July 4, 2010


Myth and Memory in the American Identity (Wilfred M. McClay, October 12, 2005, The Lehrman Lectures - The Heritage Foundation)

[I]t is impossible to rally a nation to fight for its soul if it no longer knows what that soul is. As before in our history, our current challenges have forced us to think more deeply and clearly about such things -- about who and what we are. And it is not entirely a bad thing that we find ourselves at this juncture. Periods of decline and crisis are inevitable even in the healthiest society, precisely because what is good in the past can never be passed along mechanically and effortlessly from one generation to the next. Each generation has to rediscover those things for itself, and relive the truth of Goethe’s dictum: "What you have as heritage, take now as task, for only in that way can you make it your own." This is a more majestic and momentous thing than is covered by the word "reappropriation." And it is not at all the same thing as saying that each generation gets to invent its own Constitution and its own history. In fact, it is the exact opposite. But more about that later….

My point here is that, human nature being what it is -- and human society being, in some sense, the amplification of human nature -- it usually takes a crisis to cause an individual, or a nation, to renew itself. These things aren’t covered under any program of regular maintenance. They are not the product of jet-smooth steady-state development, overseen by planners and bureaucrats. Renewal of a culture is a more jagged and lurching thing. Sometimes it takes a fight for survival to induce it. Arnold Toynbee, a great historian of the last century whom no one except Samuel Huntington bothers to read anymore, was right in seeing the dynamic of challenge-and-response as the chief source of a civilization’s greatness. And he was also right to assert that great civilizations die from suicide rather than murder, which is to say that they die when they lack the will to respond vigorously and creatively to the very challenges that would otherwise make them stronger. [...]

I think it’s clear that the American national identity, like love, is a many-splendored thing. Defining it is also a bit like love, or war -- meaning that it ends up being a much more complicated, even contentious, undertaking than you ever thought it would be at the outset. And doubly so for the task of restoration, the real subject of these lectures. The very question of restoration presumes some measure of agreement, not only about what we are, but what we once were, and what we ought to become. But it is in the very nature of our current woes that we don’t have any such agreement, even among people who call themselves conservatives.

One of the chief points at issue arises out of the tension between creed and culture, to use a shorthand way of putting it, in the ways we think about America and about standards of membership in American society. This is a tension between, on one hand, the idea of the United States as a nation built upon the foundation of self-evident, rational, and universally applicable propositions about human nature and human society; and, on the other hand, the idea of the United States as a very unusual, historically specific and contingent entity, underwritten by a long, intricately evolved, and very particular legacy of English law, language, and customs, Greco-Roman cultural antecedents, and Judeo-Christian sacred texts and theological and moral teachings, without whose presences the nation’s flourishing would not be possible.

This is a very profound tension, with much to be said for both sides. And the side one comes down on -- if one comes down entirely on one side -- will say a lot about one’s stance on an immense number of issues, such as immigration, education, citizenship, cultural assimilation, multiculturalism, pluralism, the role of religion in public life, the prospects for democratizing of the Middle East, and so on. Yet, at the risk of being labeled a straddler, I would contend that any understanding of American identity that excluded either of the two elements would be seriously deficient. Any view of American life that failed to acknowledge its powerful strains of universalism, idealism, and crusading zeal would be describing a different country from the America that, for better or worse, happens to exist. And yet any view of America as simply a bundle of abstract normative ideas about freedom and democracy and self-government that can flourish just as easily in any cultural and historical soil, including a multilingual, post-religious, or post-national one, takes too much for granted, and will be in for a rude awakening.

Clearly, then, the creed v. culture antagonism is better understood not as a statement of alternatives but as an antinomy, one of those perpetual oppositions that can never be resolved. In fact, this may be more of a problem in theory than in practice, since the two halves of the opposition so often serve to support one another. The creed needs the support of the culture -- and the culture, in turn, is imbued with respect for the creed. For the creed to be successful, it must be able to silently presume the presence of all kinds of cultural inducements -- toward civility, restraint, deferred gratification, nonviolence, loyalty, procedural fairness, impersonal neutrality, compassion, respect for elders, and the like. These traits are not magically called into being by the mere invocation of the Declaration of Independence. Nor are they sustainable for long without the support of strong and deeply rooted social and cultural institutions that are devoted to the formation of character, most notably the traditional family and traditional religious institutions.

But by the same token, the American culture is unimaginable apart from the influence of the American creed, from the sense of pride and moral responsibility Americans derive from being, as Walter Berns has argued, a carrier of universal values, a vanguard people. [...]

Republicanism means self-government, and so republican liberty does not mean living without restraint, but rather living in accordance with a law that you have dictated to yourself. Hence the especially strong need of republics to recur to their founding principles and their founding narratives, in a never-ending process of self-adjustment. There should be a constant interplay between founding ideals and current realities, a tennis match bouncing back and forth between the two.

And for that to happen, there need to be two things in place. First, founding principles that are sufficiently fixed to give us genuine guidance, to actually teach us something. That such ideals should be open to amendment is, perhaps, the least important or valuable thing about them -- which is precisely why a living Constitution is not really a Constitution at all. This is why I compare a founding to a promise or a vow, which means nothing if its chief glory is its adaptability. The analogy of a successful marriage, which is also, in a sense, a res publica that must periodically recur to first principles, and learn to distinguish first principles from passing circumstances, is actually a fairly good guide to these things.

Second, there needs to be a ready sense of connection to the past, a reflex for looking backward. And that is no easy matter. Cultivating it ought to be one of the chief uses of the formal study of history. Or so one would think. But the fostering of a vital sense of connection to the past is, alas, not one of the goals of historical study as it’s now taught and practiced in this country. Nietzsche saw a certain kind of abuse of history, along these lines, coming long before it was even a germ of a possibility on these shores. But it has reached a kind of full flower in the present day. This has been particularly true of the study of the American founding, as it has been for a century now, since the early sallies against the Founders by Charles Beard; but it is more generally true of the entire profession of history.

This is a highly ironic development. The meticulous contextualization of past events and ideas, arising out of a sophisticated understanding of the past’s particularities and discontinuities with the present, is one of the great achievements of modern historiography. But that achievement comes at a very high cost, when it emphasizes the pastness of the past so much as to make the past completely unavailable to us, separated from us by a impassable chasm of contextual difference.

There's much else that's great here -- including a brief discussion of how nationalism is understood to have a racial element -- but two points stand out from this excerpt: first, the reason the Left hates our actual history and prefers ignorance of it but will settle for distorting it beyond recognition; second, why the End of History is not necessarily a good thing. As to the second point, while our creed is universal and can be extended everywhere, as it is being and has been, in the absence of a thriving Judeo-Christian culture or its very close approximation, liberal democracy will just afford nations a more comfortable sort of suicide. Our form is easy enough to ape, but unless you can add the content you can't hope to be successful in the long run.

[originally posted: 2005-11-12]

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Posted by at July 4, 2010 12:00 AM

It is impossible to rally a nation to fight for its soul if you deny the nation.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 12, 2005 2:27 PM

It is impossible to rally a multiethnic country if you rally WASPs.

Posted by: oj at November 12, 2005 2:31 PM

Yes, that's true. It's also why the left is dead.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 12, 2005 4:59 PM

That the Left is dead, and for that specific reason, is also reason enough to question any conclusion you might reach. If there is a poster boy for WASP leftishness you're it.

Posted by: joe shropshire at November 13, 2005 12:50 AM

I do not concur: Wasp leftishness is a consequence of the loss of will to fight.

To the proposition that "it is impossible to rally a multiethnic country if you rally WASPs," I say, on the contrary, the national folkdom to precisely what we must rally to survive and it transcends ethnicity.

The values of ordered liberty have a lot to do with WASP culture, but they do not belong to the WASPS. The values are what made us rich and powerful and they are what gathers peoples to ourselves.

The danger that multiculturalism presents is that the cultures of the multis are often those of folk-enemies. The goals of these peoples is not to join us but to take vengeance against us for events in remote history.

Enough of the delicacy! Let us face it! We wrested our land from the savage, and the Mexican; we worked much of it with African slaves. There is more. We Europeans smashed back Islam, transformed Asia: it goes on and on.

And now all we ask is to be left alone, and even better, we are eager to share our material and spiritual possessions with anyone who will play by our basic rules.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 13, 2005 8:13 AM

Yes, Lou, "they do not belong to the WASPS" is a belief peculiar to the Anglosphere. No Frenchman believes that the values of French culture belong to anyone but a Frenchman.

Posted by: oj at November 13, 2005 8:27 AM

Ever notice the two explicitly nationalist organizations in America are indeed racist? Aryan Nation and Nation of Islam.

Posted by: oj at November 13, 2005 8:28 AM

Republicanism means self-government, and so republican liberty does not mean living without restraint, but rather living in accordance with a law that you have dictated to yourself.

But I thought that the law must be dictated from without? Only secularists dictate their own laws, right?

McClay's unintending gaffe just supports my conclusion that all religions are invented. They are necessary inventions, but inventions nonetheless. Americanism is a modern reformulation of those more ancient inventions, including Christianity.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 13, 2005 1:25 PM


No, that's the point: morality comes from without. Law need not be moral. That's why without God you end up with such indecent societies.

Republical liberty, which requires that law be applied universally, makes some immorality less likely.

Posted by: oj at November 13, 2005 1:30 PM

OJ: Ever noticed that those two groups hate the nation?

Posted by: David Cohen at November 13, 2005 4:10 PM

To the contrary, they love their nation and hate anyone who doesn't share its bloodline. That's what nationalism is. You're getting there.

Posted by: oj at November 13, 2005 4:44 PM

The nation's bloodline? Your letting your WASP cred go to your head. The WASPS lost the nation long ago.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 13, 2005 10:50 PM

Careful, you're tiptoeing towards wisdom.

Posted by: oj at November 14, 2005 8:44 AM
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