Embracing Limits

You don’t look to the State of the Union address for moments of illumination in the world of government and politics, but we got one nonetheless this past Tuesday night.  Not from President Obama, mind you, but rather from Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who delivered the “official” Republican Party response.

The United States, said Rodgers in her introductory remarks, is “a nation where we are not defined by our limits, but by our potential.”

What a silly thing to say.  And what a wholly dangerous thing to believe.

If there is one thing we have learned for absolute certain in the first 237 years of the American republic, it’s that nothing gets us in greater trouble than not knowing and working within our limits, both individually and as a nation.

During much of the George W. Bush administration, for instance, Washington, D.C., operated under the assumption that America’s military might was effectively infinite.  President Bush and company viewed the rest of the world as a laboratory in which the United States could test its theories about democracy at its leisure, with or without the consent of the people who happened to live there.  They truly believed—or at least professed to believe—that America was capable, in Bush’s words, of “ending tyranny in our world.”

However, in the fullness of time—and at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives—we realized that this triumphalist view was a trifle naïve and rose-colored on the president’s part, and that even the U.S. Armed Forces are not invincible.  That America’s resources to carry out its interests abroad are finite, as are foreigners’ willingness to bend to America’s ideological will.

And all because our country chose to define itself by its (supposed) potential rather than by its limits.

Oops.

I know, I know:  That’s not really what Congresswoman Rodgers meant.  Nor is it what all of our other public officials (not least President Obama) have in mind when they pass along the exact same sentiment regarding unlimited potential.

No, what they mean to evoke is the proverbial “American dream”:  The proposition that someone born poor can become rich.  That the most humble of origins can be transcended through nothing more than honest hard work and a little bit of luck.  That the daughter of an orchardist can become a member of Congress and a black boy born to a single mother can become president of the United States.

And they’re wrong about that, too.

Not about the dream.  Indeed, it is a matter of historical and contemporary fact that the circumstances of one’s birth do not necessarily determine the course of one’s entire life, even as the latest studies on the subject suggest that America’s economic mobility levels have essentially flatlined over the past four decades.

Sure, given the right circumstances, anyone can achieve greatness in America.  That point is valid as far as it goes.

But that has nothing at all to do with this essential concept of limits.

A limit is exactly that:  A ceiling through which one cannot possibly break.  The point where all resistance is futile.  The moment when one must accept one’s fallibility and find another way to achieve one’s objectives—if, indeed, they can be achieved at all.

If one proceeds to secure a particular station in life, then it wasn’t a limit in the first place.  Maybe you thought it was, but it turns out you were under a misconception that had never been properly tested or challenged.  You know, a misconception such as, “America will never elect a black president,” or, “Gay people will never be able to get married.”

These assumptions were only true so long as we kept telling ourselves so.  There was nothing preventing such supposed impossibilities from being realized except our own resistance to them.

However, there are some challenges in life that really are insurmountable, and the mark of true intelligence and sophistication is being able to recognize them when they appear and to know when not to push one’s luck.  It’s not always easy to distinguish a limit from a mere setback, but it should always be one’s goal to do precisely that.

I submit, in order words, that the United States should in every way be defined by its limits, and should take it as a matter of pride rather than a source of shame.  Understanding and working within one’s limitations is how all wise policy is made.

America cannot do everything, nor can individual Americans.  It’s high time we stopped acting like we can.

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