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Who We Are

Your family could have arrived on the Mayflower or in the back of a van, but if you believe in the values of this country as embodied by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Civil Rights Act, then you are American. ~James Forsyth [1], Foreign Policy Blog

Hat tip to Michael Brendan Dougherty [2]

I remember Bob Dole [3] saying something like the first part of this in 1996: 

A family from Mexico arrives this morning legally has as much right to the American Dream as the direct descents [sic] of the Founding Fathers.

At the time, I was not old enough to vote, so it didn’t cost Dole my vote (it definitely cost him my father’s), but I found it offensive nonetheless.  This is because in such a statement lies a contempt for the historic America and the peoples who have comprised the historic America, as if any group of people from anywhere might have gathered together and created the same kind of country.  It expresses an indifference to inherited culture that would be incredible for a conservative to utter.  It assumes that the people who arrived today have the same claim and the same stake in this country as people whose ancestors have lived here for almost four centuries–this is deeply wrong.  It does make a difference and it should make a difference whether your family arrived in 1607 or 1997–and it does not matter where you are coming from.

Mr. Forsyth objects to Mr. Buchanan’s call for American identity to be rooted in “blood, soil, history and heroes.”  I confess to being perplexed as to why this call should actually be controversial.  Yes, I know why many people think it is controversial, but their position makes no sense.  No real national identity of any kind, and certainly none that ever lasted, has ever endured without being solidly based in these things.  Indeed, what else could our national identity plausibly be rooted in?  Most Americans today do not hold to the political philosophy of the Founders in their attitudes towards consolidated government and their preference for the rule of law over the rule of men.  This is unfortunate, but it will happen in the course of time that peoples adopt different and even diametrically opposed political creeds.  The Loyalists did not accept the ideas of the Declaration, but they were real Americans whose fathers had helped to create our country in its colonial days.  The Antifederalists did not accept the Constitution, but they were real Americans who helped win the War of Independence and forge the Confederation.  The Confederates would not have accepted the Gettysburg Address and did not accept the so-called “new birth of freedom” to be realised at the expense of Union and Liberty, but they were real Americans who maintained their fidelity to the principles of ’87 and sought to reenact the drama of independence to secure the liberties protected for them by their ancestors.  In the same loyalty to the Constitution, much of the early modern conservative movement opposed the Civil Rights Act as the federal usurpation that it was (and is)–they, too, were real Americans.  Indeed, the formulation that Mr. Forsyth has put forward retroactively must strip many of our most noble and admirable patriots of the name American.  Any definition of American that could conceivably exclude Patrick Henry and Robert E. Lee is a meaningless, ridiculous definition. 

As for myself, I have strong reservations about the “values” expressed in the Declaration, at least if we are to take the platitudes expressed therein as claims of truth about the real world; I respect and honour the Constitution, but recognise the serious consolidationist flaws in it; I cannot in good conscience accept anything in the Gettysburg Address, mendacious piece of revisionist propaganda that it was, nor can I accept the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act or the enthusiasm for egalitarianism that inspired it.  According to Mr. Forsyth, I am not an American, though some part of my people have been here since 1634 and most of my family has been here since the early 1700s.  I obviously cannot and will not accept such a definition of my nation that would put me–and a considerable number of my countrymen–outside its boundaries.  I cannot countenance a definition of national identity that makes one’s loyalty to a political position the basis for belonging to the nation.  I want no part of any “ideological,” “credal” or “proposition” nation–you cannot love a proposition. 

There is nothing more artificial, more insubstantial and more dangerous than categorising a nation according to ideology–this is to make honest disagreement over political principles a betrayal of the nation itself.  It is to make dissent into a kind of treason; it is to make fidelity to older traditions that contradict the reigning ideology a mark of disloyalty to the nation.  Fundamentally it is also to confuse ideas for concrete realities and to give them the loyalty we owe to real things.  It is to ignore the concrete realities of kin and place and our memory of our kin and place down through the centuries for the sake of abstractions.  This sort of thinking may very well make it easier for people to enter the country, but it makes it impossible to say any longer what kind of country it is, where it came from or who we are as a people.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Who We Are"

#1 Comment By James Kabala On August 23, 2006 @ 7:50 pm

It would be a mistake to think the ideas expressed by Forsyth and others like him, whether right or wrong, are of recent vintage. Peter Brimelow and others have claimed that “Proposition Nation” is only a post-World War II idea, but they are wrong. Chesterton believed that it was true (or, rather, that most Americans believed that it was true) eighty years ago. See [4].

#2 Comment By Andrew Cunningham On August 23, 2006 @ 9:08 pm

So are any immigrants ever Americans, then? I find it hard to accept a definition of “American” that would exclude Irving Berlin and Bob Hope.

Is someone whose ancestors arrived in 1607 still “more American” than someone whose ancestors arrived in 1807 or 1907? 1957? 1977? Does my short stint in Cambridge Mass. qualify me for anything — maybe in combination with the seniority built up from 1710-1785 by my Loyalist ancestors?

Observing the situation from afar, I am rather of the view that the US does stand for a proposition and that your real, and correct, complaint is that it’s not the proposition that is now being touted as such. But (I respectfully submit) that’s what you’re here for — to make a case for the right proposition. None of this is to say that I don’t accept much of what you’re arguing: undoubtedly a personal and familial history in the country matters too. But I can’t believe that you see no propositional content at all in the idea of America or that you would deny that immigrants with certain world-views tend to become “American”, if in a necessarily limited sense, faster than those holding certain other world-views.

#3 Comment By Daniel Larison On August 23, 2006 @ 9:30 pm

Of course immigrants can become Americans. Legally speaking, they are fully American from the moment of naturalisation. They are entitled to every protection under the Constitution as any other citizen once they become citizens. I am speaking in terms of a deeper national identity that has to do with more than citizenship and has to have more than citizenship if it is to be substantial and meaningful.

One thing I find objectionable about the “proposition” nation idea is the implicit devaluing of the peoples who fashioned the country and made it was it was, as if their culture and identity had nothing to do with the values that are embodied in the texts held up as fonts of truth. Constitutional principles as part of a patrimony that is inherited are part of the political culture of the historic America. As immigrants come into the country they should come to know about and respect that inheritance, and in time I believe immigrants and the children of immigrants can make that inheritance their own by embracing it in its fullness. A few throwaway lines about self-evident truths and equality don’t cut it by a long shot, but that is typically what the “proposition” nation means. I would also point out, as I should have initially, that the rhetoric of a “proposition” nation is tied directly to the Gettysburg Address (according to which the Union was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”–no it wasn’t!) and Lincoln’s usurpatory rule; it is difficult to seriously accept the concept of a “proposition nation” without also endorsing, however tacitly, what Lincoln stood for. I believe immigrants should assimilate to the culture they find when they arrive; I believe their worldviews are significant and should be taken into account when considering whether they can even assimilate into this country. However, if they can assimilate, I am not one to define being American in ideological terms such that people with different political views are excluded.

Respecting a patrimony seems to me to be very different from adhering to generic “values” contained in a few cherry-picked texts that are interpreted to suit particular modern-day purposes.

#4 Comment By jsinger008 On August 24, 2006 @ 10:43 am

Although you may not agree with Senator Moynihan’s politics, I find much truth in his famous quote concerning culture and politics: “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself, and the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.”

Your central objection to political propositions seems to be that they aren’t good measures of what constitutes a national identity. Specifically, in the original post you say:

“There is nothing more artificial, more insubstantial and more dangerous than categorising a nation according to ideology–this is to make honest disagreement over political principles a betrayal of the nation itself. It is to make dissent into a kind of treason; it is to make fidelity to older traditions that contradict the reigning ideology a mark of disloyalty to the nation.”

So here is a basic question for you: what does constitute a nation? After all, the oldest “American” culture and traditions are Indian culture and tradition. Why shouldn’t we respect and adopt these cultural traditions? Because the colonists were different and preferred their own language and culture? But then weren’t the colonists imposing a new and to use one of your favorite words, “artificial”, culture upon Native Americans who often were not interested in adopting this alien culture and were forced to do so through violence?

Let’s skip ahead to modern America. I would agree with you that you can be an American citizen and believe that slavery is necessary and justified (our First Amendment guarantees you that right). But is it fair to say that you respect American patrimony? After all, part of current, modern day American patrimony is the legacy of the Civil War and the commonly accepted American viewpoint that slavery is wrong. To put it another way, since you think the Confederates were right and true to American principals, has everyone in America since 1865 that disagrees with these Confederate notions somehow not true to American patrimony? If both sides are true Americans, then is being a “loyal” or “good” American citizen simply a matter of obeying laws?

But what happens when you think the laws are unjust? Perhaps you would say it is your duty to fight these unjust laws through our current political system, because you owe that political system your allegiance through your citizenship in this country. But much of what you write suggests you think the political system is rotten to the core, and produces much of what is wrong with modern American society. When it is fair for you to take up arms and destroy this corrupt, secular society that allows [insert favorite conservative malady here, e.g. abortion, gay marriage, etc.]? And when you do so, like the brilliant General Lee, are you still an American?

#5 Comment By Daniel Larison On August 25, 2006 @ 3:16 am

Mr. Singer’s questions point to exactly what I want to convey in my protest against defining American-ness too closely according to one particular political view. As for the indigenous inhabitants’ culture, this was never the culture or the tradition of the settlers, the colonials, the early republicans, etc. There are certain limits of American identity, and I would say that this identity does not extend beyond the colonies and their successors. Perhaps this will be declared an arbitrary definition, but what I am talking about is a definition of the identity of colonial America and its inheritors.

The boundaries and definitions of a polity or polities and a concrete culture are not of the same sort as ideological boundaries imposed on a community. I regard ideological tests of identity as inherently more artificial than demonstrations of possessing the same culture. This is why I regard the primarily political divides between Loyalist and patriot, Antifederalist and Federalist, Confederate and Yankee, as less significant than the common cultural inheritance they share. There are admittedly subcultures and regional identities within the whole, and these are very important and not to be diminished by the whole, but there is a certain shared history (if not always a shared way of looking at that history) that binds together all Americans on both sides of every major political divide in our history.

I suppose someone might believe slavery is necessary and justified–though I don’t know of why anyone would consider it necessary today. He could disagree with antislavery folks as much as he liked. What I am trying to say is that his disagreements do not define his national identity; antislavery or proslavery, being American is not a question of taking a certain position but of having common ancestors or ancestral lands, a shared history, common myths and heroes (obviously the War complicates the question of heroes, but there was a time when Yankees and Southerners could disagree amicably and recognise the virtues in their respective wartime champions). But if we are arguing about the War, the issue is not a question of who is a truer or better American–which is an imposition of narrow political questions on a cultural and, to some extent, even an ethnic identity of sorts–but who is more faithful to the Constitution as the Framers understood it. I think it is plain that the Confederates had a better understanding, or retained a better understanding, of the original compact of Union. Obviously there will be many who take the opposite view. But even if I am right that simply means they are better constitutionalists, or perhaps better republicans. It does not give them complete claim to the inheritance to the exclusion of the Yankees.

The overall point is that their citizenship is secondary to their identity as Americans. Yes, they are citizens of the United States, obviously, though this still defines American-ness in historical terms such that it excludes the Loyalists and pre-revolutionary colonials in ways that make no sense to me. What matters is not an adherence to a set of “values” so much as an embrace of the common history, myths and heroes of the Americans. Because the War creates such a problem, it is probably best to focus on the heroes of the early Republic whom we can all admire. It is that affinity for American heroes, far more than whether someone submits to a credal statement, that solidifies his national identity as American.

Being American and loyalty to America have no necessary connection with loyalty to any particular regime. Regimes will come and go, but, God willing, the country will endure long beyond the present political dispensation. If I were mad enough to rise up against the current government in some show of force, I would not cease to be American (for the very brief time that I would be alive). I might very reasonably be considered a traitor against the U.S. government, which has very little to do with whether or not I am American, which is a matter of descent, place of birth, culture and memory.

Universal nations do not exist–someone can no more become American by adhering to a set of political values than I can become Chinese by accepting the teachings of Confucius or Mao. There is a gap between legal naturalisation and assimilation/acculturation, and it is this gap, incidentally, that worries me when it comes to mass immigration. Do the new populations want to embrace the shared history and myths of our people, or do their own myths take precedence? If they prefer their own myths, they can be law-abiding, functioning citizens and yet are departing from our national identity all the same. I believe if we cease to be an Anglo-American nation in our culture and the way that we remember our history, we will no longer be American in the sense that we have been American these past 400 years, and I, for one, am not interested in that continued transformation.

The related problem of ideologically defining national identity is that it makes loyalty to the regime and all its works a vital element of belonging to the nation, when the nation and the state, the people and the government, have no necessary connection to each other. You do not cease to be part of your own people if you oppose the government, even if you oppose it by force, and I think we can acknowledge, at least in theory, that any government–including ours–could turn on its own people and act against their welfare and best interests. We routinely believe that rebels against tyrannical regimes in other countries are actually the patriots of their lands, even though they have technically betrayed their governments; it is no less the case here. Our Republic’s independence was fought with this very idea in mind. That does not mean that I think a rebellion is wise or feasible, but that a rebellion would not make the rebels one whit less American than the people loyal to the government and vice versa. To make ideological standards for national beloning is to make political partisanship of one kind or another the basis of our entire nation. If applied to the two major parties today, we would immediately reject this idea of declaring one party to be the ‘true’ Americans and the other the ‘false’; the same applies to every divide in our history. If I were to retroactively deny American identity to the Union men and their successors, I would be engaged in an artificial and anachronistic mangling of our history just the same as progressive nationalist historians were for decades.