Shed­ding our na­tion’s char­ac­ter to be like oth­ers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Thomas Sow­ell

In an age that val­ues clev­er­ness over wis­dom, it is not sur­pris­ing that many su­per­fi­cial but clever books get more at­ten­tion than a wise book like “The Char­ac­ter of Na­tions” by An­gelo Codev­illa, even though the lat­ter has far more se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the chang­ing char­ac­ter of our own na­tion.

The re­cently pub­lished sec­ond edi­tion of Pro­fes­sor Codev­illa’s book is re­mark­able just for its sub­ject, quite aside from the im­pres­sive breadth of its scope and the depth of its in­sights. But clever peo­ple among to­day’s in­tel­li­gentsia dis­dain the very idea that there is such a thing as “na­tional char­ac­ter.”

Ev­ery­thing from punc­tu­al­ity to al­co­hol con­sump­tion may vary greatly from one coun­try to an­other, but the “one world” ide­ol­ogy and the “mul­ti­cul­tural” dogma make it oblig­a­tory for many among the in­tel­li­gentsia to act as if none of this has any­thing to do with the poverty, cor­rup­tion and vi­o­lence of much of the Third World or with the low stan­dard of liv­ing in the Soviet Union, one of the most richly en­dowed na­tions on earth, when it came to nat­u­ral re­sources.

“The Char­ac­ter of Na­tions” is about far more than the fact that there are dif­fer­ent be­hav­ior pat­terns in dif­fer­ent coun- tries — that, for ex­am­ple, “it is unimag­in­able to do busi­ness in China without pay­ing bribes” but “to of­fer one in Ja­pan is the great­est of faux pas.”

The real point is to show what kinds of be­hav­iors pro­duce what kinds of con­se­quences — in the econ­omy, in the fam­ily, in the gov­ern­ment and in other as­pects of hu­man life. Nor do the reper­cus­sions stop there. Gov­ern­ment poli­cies are not only af­fected by the cul­ture of the coun­try but can in turn have a ma­jor im­pact on that cul­ture, for good or ill.

Writ­ten in plain and some­times blunt words, “The Char­ac­ter of Na­tions” is nev­er­the­less the prod­uct of a man whose knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence span the globe, ex­tend­ing into eco­nomics, phi­los­o­phy and other fields, as well as en­com­pass­ing the wis­dom of the an­cients and the fol­lies of the mod­erns.

The book is an ed­u­ca­tion in it­self, more of an ed­u­ca­tion than many stu­dents are likely to get at an Ivy League col­lege. How­ever, its pur­pose is not aca­demic but to clar­ify the is­sues fac­ing us all to­day when “the char­ac­ter of the Amer­i­can way of life is up for grabs per­haps more than ever be­fore,” as the au­thor puts it.

While na­tions dif­fer, par­tic­u­lar kinds of be­hav­ior pro­duce par­tic­u­lar kinds of re­sults in coun­try af­ter coun­try. More­over, Amer­i­can so­ci­ety in re­cent years has been im­i­tat­ing be­hav­ior pat­terns that have pro­duced neg­a­tive — and some­times cat­a­strophic — con­se­quences in many other coun­tries around the world.

Among th­ese pat­terns have been a con­cen­tra­tion of de­ci­sion-mak­ing power in gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, an un­der­min­ing of the role of the fam­ily, a “non­judg­men­tal” at­ti­tude to­ward be­hav­ior and a dis­so­lu­tion of the com­mon bonds that hold a so­ci­ety to­gether, lead­ing to atom­istic self-in­dul­gences and groupi­den­tity pol­i­tics that in­creas­ingly pits dif­fer­ent seg­ments of so­ci­ety against each other.

Those among the in­tel­li­gentsia who say that we should “learn from other coun­tries” al- most in­vari­ably mean that we should im­i­tate what other coun­tries have done. An­gelo Codev­illa ar­gues that we should learn from other coun­tries’ mis­takes, es­pe­cially when those same mis­takes have re­peat­edly pro­duced bad re­sults in many coun­tries and among many very dif­fer­ent peo­ples, liv­ing un­der very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal sys­tems.

Putting ever more eco­nomic de­ci­sions in the hands of those with po­lit­i­cal power is just one of those mis­takes with a track record of painful reper­cus­sions in many coun­tries around the world. Th­ese reper­cus­sions have in­cluded not only se­ri­ous eco­nomic losses but, even more im­por­tant, a loss of per­sonal free­dom and self-re­spect, as ever wider seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion be­come sup­pli­cants and syco­phants of those with the power to dis­pense largess or to make one’s life mis­er­able with le­gal­is­tic or bu­reau­cratic ha­rass­ment.

We in Amer­ica have taken large steps in that di­rec­tion in re­cent years, and are ac­cel­er­at­ing our moves in that di­rec­tion this year. Get­ting some clearer sense of what this risks is just one of many rea­sons to read “The Char­ac­ter of Na­tions.”

Thomas Sow­ell is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.