It is clear enough that one of the pressing issues of the day is the explosive and beguiling one of the American identity. Who are we, we Americans? What is our character and destiny as a people? The emotion and bafflement surrounding this question are evidence of its importance.
The acute observer will perceive two large camps or categories of people, out there in the Republic, who are prepared to expound a thoughtful answer to the question. We must leave aside the thoughtless; as our subtle pollsters demonstrate, like diviners or magicians, hardly anyone is reluctant to give an opinion. But thoughtful opinions, informed by experience and reflection, are rarer jewels.
Among these experienced and reflective men are: (1) a camp or category that, when push comes to shove, does not think the American character good; and (2) a camp or category that holds the contrary view. Camp One doubts that there is, on balance, more nobility, justice, magnanimity in America and her history, than there is wickedness, cupidity, crime. Camp Two judges the balance in favor of goodness, truth and righteousness.
Now we must not think the first group simply a subset of the thoughtless. It is not, at base, ignorance that gives life and form to their position. The bitter fact is that Americans, being a bold people, have been bold sinners, and terrible sinners. From some perspectives the sinner has loomed larger in our history than the saint.
What follows is not an argument directed at readers hailing from Camp One. I do not here propose to bring my meager arts of persuasion to bear on their concerns and assumptions, but address them only obliquely as it were. The integrity of their position must maintain that the true character of America, and the product of her efforts in history, is on balance bad. Were they to apply their exacting moral standards across the sweep of history, it is doubtful that any people would live up; which is a striking paradox when set against the belief in human perfectibility. But in any case, I beg leave to set this Camp aside for the moment and address myself exclusively to Camp Two.
Furthermore, and to head off a possible confusion, I will say that I do not believe it is true, what the reader may at this point suspect, that Camp One corresponds with “Liberal” in common parlance, and Camp Two with “Conservative.” That is far too facile. In truth it seems to me the partition cuts across a broader terrain than those familiar terms. There may be some correspondence or correlation, but it is mild and unreliable: there are too many Conservatives in Camp One and too many Liberals in Camp Two.
So, attending now to Camp Two, toward which members I aim my rhetorical appeal, I enter a further demarcation for analytical purposes. These men, believing their country fundamentally good, may themselves be further abstracted and subdivided into two more subgroups.
I will call them “America Becoming” and “America Simply.” In the first case, we encounter men who have thought about it, and judge America to be good — but mostly because of her ideals. The American identity is good, or reveals goodness, precisely because the American ideals are good — perhaps exclusively because the ideals are good. The decisive thing is the ideals. In this Group you will find Liberals inclined project utopian visions, sometimes at variance with historical America; and Conservatives fiercely and ideologically committed to the more authentic historical ideals. But in any case you will find men animated in their love by political ideals.
The America Simply men, meanwhile, are most of them simply non-ideological folks. The distinctions between, say, a Democracy and a Republic, or between Liberty and License, or between Capitalism and Free Enterprise, are obscure, perplexing and frankly irrelevant ones in their minds. Or consider people for whom political theory is just plain tedious; boredom drives them to distraction when the topic comes up. Or perhaps they have no training in theory (for the art of political theory, even of the popular sort, is an acquired skill); or perhaps they cling rather coyly to extravagant or provocative views on political theory. I know a very fine man and citizen, a dear friend of mine, who introduced me to politics as an undergrad through the vehicle of his jovial preoccupation with the injustice and mischief of the Social Security number. He would declaim against this oppression, plotting impish impotent resistance, at parties and social events — to the amusement of many, and the irritation of some, within earshot.
America has long been a fruitful fount of political eccentrics. Some few, it is true, have veered perilously into crankishness; but most have been harmless and hilarious examples of human variety, and in the end loyal citizens despite all that theoretical nonsense.
There are also, finally, America Simply men who are, so to speak, principled anti-ideologists. A great many of these are Conservatives in the old sense of the word. Russell Kirk, who more than any single man save the late William F. Buckley, Jr., brought the term Conservative into common parlance, often defined Conservatism in opposition to ideology. This party — among whom I do not hesitate to include myself — asseverate that there are good, compelling reasons to resist, oppose and obstruct the project of fusing a nation and a theory. They are concerned to maintain a clear distinction between America and her ideals, and vigilant against any proposal which might trend to efface the distinction.
For the problem with America Becoming is this, that all the force of its love tends to undermine the object of its love.
Many a man from this party has been driven by his love of ideals to the shocking and awful discovery that Americans have failed to live up to their ideals; and from there he can’t get back. His zeal has overthrown its source and inspiration. He heard from his very cradle “liberty and justice for all,” and then one fine day a professor at university demonstrated the terrible bondage for some, and the injustice for others; and evermore our student can only love the ideals, can only embrace America by way of abstraction. He thrilled at “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; and was crushed when he found death, oppression and sorrow. His sensitive heart was broken.
Put another way: Unless backed by a robust appreciation of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which is not exactly the most popular of Christian doctrines, his love will always break his heart. The ideals of America are too grand, too lovely, too beautiful for the utopian’s sensitive constitution to endure when he finds them unattainable, in history or in real life. His identity with America eventually inspires guilt. His passions rebel against his association with this heartbreaker. So he projects his passion into the future. A vision, a phantasm of America; an imagined ideal; America Becoming — yes, that will do nicely. And so, in the end, his theory of America drives him into Camp One. His ideologizing of his country allows him to escape the dilemma that his ideals have made him hate his country. He still loves her, he feels — but in truth all he loves is a vision conjured by his intellection.
Now this process or corruption does not, of course, bedevil every man in the party of America Becoming. Some are stoic enough to, as it were, embrace the contradiction. Others have a theory of American identity sophisticated enough, or even simple enough, to guard against the peril. Still others are still persuaded by the ancient doctrine of Original Sin, and thus quite prepared for failures to live up to ideals. They even expect it.
But the fact that some resist does not mean the corruption is defeated. Far from it: to me it seems that these resisters are the exception that proves the rule. For this guilt-ridden utopianism is a striking feature of our age. Self-loathing has been remarked upon in the Western world for decades, even centuries now. The movements of treachery and annihilation Western man summoned from the depths of his despair and self-loathing in the twentieth century ought to put to rest forever the supposition that guilt-ridden utopianism is a mere nuisance or oddity. For economy of words no one ever put the matter more perfectly that Evelyn Waugh, in his description of the Non-Aggression Treaty signed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”
And in political philosophy, the Modern Age was emphatically an age of abstract ideals and enthusiasms, of sophistication and even chicanery, of progress, development, perfection; in short of Becoming not Simplicity.
The America Simply men are often told a certain rhetorical tale, read a specific sort of oratorical lecture in morality. I know they are because I have been read this lecture myself on numerous occasions. And I believe it is worth examining in greater detail, for it is full of portents.
The lecture works like this: A debate is joined on the subject of American identity. Naturally the America Simply man will make some effort to ground his patriotism in, well, ground itself: in earth and land and the particulars of a particular country. This is where his opponent pounces. The America Simply position — constructed in opposition to an idealized America, a propositional nation, a nation of ideas — is summarized with some brusque reference to soil as such. To dirt. To mud. A Patriotism of the Loam. My Mud is Better than Your Mud. Blood and Soil. The purpose of this reference is to show the irrational folly of caring for a certain patch of earth; it is to deconstruct any romance of soil and property and the antiquity attached to them, to remove the particulars of memory and legend and leave only the blank and meaningless image of a handful of dirt.
The American Simply man is to be taught the lesson of the folly of his little earthy romance. He is to be caught up short by the irrationality of his affection for that certain patch of earth. He is to be brought to the bar of materialism and asked to defend his spiritual attachment to mere dirt or mud.
Sometimes this works pretty well, I expect. The America Simply man feels suddenly that he has been confuted. His path is blocked. Checkmate. He is vaguely abashed. It is not really rational to love land and earth.
But perhaps we can reverse the whole lesson. The real lesson may tell against the teacher. Perhaps the America Becoming man ought to be the one abashed by this — precisely because of the success of his rhetorical twist.
He has played the game well: his opponent is disconcerted. But this very success exposes him. He has taught his interlocutor to feel dimly mortified, for instance, when he sings “land where my fathers died,” or “land that I love.” Land, mud, and earth again! Blood and Soil! That half his old and beloved patriotic songs and hymns refer unabashedly to soil and loam, to trees and mountains, and the actual physical and earthy features of the country, is for the moment a forgotten irrelevancy. How irrational he is! What folly it is to profess a love for mere mud!
And the corruption is accomplished: for perhaps just a brief moment a normal man who loves his country, like most normal men, has been brought to feel ashamed of her. Abstraction is the hand-maiden of self-loathing.