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Dostoevsky and American Exceptionalism

Paul Guillory

Posted on October 9, 2018 19:57

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These are critical times in America when important issues need to be addressed, from global trade to large-scale military operations of historic proportions. Incredibly, mainstream news outlets hide the ball all the way to the bank as they siphon that energy towards the sensational. However, how some classic novels present a different perspective about the contemporary problems we face.

In his novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” two of Dostoevsky’s characters discuss the hypothetical consequences to Russian society if the Church were to absorb the Russian State or the Russian State were to absorb the Church into itself. It’s an argument the author uses to establish two points of view on the issue of criminal deterrence. 

What would the theme be had the novel taken place in America?  The issue of “Church and State” is fairly settled in the U.S. However, one fundamental question we do face is America’s primary role as a nation. Is it simply a place that 320 million people call home? Or, to extend the concept of Reagan and JFK’s “City Upon a Hill,” does it function as a living monument to the rest of the world regarding self-governance?

Is America’s mission solely pragmatic - one nation among many whose sole aim is the material welfare of its citizenry to the exclusion of others? For Dostoevsky, the Church has long sought to lift its congregants spiritually, rather than materially. It presents a kind of ancient expectations management policy, of sorts. America strives for both, embodying a unique form of statecraft, and all the trappings of a nation-state.   

There are numerous narratives, of course, associated with what it means to live in America, and everyone is free to develop their own. One is that self-government carries with it a citizen's duty to participate in an experiment; liberty and personal responsibility work hand-in-glove to create a better society. Politics often pulls us in opposing directions, sometimes toward the practical and sometimes toward the aspirational. Each finds its source in human nature but the latter comes from the higher human need for self-realization, a feeling given full vision in America, where you’re encouraged to “be all that you can be.” 

The opposite end of that spectrum can be found in the politics of the 24-hour news cycle of the cable news networks. They largely feed the practical politics of our personal insecurities, which are hoisted to the level of political philosophy. This is what largely passes as news there. Smart and honest people could easily spend a lifetime commiserating on screen about an endless assembly of grievances, real and manufactured.

Is the airing of personal grievances as American as apple pie, or is the mark somewhere closer to JFK’s “ask not what” speech?  The media’s obsession with, and our demand for, the practical politics of fear is harmful. Goal-oriented political leaders benefit when issues obscure and distract the populace, as they attend to issues of high political consequence, be they trade, the courts, taxes, immigration, defense, policing, etc.

These are the problems actually determining our—America’s—role in the world.

Paul Guillory

Posted on October 9, 2018 19:57

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