Categories
News

The Quest for National Identity

I have to begin by expressing my gratitude for the contributors to the forum. Both the anxiety and the reward of scholarly writing lie from the understanding that you work will be assessed by readers who understand as much as the author does concerning the subjects that he discusses–and more about these he doesn’t. I hope scholars won’t be the only ones to see this book, and I believe it’s something to offer you those falling thoughts, sources, or periods it describes for the first time. But I’m relieved as well as happy by the positive responses included here.
Richard Gamble, specifically, is overly kind. As he notes,” I’m not trained as an historian and work primarily with published documents or artifacts that are well-known as opposed to archival materials. Gamble has brilliantly used both kinds of sources in research of related problems. So his acceptance of my historiographical intuitions (which is really all they are) means a fantastic deal to me.
A pioneer in my field of political idea, Steven Smith also enjoys the historic arguments but cognitively desires more detailed proposals for handling the scenario I explain. The publication that he concludes, is”thoroughly diagnostic… What is required is a pathway toward developing a humanist sense of patriotism.”
It strikes me that the expectation of a roadmap from the current impasse might serve as a response to questions I raise about the continuity and stability of national identity. If there’s a single enduring American characteristic, surely it’s confidence that there are not any permanent dilemmas; that many problems have solutions. But even that generalization, even uncontroversial although it seems, demands qualification. The most profound American reaction to suffering and negativity –that the African American religious and musical traditions that turned into the blues–is skeptical of the chance that the contradictions of American life can be solved prior to the conclusion of times.
Still, the problem of the job is not a justification for refusing to test. Despite all the familiar objections, I truly believe that enhanced Congressional power, judicial deference to governmental divisions, federalism, local government, and voluntary association–all of which disaggregate jurisdiction and deep responsibility–would be the only alternatives to increasingly bitter struggles for control of the White House. If the branch remains the sole political establishment (along with the judiciary is viewed only as its tool ), it will be regarded as a prize too valuable to give up . In my view, that feeling of existential hazard is a much better excuse for its disgraceful events of past winter than residual nativism or nostalgia for the Confederacy.  
The counter-productive pursuit for centralized control is not limited to the proper, moreover. Brian Smith is appropriate to see the current wave of progressive activism for a descendant of the covenantal nationalism of the 18th century. The Biblical God is gonein the attenuated form proclaimed from the Social Gospel. But the effort to work with market power and institutions of higher education to impose a more uniform national culture to get a recalcitrant public is astonishingly similar. 1 irony of the predicament is that the current nationalists more closely resemble the Jacksonian Democrats and populists who resisted the impact of New England colleges and New York banks than they do the technocratic Whigs and plutocratic Republicans whom they claim to admire. Meanwhile, the”anti-racist” despisers of those American past repeat the WASP moralizers of a previous age.
Intellectuals are attracted to the premise that shared thoughts are the basis of shared experiences since it leaves us the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I think that the causal relationship more often goes another way.It may seem like an evasion to provide a response about institutions to a question about individuality. My point, though, is that there is not much advantage in designing a template to get renewed patriotism in advance. If I’m right that a thriving American individuality can simply emerge from involvement in self-government (including the personal arrangement of one’s own affairs as well as formal political ) and discussion among rival factions and interests, then it’s not possible to predict in advance just what the outcome is. 
Although he admits the protean qualities of American nationalism, Brad Littlejohn believes that my attitude toward this process is too passive. If it worked out fairly well previously, he claims that it was because Americans made vigorous and explicit arguments for their favorite visions of domestic life and character, not because they hoped for the best. That is particularly true when it comes to education. Writers and teachers, Littlejohn argues, should respect themselves as eulogists recalling the life of a respected relative rather than prosecutors looking for an indictment.
In certain contexts, I agree. As I note in the book, the instruction of children is not a graduate seminar–still less a courtroom. As I’ve written elsewhere, the endless denunciations of the American pantheon for mostly anachronistic transgressions is not only ungrateful but found us of crucial versions of political superiority. As for the informal education of popular culture, I specifically encourage individuals with the ability to inspire and delight to create use of their innovative license. “Poets”– talking in the broad sense–are among the very best nationalists just because they are not bound even by the restrictions of memory.
Nevertheless a a poem is not the same thing for a biography, and it’s a rare gift that may triumph in all genres. My argument is not so much a review of historic story-telling or myth per se as it true for a division of labor between scholarship, education (especially at the lower degrees )as well as the expressive arts. A film or novel that paid excess attention to historic details could be insufferably boring; a eulogy that talked only of unedifying truths could be unforgivably rude; and also a work of scholarship that treated its audience only as prisoners of an Platonic cave could be condescending.
In the final analysis, though, I do not think the secrets of domestic cohesion lie at the literary arts, yet skillfully deployed. Intellectuals are attracted to the premise that shared thoughts are the basis of shared experiences since it leaves us the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I think that the causal relationship more often goes another way: shared experiences generate shared thoughts. The odd cohesion that the United States appreciated around the middle of the 20th century wasn’t the result of better textbooks or more statues. It was the product of a financial wreck that leveled entrenched class gaps, wartime mobilization that cast countless young men into battle and subjected countless other people to the formative influences of army discipline, technological developments that preferred centralized media, and finally an economic boom permitted by the physical destruction of industrial competitions.
Though it wasn’t perfect, there’s a lot to admire about this age. Since George Hawley notes, though, the structural conditions that made it possible contingent, temporary, and aren’t coming back. Rather than treating it as the baseline of normality, then, we should respect the America of approximately 1960 as the exclusion to a much more contentious, unstable rule. That can become easier since the baby boomers pass out of the scene.
Meanwhile, we can take some comfort in the understanding that our anxieties are nothing new. On the contrary, one of the striking parts of the research for this publication was my discovery that the rhetoric of decline, collapse, and disunion that has lately become so recognizable was voiced, almost word for word, at numerous times previously. It’s likely that after a few centuries and several false climaxes, our story is finally approaching its conclusion. But I am American sufficient to believe there is always another action.