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I wish I had written that…

August 24, 2019

I like the Batman movie franchise. I’m particularly fond of the Dark Knight arc. One of the essential elements of that arc is the relationship between the dual characters of Bruce Wayne and Batman. In this arc, it becomes clear that, at least in the mind of the hero/protagonist, the disguise is not Batman. Rather, it is Bruce Wayne. In other words, Bruce Wayne is Batman dressed up like a “billionaire playboy.” Batman is not Bruce Wayne dressed up like a scary vigilante.

Not too long ago, on Quora, the best answer to the question “what are the most important things for non-Americans to keep in mind when visiting the US” was given by Tom Kratman. It’s an answer I wish I had written. I’ll quote the thesis, now.

“We are an 18th century country (in some ways a 17th century country) with the trappings of modernity.”

He has more to say and I encourage you to read the entirety of his answer. It will take you but a moment.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with non-Americans (and a good number of Americans) about why the US is the way it is. Often, this has been regarding our arguably peculiar approach to individual liberty. Whether it deals with freedom of speech, the right to keep and bear arms, freedom of religion, a general mistrust (or even distrust) of government, the design of our federal government as laid out in the Constitution, it has always seemed to come back to individual liberty.

One of the points I tend to make is that we are a nation that quite literally grew out of the Enlightenment, especially the Scottish Enlightenment. I’ve touched on the importance of this more than once on this blog (rather than list the examples, allow me to suggest a simple search for the term “enlightenment”). Some people understand it. Others, especially some of the ostensibly well-educated, respond with some version of “well, the Enlightenment was actually a European philosophy…” as if that is some earth shattering bit of news no one had ever before considered. It also suggests, of course, that there was no way for American colonials-cum-revolutionaries-cum-founders to have in any way learned of the Enlightenment or be influenced by it. In other words, it’s the refusal to consider an inconvenient thought by hiding behind the trappings of intellectual achievement.

Regardless of the reasons, though, some people just don’t get it. Thus, the beauty of Tom Kratman’s answer. The Enlightenment was very much a thing of the 18th (and late 17th) century. Given that what would become the US was settled largely by Europeans, it should come as no surprise that this philosophy would have a significant influence on the development of the United States. Without discussing things like the Scottish Enlightenment, or from where the Founding Fathers pulled various ideas (they were shameless about stealing ideas), we can simply point to the late 17th century through the 18th century and say “that’s who we are.”

We are, in other words, an 18th century people dressed up in 21st century clothing. As Kratman notes, just a couple of sentences after his thesis:

“Because we are an 18th (or 17th) century country we tend to be armed, traditional, conservative, religious, patriotic, polite, warlike, and highly skeptical of the state.”

This is the truth that lies just beneath our surface. It lurks just under our 21st century clothing. We wear the clothing (largely) because we like being the world’s biggest economy, which necessitates being able to sell what we produce all over the world. We go to international conferences and say (and wear) the right things. Underneath that, though, is the 18th century that thinks having the world’s most powerful military is a pretty good idea. Also lurking there are our widespread beliefs about government being fundamentally untrustworthy but the country being worth both idolizing and fighting for. Other neighbors include religion, politeness, being armed and the other things Kratman lists.

Those who call things like our Electoral College or the right to keep and bear arms, vestiges of a past we need to leave behind or things that made sense “back then” but don’t make sense anymore confuse the appearance with the reality. They assume, incorrectly, that we are a 21st century nation with a few, obsolete 18th century ideas and ideals still hanging on. They are wrong. The 18th century America is who we are. The 21st century America is the disguise. There are exceptions, of course. We find those in what can be best described as certain elitist subcultural enclaves. Still, though, the 18th century remains and those who pretend otherwise go merrily on their way, unaware that they’ve accepted the disguise as the reality.

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  1. OldNFO permalink

    Well said, and I agree. We need to recapture our country before it is too late.

  2. Thank you, and I agree. We most certainly do.

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