Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Unilateral Picture of the United States – The influence of the American Myth

Thomas Paine Painting by Laurent Dabos

Throughout the [19th] century and the first half of the [20th], historical literature regarding the United States reflected diverse interpretations of the American myth.[1] According to the more radical interpretations of this myth, the United States is the “redeemer nation,”[2] entrusted with the “manifest destiny” of spreading the dominion of liberal democracy, “liberating” the nations of the world from “oppressions” reminiscent of the austere and hierarchical European civilization that originated in the Middle Ages, thereby ushering in a new era for mankind.[3]

The impressive territorial expansion and, especially, the formidable economic and military development of the United States—which from the original thirteen colonies grew to be the fourth largest country in the world and the greatest temporal power in history—seemed to confirm this “manifest destiny.”

Former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter

Obviously, this manifest destiny would make no sense unless such a democracy thrived first within the country itself. Influenced by this myth in its various interpretations, many American historians and sociologists dedicated themselves almost exclusively to emphasizing the liberal, democratic, and egalitarian aspects of our country. Frequently sacrificing scientific rigor to an apologetic spirit in defense of this myth, they virtually ignored the existence of elites, aristocratic institutions, and institutions with aristocratic aspects analogous to those of the Old World.

As a result, a unilateral interpretation of the American situation was elaborated. This interpretation not only influenced the United States, but its diffusion throughout Europe facilitated the enthusiastic acceptance of revolutionary democratic ideas on that continent.
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 145-146.

[1] The expression “American myth” designates a certain egalitarian and liberal way of perceiving the American spirit. This stems more from ideological preconceptions of Enlightenment and rationalist origin, characteristic of certain currents of thought, than from an objective vision of the American situation. The religious repercussions of this myth were condemned by Pope Leo XIII in his Apostolic Letter Testem benevolentiae of 1899. Cf. Thomas McAvoy, The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895-1900 (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1963).

[2] Cf. Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968); Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-hall, 1971); and A. Frederick Merck, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963).

[3] An affirmation of this myth in its fanaticism is contained in the words of Senator Albert Beveridge, historian and political leader, in 1897: “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No. He made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigned. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world” (quoted in Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, p. vii).

Such thinking still prevails in broad political and cultural sectors of the country, though rarely in such terms. Applied to the arena of international politics, it is called the “missionary” concept of the vocation of American democracy. Its opposite is, of course, isolationism.

We use the expression “liberal democracy.” As this book clearly demonstrates, democracy is in itself legitimate and in accordance with the natural order. Liberal or revolutionary democracy, however, is egalitarian and destroys the sound traditions of the people. It is in this sense that the expression is used here.

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