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Liberalism, America, and Americanism

A commenter, apparently an American Jew long resident in Italy who can view America (and Europe) as both insider and outsider, has posted a lengthy ramble about America, Americanism, modernity, and related topics. His ramble raises some interesting issues, but two that seem especially worth commenting on are whether advanced liberalism, the currently ascendant (some say final and history-ending) version of modernity, is specifically American, and what America can be for us today.

My own inclination is to say that the advanced liberal form of society is not specifically American, any more than Bermuda shorts are specifically Bermudan or fast food needed the 4th Earl of Sandwich to get started. As the commenter notes, Americanism is very successful, and it’s spreading everywhere without the use of force because of its “far superior logic, efficiency, cost-effectiveness” and material benefits. The whole world loves and longs for it. If something’s simple and logical, and it works, and it gives people what they want, then it’s likely to get started somewhere, spread everywhere, and give people what they want good and hard. The specifics of how it arose are then less important than what it is, why it works as it does, and why it seems desirable and often unarguable. The EU strikes me as more consistent if more explicitly statist expression of the same tendencies that make today’s America what it is. So what’s American about them?

The second issue puzzles me more. The commenter is right that the dominant form of American patriotism or at least nationalism involves loyalty to basically liberal principles that have somewhat the quality of a religion and lately at least have become more and more abstract and categorical, as appears from the Americanist liberal jihadism on display in the Kosovo and Iraq wars. One function of mass third-world immigration is to entrench that kind of ideological commitment as the only possible principle of social cohesion and order that can work in an increasingly centralized and culturally and historically chaotic America.

Hence the thought that more humane principles of social attachment might do better if America were broken up and thus destroyed as a universalist religion. Still, it seems to me that even a broken-up America would retain some common sense of itself as a civilization. If so, America is not just an idea and legal structure but a country rooted in the life over time of a people in a land. I continue to hold by the point that American rhetoric has always outrun American realities, that the basis of American life has been less “Americanism” than a complicated mixture of explicit liberal principles that were permitted only a limited application and more traditionalist habits and understandings that often silently took precedence. That point is based in part on the thought that America has endured and liberalism cannot serve as the basis for an enduring order. If it is correct, then hope remains that experience and relection may lead Americans to rediscover the particularistic aspects of their attachment to their country—Mom, apple pie, amber waves of grain and what not else—that are present in America even as (the commenter observes) they are in Italy.

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Comments

Your Italian reader’s ramble was charming and expresses some of the frustrations many Americans, of course, feel toward their native culture. He seems to be looking at different phenomena. One, there is the hyper-materialism of American life, which is, as you say, not uniquely American at all. The other is the peculiar American tendency to make the world less beautiful and textured. As H.L. Mencken stated in reference to what he called the American “libido for the ugly:” “Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable.”
What Mencken was referring to was not due to malice or empire-building, but the lack of any aesthetic common sense. When one drives through this land, through the countless highways littered with commercial facades of uniform, awe-inspiring hideousness, one can’t help concluding that Americans do actually lust for ugliness and for the destruction of the little, daily comforts in their pursuit of speed and the latest bargain. There are often things to admire once you step inside our homes, but we seem to care virtually nothing about the beauty of the public domain (and beauty here would include the little social graces that characterize your reader’s Italiam cafe.) I believe it is a deep-seated national trait that will not disappear soon, if ever.