American Values & Greatness

America may need to rethink the notion that our country’s values are what made us great (or make us great). I say ‘rethink’ because it is so routinely stated as some sort of axiomatic truth.

Values do not create growth and expansion out of thin air. To think in this way is to embrace a sort of magical sense of conjuring. I know it may offend the ego of some, but our values – as with anything else in our heads – don’t cause anything to materialize. Don’t slam my hand in the door here; I’m not trying to take anything away from anyone. I’m an inventor, an engineer, a problem solver, and as such, I suffer the same ego vulnerability here as anyone else.

America became what it is for largely material reasons. It was colonized by Western Renaissance and Enlightenment era cultures. It had a relatively thin and easily overrun indigenous population. It enjoyed geographic isolation from European conflicts during a critical incubation period. It had and still has tremendous natural resources in terms of energy, materials, and land space. During WW II, America was able to build its industrial capacity using money from the countries obliterating one another in Europe. Following these wars, the contraction of all major powers in Europe left a convenient global power vacuum into which America expanded readily and easily. Fossil fuels drove the entire growth of the country from an energy basis — because without energy, there is no production, no matter how good your ideas may be.

Meanwhile, America found that a lot of her values sucked. The treatment of native peoples sucked. Slave holding and slave trading sucked. Male-only suffrage sucked. Wild-west justice sucked. Rape of natural resources sucked. Decimation of native species sucked. Unregulated economic policy and worker exploitation sucked.

Our values have historically been hit and miss. Reform has sometimes taken a very great deal of bloodshed. The one constant has been our intrinsic material advantages: geographic separation from big powers during our incubation and growth, and expansion into the vacuum left when those powers decimated themselves. Insulation from external damage and a lot of physical/material energy got us to where we are. Now we find that American growth is leveling out, at just the time when boundless, consequence-free energy is becoming a harder question. Not a coincidence, and not something values will prevail against.

I like America very much, but I reject the magical thinking that proposes our “values” – a nebulous power-of-mind – got us to where we are. It may not flatter our egos, but we live in a material world. The primary power of mind that has enabled our harnessing of tremendous natural resources (which the native populations could not), is science. And science is nothing more than an evidence based approach to understanding and mastering the material world.

So, if there are any values to be uplifted, they must be those that led to the harnessing of our material resources and energy: free inquiry, valuing evidence, testing explanations, eschewing the nebulous and subjective, and rejecting fiat claims. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were for white males only, and they don’t explain, except by nebulous implication, all that has actually happened and all that America has achieved.


  1. The indigenous population was not thin and in some instances put up a good resistance.


    • My comment in that regard conveys the balance of the native peoples against the cultural “bench” of the European countries sending colonists. Comparing the resources on both sides, they were thin. Technologically outmatched, and population outmatched, and immunity outmatched in terms of disease. The native populations had not, by any measure, yoked the capacity of their native lands in the same way that the Europeans had done with theirs. The natives certainly did bring good resistance, but in a sense, the outcome was probably foregone, like laying sandbags against Katrina. There was far too much water on the other side, and far too little to stem the tide. But, I’ll profess freely that I haven’t made a hobby or profession out of that period of history. Open to contrary evidence…


  2. A bit more…

    Population of the Americas circa 1500 — 50 million
    Land area of the Americas — 16 million square miles
    ~ 3 people per square mile

    Population of Europe circa 1500 — 91 million
    Land area of Europe — 4 million square miles
    ~ 23 people per square mile

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the things I’ve repeatedly discovered reading history is that people don’t make decisions based on high minded concepts. They make them due to immediate pragmatic necessities. The high minded stuff is mostly just a narrative we construct later, and the exact narrative changes with every generation.

    People often think that sounds cynical, but the lesson I always take from it is that people in the past weren’t virtuous exemplars anymore than they are today, and that we should judge people’s action today with that in mind.

    Liked by 2 people

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