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In an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois on Jan. 27, 1838, a 28-year-old lawyer spoke on “the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Abe Lincoln asked and answered a rhetorical question: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Lincoln saw ahead a quarter of a century—to civil war. The question that must be asked a century and a half after Lincoln’s death is the one that troubled his generation. Are we on the path to national suicide?…


Nation or Notion?

American Conservative Magazine – September 25, 2006 Issue

America rose from kin and culture, not an abstract proposition.

In an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois on Jan. 27, 1838, a 28-year-old lawyer spoke on “the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Abe Lincoln asked and answered a rhetorical question:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Lincoln saw ahead a quarter of a century—to civil war.

The question that must be asked a century and a half after Lincoln’s death is the one that troubled his generation. Are we on the path to national suicide?

The America of yesterday has vanished, and the America of tomorrow holds promise of becoming a land our parents would not recognize. Considering the epochal changes that have taken place in our country, the political and economic powers working toward an end to national sovereignty and independence, it is impossible to be sanguine about the permanence of the nation.

In Catholic doctrine, death occurs when the soul departs the body, after which the body begins to decompose. So it is with nations.

Patriotism is the soul of a nation. When it dies, when a nation loses the love and loyalty of its people, the nation dies and begins to decompose.

Patriotism is not nation-worship, such as we saw in Europe in the 1930s. It is not that spirit of nationalism that must denigrate or dominate other nations. It is a passionate attachment to one’s own country—its land, its people, its past, its heroes, literature, language, traditions, culture, and customs. “Intellectuals tend to forget,” wrote Regis Debray, “that nations hibernate, but empires grow old. The American nation will outlast the Atlantic Empire as the Russian nation will outlast the Soviet Empire.”

A century ago, the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan described a nation:

A nation is a living soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich heritage of memories; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down … The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, and sacrifices, and devotions … To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have done great things together, to will to do the like again—such are the essential conditions of the making of a people.

This community called a nation is much more than a “division of labor” or a “market.” Added Renan:

Community of interests is assuredly a powerful bond between men. But … can interests suffice to make a nation? I do not believe it. Community of interests makes commercial treaties. There is a sentimental side to nationality; it is at once body and soul; a Zollverein is not a fatherland.

An economic union like the European Union is not a nation. An economy is not a country. An economic system should strengthen the bonds of national union, but the nation is of a higher order than the construct of any economist. A nation is organic; a nation is alive. A constitution does not create a nation. A nation writes a constitution that is the birth certificate of the nation already born in the hearts of its people.

“‘Nation’—as suggested by its Latin root nascere, to be born—intrinsically implies a link by blood,” wrote Peter Brimelow in National Review in 1992. “A nation in a real sense is an extended family. The merging process through which all nations pass is not merely cultural, but to a considerable extent biological through intermarriage.”

Brimelow describes a nation as an “ethno-cultural community—an interlacing of ethnicity and culture,” that “speaks one language.” He cites the late senator from New York:

In his recent book Pandaemonium, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan even used this rigorous definition, in an effort to capture both culture and ethnicity: a nation is a group of people who believe they are ancestrally related. It is the largest grouping that shares that belief. (Moynihan’s italics)

To be a nation, a people must believe they are a nation and that they share a common ancestry, history, and destiny. Whatever ethnic group to which we may belong, we Americans must see ourselves as of a unique and common nationality—in order to remain a nation.

There is a rival view, advanced by neoconservatives and liberals, that America is a different kind of nation, not held together by the bonds of history and memory, tradition and custom, language and literature, birth and faith, blood and soil. Rather, America is a creedal nation, united by a common commitment to a set of ideas and ideals.

“Americans of all national origins, classes, religions, creeds and colors, have something in common … a political creed,” wrote Gunnar Myrdal in 1944. During the battle over Proposition 187 in 1994, when 59 percent of the California electorate voted to cut off welfare to illegal aliens, Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett accepted Myrdal’s idea, declaring, “The American national identity is based on a creed, on a set of principles and ideas.”

Irving Kristol embraced the Bennett-Kemp view when he compared the United States to the former USSR: “[L]arge nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesterday and the United States of today, have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns.”

FDR seemed to agree, asserting, “Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart. Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race and ancestry. A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy.” To be one nation, said Bill Clinton, all we need to do is define ourselves by “our primary allegiance to the values America stands for and values we really live by.”

In his first inaugural address, George W. Bush endorsed the creedal-nation concept: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens.”

To this idea of America as a creedal nation bound together not “by blood or birth or soil” but by “ideals,” there is a corollary that has driven immigration policy for 40 years—that people of any culture or continent can be assimilated with equal ease, depending only upon whether they assent to the tenets of our creed.

Demonstrably, this is false. Human beings are not blank slates. Nor can they be easily separated from the abiding attachments of the tribe, race, nation, culture, community whence they came. Any man or woman, of any color or creed, can be a good American. But when it comes to the ability to assimilate into the United States, all nationalities, creeds, and cultures are not equal.

“During my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on,” wrote Joseph de Maistre, “but I must say, as for man, I have never come across him anywhere; if he exists, he is completely unknown to me.” Maistre’s point, notes Sam Francis, “was that ‘tribal behavior’ is what makes human beings human. Take it away from ‘man’ or ‘humankind’ and what you get is not ‘pure man’ or ‘liberated man’ but dehumanization…”

Americans are an identifiable people. When traveling abroad, they are recognizable by their speech and mannerisms, not because they have been interrogated on their beliefs in democracy and free markets.

In the most famous depiction of Americans as a new, unique, and separate people, John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence.

“This country and this people seem to have been made for each other,” Jay continues, calling his countrymen “a band of brethren.” Thus, before the Constitution was ratified, John Jay considered Americans “one united people,” “one connected country,” and “brethren,” of common blood. What holds this “one united people” together? Says Jay: language, faith, culture, and memory.

Each nation’s culture, be it that of France, England, or America, gives the nation its particular character. Tom Fleming, editor of Chronicles, notes:

Culture… means the cultivation of a certain kind of character. Cultural institutions… are the agents that make us who and what we are. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, you and I can say, ‘I am part of all that I have met’: the books we read, the music we listen to, the pictures we look at, the prayers we say. A culture is the sum of all these things and many more, including table manners and styles of dress. As an American poet put it, ‘The way you wear your hat, the way you drink your tea …’

To traditional conservatives, this “creedal nation” exists in the minds of men of words. It is an intellectual construct, to which men can render neither love nor loyalty. For two centuries, men have died for America. Who would lay down his life for the UN, the EU, or a “North American Union”?

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, college students stood beside sharecroppers’ sons to enlist. These men were not volunteering to defend abstract ideas. For democracy was not attacked. Equality was not attacked. America was attacked. Many had likely never read Jefferson, Hamilton, or Madison, and some would die never having read them. They were patriots united by nationality. They were Americans, and they fought, bled, and died as Americans, no matter what they believed.

Every true nation is the creation of a unique people. Indeed, if America is an ideological nation grounded no deeper than the sandy soil of abstract ideas, she will not survive the storms of this century any more that the Soviet Union survived the last. When the regime, party, army, and police that held that ideological nation together lost the will to keep it together, the USSR broke down along the fault lines of nationality, faith, and culture. True nations, held together not by any political creed but by patriotism, emerged from the rubble.

In the great crisis of his empire, Hitler’s invasion, Stalin did not call on his subjects to save communism. He called on Russia’s sons to defend Mother Russia against the Germanic hordes. Communist to the core, Stalin yet knew that men do not die for secular creeds like Marxism and Leninism, but for the “ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods.”

France considers herself a creedal nation, whose unifying beliefs date to the Enlightenment and Revolution. But when the Revolution tore France to pieces, what held her together through the Napoleonic wars, Sédan, and loss of Alsace, and Verdun, as she divided over ideology and faith, was nationality and culture. Whether monarchical, republican, imperial, or democratic, the French nation and people endure. And if the French cease to be the dominant tribe, adherence to Enlightenment ideas will not save France.

Should America lose her ethnic-cultural core and become a nation of nations, America will not survive. For nowhere on this earth can one find a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual nation that is not at risk. Democracy is not enough. Equality is not enough. Free markets are not enough to hold a people together.

“Nationalism remains, after two centuries, the most vital political emotion in the world,” concedes Arthur Schlesinger, “far more vital than social ideologies such as communism or fascism or even democracy.” And inside the nation, “nationalism takes the form of ethnicity and tribalism.”

As Samuel Huntington has written:

America is a founded society created by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century settlers, almost all of whom came from the British Isles … They initially defined America in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and most importantly religion. Then in the eighteenth century they also had to define America ideologically to justify their independence from their home-countrymen.

The ideology was created by colonial elites to justify the breaking of blood ties with their British brethren. But before the ideology came the country.

George Washington had once sought to become an officer in the British army. But by the end of the French and Indian War, he had begun to see the British not as kinsmen but as overlords. In heart and soul, well before the Second Continental Congress, Washington was an American.

After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Patrick Henry declared, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” That was two years before Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration stated what was already known: the Americans had become a people. In his first draft, Jefferson had written of “our British brethren,” who have failed to honor “the ties of our common kindred” and proven themselves “deaf to the voice of… consanguinity.” These are matters of blood and kinship. The Native Americans shared our continent but were not our kinsmen. To Jefferson and the signers of ’76, they were those “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction, of all Ages, Sexes & Conditions.”

“What then is the American, this new man?” was the famous question of the French émigré Henri St. John de Crèvecoeur. To which he gave his classic answer:

He is an American, who leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.

To preserve this “new race of men,” Washington, in a 1792 letter to John Adams, urged that immigrants be spread out among the people.

[T]he policy … of [immigration] taking place in a body (I mean settling them in a body) may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they or their descendants get assimilated to our customs and laws: in a word soon become one people.

The Father of our country believed that before they could become Americans, immigrants must embrace our language and customs as well as our principles.

For Hamilton, America’s success depended on the “preservation of a national spirit and national character” that immigrants must come to share with our native-born. The safety of the republic rested on “love of country” and the “exemption of citizens from foreign bias and prejudice.” Assimilation, he wrote, would enable “aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachment…”

John Quincy Adams set down the conditions for newcomers: “They must cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors…”

Theodore Roosevelt echoed Adams’s conviction. He thundered again and again against “hyphenated-Americanism.” “Either a man is an American and nothing else, or he is not an American at all,” said T.R.

This is the traditionalist view: that Americans are a people apart from all others, with far more in common than political beliefs. It is this America that is imperiled by the mass migration of millions from countires whose peoples have never before been assimilated. And if the organic America of the traditionalists dies, the “creedal nation” of Kemp, Kristol, Bennett, and Bush will not survive.

By Jay’s definition, can anyone say today that we are “one united people”? We are no longer descended from the same ancestors. The European core—almost 90 percent of all Americans as late as 1965—has fallen well below 70 percent and will be less than half the nation by 2050.

We no longer speak the same language, nor do we insist that immigrants learn English. Of the 9 million living in Los Angeles County, 5 million do not speak English at home. Schoolchildren in Chicago are taught in 100 languages. The fastest growing radio and TV stations in America broadcast in Spanish.

Nor do Americans any longer profess the same faith. We are no longer Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, as sociologist Will Herberg described us in 1955. We are Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Orthodox, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Shintoist, Santeria, New Age, voodoo, agnostic, atheist, humanist, Rastafarian, and Wiccan.

We never fought “side by side throughout a long and bloody war.” The Greatest Generation is passing on, and if the rest of us recall “a long and bloody war,” it was Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq, and not for long did we remain “side by side.” For a time the Cold War united us. But that, too, is over.

We are yet “attached to the same principles of government.” But this is not enough to hold a nation together. The South was attached to the same principles of government. But that did not prevent it from fighting four bloody years. If Robert E. Lee could ride across the Long Bridge to Virginia to take up arms against the United States, is it not naïve to believe that scores of millions of aliens without roots here will put America ahead of the homelands they left behind?

Nor do Americans treasure history or revere heroes as we once did. What many still see as a glorious past, others see as shameful history. To many, the discovery of America by the explorers and the winning of the West are no longer seen as heroic events but as matters of which Western man should be ashamed.

Huntington writes, “To reject the central ideas of that doctrine [our political creed] is to be un-American.” Two of the central ideas of Huntington’s political creed are democracy and equality. How do the Founding Fathers measure up?

Jefferson was a slaveholder who wrote of an “aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society…” Madison, the author of the Constitution, headed the American Colonization Society, “in the belief that its plan to return slaves to Africa represented the most sensible way out of that long-festering crisis.” After Madison’s death, leadership passed to Henry Clay, who was eulogized in 1852 by Lincoln.

The unequal treatment of our fellow Americans of African descent for a century after Appomattox was a grave injustice and historic wrong. Nonetheless, we cannot deny that the greatest of our forefathers approved these things. If a belief in equality is the sine qua non of being an American, then the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address do not qualify.

What of a belief in democracy being an indispensable part of the “American Creed”? “Democracy… wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide,” wrote Adams. “A democracy [is] the only pure republic, but impracticable beyond the limits of a town,” added Jefferson. Madison was more negative. Writing in Federalist No. 10, he declared, “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Said Hamilton: “The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very nature was tyranny.”

If a commitment to democracy is an indispensable element of the American Creed that unites the nation, the Founding Fathers seem not to qualify as 100 percent American.

Whether America is a nation like all others or a different kind of nation is more than an academic question. For who wins the argument determines America’s destiny. As Huntington points out, “National interest derives from national identity. We have to know who we are before we can know what our interests are.”

The scheme to redefine America’s identity as other than what America has always been is a historic fraud, concocted by ideologues to divert the nation away from a traditional foreign policy into crusades to remake the world in a democratist mould.

Inventing a new past for America as a creedal nation—the kind of nation our forefathers would have rebelled against—neoconservatives hope to control a future they see as fulfilling America’s mission: to democratize mankind. Americans are being indoctrinated in a fabricated creed that teaches they are being untrue to themselves and faithless to their fathers unless they go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Whether America is a traditional nation or an ideological nation is also critical to the immigration debate. For if America is a “propositional nation,” then who comes and whence they come does not matter. Indeed, the more who come and assent to the American “proposition,” the stronger and better nation we become. That way lies the remaking of America into the first universal nation of Ben Wattenberg’s dream and Teddy Roosevelt’s nightmare, when he warned against our becoming a “tangle of squabbling minorities” and no longer a nation at all.

Before Americans ever adopted a creed, Americans were a people and America was a nation. Those who equate the creed with the nation rewrite that history to convert America into something she never was: an imperial democracy imposing her ideology on a resisting world, to the ruin of the Republic she was meant to be. And they will turn America into something she cannot survive becoming: a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual Tower of Babel.

If we are a creedal nation, united by a commitment to democracy, equality, and liberty, with a mandate and mission to impose those ideas and ideals on mankind, we shall have a foreign policy like that of George W. Bush. But if we are a traditional nation, our national interests will be traditional: the defense of our land and the preservation of the lives and liberty of our people.

Language, faith, culture, and history—and, yes, birth, blood, and soil—produce a people, not an ideology. After the ideologies and creeds that seized Germany, Italy, and Russia by the throat in the 20th century were all expunged, Germans remained German, Italians remained Italian, and Russians remained Russian. After three decades of Maoist madness, the Chinese remain Chinese.

“Historically,” Huntington writes, “American identity has had two primary components: culture and creed … If multiculturalism prevails and if the consensus on liberal democracy disintegrates, the United States could join the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history.”

Democracy is not enough. If the culture dies, the country dies.

SOURCE: The American Conservative Magazine

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