Sometimes, as I wrote my tutorials for this blog, I forget that the readership, however large or small it may be, is international. My overseas readers put up with my quite local commentary on the passing political scene with pretty good humor, I think, but every so often, I say something that really puzzles them, even though it may seem perfectly comprehensible to Americans. My discussion of the American belief that this nation was founded as the embodiment of an Idea is one such example. I imagine Americans are so accustomed to hearing this theme repeated in public speeches, school classrooms, and the media that they find nothing bizarre about it, even if [as I hope] they can be persuaded that it is false. But Marinus' reaction makes it clear that to the rest of the world, the notion may simply be incomprehensibly absurd.
Those of a philosophical bent might think to see the hand of an Idealist Hegelian working here, but that is not the source of the notion. Pretty clearly, its origins are religious. America, in the eyes of early settlers as well as subsequent inhabitants, is identified with The Promised Land of the Old Testament -- a land of milk and honey, promised by God to His chosen people. The secularization of this religious theme becomes the claim that America was founded as the embodiment of the Idea of Liberty.
One tends to forget how strong was the desire, in the early days of the Republic, for a New Beginning in a Virgin Land, unbeholden to the various European nations from which the White early settlers came. Indeed, as my former colleague Marc Shell has shown, at the time of the establishment of the United States, there were debates about what the national language should be. German had its partisans, along with Dutch, and of course English. There was a town that created an entirely new language, in the belief that the citizens of this new country should not even speak a language brought like baggage from the Old World.
To my foreign readers, I can only say: Trust me when I tell you that the alternative story I am going to spell out for you, developed by the new discipline of Afro-American Studies, even though it may strike you as self-evident, is so cognitively dissonant to Americans that it is almost impossible for it to get a sympathetic hearing even in politically progressive quarters. If I argue that America has not yet fulfilled its destiny by successfully embodying the Idea of Liberty in all of its institutions, progressives will nod sadly, while the rest of America will cross itself and mumble about socialism and Shariah Law. But if I say that America never was a country founded as the embodiment of the Idea of Liberty, even the most progressive listeners will recoil, convinced that I am somehow the enemy of progress and the fulfillment of the American dream, for if Freedom is not the essence of the American story, then on what basis can we fight for justice and equality?
"All politics are local," the great Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously observed. Perhaps all ideological delusions also are local.