Victor Davis Hanson

Mexico has a word, raza, that conflates race and nationality, in the way that the German word volk used to suggest not just being German, but looking German as well. I doubt that either country would ever elect a black head of state.

It would be virtually impossible for the most talented Christian or Jew to be allowed to head contemporary Egypt, or for a brilliant four-star Buddhist general to run the Iranian military. For the immediate future, don't expect a female business-school valedictorian to manage Saudi Arabia's national oil company. Note that in all these cases, such exclusions derive from criteria other than innate talent, character and industriousness, and can result in the lesser qualified being considered the only qualified.

The mixture of consumer capitalism and constitutionally protected free speech -- and all sorts of races, religions and ethnicities -- sometimes means that America can be a wild place with a popular culture that appears crass and uncouth to those abroad. Our generation's $17 trillion national debt, unfunded entitlements and nearly 50 million people on food stamps might convince the Founding Fathers that they had spawned license rather than guaranteed liberty.

Yet the upside to the wild arena of America is that almost anyone is free to enter it. Oprah Winfrey, an African-American woman, reinvents the genre of daytime talk shows and builds a media empire. Warren Buffet outpaces New York's Wall Street -- from Nebraska. A one-time five-and-dime owner from Arkansas, Sam Walton, refashions the way an entire planet buys its stuff. A Russian mig, Sergey Brin, co-founds Google, perhaps the most indispensable site on the Internet.

Just when we read obituaries about an unruly nation of excess, unlikely nobodies pop up to pioneer fracking, the Napa wine industry or Silicon Valley. Why? No other nation has a Constitution whose natural evolution would lead to a free, merit-based society that did not necessarily look like the privileged -- and brilliant -- landed white male aristocracy who invented it.

The end of American exceptionalism will come not when we run out of gas, wheat or computers, but when we end the freedom of the individual, and, whether for evil or supposedly noble reasons, judge people not on their achievement but on their name, class, race, sex or religion -- in other words, when we become like most places the world over.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.


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