A few months back I made a new friend. I’d written a column for one of my side jobs discussing politics in Science Fiction. It was really just a vanity project which allowed me to have a conversation with several of my favorite authors and get paid for it. Surprising both myself and my editors it exploded and did quite well.
One of the upshots of the whole thing is I was contacted by a very talented writer named Sarah A. Hoyt who wanted me to review her new book Darkship Thieves. Being a world champion book hoarder I jumped at the chance to get some free books. Fast forward a few months and an email correspondence, and Sarah and I had become fast friends. During the course of that correspondence I learned a few things about Sarah, the most important for the purposes of this column is that she’s originally from Portugal but has been for many years an American citizen. She’s laughed a few times that she’s as American as anyone not born here can be. My response has always been there is nothing as American as the naturalized citizen who chose this country rather than having the good fortune to be born one. The one has made a conscious and difficult decision to leave behind the country they grew up in and claim a new culture and country. The other is merely an accident of birth.
I have also long maintained no one loves this country or Independence Day quite so much as someone who chose to be an American.
As I was flogging my exhausted brain on July 4, trying to decide what write about, Sarah sent me a link to an essay she had written about this country on her blog. Upon reading it I immediately sent her an email asking if I could publish it here, because she said what I wanted to say, better than ever I could:
The United States of America is the most revolutionary land based on the most revolutionary idea in the history of mankind.
A year before I married my husband, my best friend from childhood married a Frenchman. She became a French citizen the year before I became an American citizen, and for her that meant that – in her little town – she got to open the Bastille-day ball by dancing with the mayor.
I remember being happy for her but, at the same time, both feeling the vast superiority of my journey to becoming an American citizen (even if I never danced with a mayor) and the vague uneasiness of celebrating bastille day.
Because America was founded in a revolution and because most people writing our entertainment are historically illiterate in that way that only Americans (prosperous and secure, still — relatively — within a vast country can afford to be) movies and many books tend to resonate with sympathy for other revolutions: the French and the Russian revolution foremost.
They should not. They should not even if the temptation is understandable and even if some of the founding fathers were at first sympathetic before turning away in horror at the results.
Oh, I’ll grant you both revolutions looked similar up front. They were both the work of the educated middle class (the sans culottes were a blunt weapon, not the real revolutionaries) and they both originated on the ideas of the Enlightenment.
The similarity ends there. The French revolution, the Russian revolution and the endless revolutions throughout most of the twentieth century are of a kind and kin with much, much older uprisings. Regardless of the clothes they wear and the names they partake, they have more in common with what the iksos did to Egypt or what the Germanic underclass did to Rome. (An invasion? Well, kind of… only we’ve found that this is not necessarily true. Actually, in Rome’s case at least, it had been trickling over the border for centuries.) It was an uprising of the “formerly powerless” and what they wanted was to seize the place of the upper classes and rule as the upper classes had ruled. This always ends with the new upper class devouring each other and rivers of blood drowning all vestiges of civilization until a dictatorship takes over to impose order.
This is because the revolutions are fights over power – not fights over liberty. As with most human trouble, it starts with the words. The words at the beginning.
The French – and most other revolutionaries – fought for ideals of an abstract and high nature “Liberte, fraternite, egalite.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of them – Lafayette included – that by mandating fraternite and egalite they were denying the liberte. And the fraternity and equality one being a lofty feeling, and the other an absolute measurement always prone to more and finer adjustment, both could be used as levers for the new upper classes to get more and more tyrannical power, until you could be executed as an “aristo” because you knew how to read or you wore glasses. Or you had one plate more than your destitute neighbor.
Americans, on the other hand, based their revolution on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You are free to pursue happiness. You have equality under the law on your right to pursue it.
No one guarantees you will catch it or that you’ll be happy when you do it. Well, at least we didn’t use to. In the twentieth century the statist excesses have infected even the US, and we’ve regulated more and more how equal you have to be and how much happiness you can attain and how much is “good for you.” This is a wrong path.
It’s impossible to look at this and not think of a quote from Heinlein, in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It should surprise no one I can’t find my copy, because that book moves all over the house, though I own something like five copies of it, I swear the kids are playing smuggler (from Canticle for Leibowitz) and burying them in the background against the hard times. However, I read it recently.
After discussing the Luna declaration of independence, Prof Bernardo de la Paz admits he stole the words from Thomas Jefferson and asks Manny if he remembers who that was: “Yes,” Manny says (I’m not quoting exactly) “He freed the slaves.” Prof responds, “Could be argued he tried to, but they caught him at it.”
The difference between life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and liberte, equality and fraternity is the difference between being a wild-eyed revolutionary or simply playing one (or being manipulated into becoming one) to get a new class into power.
Because once you mandate equality, you fall into the trap of another Heinlein quote. You see, men weren’t created equal, and as I’ve pointed out at length there is only a creative minority and of that minority there is only a minority actually willing to work hard. But it is those minorities that advance civilization. The genius of America has always been to let those minorities do the work. This revolutionary arrangement has led to the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of mankind, a nation that has lifted the whole world out of poverty.
Good job. Now don’t get cocky. Remember:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck.” (Robert A. Heinlein.)
Happy Fourth Of July. Keep on Revolting.