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Can America Live Without Cultural Imperialism?

David Brooks doesn’t think so. He laments that Americans no longer rally behind the global export of democratic capitalism, calling it the poisonous fruit of a “spiritual recession.” Excerpt:

Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.

Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, the left has grown strangely callous and withdrawing in the face of genocide around the world. The right adopts a zero-sum mentality about immigration and a pinched attitude about foreign affairs.

Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with. Young people get fired up by the thought of solar panels in Africa but seem much less engaged in the task of spreading political dignity and humane self-government.

Daniel Larison bites back:

Brooks’ lament is wrongheaded in many ways. It is doubtful that most Americans ever fully adhered to the “faith” he describes, and to the extent that they ever did it’s not at all obvious that it was desirable. A nation doesn’t need to aspire to universal democracy to value and uphold its own traditions of representative government. History doesn’t inexorably progress towards a certain goal, but we don’t have to believe that it does to try to reform our system of government. Almost everything in his column rings false. In the absence of “faith in universal democracy,” there are many spiritual counterweights to “rampant materialism.” They are called religions, which contain wisdom even more important than the Biblical morality he mentions. We shouldn’t want political leaders with a “sacred purpose.” These are the leaders that lead nations into catastrophes by pursuing reckless ideological causes that attempt to make the state and its goals into a substitute for real faith. If one is looking for “sacred purpose” in modern politics, one has gone looking in the wrong place.

Yes! I love and respect David Brooks, but I don’t know how anybody could have written that column after the Iraq calamity. Larison is exactly right: the 20th century was the bloodiest one in human history because of people trying to substitute ideology for the God in which they could no longer believe.

I am reminded of the reaction my Iranian reader Mohammad had in the comments thread of today’s transgender civil rights thread:

For God’s sake, when you Americans are done with “normalizing” whatever you think should be normal, just keep it for yourselves, and do not try to export your exalted wisdom to other countries.

If tomorrow most Americans started to go all naked, or if they started to hop instead of walking normally, they will announce it to be the right, even the duty, of everybody in the world to do so. The neocons would ask the president to drone everyone who disagrees.

Not just the neocons, but liberal hawks. The thing that divides mainstream US liberals from mainstream US conservatives is not whether America should intervene and try to force the world to be like us, but on which issues we should do so.

I honestly don’t understand the idea that if Americans come to believe that they ought not try to export their culture to other countries, they will have lost their reason to exist, or sense of national purpose. Brooks asks:

But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for?

How about “for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its people”? One man’s “champion of universal democracy” is another man’s “cultural imperialist.” I don’t believe that all values are equal. America’s values are, on balance, better than most of the world’s. But what business is it of ours to shove our values down the throats of foreigners? Vladimir Putin may be an SOB, but he’s not wrong about our arrogance.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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