Four Revolutionary Words.
It's a small phrase when you think about it: "the pursuit of happiness." It's somewhat over-shadowed in the Declaration of Independence by the weightier notions of "life" and "liberty." In today's mass culture, it even comes close to being banal. Who, after all, doesn't want to pursue happiness? But in its own day, the statement was perhaps the most radical political statement ever delivered. And when we try and fathom why it is that the United States still elicits such extreme hatred in some parts of the world, this phrase is as good a place to start as any.
Take the first part: pursuit. What America is based on is not the achievement of some goal, the capture of some trophy, or the triumph of success. It's about the process of seeking something. It's about incompletion, dissatisfaction, striving, imperfection. In the late eighteenth century, this was a statement in itself. In the Europe of the preceding centuries, armies had gone to war, human beings had been burned at stakes, monarchs had been dethroned, and countries torn apart because imperfection wasn't enough. From the Reformation to the Inquisition, religious fanatics had demanded that the state enforce holiness, truth and virtue. Those who resisted were exterminated. Moreover, the power and status of rulers derived from their own perfection. Kings and queens had artists portray them as demi-gods. Dissenters were not merely trouble-makers, they were direct threats to the perfect order of the modern state. This was a political order in which everything had to be perfectly arranged - even down to the internal thoughts of individual consciences.
Enter the Americans. Suddenly the eternal, stable order of divine right and church authority was replaced by something far more elusive, difficult, even intangible. Out of stability came the idea of pursuit. To an older way of thinking, the very idea is heretical. The pursuit of what? Where? By whom? Who authorized this? By whose permission are you off on some crazy venture of your own? Think of how contemporary Islamic fundamentalists must think of this. For them, the spiritual and intellectual life is not about pursuit; it's about submission. It's not about inquiry into the unknown. It's about struggle for the will of Allah. Since the result of this struggle is literally the difference between heaven and hell, there can be no doubt about what its content is, or the duty of everyone to engage in it. And since doubt can lead to error, and error can lead to damnation, it is also important that everyone within the community adhere to the same struggle - and extend the struggle in a fight against unbelievers.
Today, we find this religious extremism alien. But it was not alien to the American founders. The European Christians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not so different in their obsessiveness and intolerance from many Islamic fundamentalists today. And against that fundamentalist requirement for uniformity, the Founders of a completely new society countered with the notion of a random, chaotic, cacophonous pursuit of any number of different goals. No political authority would be able to lay down for all citizens what was necessary for salvation, or even for a good life. Citizens would have to figure out the meaning of their own lives, and search for that meaning until the day they died. There would be no certainty; no surety even of a destination. Pursuit was everything. And pursuit was understood as something close to adventure.
And then comes the even more radical part. The point of this pursuit was happiness! Again, this seems almost banal to modern ears. But it was far from banal in the eighteenth century and it is far from banal when interpreted by the radical mullahs of political Islam. Here's the difference. Before the triumph of American democracy, governments and states and most philosophers viewed happiness as incidental to something else. For Christians, happiness was only achieved if you were truly virtuous. Happiness was the spiritual calm that followed an act of charity; the satisfied exhaustion after a day caring for others. For Aristotle, happiness was simply impossible without virtue. Happiness was an incidental experience while pursuing what was good and true. The idea of pursuing happiness for its own sake would have struck Aristotle as simple hedonism. The happiness someone feels drinking a cold beer on a hot day or bungee-jumping off a bridge was not a happiness he recognized. And for almost every pre-American society, other goals clearly had precedence over the subjective sense of well-being. Remember Cromwell's England? Or Robespierre's France? Or Stalin's Russia? They weren't exactly pleasure-fests. Again, in radical Islam today, American notions of happiness - choice, indulgence, whimsy, humor, leisure, art - always have to be subjected to moral inspection. Do these activities conform to religious law? Do they encourage or discourage virtuous behavior, without which happiness is impossible and meaningless? These are the questions human beings have always historically asked of the phenomenon we call happiness.
Not so in America. Here, happiness is an end in itself. Its content is up to each of us. Some may believe, as American Muslims or Christians do, that happiness is still indeed only possible when allied to virtue. But just as importantly, others may not. And the important thing is that the government of the United States takes no profound interest in how any of these people define their own happiness. All that matters is that no-one is coerced into a form of happiness he hasn't chosen for himself - by others or by the state. Think of this for a moment. What America means is that no-one can forcibly impose a form of happiness on anyone else - even if it means that some people are going to hell in a hand basket. Yes, there have been many exceptions to this over the years - and America has often seen religious revivals, spasms of cultural puritanism, cultural censorship, and so on. But the government has been barred from the deepest form of censorship - the appropriation of any single religion under the auspices of the state. You can call this all sorts of things. In my book, it's as good a definition of freedom as any. But to others - countless others - it seems a callous indifference to the fate of others' souls, even blasphemy and degeneracy. This view is held by some Christian fundamentalists at home. And it is surely held by Islamic Fundamentalists abroad. We ignore this view at our peril.
There are, of course, many reasons why America evokes hostility across the globe. There are foreign policies; there are historical failings. There is resentment of American wealth and power. There is fear of the social dislocation inherent in globalization. But there is also something far deeper. What we have forgotten is how anomalous America is in the history of the world. Most other countries have acquired identity and culture through ancient inheritance, tribal loyalty, or religious homogeneity. Even a country very like the United States, Britain, still has a monarchy and an established church. If you told the average Brit that his government was designed to help him pursue "happiness," he'd laugh. Other developed countries, like Germany, have succumbed to the notion of race as a purifying and unifying element. Many others, like Pakistan or India, cling to a common religious identity to generate a modicum of political unity. In none of these countries is "happiness" even a political concept. And in none of these places is the pursuit of something in and of itself an admirable goal, let alone at the center of the meaning of the state and Constitution.
And when the society which has pioneered this corrosively exhilarating idea of happiness becomes the most powerful and wealthy country on earth, then the risks of backlash increase exponentially. In the late eighteenth century Europeans could scoff at banal American encomiums to happiness as an amusing experiment doomed to failure. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, with the products of such happiness - from McDonalds to Starbucks to MTV - saturating the globe, foreigners can afford no such condescension. Happiness is coming to them - and moral, theological certainty is departing. In response to this, they can go forward and nervously integrate - as countries like China, South Korea, and Russia are attempting. Or they can go back, far, far back to a world which where such notions of happiness were as alien as visitors from outer space.
Far, far back is where some in the Middle East now want to go. The roots of Islamic fundamentalism go back centuries and bypass many more recent, and more open, strains of Islam. And we are foolish if we do not see the internal logic of this move. The fundamentalist Muslims are not crazy. They see that other cultures are slowly adapting to the meme of the pursuit of happiness - from Shanghai to Moscow, from Bombay to Buenos Aires. They see that they are next in line. But they also see that such a change would deeply alter their religion and its place in society. So they resist. They know that simply accommodating piece-meal to slow change will doom them. So they are pulling a radical move - a step far back into the past, allied with a militarist frenzy and rampant xenophobia to buttress it. This move is the belated response of an ancient religious impulse to the most radical statement of the Enlightenment, which is why it is indeed of such world-historical importance. As I write I have no idea as to the conclusion of this new drama in world history - except that it will have ramifications as large and as lasting as the end of the Cold War.
What power four little words still have. And what carnage they must still endure to survive.
- Forbes ASAP, "The Big Issue," November 2001.
Return to Politics index, or Site homepage.