On Being Political
Aristotle argued that human beings are political animals. And this means, I think, that humans express their being politically. “American” is a political expression of being, which seems to us a weird notion.
But notice human behavior. In a once well-read book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the question was asked because Kansans were voting in ways that conflicted with their interests, especially their economic interests. But why were they doing so? I would argue because they were voting as they thought Americans should vote, thereby they were voting to be Americans. So, if their economic interests conflicted with their “American-ness”, and being political animals and not economic animals, they voted against their economic interests deliberately, if not quite consciously. And, so, if by pointing out that Kansans were voting against their economic interests, you think that this news will change votes, you are mistaken. Political appeals will always trump economic political appeals.
So will political appeals always trump philosophic appeals. Jefferson wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but it wasn’t those truths that led to the American revolution. It was the budding American nationalism; that is, it was the emerging American “being-ness.” Americans were becoming or had become “a people,” distinct from the British people, deserving of their own political order, and were even willing to engage in treasonous war for that American “being-ness.”
So, the promises of peace and prosperity, of freedom and democracy pitched to the Vietnamese by Americans in order “to win their hearts and minds” had to fail because such things can’t compare to being Vietnamese. The Vietnamese had been expressing themselves, expressing their being politically against the Chinese for centuries, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But being Vietnamese trumped the peace and the prosperity promised by both the Chinese and the Americans. Because the Americans did not understand this, they could not understand why they were doomed to lose that war.