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America, America: Part III

I’ve left something out of the first two pieces. When people speak of love, loyalty or hatred for America they don’t just mean America as land and people, together with whatever human connections happen to join them. They mean America as a substantive moral unity, as a sort of personality. Otherwise they wouldn’t talk so readily about being “for” or “against” America.

That’s harder to make sense of. The issue is especially difficult today because people don’t believe in substantive unities. Everything’s a collection of components and interpretations that can morph into anything else. Spin, manipulation and therapy rule the world.

To what extent, then, does America exist substantively? And if it does, what is it? Is it Bush’s or Obama’s America, Reagan’s Shining City on a Hill, the America of the Founders, Mark Twain’s, Russell Kirk’s or Jack Kerouac’s America, or what?

It seems that America must exist as a substantive moral unity to some extent. People who live together cooperatively develop some sort of moral community to which they attach themselves. A community can’t exist unless its outlook has the coherence needed to give guidance in a variety of circumstances so that the community can function as such. There has to be something there.

A community, then, is to some extent a substantial entity. There’s enough there so that people can recognize it as something particular and accept or reject it. To love one’s community is to be attached to what’s good in it, and to want to defend it and make it better. To hate it is to be repelled by something intolerable in it that seems basic to its existence.

The issue as to loving or hating America is then the essential nature of the American moral community. What is that? There have been and are many Americas. So how do we pick out the real one? Are the real Americans, for example, those who favor abortion, mass immigration and “gay marriage,” or those who oppose those things?

We could try to answer such questions by looking at enduring tendencies and at trajectories of change and trying to figure out where they all lead. You might as well try to find out the essence of economic value by looking at bell-shaped curves and extrapolating graphs. As recent events show, that approach is all very well except when recent tendencies are at odds with permanent conditions—in which case it can fail catastrophically.

Positivism doesn’t yield essences. America is big enough and has lasted long enough so that every possible concern and tendency has been part of its life. Some have led to good things and some have not. In the end it seems that what you think America is about will depend on what you think life is about. The real America will be the most fruitful one, the America that has best dealt with the permanent conditions of life. That, we can assume, is the America that at bottom men have hoped for, lived by, and found reason to die for.

What is that though? To find out we must view America from a simply human standpoint, and so view Americans as human beings dealing well or badly with the problems of life, living by illusions that injure them and truths that enable them to realize whatever goods they have attained. The true America would then be the aspects of American life that have helped them live well We can’t have lasted this long simply by living a lie. And we can’t be true to what we are—as Americans or anything else—by doing so. As Americans, we must find America in the things within our country that have helped us live in accordance with truth.

[For places I’ve discussed related issues see these two entries and their children.]