democratic National Convention, many journalists and others watching these festivities and last week’s Republican jamboree had had enough. From both left and right there came a bipartisan consensus of kibitzers crying out for a halt to the endless stream of narratives about impoverished or difficult upbringings overcome by hard work and all the other all-American virtues that lead to success. Many a commentator noted that if they had to listen to one more sob story about growing up poor they would scream. Others facetiously promised that after the binge of Horatio Alger tales that they had been subjected to, they would support any candidate, whether liberal or conservative, who would avow they were born to privilege and had squandered a fortune due to laziness and indifference.

These understandable sentiments are the inevitable product of the repetitious nature of the speeches being aired at both conventions. Though Republicans and Democrats disagree on a great deal they all seem desperate to convince us they were born in the moral equivalent of a log cabin and that their emergence from their humble beginnings entitles them to our admiration as well as our votes. But as tiresome as this rhetorical feedback loop may be, we ought not to complain too much about it. The reason why politicians feel the need to say these things and why, despite our grousing about it, so many of us long to hear it, is rooted in our national identity. Social mobility is not, despite the efforts of some on the left to disparage the notion, a myth. It is at the core of what means to be American and though we may laugh about it, it is vital that we continue to celebrate it.

American exceptionalism is not just a foreign policy concept but also a fundamental principle of our domestic politics. The notion that any American, no matter what their parents did or where they came from, can reasonably aspire to wealth as well as to political prominence is what has also made the United States unique. Even as Europe and parts of the rest of the globe transitioned to democracy, the notion of caste remains strong elsewhere.

It is true that Americans are not immune to the siren song of inherited privilege. We love foreign royals and treat certain American families as if their last name was Windsor instead of Kennedy or Bush. We also know only that no one is guaranteed a shot at fame, fortune or power and that far too many fall short of their aspirations and remain mired in poverty.

Yet the reason why both Republicans and Democrats like to talk about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is because it is not only possible to do so in America but that those who achieve such a success are not considered outliers, as they would be elsewhere. That’s why immigrants continue to flock to our shores. They want a piece of that American dream that earlier immigrants seized for their posterity. To the extent that we undermine the chances of the poor to do so by liberal social welfare policies that trap them in poverty and dependence and undermine their incentive to succeed, we not only betray them but our national ethos.

It should be noted that the most famous person to rise from a log cabin to the White House was actually disgusted by the way his supporters spoke incessantly about his origins. His most astute modern biographers note that Abraham Lincoln may have been elected as Honest Abe the rail-splitter but he spent his adult life trying to flee the abject poverty into which he was born. Members of social and political elites did look down their nose at him but he prided himself on his self-taught erudition as well as having become one of the better-paid members of the Illinois bar by the time he was elected president. Lincoln had to listen as his supporters carried on about the flimsy shelter where his mother brought him into the hardscrabble world of what was then called the American west, but such talk made him cringe.

We have come to primarily associate Lincoln with his inspired leadership and rhetoric during the Civil War and in particular with his role in ending the nightmare of American slavery. Yet it is a mistake to ignore the importance of his origins in the building of the Lincoln mystique. Lincoln truly had come from the lowest strata of American society at a time when the overwhelming majority of those in politics were to the manor born. His rise embodied the possibilities of the republic he led and while some still call it a myth, we know better.

Some of the men we’ve elected to the presidency in the last century were born to privilege and wealth. The Bushes, John Kennedy and the Roosevelts certainly qualify in that category and Mitt Romney would join their ranks. But more have not. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama all started out in life a lot closer to the bottom than the top rung. Some, like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, belong somewhere in the middle.

Initial poverty is not a qualification for the presidency or any office and Americans have usually been smart enough to know that it is better to have a capable swell in the Oval Office than a fool or scoundrel born in a log cabin. But we ought never to stop celebrating upward mobility and the value of the individual effort that makes it possible. To do so would mean we were truly on our way to a social democratic model that valued ideas about equality but not the American dream. And if that means having to listen to tedious poverty narratives at our political conventions, so be it.

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Church of England Doesn’t Like Pushy Jews

While Americans have successfully fought back against the attempts of Israel-haters to get mainline Christian churches here to support boycotts of the Jewish state, their English cousins are not as successful. As Miriam Shaviv reports in the Times of Israel, the Church of England not only refused to back off its endorsement of a biased program that sought to indoctrinate Christians visiting the Middle East to support the Palestinians against Israel, many of its members took offense at the efforts of English Jews to get them to change their minds.

This controversy showed the level of animosity for Israel that is entrenched in the culture of the state-supported Anglican hierarchy. But it also may betray the barely disguised anti-Semitism that runs through European and English discourse about Israel and Jews. This story may sum up in a nutshell the starkly different predicaments of American and English Jews. As one bishop pointed out, the problem wasn’t just that the Anglican bishops, clerics and laity are predisposed to think ill of Israel. It was also that they were offended by the lobbying efforts of Jews to get them to look at the issue differently. Apparently, the spectacle of Jews standing up for themselves rather than keeping quiet or, as is the case with a vocal but not insubstantial minority of British Jews, joining the chorus of Israel-bashers, was too much for them to stand.

As Shaviv writes, the Bishop of Manchester pointed out that the defeat was at least partially the fault of the Jews:

“A few people said that all the lobbying from the Jewish side led us to vote the other way,” said the Rt. Revd. Nigel McCulloch, who is chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), the UK’s oldest Jewish-Christian interfaith group. “There was over-lobbying by some members of the Jewish community. The CCJ actually warned against this, as we know how the Synod works and it’s not a good way to get things done.”

Though McCulloch denies that anti-Semitism was in play, he admitted the debate about the issue and his attempts to forge a compromise included references to the influence of a “powerful lobby,” which is an allusion to Jewish efforts to persuade the Church not to take sides against Israel.

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While Americans have successfully fought back against the attempts of Israel-haters to get mainline Christian churches here to support boycotts of the Jewish state, their English cousins are not as successful. As Miriam Shaviv reports in the Times of Israel, the Church of England not only refused to back off its endorsement of a biased program that sought to indoctrinate Christians visiting the Middle East to support the Palestinians against Israel, many of its members took offense at the efforts of English Jews to get them to change their minds.

This controversy showed the level of animosity for Israel that is entrenched in the culture of the state-supported Anglican hierarchy. But it also may betray the barely disguised anti-Semitism that runs through European and English discourse about Israel and Jews. This story may sum up in a nutshell the starkly different predicaments of American and English Jews. As one bishop pointed out, the problem wasn’t just that the Anglican bishops, clerics and laity are predisposed to think ill of Israel. It was also that they were offended by the lobbying efforts of Jews to get them to look at the issue differently. Apparently, the spectacle of Jews standing up for themselves rather than keeping quiet or, as is the case with a vocal but not insubstantial minority of British Jews, joining the chorus of Israel-bashers, was too much for them to stand.

As Shaviv writes, the Bishop of Manchester pointed out that the defeat was at least partially the fault of the Jews:

“A few people said that all the lobbying from the Jewish side led us to vote the other way,” said the Rt. Revd. Nigel McCulloch, who is chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), the UK’s oldest Jewish-Christian interfaith group. “There was over-lobbying by some members of the Jewish community. The CCJ actually warned against this, as we know how the Synod works and it’s not a good way to get things done.”

Though McCulloch denies that anti-Semitism was in play, he admitted the debate about the issue and his attempts to forge a compromise included references to the influence of a “powerful lobby,” which is an allusion to Jewish efforts to persuade the Church not to take sides against Israel.

What’s curious about this excuse for the victory for Israel’s foes is everyone admitted that the pro-Palestinian forces were lobbying just as hard as the Jews, only no one seemed to mind that or to think there was something sinister about their efforts.

So while Israel-haters in the United States allude to the supposedly all-powerful “Israel lobby” immortalized by the conspiracy theories floated by authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, their counterparts in Britain are a lot stronger. While Jews were rightly disappointed by the narrow margin by which a BDS motion was rejected by the Presbyterian Church USA last week, McCulloch thought the fact that some English clerics actually voted against the anti-Israel measure there was encouraging.

But the real difference is that while most Americans see nothing wrong with Jews assertively standing up for Israel (a stance in which they are joined by the vast majority of their countrymen), many English seem to think there’s something wrong with them doing so.

While we don’t doubt English Jews and their representatives will continue to speak up whenever possible about anti-Israel bias, the political culture in which they are forced to operate works against their efforts. In the United States, the efforts of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups are not only more successful but widely admired by all but those marginal groups steeped in hatred of Israel and the Jews. The episode is one more proof that American exceptionalism is no myth.

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