Alumni Zevenkerken

« De la Démocratie en Amérique » anno 2009

3/03/2009

Obama owes this victory at least partially to the wish of the American people to put an end to eight years of Republican leadership under George W. Bush and to the fact that the Republican nominee, John McCain, wasn’t able to distance himself sufficiently from the former. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush found it advisable to respond to the fear that had gripped Americans by starting a preventive war against Iraq. However, over the following years, the rationale for that war slowly disappeared in the eyes of American citizens, especially because of the relatively high number of Americans killed in combat, not to mention the numerous Iraqi casualties. This war was furthermore accompanied by excesses known under the names of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition and torture, which over the long term not only diminished American support for this war, but also strongly tarnished America’s image abroad. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Carter’s National Security Advisor, has said, it is not a good thing when in the eyes of the world Guantanamo replaces the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the United States.

The end of President Bush’s second term was furthermore marked by an enormous financial and economic crisis, which has negatively affected the United States as well as the rest of the world and whose total ramifications are not yet known. At the origin of the crisis was a Bush Administration policy promoting quick home ownership with credit made too easy by the banks. The United States is also discovering with some alarm that, compared with numerous other countries, its infrastructure at this juncture is often out-of-date and declining in quality. The American people were also deeply affected by the magnitude of the Katrina tragedy and because of the Administration’s negligence in meeting its challenges. Thomas Friedman recently and ironically even raised the question: “Do we Americans want to live like Fred Flintstone?” The failure of several big financial institutions, and possibly subsequently of certain big industrial symbols, notably in the automobile industry, adds finally to the general despair.

The Bush Presidency is for all these reasons ending both in a moral crisis and well as in a reevaluation of the U.S. economic model. The presidential election was also a way for Americans to end a policy founded on fear, lies, lack of transparency and the systematic increase of power of the executive branch to the detriment of the legislative branch.

But this victory is above all a credit to Obama himself, to a brilliantly run campaign, to his message of hope, promise of change and his better understanding of the American psyche, always ready to meet impossible challenges and to conquer new frontiers.



Obama’s victory must nevertheless be considered a revolution and a major event in U.S. history, in that, until recently, many believed that the victory of an African-American (with, on top of everything else, a Kenyan father) was impossible. In fact, one must remember that this victory comes only forty years after the abolition of the last racial segregation laws and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. This puts an end to the original sin, also called the “National Sin,” which was the acceptance of slavery by the founding fathers of the nation. Some Americans momentarily abandoned their Republican affiliation and their confirmed conservatism and voted for Obama, to prove their audacity (one of Obama’s favorite words is “audacity”), in order to find the hope that will again lead America towards a “New Deal” and a “New Frontier.” It’s as if America wanted to regain its soul, its values, and its ultimate purpose.

In order to achieve this, America must still possess what an American diplomat has called a strong gift of “youthful enthusiasm.” This expression describes both the American spirit and the essence of its mentality in everything that it tries to achieve, that is to say, the capacity to bounce back, to meet a seemingly insurmountable challenge and to make an impossible dream come true.

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And then comes the daily realization that everything that is happening in this country is in fact nothing more than the extension, the expansion, and the updating of concepts provided by the nation’s founding fathers. America remains indeed deeply marked by their message. President Thomas Jefferson summed it up best when he talked about a nation whose priorities are a passion for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These three goals are moreover linked and intertwined. In addition, it should be noted that throughout U.S. history these three objectives have developed in both positive and negative ways. The strength with which these objectives or global ideals are pursued is probably what most differentiates America from Europe.

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First of all there is “passion for life”. When one talks about passion for life, as far as the United States is concerned, one must necessarily and automatically make a link with the deep religious sentiments of the American people. For a great majority of Americans, life, at its origin, is clearly a gift from God (it explains the attachment of some to the belief in creationism). As a result, the existence of God and belief in Him are at the center of daily life for a great majority of Americans. We are far removed here from the concept of European secularism. A declared agnostic would therefore not have a chance to be elected to the U.S. Congress. One of the Republican presidential candidates, the pastor Mike Huckabee, went as far as declaring during the campaign, “I have come to campaign for Jesus” (and all of this in a country where separation between church and state is absolute). The 435 members of Congress all declare affiliation with one or another faith or religion. All events in the United States, whatever their nature, begin with an invocation to God, asking for His inspiration and protection. Every football game, every NASCAR race, every Rotary Club Meeting, every inauguration of an American president begins with a prayer. In Congress it is also customary before starting a debate that the opposing parties ask God to bring their viewpoints closer together. The congressional session at the beginning of the political year starts with the famous “prayer breakfast” bringing together 5,000-6,000 participants, in the presence of the President of the United States and numerous foreign guests, to seek guidance for the work of Congress. This also explains why each political speech must end with the exhortation “God Bless America.” Or, one can often hear it said, “with God on our side,” meaning on the side of the United States. To understand this religious fervor, it is good to remember that the first immigrants were deeply religious believers. Even for subsequent waves of immigrants, the invocation to God was and remains a call for God’s help and of encouragement to support their efforts to succeed.

The other, perhaps less positive, side of this religious fervor is that it gives birth to a profusion of churches and sects across the United States. Religion somehow becomes similar to a common commodity. Thus it is not hard to find in a mid-sized, Midwest city of 100,000 people ten to twelve churches of various denominations. The success of each of these depends mainly on the talent of the pastor. The arrival of a more talented preacher can also substantially change the number of congregants in one church or another (with financial consequences since church-members contribute to the salary of the pastor and the expenses of the church). Mention should also be made of the increasing success of some independent preachers who, thanks to their oratorical talents, attract crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 faithful in amphitheatres or stadiums (and often broadcast on television), to listen to long sermons. These events look less like worship services than exercises in mass psycho-analysis or a collective exorcism.

To understand America well, one must absorb the fact that this is a country that believes above all in life, and beyond that, in God, with both an admirable faith and fervor, but also with astounding naiveté and exaggeration.


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Next comes “the pursuit of happiness.” This is considered a major goal of American policy. This objective is linked in fact to the previous dogma of the respect for life to the extent that “the care of human happiness, not the destruction of life, is the first and only objective of good government.” To understand this goal, one has to go back and place oneself in the mentality of the first immigrants, escaping the misery of their country of origin. This is beautifully described in Crevecoeur’s book Letters from an American Farmer (1782). One reads, among other things “We have no princes for whom we toil or bleed…We are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free as it ought to be…No sooner than they arrive than they feel the good effects that plenty of provisions we possess, they fare on our best food and are kindly entertained; their talents, character and peculiar industry are immediately inquired into…Instead of being employed by a haughty person he finds himself with his equal…his wages are high, his bed is not like that bed of the sorrow on which he used to lie…he begins to feel the effects of a sort of resurrection; hitherto he had not lived but simply vegetated; now he feels himself a man because he is treated as such; the laws of his own country had overlooked him in his insignificancy…If he is a good man he forms schemes of future prosperity, he proposes to educate his children better than he has been educated himself; he thinks of future modes of conduct, feels an ardour to labour he never felt.” This quest for happiness and the continuous search for a better way of life are deeply rooted in each American and present a major objective to be achieved. This necessarily goes hand in hand with a taste for prosperity.

To all of this there is also a downside: when one mentions pursuit of happiness one must also mention the other aspect of American life, which is the consumer society or rather super-consumerism. Having arrived in the United States very poor, the first immigrants and all subsequent Americans diligently did pursue this desire to become rich and to acquire quickly all the possessions they wish for. To make one’s fortune in the United States is not a flaw but an admirable thing (but which implies, in fact, also an obligation to share afterwards). And, if one succeeds, it is good taste to show it. This turns out to be surely also good for business. In fact, the more one consumes, the more jobs are created and the more one looks for new, more sophisticated, products. But this can obviously lead to excess, to the extent of creating “consumption idealism” and a “crisis of profligacy.” To boost consumerism, American banks encouraged buying on credit to a degree unimaginable to Europeans. Every American must have two, three, four if not five credit cards…to the point where some end up living on credit and forgetting to save. All of this is the basis of the current financial and economic crisis. By encouraging and excessively inflating consumption America has lost its sense of moderation and reality…to the point where millions have become destitute following the credit crunch. But, in contrast with Europe where such a situation often leads to violent demonstrations and protests, here people blame themselves more than the State, trying to quickly find a way out for themselves and to look for new opportunities.

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The third American ideal is clearly “liberty.” Many elements have nourished the importance given to this taste for liberty. At the origin we obviously find consciousness of freedom from the yoke of British colonial rule. This victory must be seen as a victory of David against Goliath. Around 1776 the United Kingdom was indeed by far the strongest power in the world. There is then the idea of each immigrant freeing himself from a tragic situation in his country of origin. The winning of the West and the enormity of the American continent have also strongly nourished the notion of a country where people are free and where everything is possible.

If this taste for liberty/freedom was at the beginning an element of domestic policy, it also rapidly became an engine of foreign policy. The United States gradually assumed the responsibility (not always in the same way throughout its history) and the moral duty to bring this liberty to the rest of the world. This has been demonstrated in different ways, first of all through the expansion of the national territory and through several neighboring territorial wars. Then the United States twice found it very important to safeguard our liberty by helping to liberate our continent during World War I and World War II. Then came its engagement in the Cold War when through a containment policy it was successful in defeating the communist power and ideology, a system which had no room for “individual liberty.” President Bush, however, wanted to go further in extolling and
adopting an even more pro-active policy of promoting liberty ( the so called Freedom Agenda) by encouraging democratic revolutions wherever that was possible even if it had to be done by interfering in the internal policies of other countries, and by supporting the overthrow of certain regimes. It is therefore not surprising that for the average American, his country more than any other in the world “embodies freedom.” In the eyes of some, this policy goes nevertheless too far, a fact which made one American senator declare: “We have no right at the cannon’s mouth to impose on an unwilling people our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and our notions of what is good.” Mark Twain was also opposed “to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” For other Americans, it is, however, a moral obligation, part of their country’s global and historical destiny.

To pursue and succeed in this policy of defense and promotion of liberty everywhere in the world, the United States, over the years, has had to increase its military potential and capabilities, to the point of having become by far the foremost military power in the world (this also greatly encouraged the growth of a gigantic defense industry, which gave birth to the expression “military-industrial complex,” and led to the systematic strengthening of the military establishment at the heart of American political life). This, combined with an old tradition of resolving conflicts and disputes by force (the freedom to bear arms in the United States remains sacrosanct, which helps to explain why one percent of the adult population in the U.S. is imprisoned) has, according to some, slowly changed or influenced the American mentality, encouraging in this way a policy advocating forceful rather than peaceful solutions to conflicts, and this to the detriment of certain other American ideals and values. From there arises the often asked question as to whether or not “America has a warrior culture.” To ensure its freedom (especially after the attacks of 9/11) the balance seems to have even more shifted to the point where “America is seeing military power as the optimum mean” heading toward a policy where the end seems to justify the means, and where respect for the law could be flouted. All of this clearly to the detriment of the moral values that American stands for. This has been particularly true during the War in Iraq and generally during the Bush presidency. Aware of its contribution to the protection and expansion of liberty and to the heroic fight that this entails, America insists therefore to honor those who die for this cause. To die for one’s country, values and ideals is admired by the American people and gives birth to hero worship.

A visit to Arlington Cemetery combined with the Vietnam Memorial admirably sums up the good and the less good side of America’s contribution to the cause of liberty. America clearly continues to face the following dilemma: where does the defense and the promotion of liberty begin and where does it end, and how must and can it be achieved?

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The pursuit of these ideals of respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are also at the basis of, and explain and nourish several behaviors characteristic of American daily life. Among these I will mention:

--a strong nationalism. All important events begin by the pledge of allegiance to
the flag and the singing of national anthem by the crowd with hand placed on
the heart;
--a wish to take on world leadership: every presidential candidate confirms that as
president he/she would pursue a policy giving the U.S. world leadership;
--the enterprising spirit. Every citizen is aware that he/she has to take the
responsibility for his/her own future, by being ready to work and try new things.
Even after a failure, the American citizen only thinks about bouncing back and
trying something new, always in the hope of becoming richer;
--a strong community life. Since the social safety net does not exist, the first
safety net is the community where one lives. Everyone participates generously
and with a great sense of solidarity, aware that it is never out of the question to
one day find oneself in great difficulty.

With Obama, America has recovered its true dimension: that of dream, change and a better future. Didn’t Obama go as far as declaring “Listen to me and you will catch the American future”? Now it is up to him to prove that he is capable of taking up the challenge, of leading citizens in this new recovery adventure and of transforming his “Yes We Can” slogan into reality.

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A stay in the United States is, for all the points raised above, always a gratifying experience. This country is and will always remain a discovery for all Europeans. Here each relives in a way, with of course less talent, the experience and the itinerary of de Tocqueville, beautifully set forth in his book De la Démocratie en Amérique. During a stay in the U.S., one can feel at every moment how much this country is in a phase of its history which differs in certain aspects from that of Europe. The greatest difference is probably that American citizens do not expect everything from the State, and are still quite comfortable with the quotation of the late president John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.” With the certainty that in any case “God (will) Bless America.”


Dominique Struye, Class of ’65
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