It’s Sad When Bad Ideas Drive Out Good Ones

Recently there was a piece by William Pfaff in the New York Review of Books. It starts off by pointing out that deeply rooted in American political culture is the idea that the United States is not a country like other countries, but rather has a unique (or nearly unique) world historical moral mission, and then makes a more-or-less standard lefty case that this idea has been and continues to be the source of a great deal of misguided and evil U.S. policy.

Pfaff may or may not be right that this widely held belief in a special American moral mission has been a major cause of the many terrible things that we have done in our history. The interesting thing about the piece is that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that there really is, in some meaningful sense that a liberal could get behind, something morally special about the United States. But the United States was explicitly and self-consciously created on the basis of Enlightenment principles, and has a national identity based on a progressive political creed rather than on tribal ties or obedience to kings and priests. This is a remarkable thing, and you would think that it would merit some discussion in a piece on this topic.

But there is none. Why not? One likely reason is that the great majority of the people who talk about the unique moral mission of the United States are illiberal jingoists whose “moral clarity” on subjects related to the use of U.S. power does not stem from a belief that there is an objective moral truth that can be apprehended and should be acted upon, but rather from a belief that whatever the U.S. does is axiomatically right and moral simply because we did it, no matter how stupid or corrupt or homicidal. So Pfaff and others like him are unlikely to pay much attention to anyone who wants to sell them a story about the great moral mission of America. And this is not crazy (though it is very sad); we are stuck in an equilibrium where anyone who makes noises about America’s moral mission is almost certainly a jingoist, so no non-jingoist will take any such idea seriously, so no non-jingoist will have any reason to offer a non-jingoist strain of the idea, and so such a strain never gets a chance to develop or spread. I think a lot of good ideas get frozen out this way.

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