Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An immigrant's lesson in patriotism

Joseph Kellard writes that he's grateful for immigration:

"America is the land of the uncommon man. It is the land where man is free to develop his genius -- and to get its just rewards." ~ Ayn Rand

As Independence Day nears and with immigration a hotly debated issue, I'm reminded of how an atheist from the Soviet Union taught me what it means to be an American patriot.

Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, wrote that America is "the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world."

When I first read Rand's books and heard her lectures, many of which expressed equal adulation for America, I was a left-wing ideologue who questioned whether she knew that ours was a racist society that had enslaved blacks, stole this land from the Indians, and exploited the poor, women and children. And yet, whenever I heard our national anthem, a prideful lump would inevitably form in my throat. Looking back, this tells me that I grasped, even as I bought into those vicious charges, that there was much, much more to America. So when I encountered Rand's bold, uncompromising praise and defense of the United States -- all made with arguments atypical of the average American patriot -- she struck a chord with me.

While conservatives claimed this land was "God's chosen country" to explain America's greatness, Rand asserted that this nation was the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment, the eighteenth century intellectual movement in which reason was championed, faith-based dogmas were challenged and broken, and religion's influence in all realms was substantially weakened. Thus our Founding Fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington to John Adams, Rand noted, were primarily pro-reason secularists or deists who founded, for the first time in history, a nation based on explicit philosophical ideas -- above all, that each individual has a right to his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Rand recognized that what distinguished America from all nations, past and present, is its moral and political foundation: individual rights. That is, each man has a right to think for himself and pursue his chosen values in the pursuit of his own happiness. And so, no authority -- no gods, kings, popes, bureaucrats -- may dictate the course of any individual's life; that he may live for himself, "neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself," as Rand wrote. She explicitly identified that America, at root, is a nation based on reason, individualism and rational self-interest, all ideas that she celebrated in her books.

Based on these rights and life-affirming values, and on its corollary capitalist economic system, America emerged as a nation of freethinking, hard-working, productive individuals. A land of scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and businessmen who made possible an array of labor-, time- and life-saving advances or improvements -- including the steam engine, automobile, airplane, telephone, penicillin -- and thereby raised every man, woman and child's standard of living, prosperity and life-expectancy to unprecedented heights.

Rand's books taught me these facts, and also that what is fundamental to being an American is not any irrelevant characteristics, such as one's birthplace or race, but that one understands and chooses to live by the ideas unique to this country, yet are necessary to all men for their long-term survival, prosperity and happiness. Moreover, she taught that when evaluating historical figures, what is most relevant is not how they were like their predecessors, but how they distinguished themselves.

I therefore understood that our Founding Fathers represent a unique bridge between the irrationalities and injustices of the old world and the much greater heights that this nation has yet to achieve. So while some Founders owned slaves, for example, it is crucial to note that slavery, in some form, existed in virtually every pre-American society. And that what is most significant about figures like Jefferson or Washington is that they were the first in history to uphold the individual rights universal to all men, thus laying the moral and intellectual foundation for slavery's eventual abolition.

Rand understood that America could never be a racist society and still rise to its unprecedented status, and she noted how inasmuch as racism existed, it was a force in the feudal-like, anti-capitalist, agrarian South, which lost the Civil War to the freer, capitalist, industrial North. She knew that America was not the backward, tribalist society some tried to paint it to be, and asserted that this portrait was true of the native Indians, and contested the claim they had a "right" to this land. "If a 'country' does not protect rights," she asked rhetorically, "if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of their tribal chief, why should you respect the 'rights' that they don't have or respect?"

In sum, Rand unabashedly countered the claims that America owes a God for its freedom and wealth, that we Americans must live for "the common good," and that our government must be a paternalistic redistributer of our wealth to provide others with everything from Medicaid/Medicare to Social Security. She taught that to be American, above all, means that one respect each individual's right to live as he sees fit and to keep what he produces and trades voluntarily with others to mutual advantage.

I'm thankful that Rand escaped the slave state of Soviet Russia, where millions of innocents were slaughtered based on such communist ideals as self-sacrifice, equality of results and an all-powerful state that dictated how others must think and live. I'm thankful Rand came to live in this nation, where she knew she was free to think independently and write books with innovative, challenging ideas, exemplified by the provocatively titled The Virtue of Selfishness. Finally those books provide a foundation on which America can properly complete and ground her revolutionary principles and reach infinitely greater, unimagined heights.

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. Visit Mr. Kellard's website, The American Individualist, at: http://americanindividualist.blogspot.com.

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