Last week, after the first presidential debate, I spoke at an architecture school in downtown Los Angeles. One of the questions the moderator asked was about American exceptionalism. The foam flecked to his lips at the very phrase. What, pray tell, was American exceptionalism, he asked?
I answered by referencing the Founding Fathers and the freedoms they guaranteed us via the American Constitutional System of checks and balances. What makes us unique guardians of liberty, I said, is that our system is designed to counterbalance interest against interest -- we only act together with the full power of unity when we're actually unified. We prize the individual over the collective.
He scoffed at that suggestion. He derided the founders and the Constitution -- "a 200-year-old document written by dead white slave owners!" -- and suggested an alternative vision of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism, he said, was characterized by "the things we do together." When he thought of an exceptional America, he thought of certain images: American footprints on the moon, the interstate highway system, Hoover Dam, nationalized health care.
The moderator's perspective was that of President Obama, too. He prizes reliance on the collective because no man can alone build roads or bridges or skyscrapers. As President Obama said, "You didn't build that." Government, says Obama, is the only thing we all belong to. We're "stronger together."
These are two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. One is based on the value of freedom. The other is based on the value of monuments.
The monument society looks at the Chinese high-speed rail and says: "Let's build one of those." The freedom society looks at the Chinese high-speed rail and says: "At what cost to individual freedom?" Sometimes, collective projects do outweigh the needs of the individual -- see, for example, World War II, in which we mobilized collectively to preserve individual freedom. But the monument society always errs on the side of building the monument, of activating the collective; the freedom society always errs on the side of individual liberty.
We are now at the tipping point in America between these two visions. We must make a choice. Do we want to give our children monuments -- tremendous buildings, vast bureaucracies, bulwarks of human collectivism? Or do we want to give them freedom? Do we want to build pyramids? Or do we want to build families?
These two visions are in opposition now because we have moved too far in the direction of the monument society. And that diminishes human happiness.
It is remarkable how little the monument society left talks about human happiness and fulfillment. Instead, they prefer to talk about a "better tomorrow."
They talk about moving "forward." They imply that we must be miserable today to be happy tomorrow -- or, alternatively, that our children must be miserable tomorrow so that we can be happy today.
That's what the monument society is all about. Jewish Midrash teaches about the Biblical Tower of Babel, the monument society. The tower became so tall and so grand that it supposedly took a year to shuttle bricks from the bottom of the tower to the top. People wept when a brick fell, but did not care if a man died. There were always more workers. But bricks were invaluable.
The builders of that tower would have given their children a magnificent site. But those children would have been slaves to the monument. There would have been no happiness. Just a vast tower, crumbling to dust over generations.
The founders recognized that Americans, given freedom to pursue their own goals, made self-reliant, are happy. The power of the collective is magnificent, but only when the people agree on utilizing it. That is the balance the founders drew, and that is why they were so wise. Our liberties must be preserved from the collective, but in times of crisis, we must all come together. The collective must not be hijacked for particular interests, forcing men to labor for the selfish benefit of powerful interests. The collective must only be activated when absolutely necessary. Anything less destroys human freedom, and turns us into the monument society.
Only a society that prizes individual freedom over collective mobilization can hand that freedom to its children. It can make monuments -- living monuments. Children who grow up free. Who inhabit those great skyscrapers. Who visit Mount Rushmore, not as a relic of an ancient civilization, but as a tribute to the values of those whose faces are carved into it.
That is American exceptionalism. That's what we seek to give to the world. We are the monument. Our families are the monument: a monument to God and to liberty. Because, in the end, all towers crumble to dust. All that matters is the living. Monuments mean nothing if there are no free people to honor them.