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Post US Exceptionalism; Response to Cameron Sawyer
Created by John Eipper on 04/05/12 4:26 AM

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US Exceptionalism; Response to Cameron Sawyer (Alain de Benoist, -France, 04/05/12 4:26 am)

When I wrote, tongue in the cheek (as often), a short post about the American individualistic mind (1 April), I was sure that as a Libertarian, Cameron Sawyer would agree with me.

Cameron wrote on 2 April: "Alain de Benoist's post is a fascinating exposition of different mentalities. He is right, of course, and perhaps more right than he knows--many of us Americans will freely agree to propositions which he finds shocking."

I am very pleased that we agree--and I do not find an individualistic mind "shocking"! I like things or I dislike things, but I am usually not "shocked" by anything. Actually, what is important is not to say or decide that an individualistic mind is better or not than a holistic/communitarian one. What is important is to be aware of the existence of different mentalities, because it is always useful to understand that other people can have a mind different from ours.

I will add just some comments, indicating my present remarks with AdB2:

AdB: "Most Americans have an individualistic mind. They think that the individual is more important than society."

CS: "Oh, yes--definitely. The individual is real. Society is a construct--not entirely devoid of meaning (otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation), but the reality of society is derived from individual reality, not the other way around..."

AdB2: Cameron's argument is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's words ("there is no society"). I think quite otherwise, of course. Society is real; we live in it. But the individual? Joseph de Maistre wrote that he never met a pure "human being" in his whole life (but only French people, English people, Italians, Germans, Arabs, etc.). In the same vein, I could say that I have never met any "individual." I have met, and I meet everyday, a lot of persons (a person is not an individual) who are always defined, not only by their personal characteristics, but by the characteristics they share with the collective bodies or categories they belong to.

The big problem, if you think that "the reality of society is derived from individual reality, not the other way around," is that you have to believe that once upon a time humans lived out of any society (in some kind of presocial and prepolitical "state of nature"), then to explain how society was "constructed" (by people without any common social language!). Unfortunately, there is not the slightest empirical proof that people ever lived outside of society, even at the time of Neanderthals or Australopithecines. This shows that, while various social forms are constructed, society by itself is not a construct. It is the Lockean or Hobbesian models of "social contract" which are theoretical and speculative constructions. That's why Aristotle defined human beings as social and political animals. That's also why we are not radically antecedent to our choices, which depend also on our belongings. Finally, that's why a "we" comes always before any "I"; why a society is not only a sum of "individuals" (but has some characteristics qua society); why the common good has a primacy over individual goods; and why this common good cannot be reduced to a simple aggregate of particular interests.

AdB: "and that they owe more to their family than to their country."

CS: "Yes--definitely. How can you even compare? Your country is another abstraction--my country which has a number of very wonderful qualities, yet which killed untold hundreds of thousands in Vietnam and Iraq for no purpose whatsoever--which taxes me no matter where I live in the world--which elects as its leader buffoons like Bill Clinton and George Bush: this is supposed to be more important than my family?! The mind boggles."

AdB2: Cameron is conflating "country," "society," "State," and "government." A country is certainly not an abstraction, and the wrongs of a particular government do not say anything about what a country is. Moreover, serving one's country is also serving one's family.

People who think they owe "more to their family than to their country" should logically desert when their country is at war and that they are called to the army. However, most of them do not choose desertion, including in the US. They leave their family and join the army. Even in very individualistic countries, people seem to recognize the legitimacy of such an appeal to leave/desert their family. To analyze how people can be convinced to give their life for their country in places where most of them think they owe "more to their family than their country" (or that life is the supreme property, or that there is nothing worse than death, etc.) would be an interesting task.

AdB: "They think that the private sphere is more important than the public realm."

CS: "Oh, yes. [...] Do the great poets of civilization write about public works projects? About pensions? About health care? No, indeed--they all write of course about the private sphere, which is incomparably more important than the banalities of the public sphere."

AdB2: Really? I do not have the feeling that Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Alfred de Vigny, Leconte de L'Isle, Corneille, Racine, Victor Hugo, Byron, Tolstoi, and so many others, wrote only about the banalities of the private sphere. They also wrote about countries, history, wars, revolutions, freedom, and destiny.

AdB: "They believe in economics more than in politics."

CS: "Oh, yes. We do economics every day. Politics we do--many of us--once in four years."

AdB2: I am sure there are many things Cameron does every day which are not the raison d'être of his life! As for politics, I would be the last to consider that voting is synonymous with doing politics. In real politics, citizens are daily actors, not occasional electors.

AdB: "They do not care really for the people who have not the means to face the difficulties of life. Hence all the gossip about 'individual rights,' 'Constitution,' and the obsession about 'taxpaying.' Hence the very social-Darwinist celebration of egotism."

CS: "This is very much false. Americans--as JE correctly pointed out--lead the world, with a large margin, in contributions of money and labor for charity."

AdB2: Cameron is quite right. Americans are far, far more involved in charitable works than other people--and they are to be congratulated for that. Here we have to make a distinction between the charitable common people and the big wealthy people whose see mainly philanthropy as a tax-deductible affair (or as a matter of public relations, like so many show business personalities). This certainly can be explained by the deep religious feelings of many Americans. But it is also a psychological compensation: in a very hard competitive world, something must be given back by the "winners." It helps to have a good conscience. But the real problem is elsewhere. When social justice is just a matter of charity, philanthropy, or paternalism, there is no social justice. Social justice cannot depend only on good will and voluntary generosity. It is an political obligation which can only be achieved through political means. (That's why the very expression "social justice" doesn't mean a thing for Hayek's pupils or in Ayn Rand's "objectivist" ideology). Charity sees the victims. Politics sees the culprits.


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  • US Exceptionalism (Tor Guimaraes, USA 04/05/12 1:53 PM)
    To a thoughtful and intellectually honest person, the comments about the mythical "American people characteristics" provided by Alain de Benoist (5 April) are very insightful. I say "mythical" because I believe people are the same when you place them in the same present and historical circumstances. Americans are no more or less generous, individualistic, family-oriented, anti-big government, etc., than other people. I have seen what happens to extremely gregarious, family-oriented Chinese when you transplant them to a highly competitive individualistic environment. Similarly, Americans have many times shown great dedication to social good, and national efforts. Such empirical evidence supports many of Alain's observations, contradicting much of the right-wing ideology regarding the general nature of the American people.

    What has become rather frustrating to me is right-wing ideologues' inability to see the error of many of their generalizations and the resulting long-term harm to our nation. As John Heelan (5 April) expressed through a powerful rhetorical question, "Are we moving into a world in which the poor, elderly and unemployed are condemned to suffer in order to boost the profits of the few? If so, how can those countries (UK and US) operating such a support system boast of a Christian heritage?" Such contradictions are laughable if the results were not so harmful to our nation. John's statement should cause any thinking person and true patriot, with any spirituality left, to close ranks and embrace the truth that democracy and a wealthy middle class are the two most basic requirements for a powerful and stable modern nation. The countries which have not been able to fulfill these requirements or have allowed them to decay soon find themselves amidst new heights in civic turmoil, government and business corruption, widespread poverty, and even civil war.

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