Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Exceptionalism

Lately I’ve been rereading the amazing Harry Potter books (ok, really I’ve been listening to them on my i-Pod). I’m stunned by J.K. Rowling’s incredible talent for relating the story of the exceptional “boy who lived.” She has written an English classic for the ages that stands in the great pantheon of that language’s finest works.

As I finished the final installment however, I found myself disappointed all over again at the somewhat trite ending. After all the sacrifices made by Harry, nothing, in the end, changed other than Voldemort’s death.

I’m not sure Rowling was consciously aware of the extremely political nature of her work. Oh sure, she intended the obvious references to racism and Western arrogance, but I think she was wholly unaware of the finer points of her commentary on governmental abuses, corruption, graft, bureaucracy’s addiction to power, and conservatism.

OK, before you liberals start rolling your eyes, here’s what I mean: She had spent three full novels itemizing the ways which government and bureaucracies abuse their power and destroy freedom. Sham trials, control of a “free” press, outright lies, arrests for political purposes, and the list goes on and on. Her portrayal was perfectly insightful and accurate.

The story ends with the death of the villain and Harry Potter, a truly good person, returning to a normal life. There’s not a single mention of the consequences of all that abuse of power, no mention of the trials of those people who served in the corrupt government under the dictator’s rule. In fact the only story line that gets resolved is Harry’s.

I had to think for a long while about why that bothered me so much. What did I care if it had a fairy tell ending? It’s a children’s story after all. Oh sure, I’m a political junky, but that doesn’t explain it.

It bothered me because I’m American.

We American’s have a unique view on the world. We were the first nation ever founded on the principles of freedom. We are the “great experiment” in self government. We are unique in the world. We are different. By definition, we’re exceptional.

Intrinsic in our exceptional nature is a special role or destiny. It’s Ronald Reagan’s belief that the United States of America is a shinning city on a hill that can not be hidden. We are a beacon to all people everywhere that “yearn to breath free.”

Don’t misunderstand, we are not superior, but rather blessed. We are right in our assessment of human nature and potential and therefore powerful in our rightness, but we’re not superior. In fact, that is part of what sets us apart; we believe anyone can achieve what we have done.

We therefore have a responsibility to help all like minded peoples in their quest to achieve what we have. When we shirk that responsibility and turn our back on those around the world less fortunate, we betray our sacred responsibility to humanity.

I read today of Europeans slamming Sara Palin by saying she is the quintessential American, a “cowboy,” “hick,” and know-it all. Frankly, I don’t expect them to get it. I think I’d be less supportive of her if they approved of her quintessential Americanism. (Even our recession riddled economy is better than their boom economies.)

The unique American culture continues, despite the Europeanization of many of our views, to benefit the world in innumerable ways and will continue to do so for a very long time.

Harry’s happy ending was unfulfilling to me because, I’m American. I expect that when governmental abuses happen, the people rise up and reclaim their freedom, people are held accountable, and freedom marches on. But that’s an American view and American views are just as exceptional as their country. As a matter of fact, they are their country. Conservatives understand that.


rachel said...

Love you. You are an amazing writer :)

trish said...

Great article Tony!

Camp Director said...

I’m not much of a Harry Potter fan. I listened to the first book myself – on a road trip to California years ago. My kids slept through most of it, I drove on through the night. I think you may have hit at the problem I felt. So shallow, Tolkien spoiled me. My fantasy fiction needs to tie to universal themes – not just good guys v bad guys, but good v evil.

As for American uniqueness – yes we are uniquely blessed, but what is most wonderful is that we are a people united not by race, or language, or common culture – but by our acceptance of universal truths. I have hope that the ideas that you reference will triumph in the end – that in the end freedom and justice will be there for all. You are right – until everyone gets it there can be no satisfactory end.