America as Tragic Hero: The Fatal Flaw in International Policy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 24, 2006

There is no political figure in American politics today with sufficient stature and dignity to play a tragic hero, but in its dealings with the rest of the world America itself may be perfect for the role. Here we have a country of enormous power and wealth governed by citizens who genuinely want to do good. Most Americans sincerely try to craft and support international policies based upon the common good of other nations. And yet things seldom work out as planned.

The Essence of Tragedy

I don’t mean to claim that American foreign policy is without its dark side, that no one ever acts out of self-interest, or that the end is never used to justify the means. But compared with the way other super-powers have acted throughout history, there is a kind of bluff openness and friendliness about American foreign policy. We very much want others to be happy as well as ourselves, and because of this basic goodness in most of our intentions, we assume that our interventions will be welcomed by persons of good will everywhere. The constant surprise Americans experience when they find that others don’t like them is perhaps the greatest possible proof that we sincerely believe ourselves to have the best interests of others at heart.

So why do so many people around the world hate America? And why do so many of our international plans turn sour? America, like all tragic heroes, seems often to miss the mark through a fatal misperception or misstep very like the problem of hamartia in Greek tragedy. Moreover, the reason for this missing of the mark is also right out of the books. We Americans tend to be rather blandly self-satisfied, not in a cold, cruel or mocking way, but in our ingenuous assumption that we have a superior grasp of reality, that whatever we choose is good, and that however we do things is right. This largely unrecognized pride, which the Greeks called hubris, skews our perceptions until we make a misjudgment and act on it. The fault does not lie so much with our motives as with our understanding of reality, which is flawed by the implicit assumption of our own surpassing excellence.

For Their Own Good

This is true on both sides of our political spectrum. Conservatives, preferring to work through national initiatives, very frequently make decisions about the use of economic and military pressure based on the assumption that, given the chance, the vast majority of people everywhere will make the same choices we have made for democratic procedures, republican government, and a market-driven culture. Liberals, who prefer to work through the United Nations or other international agencies when possible, just as frequently make decisions about the use of political influence and financial aid based on the assumption that other peoples want to repeat our choices in favor of secular education, modern health care and sexual license.

Although Americans themselves are sharply divided on many significant issues (reflexively blaming the other side for its blindness when policies fail), we tend to share a certain inability to comprehend any significant reality outside our own experience. Most of us are quite frankly incapable of imagining that anyone would not want to enjoy our political, economic, social and sexual liberties. Because we are typically so satisfied with ourselves, we turn a blind eye both to the positive elements in other cultures and to the dark side of our own (except for the other half’s dark side). We simply do not see what others see.

Liberation for Success

This hubris leading to hamartia is evident on almost every side. Our intervention in Iraq is based on nothing if not our assumption that Iraqis really want to be just like us. Our foreign aid programs frequently incorporate notions of educational positivism and reproductive rights, transforming material assistance into ideological pressure. Our economic policy is built on the principle that American consumerism is an unqualified good, and that to establish it anywhere is to transform enemies into friends. All our international policies are conceived in terms of liberation, sometimes liberation from poverty, ignorance and powerlessness, often liberation from tradition, family and God, but always liberation of everybody else to be like us.

If American material success is not enough to make others hate us (and, in a fallen world, it surely is), American blindness to nearly everything but material success will certainly do the trick. It is both a strength and a weakness of American history that we as a people have learned to minimize other differences in favor of the pragmatism of material results. While many Americans still value other, non-material goods, these unquantifiable goods have been progressively relegated to the private realm. In our public life, and in our public policies, we seem now unable to focus on anything which might broaden our vision or transcend our own peculiar limitations.

The Only Way Out

The best way out of all this lies in a new direction. Instead of evading and marginalizing religion, we have a desperate need for a rational and sympathetic engagement with it. It is precisely the purpose of religion to focus the mind on transcendent values which force it to recognize its own limitations. It is preeminently through religion that we learn that our habits and desires do not constitute reality, and that we must be ever attentive to external truths. The very awareness that we are not the sole measure, that there are larger realities, that our own grasp of reality is limited and flawed: these are tremendous aids not only to effective policy but to life as a whole.

In short, we need very much to learn to see what God sees. That we don’t recognize this need is our hubris. That we engage others only on our own terms is our hamartia. In a noble people, when hamartia follows hubris, the result is tragedy.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koenigj7311 - Jun. 22, 2019 1:30 PM ET USA

    In my opinion This piece about Dr. Taylor Marshall is not one of your best. In paragraph 2, you say “The fundamental stupidity of the book arises from the author’s felt need to explain the normal human condition in terms of a series of conspiracies.” I am grateful to Marshall for connecting the dots.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 08, 2019 2:41 PM ET USA

    dover beachcomber: Unfortunately, I find the contention that the ordinary form of the Roman rite is a completely new Mass to be absurd on its face. It has the same principal parts as the Mass has always had, and these parts are without question more easily identified and understood than in the extraordinary form. The practical implementation of the revised liturgy was not, of course, in complete accordance with the Council document on the Liturgy, and it would almost certainly have been better if it had been. Unfortunately, the revised liturgy was released into a rapidly-shifting, highly secular culture in which many things were done according to personal whim and the music was often banal. But where the liturgy is reverently done, as in my own parish, it is certainly beautiful. In any case, isn't it odd that the whole argument comes down to whether or not people get to worship with the liturgical form they like best? This sort of attachment, mostly emotional, is in itself a sad commentary on all sides. Christ saved us through obedience to the Father. Our attitude toward any liturgical form approved by the Church should be formed in exactly the same spirit, and I would argue that we typically benefit more spiritually (if we are serious in our commitment) from a form we do not like than from one that pushes all the right emotional buttons for us. It is amazing how shallow we all are in these matters.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 07, 2019 1:32 AM ET USA

    Five hundred characters seem adequate only to ask a single question, so...: If, as a practical matter, the noble intentions toward the Mass expressed in the documents of Vatican II led not to the desired recovery of a noble simplicity, but to a completely New Mass, how did that happen? Are we to think that no groups quietly discussed and planned such fundamental changes, and collaborated to bring them about? And if so, how would that look different from a conspiracy?

  • Posted by: Philopus - Jun. 05, 2019 6:55 PM ET USA

    I’m finding it hard to accept your criticism as anything remotely objective when you come out with guns blazing with statements such as “pointing out the absurdity of a crazy relative,” “fundamental stupidity of the book”, and “reminiscent of McCarthyism.” You have inspired me to buy the book now just to judge from an “Idiot’s” perspective.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 05, 2019 10:19 AM ET USA

    Bveritas2322: The first time you posted your comment, I simply deleted it because it made no sense. But since you posted it again, I'll respond to it. It makes no sense: Original Sin and Divine grace both play critical roles in human history. That will be granted by any Catholic, and was certainly not denied by de Lubac, Congar, and von Balthasar, all three of whom were deeply faithful Catholic theologians, in whose work you will find no denial of original sin. In fact, all three were named cardinals for their theological service to the Church by Pope Saint John Paul II. In any case, your point says nothing to the purpose, for the role of original sin in history is nowhere at issue in this discussion. It is the success of specific human conspiracies in controlling the Church, Marshall's completely unproven thesis, which is at issue.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Jun. 05, 2019 1:24 AM ET USA

    Mirus displays his ignorance of history and theology. History is driven by original sin. Without it, the world would not be a vail of tears. We would not have a need to lie to ourselves every day, and we would still be living in the Garden of Eden. This is what teachers of junk theology like de Lubac, Congar, and von Balthasar consistently failed to understand, as their modernist forays into “freedom in theology,” an evil pursuit, sought to prove the perfectibility of the human condition.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 01, 2019 8:58 PM ET USA

    "rehash of the same tired Traditionalist narrative." The essay is well-written. It has merit. However, the "narrative" is not falling on deaf ears in Europe, Americas, or Kansas where I spoke with an elderly priest serving 4 parishes. Ultimately the brutal demographic reality will assert itself. That the Church was attacked from within is clear. Specifics may be convoluted and distorted. But the hundreds boycotting Sophia Press are no match for the hundreds of millions boycotting the Church

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 01, 2019 6:31 PM ET USA

    man961983010: It is one thing to recognize the existence and evils of groups like the 19th century Masons in Europe and the 20th century Communists. It is another to allege that the problems in the Church have been caused by their conspiratorial plans, which is ludicrous. Just one example: Bella Dodd claimed that the Communists had widely infiltrated the Church, including the College of Cardinals, but even after her repentance she was never willing to give even one single name. Reality check! When Taylor Marshall speculates on who they are, guess whom he chooses -- those whom he regards as less orthodox, which is the last thing an infiltrator would want to appear to be! Finally, I had wanted to leave Archbishop Schneider out of this, but why would anyone believe he has some sort of special knowledge? He says many good things, but was born in 1961 and thus a babe in the woods during the alleged time period; and he is no kind of Vatican insider. In truth, he is probably the only bishop in union with Rome who could have been induced to write the Foreword, which is never a good sign.

  • Posted by: man961983010 - Jun. 01, 2019 4:35 PM ET USA

    I don't know book, but Popes Pius IX and Leon XIII wrote encyclicals on the Masonic conspiracy and the Permanent Instruction on the Alta Vendita Pius X wrote on the Modernist; Bella Dodd/Whit Chambers files found on the Communist consp. Worst is belittling Archbp Schneider who knows. What of damage Bugnini did, with hard evidence, to subvert the liturgy with a high Masonic official? The shell Novus Ordo Mass shows deep, longstanding damage they planned. You are not clear thinking nor charitable

  • Posted by: Cory - Jun. 01, 2019 4:03 AM ET USA

    If there is anything that I like about the Tridentine rite, it is the prayer at the foot of the cross and the reading of the John's prologue at the end of the Mass. At the end of the Mass we are sent off. For what? Precisely this: to proclaim the faith that is encapsulated in that prologue. This is what we are going out to do.

  • Posted by: margaretinvirginia - May. 31, 2019 11:12 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this review. When I read the email announcing this book it seemed a bit "off," and I was hesitant, but the Sophia Institute Press name on it reassured me. I am sad, with you, that books under their label will now have to be critiqued for validity. You saved me the time (and money) I might have spent on this book, and I appreciate it.

  • Posted by: wcbeckman5101 - May. 31, 2019 7:58 PM ET USA

    Let me simply say, thank you, Jeffrey Mirus. You have captured well so many of the symptoms of the "anti-Second Vatican Council" virus which has sickened so many of our fellow believers even as they claim to be healthy paragons of virtue and orthodoxy.