I wish everyone a very happy Independence Day! 230 years ago today the Declaration of Independence (which had already been signed on July 2) was proclaimed in each of the new states, and the political bonds between the colonies and the Mother Country were severed. Typically, how we understand the actions of the early patriots colours to a great extent how we understand American identity.
There are those, such as Irving Kristol, who believe we are an ideological nation with a mission, and that the Declaration of Independence is one source of this national ideology as transmuted by strange 20th century revolutionary agendas. There are others, such as Harry Jaffa, who believe that the Founding is typified by a peculiar, ahistorical Lincolnian reading of the Declaration of Independence, which happens to comport very nicely with a doctrine of modern egalitarianism. There are still others, not far removed from either of these, who define being American with an acceptance of certain propositions, most of which are, again, culled from the text of the Declaration of Independence. For these people, being American is an ideological pose or affiliation to a certain set of political views. In this camp also falls the tiresome Ruben Navarette, Jr. More on his latest column in a moment.
On the other hand, there are those who see the Declaration of Independence as a final statement of grievances about the violations of established, chartered rights of Englishmen by Crown and Parliament, rights which the signers of the Declaration had inherited from the English constitutional tradition as a matter of legal right as subjects of the British Crown. It was solely on the basis of their status as Englishmen and British subjects that the signers would have had much confidence that their rebellion was lawful–their right to revolt, as they understood it, was not based in the natural order of things or the law of nature, but in a very contingent, fragile web of constitutional inheritances tying the generations together.
The Declaration did also include a number of rhetorical nods to the early Enlightenment and Whig thought of late seventeenth century Britain, as Locke and Sydney, among others, had sought to justify the Great Rebellion and, in the case of Locke, also the “Glorious Revolution.” The constitutional guarantees confirmed in the Bill of Rights of 1628 and the Petition of Right of 1689, and secured by the main force of regicide and foreign invasion, had become the patrimony of our forefathers and represented the established and venerable custom that they then sought to preserve against perceived innovation and usurpation. Though exceedingly minor, the infractions against which they rebelled represented for them the thin end of the wedge and, if left unchecked, the source of future usurpation based on the precedents then being set.
Fidelity to their republican spirit and their constitutionalism would seem to me to be an important element of what it means to be American, just as the defense of their constitutional patrimony represented for our forefathers their identity as Englishmen. However, even that standard would be to make American identity dependent principally on the acceptance of a certain political regime; defense of the constitutional inheritance should be done in the spirit of preserving the broader cultural patrimony we have received from our British ancestors.
Our fundamentally British culture, as Russell Kirk termed it, is at the core of who we Americans are. Should newcomers embrace that culture, or at least what is left of it, they may be welcome, depending, of course, on a host of other considerations and pursuant to respect for the laws of the nation, but if they approach being American in an ideological way (“I like freedom! I llike democracy!”) it is doubtful that they will ever become American in this meaningful sense, regardless of what their status as citizens may be.
This brings me to Mr. Navarette and his laughable list of political positions that he uses to define his Americanness. The list is designed in no small part to make being a good American and being a good servant of the current regime identical. Here is a taste of some of the more absurd bits:
I’m an American because I love and appreciate freedom, and I want people around the world to have the chance to experience it firsthand. When liberty is threatened, or when a tyrant preys upon the weak and defenseless, I favor sending in the troops to set things right.
I’m an American because I don’t believe in isolationism or disengaging from the rest of the world. I agree with those who say the United States is the world’s one indispensable nation, and that it’s our solemn responsibility to be â€“ not “the world’s policeman” â€“ but its role model and defender.
I’m an American because my sympathies lie with the little guy (especially when he is being pushed around by the big guy) and because I won’t stomach bullies, foreign or domestic. The country is most righteous when it defends the underdog and shows the world how to be tough and compassionate at the same time.
I’m an American because I reject protectionism. If we don’t run and hide from foreign armies, why should we run and hide from foreign trade? Whether our competitors come from India or China or Latin America, if we produce unique and quality merchandise, we’ll outsell anyone â€“ even if our prices are higher because our labor costs are higher.
I happen to disagree with every single one of these policy positions, and I tend to regard interventionism on just this side of treachery, but that is not the only reason why I find this list laughable. It is the presumption that any of these things has something to do with being American. If espousing these beliefs, or opposing these positions, is what makes one an American, immigrants certainly have no need to come here–they may be Americans wherever they are. They can vigorously hate isolationism and protectionism without all the muss and fuss of coming to this country. If this is the case, I heartily recommend that they save themselves the trouble. But Mr. Navarette is, as usual, mistaken: adherence to policy positions do not a national identity make. Perhaps this is a problem that third-generation Americans like Mr. Navarette and even more recent arrivals have: lacking anything more substantial to connect them to their country and their national identity, they must latch on to the superficial loyalties of support for this or that government endeavour. It is a serious problem. It is, however, Mr. Navarette’s problem, and not that of the rest of us. Why the rest of us, especially those who regard the policies he endorses as ruinous or well-nigh dangerous to this country, should seriously entertain his definition of what it is to be American remains a mystery.
In short, Mr. Navarette believes he is American because he supports the government intervening in foreign countries and conflicts, because he supports internationalist foreign policy and because he supports free trade. There are plenty of Americans who have supported all of the things he favours (alas!), but there are also just as many who have opposed them over the years. “Isolationism,” so called, was the tradition of the United States for perhaps 140 years until Woodrow Wilson broke with that tradition definitively (McKinley certain did some damage, but it was meager compared to Wilson and those who came later). Any number of great and notable men in our history have rejected all of the things Mr. Navarette chose to cite among the first policies that define him as an American. Personally, I find anyone whose national identity is circumscribed by the limits of which government policies he favours to be sad and pitiable. Whatever one may say in favour of any of these policies (I cannot think of many things to say in their favour), it has nothing in particular to do with being American. Mr. Navarette is the son and grandson of Americans–he should start with this genuine claim to American identity and build from there. Unfortunately, those with such an ideological frame of mind are likely to regard such things as “arbitrary” and irrelevant. It is their loss.
Cross-posted at Enchridion Militis