What is American Patriotism?
There's an inherent tension in our national ethos.
Andrew Michta argues that we must “Rebuild American Patriotism.” Michta is currently dean of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and has had a distinguished and varied career. But his case reads like it was cobbled together from stories at Breitbart and Fox News.
I’m sympathetic to his objective:
The American nation, arguably the most unique experiment in the history of modern nation-states whose foundational ideals have been passed from one generation to the next for over two centuries, is fracturing, with stress fissures more visible each day. The once-accepted view of America as one nation, with the attendant sense of pride rooted in the belief in its exceptionalism, has been steadily losing ground over the last three decades, while secondary drivers of group identity, such as race and ethnicity, claim ever-greater prominence in our public discourse.
But he immediately goes off the rails:
A byproduct of the post-Cold War globalist ideology, the deconstruction of the American nation has been aided by the spread of a broad form of neo-Marxist progressivism now dominant at our colleges and universities and our major media outlets, and has been reinforced by a failed immigration policy that no longer demands the acculturation of newcomers. The American national idea is being “deconstructed” into tribal narratives, with the attendant loss of self-confidence that historically imbued Americans with a shared national identity and dedication to individual freedom. Consequently, our historical and cultural DNA is no longer being passed onto subsequent generations. Rather, our elites, especially the youngest among them, are increasingly intent on replacing the traditional American national narrative of the “melting pot” with what Samuel Huntington aptly called a multicultural “salad bowl” of different cultures and ethnic groups, living side by side but retaining their distinct values and identity markers. The same goes for basic knowledge of the “what” and “how” of our republican form of government. We have essentially stopped teaching civics in American schools,1and as a result it is not uncommon today to encounter a college freshman with only a vague notion of our national history and the workings of our government.
I’ve seen no evidence of a radical ideological shift in our colleges and universities, let alone toward “neo-Marixst progressivism.” I’m not even sure how that would happen given academic freedom. And, frankly, there was more Marxist sympathy on campus when I was an undergraduate—and, certainly, when Michta was—than there is now.
There has been no significant changes to our immigration policies in half a century. It’s true that, when my mom became an American citizen in 1965, the government-issued study guide implored that there are only “Americans” and not “hyphenated-Americans.” But that notion went away a long time ago—well before the end of the Cold War.
I, too, tend to think that we’ve gone too far in emphasizing the negatives of the American experience. But Michta illustrates the perils of the other extreme in his insistence that “dedication to individual freedom” was somehow a universal American ideal in some halcyon previous era.
I have two kids in elementary school and can assure you they’re still learning civics. And, having taught undergraduates as long ago as 1994, I can tell you that college freshman have long only had a vague notion of our history and workings of our government. I suspect it was ever thus.
The progressive politicization of American academia, especially in the humanities, has all but reduced the complex and rich civilizational heritage of modern America to group narratives built around the tone of one’s skin or gender identity. This reductive recompilation of American national identity is exemplified by the opaque term “people of color,” hurled with abandon against the equally broad but vacuous category of “whites” amidst incessant charges of racism and discrimination. In our quotidian existence in which we transact business, engage with government, consume media and pursue education, we are presented today with a system in which bureaucratically mandated racial, ethnic and gender categories impact access to jobs, education and other public benefits—this in a country whose “greatest generation” went to war to eradicate two totalitarian regimes committed to the belief that a person’s racial identity should define his or her place in the social order.
This paragraph is such a hot mess that rebutting it would take a blog post of its own. Let’s just say that, despite all of the obstacles America’s radical academic elites have placed in their way, white people seem to be doing okay in the job market. And that, not only didn’t we fight World War II to promote racial equality, we didn’t practice it at home for a considerable period thereafter.
Those paragraphs poison the essay, making Michta come across as a grumpy white guy seeking to Make America Great Again. Yet I’m quite sympathetic to his core argument once we get past the bizarre throat-clearing.
As America as a cohesive, binding concept loses definition, so too does support for it. In a poll conducted last year by Gallup, only 47 percent of all Americans declared themselves “extremely proud” of their nationality—the first time in the 18 years in which the poll has been conducted that fewer than half of the respondents expressed those levels of national pride. Only fifteen years ago, less than one generation, this number stood at 70 percent. According to the poll, decline in national pride was especially manifest among self-declared Democrats (32 percent, down from 43 percent in 2017, and 56 percent in 2013), and less than half of independents (42 percent, down from 48 percent in 2017 and 50 percent in 2013). By contrast, over twice the number of respondents self-identifying as Republican answered affirmatively when asked if they were extremely proud of their nationality, at 74 percent in 2018, with a two percent increase relative to the year before, and a three percent increase compared to 2013. The lowest level of national pride was found among the youngest American cohort, aged 18-29 (33 percent—a drop from 55 percent in 2013); those groups among whom a majority expressed extreme pride were the two oldest, ages 50-64 and 65 and older, with 56 and 58 percent respectively. Perhaps most strikingly, college graduates were significantly less proud of being American (only 39 percent), compared to the majority of those without a college education at 52 percent.
We’ve discussed this issue before. Partly, this is a function of “pride” and “patriotism” being hard to define and thus being defined differently by different groups and cohorts. But, like Michta, I’m concerned by the trends to the extent they’re a proxy for something else. Like this:
The current fracturing of the American nation into warring tribes augurs poorly for our future. A sense of national cohesion and the attendant mutuality of obligations remain essential to national security, for without it we will lack the resilience that only a cohesive nation can bring, whether to a crisis or to the state-on-state competition with China and Russia that is looming over the horizon. A people riven by internal discord and increasingly bereft of a sense of pride in its own nation is vulnerable to external meddling in its national affairs, and, ultimately may lack the requisite resilience to come together in a national crisis or war. As the assault on American exceptionalism in our public sphere gathers speed, a tired citizenry, offered an ever-more restrictive menu of choices when it comes to which events from the collective national memory it is allowed to preserve and which it must censure, feels the bonds of mutual loyalty and obligation fray at the seams.
On this, Michta and I are in full agreement. I just don’t think this is a result of neo-commies in academia and the lamestream media but rather the proliferation of means that enable us to cleave to like-minded groups and the mobilization of grievances by cynical politicians, pundits, and others.
But to speak of a nation in the 21st century is not to engage in ethno-nationalism or to build nativist theories; rather, the American nation needs to restore and pass forward the idea of an “extended kinship” which allows each citizen to experience a sense of communion and solidarity with his/her people. Progressives brought up on a steady diet of postmodernist ideology have for decades pushed forth the notion that nationalism is by definition a negative sentiment to be suppressed, conflating patriotic national pride with the worst totalitarian excesses of fascism and Nazism. In reality, national pride is the sine qua non of a modern working polity, for this sense of “extended kinship” embodied in a shared language and values, as well as the maintenance of a broad consensus on a people’s historic narrative, are the necessary glue that fosters the sense of mutuality of obligation critical to a properly functioning civic culture as its make compromise in politics a shared public good. We even have a word to distinguish this feeling from the kind of ethno-nationalism more prevalent in Europe: Patriotism.
Again, I’m broadly in agreement with Michta even while he, ironically, ensures that broad swaths of people will reject his argument precisely because his language and tone are so divisive.
Even as a young Army officer, I rolled my eyes at the treacly patriotism of Lee Greenwood. But, even in my most partisan days, I thought Jimmy Carter, Tip O’Neil, Michael Dukakis, and even Jesse Jackson were genuinely trying to make the country better and just had different conceptions of how best to go about it.
While I more-or-less maintained that view until the last couple of years, we’ve increasingly created what comparativist political scientists call reinforcing cleavages. Our civic culture increasingly has an Us versus Them mindset and, because They are evil, pretty much anything goes.
Michta’s article continues but in a way that takes us away from the conversation I want to have. So let’s move on to Dave Schuler’s commentary on the piece. He observes, somewhat ominously:
America as a nation cannot be revived without taking steps that too many people would find intolerable.
The commenters quickly descend into white nationalism and Dave rejoins:
During the same period you’re highlighting the Germans, French, Italians, Dutch, etc. not only sent their own citizens to concentration camps, they executed them by the millions. Do you know how many Japanese-Americans were executed in the internment camps? Zero.
You condemn us because we’re not living up to our ideals and values perfectly. However imperfectly applied they are still what we have in common. We don’t have ties of blood that unite us or a millennia-old shared history. We don’t even have a shared language, religion, or denomination. If you have something else to propose as the basis for building a nation, please propose it.
I don’t agree with bob’s at least implied claim that the United States needs a super-majority of people of primarily European descent to maintain any sense of national unity. Some of the most patriotic people I know are black. Or Japanese-American. I do think that acculturation of immigrants should be the norm, the expected. I don’t think we can remain together peaceably without revering the Founding Fathers and despising our history.
Later in the conversation, in response to the assertion that “Every multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country is a brutal dictatorship,” Dave argues,
That isn’t true. It isn’t true of Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Switzerland, or Sweden, each of which fits that characterization. What is true is that in each of those cases the majority culture dominates the minority culture economically, socially, and politically. That is even still true in Canada which has really struggled to bring equality to the Francophone minority.
I think that’s right. And I agree with Dave that the measures that would be required to do the same in the United States would be, to say the least, uncomfortable.
This gets to a conversation I was having with @DrDaveT and others on the Puerto Rican statehood thread.
Like Dave Schuler, I think acculturation of immigrants should be expected, as should adherence to the American creed. But defining that in a way that also allows for immigrants to shape American culture—something that, paradoxically, is also very much part of our creed—is beyond challenging.
And, here, Michta may be right to partly blame academia and deconstructionism. Dave Schuler and I explicitly reject a white nationalist construction of American patriotism. And yet I can’t explicate a vision of American nationalism/patriotism that doesn’t hew to an idealized vision of the founding creed—which was indeed based on a white, European sensibility.
Nationalism and patriotism are inherently exclusionary. They require loyalty to an Us and a willingness to defend it against all Thems. And, yet, the American mythos is also based on welcoming immigrants into the melting pot, simultaneously assimilating them and absorbing bits and pieces of their cultures. And, because that process can take generations, there’s always going to be a tension in those ideals.
Ultimately, this is a leadership issue – and we have a leadership problem.
On the Democratic side, we have leaders who are interested in leading all Americans to prosperity and peace. On the Republican side, we have leaders who are interested in getting as much as they can for themselves and their friends, maintaining power by all means possible, and enabling the worst sort of corruption and graft and greed for themselves while condemning it in others.
Listen to an Obama speech, then listen to a Trump one. Obama paints a picture of unity and peace and the brotherhood of man. Trump……doesn’t.
Of course, the Democrats are terrible at messaging and at holding the R’s accountable. Generally, Americans respond well to leaders with a pure and positive vision for America, but we’ll have this division as long as one of our political parties sees the split as advantageous to their ends.
Rather than “what is American patriotism” I would ask, “what is the American ethos?” And is that ethos changing, which way is it going, and is that a good thing?
Fundamentally, the US is unlike most other countries because we are a political union, not a nation-state like France, Germany or Japan. That is a major reason we have been able to absorb immigrants much better than most other countries. And it’s also why immigration is not necessarily a threat to our ethos as it is for other countries – as long as the immigration rate is at a level that allows the melting pot to work.
But it does seem that the American ethos is under attack in some quarters. I don’t know if this is a function of social media giving voice to a tiny minority that holds anti-American ideals or if this really is something new, growing, or widespread.
Oh Gawd… Thanks James, I now have a pounding headache and little but splinters left of my desk.
Where to begin? I’ll start with the 2nd paragraph you quote:
Just for starters, newcomers were always segregated into neighborhoods of their own, partly by a desire to be with their own kind but also by a desire of those already here to keep them at a long arms distance. There has never been a forced acculturation by policy or otherwise. My grandmother who had been here since 1904 could barely speak English in 1957 when she died and from what I heard of her, I doubt anybody could have recognized it as such. Most people in their neighborhood spoke Slovenian very well because they had either come over from the old country or grew up hearing it daily.
My mother was a daughter of Southern gentry who married the youngest son of these Slovenian immigrants. When she told her parents she was engaged, her mother threatened to disown her. No way would a Papist ever be a member of her family. My mother said OK and started packing her bags. I suspect it was Grandpa who made Grandma see the light, who or whatever it was it didn’t take long.
Growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my father for a # of reasons. One of the things Ma said to each of us kids at one point or another was that, “You need to remember, it’s like he just got off the boat from the old country.” because that was the way he was raised. This was in the 60s and 70s.
It is time that acculturates. Time and the birth of new generations. Not policies. You acknowledge as much when you say,
Personally, I am sick to death of people trying to tell me who or what is American, what an American looks like, what they sound like, what they should or should not believe in. They don’t get to define it any more than I do. I once got into an argument with a guy who said, “I’m a vet, I fought for this country!” as tho that would trump anything I might say, to which I replied, “Yeah? I’m a carpenter, I built this country.” He had no reply.
I am married to an immigrant naturalized citizen. I can see her heritage in her face tho most would not, but the second she opens her mouth every one knows, “You ain’t from around here, is you?” My wife has been here for 40 years and worked every day of it sometimes 2 or 3 jobs at a time, everything from flipping burgers to cleaning motel rooms to rebuilding tractor parts to working with computers. She has built this country every bit as much as I.
ETA: no time left for more, maybe later but I doubt it.
I would reinforce what you note about your kids learning civics and our history. The wife and I have been involved at our high school for many years with the debate team. The kids know their stuff. We saw it with our kids when they went to school. That said, we are dealing with kids who are motivated to know our history. Most of the kids are tight it but arent that interested so they dont learn it very well, or forget as fast as they learn, but that isn’t any different than when I went to high school. The average kid had no better understanding or interest then than do kids now.
I believe that we live in one of the greatest countries to have ever existed, butler some reason if you ever criticize certain parts of our history you are accused of condemning or hating the country. Are there some people who really do hate the country who live here? Out of 300 plus million I am sure there are, but not many, especially if you ever actually ask them if they hate the country.
Query- Why is that when parts of our history that include actions committed by the left it is not considered hating the country or condemning it? Criticize deporting American citizens of Mexican descent? You hate the country. Criticize LBJs Great Society and claim the it put black people into permanent poverty? You are a flag waving patriot. This is crazy. We need to be able to criticize our country, and that includes talking openly about our real past, not some idealized version, without accusations of hating the country.
Nationalism is inherently exclusionary, because it leans into the idea of exceptionalism. But I don’t see why patriotism has to be exclusionary. I can love my country without making a lesser Them out of the citizenry of the rest of the world.
James, you say you can’t explicate a vision of American patriotism that doesn’t hew to the founding creed, but I think you describe such a vision in your very next paragraph. As Dave Schuler notes, the founding creed lies in the Preamble of the Constitution. The melting pot ideal fits very nicely into the Preamble, as long as you don’t cling to some idea that the “People” in “We the People” are only those white Europeans prevalent at the Constitution’s writing.
For me, Schoolhouse Rock got it right with The Great American Melting Pot, aired interestingly in 1976 (an keenly patriotic anniversary). Read the lyrics again. I could poll as “extremely proud” of my country if we could live up to that ideal again.
Well, in the first instance you’re criticizing the hurting of brown people, so you must hate America, and in the second you’re criticizing the helping of brown people, so you must love America.
See how that works?
Thanks for writing this, James.
I was really liking this paragraph, right up until the end.
There is nothing European, much less ‘white’, about the ideals set out in our Declaration of Independent, codified in our Constitution, elucidated in the Federalist Papers, refined and expanded in a couple of centuries of Supreme Court decisions. The ideas themselves have no race, no culture, no necessary ethnic substrate on which to exist. The idea that they do — that American ideals are somehow white — is a cancer that will prove fatal if we don’t eradicate it quickly. The America I love could be equally America if it were 10% white and majority Spanish-speaking, if it held to those founding ideals. To claim that it could not possibly hold to those ideals while speaking Spanish and being brown sounds ridiculously bigoted to me.
I reject this characterization. Jingoism is inherently exclusionary. Healthy nationalism and patriotism are like family sensibility — loving my family and defending it does not make me hate other families, or prevent anyone new from joining my own.
As @OzarkHillbilly so eloquently explained above, the Melting Pot was never welcoming, and pockets of extreme local imported culture have always existed in America, from day one. Often they have been the targets of prejudice, even violence. And we survived that pretty well, with the exception of our utter failure to successfully welcome the descendants of the slaves into the family, which remains the biggest fault line in our society.
Assimilation is what happens automatically when the society is worth assimilating into. People become American because it’s a thing worth being. Let’s try to keep it that way,
In a way, it’s like a religion — because we are held together by an idea, and not by a background, anyone can join and make it work. I would amend your last sentence to “as long as the immigration rate is at a level that allows the idea to remain the shared ethos”. I honestly don’t care about other kinds of assimilation, if the immigrants share the vision of what America stands for. Working toward a common goal will eventually iron out the other kinks; quibbling about language or dress or religion or skin color or holiday preferences will hinder working toward the common goal.
And criticizing family members, or believing they should live up to a family’s high standards, doesn’t mean you hate them.
@DrDaveT: I remember reading the Declaration of Independence one Fourth of July after I had returned from my year in the U.K. studying renaissance philosophy and medieval law and having my mind blown. Almost every single sentence in the DoI I had seen in earlier writings–mainly from Melanchthon and other Resistance Theology writers. (One reason why I snort when people try to link the DoI back to English theory & ideas–no, it came from far broader of an intellectual base.)
Fugghetabaht the above being considered “white European concepts” –there was no “white culture” vs. “black culture” in European cultural history up until relatively recently with the British Empire.
Good morning, James et al. At the airport getting ready to board, so, I’ll keep this brief and pointed.
Attitude reflects leadership. The dominant majority has, for decades, adopted policies, formal and informal, to exclude “them”, which included segregation, white flight, regentrification, destruction of prosperous black towns, and systemic economic exclusion, adopting historical European ethnic outcasts into whiteness, further dividing the population, and so on. All this despite federal-level action to rectification.
Leaders, particularly, Republican leaders, demonstrate neither interest, nor desire, to cultivate an inclusionary American culture, only to promote white cultural and economic dominance. Which, on its face, I have no problem with; if only the exclusionary tactics could be done away with.
I think that we should get rid of the idea that patriotism is merely an emotion. Emotions are not measurable, and vocalizations of emotions are not reliable; the Cordelias of this world love more than the Regans and Gonerils. Patriotism ought to be taking actions at personal costs or risks that benefit the nation as a whole. In my book, someone acting in their self interest is not a patriot no matter how hard they wave a flag. Many, maybe most, of our politicians are not patriots; they are hustlers trying to manipulate us via emotions. I am debating with myself whether my definition includes armed forces enlistees who are often too young to vote or drink and are driven by considerations other than cool judgement.
Building off what @dennis and other wrote, the challenge we face is our concept of current US Nationalism (in particular the MAGA variety), how it relates to how we talk about history, is very much based in white fragility. And in part that’s because we have been using “Nationalism” to paper over deep divides in our nation (not just racial, also regional) that have been with us since the beginning.
And as a lot of people are noting, this manifests itself in controversies over teaching history. The fact that we are still having the “States Rights” argument is a perfect example of this. That’s before to Dennis’ point that we need to address far more recent government programs at all levels that that led to defacto segregation (I cannot recommend the painful read “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein enough for a deep dive into how late into the 20th century — well past the 60s — Federal programs helped racially segregate the county and create the current income/achievement divide).
And to be clear, the white fragility thing is not purely a conservative issue. I have run into it with a lot of Northern Liberals who use the easy “The South = Bad/The North = Good” frameworks to protect themselves from addressing the deep racial issues that exist in the North.
Unfortunately, I don’t see this getting better in the short term. I think a lot of White Folks are coming to understand that they ARE going to have to cede (some) power (eventually). They may not see it in a purely racial terms, but they are sensing it. And since American has essentially equaled “White,” these discussion manifest themselves as deep explorations of “Nationalism.” The problem is that our government has evolved in such a way that — as we are seeing — the minority can hold significant power provided they stay united. And given that one party is essentially becoming an ethno-nationalist party, that will most likely deepen wounds and divisions before there is any reconciliation.
Wow! That was superb. I can only give you one up-vote, but I wish it were a thousand.
You and your wife are American patriots.
I completely agree with you in this characterization. The problem is that our education system and national narrative is focused on creating the myth that we are a nation-state with an unified culture (including historically a very tight definition of who was “truly American”).
And I think that’s where, if we are going to create a more sustainable ethos, we need to shift our views and pedagogy.
@mattbernius: ….one reason why we have the Thirteenth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment.
Strict scrutiny, guys–strict scrutiny.
It says a lot about Michta’s ‘arguments’ that they become much more historically accurate with a tiny bit of MAGA editing:
Now it makes sense — and is revealed as a sloppy version of the very progressive (and stupid) idea that bullies should be coddled because their fundamental problem is a lack of self-esteem.
Education system? What education system?
We have a requirement that all kids go to school. Implementation is left to the local authorities, who are controlled by the locally-dominant culture. What could go wrong?
Much like there is no unified criminal justice system in this country (instead we have over 3000 largely separate criminal justice systems), we have countless education systems.
You could well be describing my family legacy! The similarities are just plain eerie. On second thought, what you are describing is the family history of tens of millions Americans. Thanks for sharing OUR story
I also cannot recommend enough Jonathan Metzl’s “Dying of Whiteness.” In it, he tackles “whiteness” as a “political and economic system” rather than a biological or ethnic construct. If you do nothing else, go to a local B&N, pull the book, and sit down and read the intro. It’s a very clear summary of our current politics and how we arrived here.
Slugger, what book is that?
Thanks for the recommendation. Its been on my reading list for a while.
Cannot agree with this strong enough. My cultural analysis training is from anthropology and this the way we think and talk about race.
Another great work for people who are interested in the concept of whiteness is Robin DeAngelo’s “White Fragility.” Probably nothing new in there for you, but its a carefully written work that really gets at important concepts around large portions of our culture’s inability to talk and think about race in critical ways. Likewise “The Color of Law” is an incredibly careful documentation of all the laws and activities that enshrined systemic racism into our culture (in particular during most of the 20th century).
This topic pulls in so many directions. First, for all those harking back to the Founding Fathers, I think people need to separate notions of continuity from delusions that we think like people 200+ years ago did.
I think this is spot on. Whenever I hear someone talking about patriotism, I think of what it would mean were the guy speaking instead about his own family. All too often, it comes off as the ravings of a lunatic.
I think this is a romantic notion but not reality. America is held together by a small ‘c’ culture and its institutions, pretty much the same as other countries. The average American would make a poor showing trying to articulate whatever idea it is that supposedly holds the country together. Our ideals have, however, inspired the elites, and they have driven the country forward, even if it has often been an uphill battle.
Thanks for that, DrDaveT. That portion of the essay rubbed me wrong as soon as I read it, but I didn’t stop to analyze and critique it. You summed it up succinctly, where I would probably have written two paragraphs.
I live around a number of immigrants and the kids all speak English and ride scooters. They play Fortnite and have Harry Potter toys and act exactly like ‘real’ American kids. The only non-assimilating act I’ve witnessed are the children of an Indian family (the mother wears a sari, the daughter does not) who play cricket on the sidewalk in front of my brownstone.
The main problem with assimilation is that people like Michta don’t actually like the America that immigrants are assimilating into.
Yes, I’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos of her talks.
Eighteen years in the U.S. Navy & Naval Reserve, and 24 years in Border Patrol have been good exposure to people from all over. There IS strength in our diversity when it’s under the umbrella of our shared “small c culture and institutions” as Kit stated above. I’ve served under and with some of the most honorable white men and women a nation can have.
There’s nothing particularly or exceptionally wrong with white people that isn’t present in any other people holding on to power and dominance; it’s simple human nature. I think, though, that the American experiment and experience demonstrate that we can overcome human nature and work toward an inclusive society without a fundamental shift of the institutions and ideals that produced our American culture.
Nationalism and patriotism are inherently exclusionary. They require loyalty to an Us and a willingness to defend it against all Thems. And, yet, the American mythos is also based on welcoming immigrants into the melting pot, simultaneously assimilating them and absorbing bits and pieces of their cultures. And, because that process can take generations, there’s always going to be a tension in those ideals.
Immigrants aren’t the Red Army. The American mythos is not just about welcoming and assimilating the Them. The Godfather and The Sopranos are pop cultural epics because we identify with the Them as much as we do with the Us.
The proper question is why this identification so powerful? Blathering on about deconstructionism (as if Derrida were behind WEB Du Bois and research into redlining) is such a flagrant cop-out.
In the past we had the unity of exclusion. If you were black, brown, red, yellow, gay, handicapped, uppity woman or recent immigrant you were excluded. If you held unpopular views you were excluded. Funny how easy it is to achieve a degree of consensus when you simply exclude anyone not already part of the existing consensus.
As always I’m wondering about the exact dates of that halcyon era of perfect unity? Has anyone got the years when that happened? Because looking back I see black people in chains or at the end of a rope, and red people massacred and driven into the wilderness, and gays cast out or imprisoned and brown people treated as nothing better than beasts of burden. What were the years when none of that was happening and everyone was happy?
Part of the gap between Left and Right is about history. The Left’s story is all oppression, the Right’s story is all glory, both sides are wrong but the Right is more wrong, further from reality. The Left’s story is corrective but does veer at times into broad exaggeration. But the Right’s version of history is a dishonest nostalgia and calculated lies told in service of the wealthy white overclass.
In part as well we’re victims of our own success. There was a time when we could genuinely claim to be the freest people on earth. That’s what made us the shining city on a hill, that promise of liberty. But we helped win WW2 and we won the Cold War and in a free Europe a lot of countries have our level of liberty, or more. We can no longer claim some unique status, indeed at the moment the liberty of Americans is threatened. . . by Americans.
In the end the problem isn’t attitude but reality. We aren’t pioneers or Minutemen or cowboys or John Wayne. We aren’t the richest or the freest nation. We aren’t the most respected or admired, especially since we let a Russian thug pick our president. The world is divided between those who pity us, those who despise us and those who fear us. We aren’t saving the world and the only example we’re setting is one of decline, of failure by a population no longer up to the job of democracy. What we are now is powerful. Just powerful. And that power is draining away faster than at any time in our history. The decline is impossible to ignore and it’s hard to work up a lot of patriotism for a nation busily committing suicide.
What makes America exceptional is that we are a nation of ideals. Ostensibly, anyone can be a part of our country once they embrace these ideals of Freedom and Equality for all regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language… We often struggle with these ideals (or flat out fail at them), but we are slowly but surely working towards them. I don’t know of any other nation that has this as a set of founding principles.
The Trumpy Right are trying to take away American Exceptionalism, and just replace it with just another Nation-State.
I can think of nothing more unamerican or unpatriotic.
John Wayne was a racist, right-wing asshole who put on a facade of toughness. A lot of Americans really are John Wayne.
Also, he supported the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (which met and did UnAmerican Activities, and was thus well named), and starred in propaganda supporting it.
John Wayne would be wearing a Red Hatred Hat if he were alive today.
That’s where I’ve long been on this. But many attack the whole notion of a melting pot as racist.
I think that’s 93% correct.I do, however, think we can nudge it along—or make it harder—with policy.
But, surely, “American” has a meaning that’s at least partially grounded in what we look like, sound like, and believe in?
Well, not anymore. But the Declaration was an aspirational document grounded in the then-unfolding European Enlightenment. We proclaimed these to be self-evident truths but, at the time, they were neither.
I’m not arguing that being patriotic requires hating other countries. But it requires carving out lines on a map and saying that the things in it are more worth defending than those outside it. Family is much the same way, albeit more intensely. And, aside from marriage, it’s essentially impossible to join a family you’re not born into.
Using this as a stand-in for your larger argument, I agree fundamentally but have qualms as well. I guess it depends on how far and how fast. That is, obvious black, Latino, Asian and other American citizens get to vote and otherwise fully participate in our polity. They’ll change our culture in so doing, hopefully for the better. But, going back to @Andy’s point quoted above, I think if it happens too fast, it can fundamentally alter our character in ways that make it not “American” any more. But I think whites can do that, too. Indeed, I think Donald Trump is doing it as we speak.
I agree with that and pretty much all of your comment. We’re unique in having been in a position to create an old-style empire and instead poured money into building up not only our wartime allies (minus the Soviets) but also our enemies, turning them into allies. We intentionally weakened our relative power in so doing. But it gave us legitimate claim to the self-anointed title Leader of the Free World for generations. We seem ready to throw it away, if we haven’t already.
I have to respectfully disagree with you on freedom and equality for all as a founding principle of the U.S. It may have evolved into “for all” as the obvious dichotomy of the words and actions was laid bare, but many women, immigrants and, of course, every slave would disagree with the “founding principle” trope.
No. Not ever. This is important.
Ideas do not have race, or gender, or language (though they can be about those things). It is a historical accident that the country was founded by wealthy white male English-speakers who failed to live up to their own ideals, but the ideals themselves are not wealthy or white or male or English, any more than the theorem “E = mc^2” is a German idea.
No good whatever can come from a misguided belief that the aspirational dream that is America is somehow a white dream, or a male dream, or an English dream.
If you were to pluck pretty much any white American out of the past between the founding of the US and (say) 1900, that person would look at our nation today and say “that’s not American”.
They would be wrong, of course.
@dennis: I’d say that we have expanded what “all” meant, and have been doing so from before the founding of this country.
Abolitionists lost the battles over all of the details in crafting the new government, but they won the battle of language and ideals, and we’ve been pursuing those ideals ever since.
Statements of all men being created equal have had a greater influence in the direction this country has moved in than contemporaneous statements of the three-fifths compromise (which had a greater influence on where we started moving from).
I agree we’ve pursued the ideal, and I’m thankful for that! Still, then and now, the pursuit isn’t without pushback from some quarters, and now, it appears to be going global. Attitude reflects leadership. I agree with your statement, though.
I would say that it was absolutely a founding principle—it’s just that we have gradually expanded what we mean by “for all.”
(Which, it turns out, @Gustopher got to first.)
I think they’d have been right for 1900 but wrong for now. Time matters, as does pace.
So, for example, we can and routinely do absorb lots of immigrants from China and India. They unequivocably make us a better country. But, if 300 million Chinese or Indians came in all at once, overwhelming our language, culture, and political institutions, we would cease to be meaningfully “American.” But 10 million a year for the next century? Yes, please.
I’ll admit I’m quibbling here over the “for all” phrasing. You’ll have to admit, though, that it’s implementation was exclusive (even to various “white” groups) and slow to expand.
Well, look at who the “face of the country” is. We’re supposed to be proud that this is what we elected? REALLY???
Moreover, The American Interest is a conservative publication after all is said and done. Specifically, what I have read strikes me as mostly neocon. I find myself reminded of the original definition of neocon:
(And we all know who does the muggings in our society, amirite?)
@DrDaveT: More importantly, the really important ideas that found our country come from a time when our “white European ancestors” were doing things like painting their faces blue to scare away the demons. (As I believe it was the Romans discovered on their first trip to “merry olde” England.)
Oh, absolutely. While we’re doing book recommendations, Nancy Isenburg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America dispels the myth that America was always a classless society. Neither “equality for all” nor “justice for all” applied to y’all. But, oddly, those covered within the “all” managed to delude themselves that it really was “all.”
People may have noticed that I frequently disparage the worth of Conservative think tanks, maintaining that whatever they were in the past they have devolved into “intellects for hire”, willing to put an academic and rigorous coat of paint on anything a company or hobbyist billionaire is willing to pay them for. But the editorial James references here makes me realize I need to reevaluate that position as it appears woefully out of date. Given that the writer, Michta, “is currently dean of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies” it’s pretty apparent that these Conservative think tanks no longer have the capability to be anyone’s “intellect for hire”, or even put so much as sheen of academia or rigor on anything. This editorial reads more like the scribblings of a small town newspaper publisher, forced to fill column inches and deciding to give those darn kids a piece of his mind about them being on his lawn.
I think we pretty much agree on this, but I think it’s important to note that there has never been a time, not even at Peak Immigrant, when the US has ever come remotely close to a pace of immigration that threatened her institutions or capacity to absorb. The Trumpist narrative would have it that we are already drowning in a sea of new (brown) arrivals, most of them probably criminals, the rest only here to have babies with US citizen benefits. That something so far from the truth is believed by so many is yet another scathing indictment of our educational system and our media.
So slow. And so haphazard.
It’s a hard fight against some of the worst elements of human behavior. But it’s also a fight that’s been going on since the founding of the country, and that fight is what defines America.
It’s also sad and telling that for a lot of people it’s easier to expand the definition of white than include non-whites in the definition of “all”. We have a lot of problems with that.
I suspect that brown folks are over-represented in the media if your baseline is Idaho.
Back in the 2016 campaign, so many of Clinton’s ads focused on women and brown folk that I felt excluded, and I’m a really liberal white guy. I suspect an analysis of the people in those ads would show that I’m a big baby, and that white men were still over-represented, but it was jarring not being pandered to at the level I have become accustomed to. I got over it, once I finally figured out what was bothering me, but it took a while to see what was bothering me, because of course I’m not a racist or a misogynist.
But, if you’re in Idaho, and watching the media, I suspect it really does look like an invasion.
(The implicit bias training I took at one of my past jobs was pretty eye opening. It also focused on a general message of “if you can recognize the implicit bias, and make it explicit, you can then dismiss it” rather than “you’re all horrible people”)
@MarkedMan: I have friends who say that “conservative” and “think” are self-contradictory. They may be on to something.
Well . . . no. I agree that ideas don’t have race or gender or language. But it’s not at all a historical accident that the Enlightenment and Rennaisance came out of Europe, not Asia or Africa. It took centuries of ferment for them to rise and, among the necessities was a significant literate population and travel. That the Framers were English speakers was more of an accident and, certainly, the ideas were from far and wide. But, by that point in time, European elite culture was all about absorbing ideas from elsewhere not rejecting those that came from outside.
I think this is factually true but not viscerally. There have been times when poor whites have felt overwhelmed by competition from immigrants and we seem to be in one of those now. Globally, not just in the US.
I think of all the forces of acculturation policy is the one with the least influence. You can not make people be anything. They are what they are, influenced by who and what they want to be.
No, just no. C’mon James, go to any naturalization ceremony and you will see a plethora of people who do not look in any way shape or form like what you or any one else thinks an “American” supposedly looks like and yet by the end of the ceremony every damn one of them
is every bit as American as you.
My wife does not sound like anyone you have in all likelihood ever heard before. Are you going to tell me she is less an American than you are? Than I am? I can tell you this, my wife sacrificed more than you or I would ever dream of to be something we both take for granted. She is more of an American, not less.
Yes, but those beliefs mean different things to each and every one of us. As soon as anyone tries to define them their own biases leak into it. Take Roosevelt’s 4 Freedoms:
Look at how we are struggling over freedom of speech now. Some Americans think it means they can say anything they want, anywhere they want, anytime they want, on any medium they want, consequence free. Other’s seem to think it means they should never have to hear anything they disagree with.
Freedom of Religion? HA! No mosque in my city! I think I’ll go shoot up a synagogue! I feel like burning down a black church today! Never mind the freedom FROM religion an atheist such as I desires.
Freedom from want? Our whole economic system has want at the very center of it. One does not have to go far to find a highway off ramp with a person and sign saying some variant of “Homeless, hungry, please help, God bless.” How many people give to people in such straits? How many turn and look the other way?
Freedom from fear…. We have a whole segment of our population who worship art the altar of Fear and bow down before their talisman the great and almighty Gun. They love fear, they embrace it, it is the center of their existence, the idea that always somewhere, everywhere, there is someone, everyone, out to get them, and they have only themselves to depend on to defend themselves. And we acquiesce to this fear, even tho we know, we know that a very large percentage of them have no business being anywhere near a gun, that they are far more likely to shoot themselves or god forbid one of us than they ever are a “bad guy with a gun”.
But ask any American if they believe in the 4 freedoms, fair warning- you’ll probably have to explain it to them, and chances are they will unequivocally say “Yes.”
@James Joyner: OK, having replied to the portions of your comment directed at me, I finished the rest of your comment and was stopped by this:
All I can think is, “So the fuck what???” I am 60+ years old, I am not going to be around that much longer, 10, 20 years at most. I’m not going to be around for it. Whatever this country is becoming, it is still going to be uniquely American, just a different kind of American. Hell’s Bells, it’s already a far different America than the one I grew up in.
I’m going to get a t-shirt made, it’s going to say, “Don’t let old fucks like me decide your future. VOTE!”
Really James, nobody gets to say what America is or what it becomes. All Americans do. Trying to hold that tide back is not only futile, it is self destructive.
Doubling down on this because it’s important…
1. Hell no
3. It depends
I am gobsmacked that you think “what we look like” is any part of what it means to be American. “What we sound like” is almost as dangerous, being so very intertwined with both ethnicity and regional factionalism.
What we believe in? Beyond the core political ethos, not even there. Most particularly, religious beliefs of any kind are no part of what it means to be American (though a belief in freedom of religion is). Those who think America is for Christians are just as bigoted as those who think it’s for whites, or for men.
Already in my collection, thanks, J. I never did like that term since the first time I heard it back in the ’70s. It most definitely revealed to me a cleave amongst the haves and have nots among white folks that made me ponder why poor and working-class whites would put up with that treatment from well-to-do whites. You’d think we’d coalesce into more powerfully effective groups, but then …
Wow, G. That was honest and raw. My opinion of the implicit bias training is that it’s b.s., but if it caused you to rethink some things, then maybe I should, too. Thanks for that.
I think I was too kind in my previous response, James. The very idea that you think one can identify what an American looks like or sounds like implies an inherent bias that approaches an unhealthy level of xenophobia. You need to step back and identify exactly what it is “American” means to you.
For me? America means a broadly accepting culture, not perfect, racist for sure, but that with time we will accept any culture and all they have to bring. We may not adopt it, but we are open to the idea of adopting it.
Question, Which is the most American music:
d) Rock and Roll
e) Country (and Western too!)
h) I’m out of touch with current music scenes
i) None of the above
j) All of the above
Answer? i) and j)
None of those musical styles’ roots originated here and yet all of them found their fruition here. Such are the boundless fruits of artistic freedom in an accepting culture. I wonder, if it wasn’t for America, what would have taken their place?
First, thanks as always for your thoughtful engagement. I read what you wrote as an endorsement of incrementalism. And that’s typically my default stance as well.
But the more I engage with these issues, the more problems I see with that (especially being that I’m part of the group that benefits the most from incrementalism – slowing down progress). Its also worth noting that we are 50 years past the point when MLK railed against the dangers of Incrementalism in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
And while I get the notion of historical pendulums, it’s scary to me the notion that minorities cannot press to far too fast or we get Trump.
We’re coming up on 100 years since the Red Summer and the Sacking of Black Wall street, not to mention the institutionalization of red lining and restrictive covenants that prevented many minority families from owning homes and developing the inter-generational wealth necessary to wield economic power at the same rates as white families. Not to mention the rise over over-policing and mass incarceration policies.
Even today, things like the cap on membership in the House and the structure of the Senate (not to mention your own writings about the Electoral College) all lead to moving political power away from urban centers and into suburban/rural districts (which remain more white).
I understand the appeal of incrementalism, but I think we’re seeing it’s limits. And I’d love to think the rise of Trump is the death knell of a certain type of whiteness… but I fear the reality is that our political and economic institutions are structured in such a way that real incrementalism means little to no progress at all.
Additionally, it’s worth noting how recent rates had seen the dismantling/neuting of so many incrementalist initiative like Affirmative Action and even the Voting Rights Act (or specifically the monitoring aspects of it).
@OzarkHillbilly: @DrDaveT: @mattbernius: As noted throughout the conversation, it’s one I’m uneasy about. But I do think “American” as a concept is more than just having the legal rights that come with citizenship.
If 500 million Chinese somehow beamed in and we instantly became a majority-Asian, Chinese-speaking country, we wouldn’t be recognizably “America” anymore. Much more so if they voted in a PRC-style government.
While the majority concept of citizenship long consisted of whiteness and Christianity, I don’t think those are fundamental to who we are. Obviously, blacks have been here longer than most of us. All sorts of music, cuisines, and whatnot have been amalgamated into the American culture.
Still, acculturation is at least partly about what people look like. Those who don’t adapt themselves to our modalities of dress, grooming, a modes of interaction will inevitably stand apart and make others uneasy.
@James Joyner — thanks for the follow-up. I think I see what you are getting at in terms of “culture” — I also think we may be talking past each other (or at the very least have different attentions).
I do agree with your point about there being a dominant culture (or enough crossover in the Vend Diagram of a number of dominant cultures) in the US and that aspects of that are important to preserve. And I agree about that.
But I think there is also an economic/political power vector of this that cannot be left out (especially in terms of the rise of Trump and all of these ‘America as we know it is being killed/about to die’ essays that push the Flight 93 election narrative).
Need to think about this conversation more.
That’s a good thing. I mistrust people who aren’t uneasy about this conversation; it suggests that they either haven’t thought carefully about it or don’t want to think about it at all. Thank you (again) for being willing to have this chat in public.
I’m pretty sure that nobody in this conversation has equated ‘American’ with a set of legal rights. Some of us have given priority to a shared vision of secular democratic government, as embodied in various historical documents and their changing interpretations over time. That goes way beyond “just having the legal rights”. Others, including you, have invoked a shared set of cultural norms, which even you admit have also changed radically over time. Matt and I, among others, have expressed concerns that appeals to shared cultural norms are just a back door to oppression of disempowered subcultures — an oppression that is not necessary for the shared vision of secular democratic government, and may in fact be incompatible with it.
I’m not sure what this has to do with the topic at hand. It isn’t going to happen; nothing like it is going to happen. Raising the question at all sounds like a tacit assertion that something like it is already happening — a position which you characterized as “factually true but not viscerally”. I’d prefer to keep your viscera out of this, if possible.
See above. If the shared goal of secular democratic government is important to what makes us America, then of course substituting some totally different vision of government would destroy that. I think we all agree on that, without needing to invoke 500 million Chinese.
More good news 🙂
So, who is included in the scope of the pronoun ‘our’ here, James, and who are these ‘others’? It makes all the difference in whether I agree with you or object strongly. I get the strong impression that, for you, ‘our’ only includes people like you — either people raised in your particular subculture, with the same notions of ‘proper’ manners and ‘proper’ dress and proper speech, or people from other backgrounds who consciously imitate and adopt and defer to those norms. You seem to take as given that these features of how you were raised are not merely acceptable, but normative on others — if they weren’t raised that way, they should have been. You even seem to be saying that the norms and manners and dress and speech of other American subcultures aren’t only inferior, they aren’t American at all, not the way yours are American.
Phrased that way, it sounds … arrogant. And frankly bigoted. A big piece of the problem (for me, at least) is that you haven’t clearly distinguished among behaviors that are arguably part of a genuine shared American ethos (e.g. equality under the law, democracy), attitudes that are accidentally almost universal in the US (e.g. not caring who wins The Ashes in cricket), and attitudes that are specific to your regional, ethnic, social class, and/or religious background (e.g. questions of proper dress). I am unwilling to consider the possibility that whether or not I am a real American might depend on which fork I use (though my mother-in-law surely believes it does).
I recognize this.
Yes, but no single individual, not you, not I, no one person has the ability to tell any other American what it is. All Americans do, and as soon as they do, it changes.
James James James…. If you have to reach for a strawman to make your point, reach for one with heart. This is weak and hyperbolic and yes, xenophobic and absolutely detached from reality.
Same thing, I’m not even sure what you are deflecting from.
BUT…. I knew it was coming.
Uneasy. Really James? The horror.
Maybe this is why your… discomfort with people who don’t look like you, sound like you, dress like you, act like you, bothers me so. I never looked like you, sounded like you, dressed like you, or acted like you. I tried to. I really tried to “fit in” but I just couldn’t pull it off. You know why? Because it was a lie and I was a lousy liar. When I finally accepted my own truth and recognized the shallowness of people who when they looked at me all they saw was all the things that weren’t them I said, “Fuck ’em.” and just became myself, not fitting in, saying all the wrong things at all the wrong times, pushing the bounds of acceptability, living my life the way I wanted to. Within the law, taking care of my responsibilities, but living my life the way I wanted to.
You want to know something? It was uncomfortable. It still is. People look at me differently. Not all the time but when I am most myself, yeah they notice. You want to know something else? Discomfort is good. You should try it sometime.
Go to a soul food restaurant in an all black neighborhood (the food will knock you right on your white ass). Put a “Make Racism Wrong Again” hat on and walk around a WalMart in MAGAville. (they’ll all pretend to be illiterate) Wear some really loud clothes to a bar (you’ll have more women eyeing you up and down than you can shake a stick at). Say the thing everybody around you is thinking but are too polite to say (somebody will giggle).
Be the person every one secretly wants to be but is too gutless to try for even one night: a loud, brash, obnoxious American.
Jumping all the way back to the original question of “what is patriotism?”, let me admit to the following: my patriotism is conditional. Just as my family loyalty has limits — I would most certainly rat out my brother if it turned out he was a serial killer or child molester — my patriotism is conditional on America remaining a nation committed to ideals worth defending. I don’t require perfection (which is good, since we’ve usually fallen short of our own ideals in so many ways), but I do require that the ideals still be sincere, and shared. I would feel no loyalty at all to the America Trump’s followers (and apparently most GOP senators) want, and if they were to achieve it after a certain point I would give up trying to recover the America I love and move somewhere else.
@DrDaveT: @OzarkHillbilly: I use the Chinese example because it’s extreme and absurd. It illustrates that, at least theoretically, there’s a level of change to the culture that would render it no longer recognizably “American.”
At the same time, I’ve acknowledged throughout the conversation that I don’t know where that line is. My small-c conservative sensibility is toward both assimilation of immigrants into our existing culture and gradual expansion of that culture to incorporate elements of those who’ve come in.
You left out “hysterical”.
What did I say? Oh yeah,
If you picked up 1976 me and plopped me down in the middle of 2019, I’d be like, “WTF????” But 2019 me, having gone thru the intervening 43 years has no problem recognizing how American America is. The reason is there is no level of change to the culture that would render it no longer recognizably “American” because with time that change is happening anyway, right now with each and every passing day. In ways we can’t even see. It will be no less American, it will be different but still uniquely American.
You acknowledge this when you say,
You just need to take that thought process a step further and stop worrying about the changes that are coming. It will still be uniquely American, it may be uncomfortable for you, it may not be your America any longer, (it never really was, was it?) it will be your *daughters’ America* and well on it’s way to becoming your (dawg willing and the creek don’t rise you have them, they are a blessing) grandchildren’s America.
** and your step children too
This gets to something I have been thinking about: I think this is incorrect. I think, in fact, we have not come to any kind of consensus on how to deal with the negatives of both our past and our present.
The entire debate on Robert E. Lee, to pick a very specific example, or the Confederate Battle Flag, to pick a broader one, illustrates this. We do not have a national consensus on how to talk about the genocide we perpetrated against the natives of this continent, nor about slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese Internment, or even current attempts at voter suppression (and forget any discussion of the use of US military force, whether in the 19th Century in Latin America, or the drone wars of today). Instead, all of these are ignored, diminished, rationalized, or become partisan fodder.
I have no solution to this, and not all of those items are the same, but because we seem to have no way to talk about our past, we end up where we are.
@Steven L. Taylor: We definitely don’t seem capable of a conversation about it, honest or otherwise.
@Steven L. Taylor:
This is the point that I’ve been trying to make.
James, I think part of where we are not connecting is we are thinking of “culture” in different ways. What I read in your comments is an attention to the outward trappings of culture – it’s literal, visual manifestation.
As an anthropologist, I think about culture as the result of an interrelated group of structures and institutions (somewhere between Geertz’s webs of significance and Bourdieu’s “structuring structures that structure structures”). Which is why I think about cultural change in terms of changing the structures and institutions that create the culture.
That gets to Steven’s point. And honestly the point that is bubbling beneath the surface of Mitcha’s and others fears — the reality is that people who have historically controlled our culture — “whites” as a cultural category — are realizing that they are going to lose the ability to control our cultural narrative. And that narrative has been, to date, constructed in a way that is all about Robin DeAngelo’s notion of White Fragility. We can’t even have an honest national conversation about the Civil War — how do we start to discuss the structural racism in our immediate history (or that is still playing out today).
And to be clear this isn’t simply a white/minority issue. But that’s the most obvious place its playing out. And what we’ve learned so far is that when even remotely threatened, White Nationalism is going to push back and push back HARD. And again, our structures of power have evolved in such a way that grant White Nationalists a LOT of cultural control to stop any actual cultural change within the system.
@Steven L. Taylor:
We both agree and disagree on this. I think I’m more willing than you to rationalize some of these behaviors through cultural relativism. But we’re both willing to acknowledge that most of these are atrocious in hindsight.
Japanese internment is the most interesting of these cases because it was perpetrated by FDR, a hero of both the left and the right. (Ronald Reagan was a huge FDR fan, for example.) It was an objectively awful policy committed by a more-or-less decent man who was extremely progressive for his day. And excused contemporaneously by the Supreme Court in what I consider arguably the most awful decision in Supreme Court history (worse than Dred Scot and at least as bad as Plessy v Ferguson).
But the partisan fodder angle is where we’re most in agreement, I think. We can’t have honest discussion about these things because they’re binary: either Robert E. Lee was among the most awful men in history or he was a saint; either FDR was a racist xenophobe or he was a saint, etc. I tend to think that, in the context of their times, they were both fairly heroic figures faced with hard choices.
@mattbernius: I’m insufficiently steeped in the anthropoligical literature to engage parts of this. We do quite a bit of culture in our curriculum, but it’s from a political science or sociological standpoint.
I’m glad that you recognize that the atrociousness of the actions/situations is separable from the assignment of moral praise and blame. Many social conservatives can’t distinguish the two, and end up excusing the actions (and entirely avoiding the question of reparations) because they can’t bring themselves to blame the perpetrators. (Though you’re wrong about Lee, by the moral standards of his own time.)
I want kids in America to grow up knowing the crimes and disastrous misjudgments of their parents and grandparents and ancestors, so that they can be horrified by them and avoid the like in the future. I also want them to grow up knowing the glorious deeds and sacrifices of their parents and grandparents and ancestors, so that they have something to live up to. There is no conflict between those things.
A much longer reply to this post was eaten by my office firewall. Rather than bore everyone trying to reproduce it, I will focus on the key point, which is this:
Until you tell me who is included in ‘our’ when you say “our existing culture”, I don’t know whether I agree with you or violently disagree. America has always been multicultural from day one; there was never a time of universally shared culture of the kind you seem to be invoking. There were only times of more or less explicit and open oppression of the non-English non-Christian and non-caucasian subcultures. Either those subcultures are just as American and you and I, or they’re not American at all.
I know which way I vote; my ‘our’ includes them. How about yours?
I can rationalize, to a point, how many things in the past were done and why (and, I acknowledge that values evolve). My point is now and how we address the past in the now.
I agree some of these conversations get way too binary.
However, Lee is a great example of what I am talking about: I think that a truly objective assessment of the man, even in the context of his time, should not lead to the assessment that he was a one of those “fairly heroic figures faced with hard choices”–I think that vision, which we were both taught in school and is perpetuated to this day, is far more about the Lost Cause mythology than it is a fair reading of Lee’s character and actions.
And the Lee example fits my basic point: we (that is, Americans writ large) don’t have a shared agreement on how to talk about the negative in our past.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Or how to connect it to our present.
So instead we push a lot of meritocratic promise that enables us to blame systemically oppressed groups for not advancing and justify continued oppression of said groups for their own good and the safety of the broader community.
@Steven L. Taylor: @mattbernius: Lee was a white supremacist. But so was Abe Lincoln. I think their position on slavery came from more from upbringing and economic impact rather than a gap in character.
Lincoln did not brutalize his own slaves (and, indeed, did not own any). Lee did.
Lee also led a rebellion against his country.
By the standards of the day, this is an absurd comparison.
Character is often about transcending one’s upbringing.
Beyond that, and really more to the point: yes, we can understand why people did what they did back in whatever era we are reviewing. But that does not mean we can’t differentiate between Lincoln’s white supremacy and Lee’s.
This is really the point.
There shouldn’t be a Nathan Bedford Forrest statues and proclamations today, even if we can construct some rationale for why he behaved as he did back in the 1800s.
It is our utter inability to address our own collection misdeeds that allow such nonsense to persist.
I am not arguing for continual self-flagellation. But the only way to grow is to acknowledge and learn from past mistakes. The student who refuses to acknowledge and understand the Ds they keep getting in English comp aren’t going to get any better at writing. Building a monument to them would be utter folly.
So? How is this relevant to anything other than a biography of one or the other?
I think I’m going to have to take back my compliment above, where I praised you for being able to distinguish between assigning praise/blame and assessing the moral value of actions. You’re backsliding badly here.
As noted above, there is a universe of difference between the actions of Lincoln and Lee, and those actions can be evaluated without needing to psychoanalyze the agents, either to explain or excuse their behavior. The behaviors stand.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I would just point out this neither unusual or unique to the US and appears to be a built-in human response which I’ve seen all over the world. The only exception seems to be Germany with its Nazi past.
Furthermore, consensus on something like this in a diverse country of 320 million people is pretty much impossible. Relitigating Lee’s or FDR’s or Lincoln’s place in history is probably best left to historians.
@Andy: Countries around the world have have had to deal with their pasts (another prominent example is South Africa). They have done so with varying degrees of success.
Yes, it is hard. That does not mean we shouldn’t work at it.
That would be fine, except for the Lee statute in the middle of town squares across the land or various schools named in his honor–and what that communicates.
@Steven L. Taylor:
This. And the way we teach history is to pretend that collective misdeeds have continued to persist.
This is all really fresh in my mind after working through “The Color of Law” and its implications. For example, I grew up on Long Island in the 80’s and 90’s. Levittown was a topic that was covered in history — heck it happened right down the road. And *never* — *never* was it brought up that built into the literal deeds were that properties could not be sold or resold to non-Caucasians. And that was a stipulation that was allowed by the federal government. And that was recent history (less than 40 years old). Or that the federal government was investing white-only affordable housing around the country in rates that far exceeded investment in affordable housing for people of color.
Or listen to people who grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma around the same time who were never taught about Black Wall Street or its massacre. That wasn’t ancient history. And all of this has profound impacts on economic achievement gaps.
I cannot separate our problem with dealing with these issues (and their profound impact in setting up current cultural conflicts) as critical to this broader moment — especially every time someone says something along the lines of “we dealt with all those civil rights issues in the 60’s so why do we need to talk about reparations….”
@Steven L. Taylor:
Here in Colorado, our shameful past is primarily the Indian Wars and especially the Sand Creek Massacre. We still have a prominent and major mountain, Mt. Evans, west of Denver named for the territorial governor at the time (who was removed from office after the massacre). The Commanding officer, Colonel John Chivington, is still listed on a Civil War memorial that sits on the state capital ground (because he was a civil war veteran – and hero – not because of his actions at Sand Creek). Occasionally, there are petitions that get a couple of thousand signatures to have his name removed from the plaque.
These debates are good and healthy but they are ultimately community issues, not national issues.
There are many monuments to Sherman as a great Union leader during the Civil War. Here in the mountain west and plains, however, he is not as fondly remembered as one of the principal architects of the strategy which would violently and finally subjugate all the native peoples of the plains. I would not want a Sherman monument put up in my community for that reason but I am not going to demand the removal of his monument from the national mall, among the many other places he is memorialized. The same could be said for Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote, with the benefit of many years of hindsight, that the Sand Creek Massacre and the 25 years of bloodshed it precipitated were both “righteous” and “beneficial.”
So, I can certainly understand that your circumstances are different as you live in Alabama which has a much different history than my state. Certainly, Lee is a much larger and more important figure there than he is here. If you can convince others there to purge Lee and his name from your public places, then you won’t get any objections from me, but I don’t think it is my place to tell you, or the people of Alabama, what they should or shouldn’t do when it comes memorializing historical figures.
@Andy: It is true that the CSA monuments are mostly in the South, but it is not exclusively a southern issue. (Indeed, most such monuments are in places that were in the US/CSA in the mid-1860s).
Beyond that, the current national politics of white resentment are relevant to CSA worship. It is not just some parochial issue.
I also think that the genocide related to westward expansion is a national issue, even if it mostly took place in the west.
So, to conclude, there is a lot of historical sin in this country. I’m not convinced that we -as a nation- can adjudicate it adequately or fairly when we, as individuals, cannot do so either.
The focus on Lee highlights to me and a lot of others that there are many arguably worse historical figures who don’t get vilified at all. So yes, there is definitely an inability to address our own collection of misdeeds which doesn’t begin or end with Robert E Lee.
@Steven L. Taylor: @DrDaveT: My point is simply that 1) neither’s attitudes on race would be acceptable today but both were understandable for their time and 2) that, had their circumstances been reversed, so would their attitudes. Lee was born into a Southern plantation aristocracy. Of course he owned slaves. Lincoln was a country farmer in Illinois. Of course he didn’t own slaves. Lincoln doesn’t deserve credit for that.
@Steven L. Taylor: I’m not sure how far one goes. Jefferson was a slave-owner but at an early time. Wilson was a virulent racist much later. I don’t think we should fully judge by today’s values. Forrest is irredeemable because of his founding of the KKK; one can nonetheless celebrate his acumen as a cavalry tactician but it’s hard to justify honoring him with statues and the like. I think Lee is a much harder case. But, certainly, if we’re going to honor him, it has to be in context of an honest discussion of the war and its causes.
@mattbernius: I don’t know how much we should expect civics classes to discuss relatively minor local incidents. I’m not even sure the average schoolteacher is equipped to facilitate these discussions. But we agree that we tend to treat racial horrors as something that happened a long, long time ago.
@Andy: Agreed. There’s a lot of awfulness in our history. It’s debatable whether African slavery or our ethnic cleansing of the aboriginal population was our worst crime.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Well, if ameliorating white resentment and opposing CSA worship is the actual goal behind the recent interest in purging Lee from community spaces, then I’d just say it’s a really counterproductive not well-considered strategy.
My kids have attended public schools in three different states. Each one has included a “local” curriculum so that students can learn their local history, to include the major bad stuff. And I remember my old school days as well, where we got just as much education on the “Plains Indians Wars” as the Civil War.
Moreover, Lee was loyal to Virginia – had Virginia been a Union state (or had he been born in a Union state), he would have fought for the Union.
On the one hand I appreciate the challenge.
But he resistance of trying to get better at teaching that uncomfortable history and tying it to its effect on the present is greatly tied to the complaints around “historical/cultural deconstruction.” In both places teachers were teaching the “established history” which, again, intentional or not, was designed to not ruffle feathers of the dominant cultural class.
And that’s ultimately the type of cultural control that Michta doesn’t want to loose. And that MAGA is working to maintain.
This issue isn’t the lack of vilification, it is the substantial amount of praised heaped upon him that is the issue.
You are focusing too much on this issue. This is not my point. I am not asking for either Lee or Jefferson to be judged by today’s standards.
I am asking for a realistic assessment of our national sins, especially as they pertain to now.
I know you would expect a student who got a C on an exam to try and learn from that mistake, not to make a monument to the C in his dorm room and praise it forevermore.
But what is a productive, well-considered strategy? And what about the feelings of the non-white folks who occupy those same spaces? Why is their resentment (if not outright oppression) less important?
That is the fundamental tension that’s at the center of these “culture” debates — whose feeling and concerns matter more.
I think we find, when push comes to shove, people in the majority with no racial animus are still not willing to cede any real power in those particular struggles to people of color.
We don’t debate it. That’s the point.
That doesn’t mean he has to be glorified in 2019.
Look, the point was not* about Lee. Lee is an example. But if you think growing up with a Lee statute downtown, having Lee Day be shared with MLK, and having a narrative that talks about how honorable a man he was is a useful way of dealing with the sins of slavery, then I don’t know what else to say.
To repeat @mattbernius:
*Edited to include a very important “not”
To put it in a more succinct way — and James getting back to the point I was trying to make — I don’t think these are really conflicts about what our culture should be as much as they are questions about who is allowed to shape what our culture is.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Oh, sure. Obviously, we should examine the precepts allowed us to justify slavery and the ethnic cleansing of the aboriginal population while operating under the ostensible ethos of the Declaration. Certainly, that has implications for not only racial justice today but also our treatment of illegal aliens and would-be asylum seekers.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I’m not seeing this praise – quite the contrary. And again, I think this is mainly a local thing. I’ve lived or spent significant time in almost every region of the US and my experience is that no one outside of the south cares very much about Lee.
I understood your original point and I gave my opinion it in my original response to you.
Well, that’s not what I believe, but my point was about effectiveness.
The strategy depends on the goal and the level of effort. I’m not clear from rereading the thread what the goal is supposed to be. The recent focus on removing CSA-related monuments doesn’t seem rooted in any particular strategy with a clear goal – it’s more a reaction to Charlottesville which, in turn, generated a counter-reaction.
If you’re not willing to discuss the answer to that question publicly, James, I hope you are at least asking yourself privately.