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Quid sit America?

What is America and what is it to us? It’s an odd and difficult question, even more so perhaps than what it is to be British. It’s nonetheless a pressing one in time of cultural transformation and war.

America has defined herself through a shifting combination of things: people, place, ideas, and institutions. People and place were the initial and most natural basis of American nationality. Over time, however, their importance declined as the Union grew, immigrants arrived from ever more exotic sources, the descendents of black slaves were integrated into political society, foreign entanglements developed, and life became industrial, mobile, cosmopolitan, and eventually electronic.

Natural personal connections were therefore replaced by ideas.

Lincoln said America was “dedicated to [a] proposition,” and Chesterton called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” The faith of that church was liberty and equality. However, liberty and equality also changed with the times, adapting themselves to a setting in which men are no longer understood as agents who make their lives through their labor and dealings with others but as component units in a vast social machine of production and consumption. Equality is no longer mutual recognition of agency but the right to be treated equally by the machine. Liberty is no longer self-government but the right within limits to choose one’s particular position within the machine, and to be affirmed and supported by it in one’s private tastes and indulgences. One consequence is that American ideals no longer mean limited government. Instead, they mean government that pervades the whole of society and reorders all human relations in accordance with the needs of a technocratic economic order.

So what makes America the particular thing it is today? Attachment to people and place and traditional understandings of American ideals are dwindling and increasingly understood as divisive. It’s hard to see how they can be viewed as principles of unity for America as it is now. Demographic trends, if nothing else, seem to doom them as such, and even patriotic conservatives view them with contempt. Indeed, they are more and more associated with neosecessionists and others who reject America as an object of final social loyalty. Respectable people view them as un-American.

It is difficult to divorce what a country is from what it is understood to be by the enduring common consent of respectable citizens and authoritative institutions. It seems therefore that America today must be understood in accordance with its official self-understanding as (1) a set of institutional arrangements and stated principles that are formally much the same as they were in 1800 but function in the service of very different interests and ideals of life, (2) the aggregate of people, land, and other goods and interests presently subject to those arrangements and principles, and (3) the common way of life associated with the foregoing.

If all that’s so then America is a problem for American traditionalists. It is now less a homeland than a sort of machine for promoting things that we don’t like and imposing them on us and the rest of the world. To be a good American is to participate in those things and approve of them. If you don’t like them then it’s almost as if you aren’t an American at all. And to promote American interests, for example by supporting America in war, is—among other things—to promote the worldwide propagation of the same system.

So what then? Man is still social, after all, and we still have an obligation to the people among whom we live and to the institutions that guard them and make possible whatever good there is in their lives. The problem is that it is difficult to identify our people and the good things in their lives wholeheartedly with “America.” America, after all, is also the thing that in accordance with the defining principles it proudly asserts is destroying the connections among our people and degrading their way of life.

It seems then that we have several possibilities:

  1. The paleo tendency: throw in the towel, and give up America as the object of one’s highest social loyalty. A problem is that it’s hard to find another loyalty that works as a replacement except perhaps a church. Since most paleos are fundamentally as secular as anyone else that doesn’t work for them and as a result they get grouchy and complain all the time.
  2. The mainstream conservative tendency: throw in the towel, and sign on to whatever America has become. A problem with this approach is that it adopts a sort of cultural relativism that tells us that no society can ever take a fundamentally wrong turn. It seems to lack principle and sometimes even integrity.
  3. The populist right tendency: continue to identify “America” with some other America than the one we’ve been talking about. A problem is that the approach if well-informed seems willful. One would have to be a sort of Don Quixote, always interpreting things in a sense far more charitable or optimistic than the facts seem to allow, to pursue it.
  4. The Candide tendency: give up the Don Quixote bit, throw in the towel on politics, and cultivate your own garden. An obvious issue, though, is how far you’ll be left in peace to cultivate much of anything under a government that wants to reform things that are as domestic as dietary habits and family and gender relations.
  5. The regular guy tendency: give up on the idea of a coherent principled relation to one’s society, and in what comes up do what seems best at the time.That’s probably what most people do, and it’s a sane way to respond to problems that seem too difficult to solve. It’s not good for everyone to take the approach, though, especially in time of war when clarity is important.

None of these possibilities seems really satisfactory, except—for those called to it—allegiance to a church. It seems to me the extreme difficulty of the situation is behind the fractiousness and ill temper among conservatives today. After all, if it were clear what to do we could simply do it and ignore those who disagree. Since it isn’t, we get upset with each other.



In very difficult circumstances I think you need to do the following.

Firstly, continue to support those political movements which are attempting to make broad changes to social and political policies.

Secondly, attempt to build up small-scale traditional communities. These needn’t threaten the state hegemony, but could consist of a church, school, community paper and so on.

However, to achieve such a countercultural movement I think you would need firstly to build up more support among intellectual types for traditionalist conservatism. At the moment, those who are self-consciously traditionalist are too isolated to undertake such projects.

I agree that intellectual articulation and defense of traditionalist conservatism is in short supply and is acutely needed. I also agree that particular practical efforts are likely to be coopted and so go astray unless guided by a well-thought-through traditionalist vision.

Mr. Kalb has accurately identified the terrible dilemma in which we find ourselves, that as conservatives we are citizens of an America that may no longer exist. To illustrate the extent to which America has been transformed into something alien and antithetical to everything that America means to us, consider Condoleeza Rice’s recent speech in New York City, reprinted in today’s New York Post,

She begins by saying: “Foreign policy is ultimately about security—about defending our people, our society and our values, such as freedom, tolerance, openness and diversity. No place evokes these values better than our cities. Here in New York, about a third of the population was born abroad.” After listing all the usual representatives of the gorgeous mosaic, including the the huge and forbidding Islamic temple on East 96th Street, she contineus: “These facts stand as living rebukes to the extremism of our enemies, and the mindset that prevails in too many parts of the world that difference is a reason to hate and a license to kill. America is proof that pluralism and tolerance are the foundations of true national greatness. And today—385 days after Sept. 11, 2001—it is clear that our commitment to our ideals is stronger than ever.”

So there you have it. America has been emptied of any specific content other than the fact that is has lots of diverse content, and the fact of this diverse content is what we are defending when we fight enemies abroad. How does one support a major war—even the imposition of an America empire—in support of such an alien and repulsive idea? It seems to me we can only do it on the basis of the sheer necessity and morality of self-defense, even as we continue to oppose most of the ideological justifications that are made for that self-defense.

As to Mr. Kalb’s grim list of the choices conservatives face, I think there is yet another alternative: to stand as a dissident to the current American system, declaring that the America lauded by Miss Rice is not America but the destruction of America, and to try to rally other people to the restoration of the real America—even as, in national emergencies such as the present, we still support the necessary defense of our country from foreign enemies (unlike some on the right whose opposition to the American ideology has led them to become virtually anti-American). The cause of restoration would obviously not have any short-term prospect of success, but the very existence of an articulate and principled (not anti-American) alternative to the false American ideology under which we now live it would transform the situation.

Mr. Auster’s additional alternative sounds like a more pessimistic version of my populist right alternative, one with less tendency to claim that the former America still exists. A difficulty I have with it is that “the real America” seems to me something a traditionalist could sensibly fight to preserve but not to restore once it has been decisively overcome. To struggle to restore it is to make it an ideal goal, and if “America” is taken as an ideal goal I don’t think any of its versions are favorable to traditionalism.

As Tennyson wrote: “Though much is taken, much abides.” Though the true elements of America have gone into a subordinate or recessive state in comparison with the dominant liberalism and multiculturalism, the true elements of America are still there. On any issue we care about,— whether it is the dispossession of the white majority, or the loss of constitutional limited government to an increasingly plebicitary democracy, or national unity being replaced by multiculturalism, or freedom being redefined as tolerance for alien cultures—conservatives can say to the current dominant culture: “The things YOU are calling America represent the cancellation of everything America has been. We deny all legitimacy to your re-definition of America as a non-white, non-European, non-Christian, multicultural, universal democracy.” That sounds quixotic of course. But if enough people took such a stand, asserting themselves as the REAL MAJORITY of this country and not just as another multicultural group seeking its own privileges, that would entirely alter the current dynamic.

Mr. Kalb says such a position would no longer be traditionalism. But he himself has written elsewhere that traditionalism today must of necessity be radical.

If anything my own view is a bit more extreme than Mr. Kalb’s, and I view Mr. Auster’s as expressed here the least obviously extreme of the three. I think that what is implicitly good about America as a particular place and a particular people is alive and well enough to preserve and restore, but that preserving and restoring it will not occur unless all of the ideal-Americas are repudiated and made objects of overt repentance. The ideal-Americas are after all what has effectively destroyed America as particular in the first place. I don’t see the credibility in arguing that the lefties just don’t get the Real Virtuous Freedom and Equality of Yesteryear [tm]. Alexander Hamilton argued for unrestricted immigration as a plenary good because it fostered diversity. The good in America is in many ways its good as a remnant of Christendom, and celebrating the downfall of Christendom and the ideals, independent of the actuals, in the rise of the secular kings and republics won’t help to preserve and restore that remnant. In order to preserve the good of America we have no choice but to stand at least in part outside of its explicit tradition.

It is a similar problem in many ways to the problem of repentence in a multigenerational disfunctional family. One has to recognize what was good in his father and grandfather without falling into the same explicit moral traps if one hopes to preserve and transmit that good. Multigenerational dysfunctional families don’t get healthy either by celebrating what screwed them up in the first place or by demonizing their forebears as the cause of all problems, thereby leaving them hopless and helpless and innocent. No. I think Mr. Woodhill’s comparison in another thread of America to a multigenerational dysfunctional family was actually helpful. Healing won’t happen either by celebrating disease or by demonizing the past.

So I guess the short of it is that I agree with Mr. Kalb’s assessment of the populist right alternative. It isn’t all hopeless, though. I can have great admiration for my grandfather, a deep gratitude for his contribution to making me what I am, and a desire to preserve and pass on what is good in my family. None of that depends on the explicit ideals he may have printed on his door mats, nor does it require me to idolize him as perfect (not even that peculiar sort of perfect-in-pragmatism sense that so often characterizes discussion of America’s founders). In fact I think that in order to preserve and foster the good we have to acknowledge what went wrong and not attempt to shift the blame for it. I think it is true that any coherent traditionalism will require a radical rejection of and repentence from explicit-ideals-as-what-is-important in general, and America’s explicit ideals in particular, including the notion that they are what are important about America as a particular people, place, and way of life.

Loyalty to America as a particular people in a particular place, abstracting completely from the ideas and associated institutions on which its national life has been based, has its difficulties. The reason Lincoln’s transformation of America into a nation dedicated to a proposition was successful and perhaps necessary is that America had expanded geographically so vastly, had taken in so very many immigrants, and was industrializing. Unity through a network of particular stable connections and whatever common qualities emerge from them no longer seemed possible—especially when a large part of We the People wanted out, reflecting a radical breakdown of informal historical and cultural unity, and was to be compelled to remain in by force.

Since then American ideals have been the basis of American unity not only in explicit theory but increasingly in practice. It’s hard for me to view my connection to 290,000,000 people, spread out over a continent and arrived and arriving from all over the world (30% are non-Europeans), as like my connection to a multi-generational family. To many I do have family-like connections, although as the larger society becomes more fragmented those connections are becoming increasingly attenuated in substance. As a whole, though, the connection is that we live under the same public institutions and are subjected to the same popular culture. Get rid of liberalism and that connection disappears except to the extent that I owe some sort of obligation to the social arrangements under which I live, whatever they may be, and to those I share them with. I owe obligations for that reason to my fellow New Yorkers, even though my connection to them is family-like only in the sense of the Family of Man. And as Miss Rice’s speech shows, the notion of New York as emblematic of America seems to be gathering force post-September 11.

The whole point to actuality though is that it is not abstract. As such it is not something that can be articulated in the abstract, but is nonetheless there. I moved to a new neighborhood a few years back, and yet despite my anti (this) social traditionalist leanings I’ve made a few new friends, my kids play with theirs, etc. Firemen rush into burning buildings. 90% of Americans profess belief in God and many of them even act like it is so. A string of anecdotes might work as a way of pointing toward particular America. Abstracting away the abstractions may seem counterintuitive or even impossible but the point to actuals is that they are actuals, not abstractions. It doesn’t seem right to me to say that _Fear Factor_ and the IRS (and their extensions) are all that there is to America as a particular place and people, although I agree that there is a problem as always in articulating actuals since language by nature is abstract and formal.

Of course if Mr. Auster’s perspective is a more pessimistic version of populist conservatism maybe mine is just a more self-aware version of the regular guy syndrome. Saint Paul didn’t seem to have any problem with being a Roman citizen, though, (well, other than that Rome ultimately executed him, but that I think reflects a problem that Rome had with him rather than vice versa). Clearly Rome was still Rome after paganism, despite the fact that its origins were pagan. Blood and soil can ultimately be completely violated and eradicated, and perhaps Mr. Kalb believes that in America’s case they have been, but I don’t see why we have to assume so. It doesn’t seem impossible to ride a Harley in a kingdom, and a kingdom with Harley’s would be uniquely American.

If all that there is to a particular place and people are abstract ideals and institutions then it seems to me that traditionalism is empty of content: rather than containing the inarticulable, tradition just contains the stuff that hasn’t been important enough to articulate yet.E xpress ideals are automatically a higher priority than tradition on that view. That is clearly wrong, although I think liberalism trains us to think that individuals and ideals are all that is the case.

This all may fit under “regular guy” in Mr. Kalb’s taxonomy though.

Yes, Matt’s view sounds like a “regular guy” approach, with the paleoish feature that his loyalties seem less to America as some overarching entity or social world than to the particular people with whom he is connected in daily life and a bit of the Candide notion of cultivating his own garden. He doesn’t vote, for example, and otherwise seems to reject what I understand to be Mr. Auster’s idea of participation in America as a social and moral whole with a very special claim on our attachment. Would Matt feel very differently about his relation to his surroundings if he had moved instead to New York, Toronto or London?

I would definitely feel differently in London or Toronto. New York is still America, and although I am not fond of urban living in general I am much more at home when I am in New York than when I am in the U.K. (for example), and not merely because I can more easily find a bed there without booking a hotel. Importantly (to me) I would defend America if she were attacked directly. I’m not sure my connection to America can be completely explained in regular guy terms: I think I have more in common with other Americans, or perhaps a subset we might call “core Americans” or “remnant Americans,” than just the actual connections that I have to actual people.

I still think there is something to the analogy comparing Rome’s paganism to America’s liberalism. No doubt during the pagan period many viewed paganism as essential to Rome and inseparable from it. Some fundamentalist protestants still view paganism and Rome as inseparable, but I tend to think that is one of those cover-your-eyes polemics. Will America ever exist as something with no liberal legacy of any sort? Not any more than Rome can exist with no pagan legacy at all. But legacies can be redeemed through repentence without being eradicated as if they never existed.

So probably most of my connections to America are of the regular guy sort, but I am not sure I can subscribe to that as a complete explanation.