We have belatedly come to appreciate “the greatest generation” that fought and died in World War II to preserve the freedom that Americans enjoy today. But the disappearance of history from our schools, and its virtual disappearance as a requirement for graduation from many of our leading colleges as well, has left most Americans with little knowledge or understanding of what has made us so much more fortunate than most of the rest of the human race around the world.
When you can graduate with honors from Harvard without having taken a single course in history, do not expect much widespread understanding of how we got to be where we are — much less what is required to protect and preserve the precious things that make this America different.
On the contrary, much of our education at all levels is focused on complaints about “our society” — as if other societies do not have similar or worse problems — and exaltation of the idea of “change,” as if things are so bad that any change can be assumed to be a change for the better. That might have been true of Nazi Germany — but 21st century America?
“Change” is a blank check — and as dangerous as any other blank check. There is no reason to be automatically for or against anything as vague and sweeping as change. Everything depends on the specific merits or demerits of particular changes. But the ease with which so many people embrace undefined “change” is scary. It makes them — and us — vulnerable to any glib demagogue who can come along and hype his particular brand of “change.”
The patriotism we celebrate on the Fourth of July is more than an expression of love for our country and pride in its achievements. An appreciation of the origins of the blessings we enjoy is essential for preserving those blessings for ourselves and our children and grandchildren.
Even racial frictions between blacks and whites in America do not begin to compare to the violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Unemployed Americans have a higher standard of living than most working people in most countries. The rights of criminals in the United States exceed those of law-abiding citizens in many other countries. What corruption exists in our institutions is like child’s play compared to corruption in Russia, China, or Nigeria.
Turning from negative things to positive things, the United States stands out even more. Material prosperity is just one of the many things in which America leads the world. We have been a democratic republic longer than any other country. We win more Nobel Prizes than any other country. Despite attempts to paint Americans as “selfishly materialistic”, we give more money to more philanthropic causes, at home and abroad, than any other nation. Nowhere else are so many colleges and universities established and sustained by private individuals donating their own money, rather than by government spending the taxpayers’ money.
You might think that there would be some interest in why we have been so fortunate in so many ways. But there has instead been far more interest in complaining about the country’s remaining human imperfections — even when these are far less than among other nations.
The things that safeguard our freedom and prosperity, as well as our moral standards and sense of decency, are always in danger because any society always has people who want power over other people — and our mass media allow such people to play on the public’s fears and take advantage of the general lack of understanding of how and why we are so fortunate among the nations of the world.
A free-market economy can operate without the public’s understanding of how it operates. But it will not be permitted to operate if demagogues play on that ignorance to gain the power to impose massive political controls, as some are always trying to do. Shared moral principles enable people with a variety of backgrounds and interests to interact with one another within a commonly understood framework, but busybodies who Balkanize our morality, our language, and our political life are destroying that framework.
Patriotism is more than a sentiment. It is a necessity. To keep what history has presented to us, Americans must either love it or lose it. Balkanize America and you risk becoming the Balkans.
This article first appeared in Capitalism Magazine in 2001.