August 19, 2016
Back in the 1960s, enthusiasm for Mao’s China was common on the left. Lots of young people liked to be seen with copies of the Chairman’s Little Red Book. Since I don”t remember anyone doing more than brandishing it, I may have been justified in joking that the title was wrongly spelled, and that it was really the “Little-Read Book.” Be that as it may, China and Chairman Mao were in fashion, just as Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been in the 1930s when lots of idealistic types went off to Russia, had the wool pulled over their eyes, and returned babbling of the Soviet Union as a “New Civilization.” They paid no more heed to state-sponsored famine in Ukraine than their children in the “60s did to state-sponsored famine in Mao’s China. Even if they acknowledged that a few eggs had to be broken if you were to make a perfect omelet, they would shrug their shoulders as if to say, “What do a few million deaths matter if you are creating a new society that will be heaven on earth?”
All this was very tiresome and irritating, the more so because very few of Mao’s Western disciples knew anything about China or conditions there. This didn”t matter to them because the idea was all, and the idea was perfect. So when Mao launched the mad and brutally destructive Cultural Revolution, these idiots continued to cheer. Adulation of Mao meant, of course, contempt and hatred for America and Western Europe, nasty capitalist societies where young people found nothing to inspire them.
I used to get into arguments with some of them, and would stir them up by making two statements, both of which seemed to me self-evidently true. First, I said, Mao’s China was nothing new; it was just the latest example of an age-old tyranny, a regime and state with no regard for freedom and the rights of the individual. It was what Orwell called “a boot stamping on a human face.” This didn”t go down well, though many were able and happy to brush it off. They could do so quite easily because, really, they didn”t care a bit about China; it was simply Mao’s idea of perpetual revolution and creative destruction that appealed to them.
My second statement was even more inflammatory. There is, I would say, only one truly experimental and successful polity in the history of the world, and that is the United States of America. It’s not just a question of the grand ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, though these were remarkable enough: the idea that all men were created equal, and were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, there were precedents for some of these ideas. You could find them at various points in history, in the English Revolution of the 1640s, for instance. But it was the last phrase that was really new and significant: the pursuit of happiness. Many in different ages in the past had fought for freedom”religious, political, or social. Many had fought for justice”political, social, or economic. Many had fought for what they considered to be virtue. But that simple thing, “happiness,” hadn”t featured much if at all in political vocabulary, though it is something we can all recognize and something to which we almost all aspire in our individual, family, and social lives. Dictators like Stalin and Mao or, of course, Hitler never suggested that their subjects were entitled to pursue happiness; they had sterner goals”and plans for them. But the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A. and the framers of its Constitution told Americans they were entitled to try to be happy. This was, and is, remarkable.
There was, I would say, by implication something else that was extraordinary about the idea of the U.S.A., something that made it an unprecedented experiment, and indeed adventure. Its essential message to its citizens was very simple: This is your life. You are free, and entitled, to make of it what you will and what you can. The state is not going to force you into a mold. No church can command your obedience and set rules by which you must lead your life unless you choose to give your consent to its teaching, morality, and authority. You can reject them all if you choose, though it’s true that any such refusal may have disagreeable personal and social consequences. But it’s up to you. Take it or leave it. You are a free man or, again by implication, a free woman.
Now, of course, people don”t always live up to high ideals, and it’s easy and”sadly”true to say that in many respects America hasn”t done so. Today many of the Founding Fathers seem to us hypocrites. They did so even in their own time. “How is it,” asked the Tory and Church of England man Samuel Johnson, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?” It was a fair question, and Johnson”who had all but adopted his young black servant, Francis Barber, and would make him his heir”was a good person to ask it. There would be no satisfactory answer then, because none was possible. George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were all slave owners, and though all at different times might express their abhorrence of slavery, none actually did anything about it, and all defended what became known as “the peculiar institution.”
Likewise, as Edmund Wilson argued in the first chapter of Patriotic Gore, his study of the literature of the Civil War, the U.S.A. has always been an imperialist power while pretending not to be one. It engaged in aggressive and expansionist war against the Native American peoples, against Mexico, and against the Spanish Empire. Most of its 20th-century wars”perhaps all of them indeed”may be considered justified. The U.S.A. was defending freedom against the twin evils of Nazism and Soviet and Chinese Communism. The consequence was the expansion of the informal American Empire, which may arguably be reckoned on balance to have been a good thing.