The Atlantic Magazine email I got today leads with
The Future of the American Idea. As The Atlantic celebrates its 150th anniversary, scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.
So I click through the link, and I get to (subscriber-only, I believe):
Consider The Atlanticâ€™s passage: through a permanent revolution in technology, from the telephone, to the practical fountain pen, to the radio, to the note pad, to the television, to the Internet; through financial crises, beginning in 1857 with what The Atlantic called a national “flurry” over credit (or liquidity, to use the present flurryâ€™s term); through national arguments over slavery, suffrage, evolution, immigration, prohibition, anticommunism, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, evolution and immigration (again); through the international contests of ideology that defined the last century and into the new contest that so far is shaping this one. How has The Atlantic endured? More to the point, why?
The Atlantic was created in Boston by writers who saw themselves as the countryâ€™s intellectual leaders, and so its scope from the start was national, if rather theoretical. It was founded on an encompassing abstraction, expressed in the words that appeared in the first issue and that appear again on the cover of this one: In politics, it would “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” That sounds pretty good.
And pretty good to me as well. They continue:
In the pages that follow, George F. Will rings an alarm over the danger inherent in embracing a singular American idea, but many of the contributors agree on a rough definition of the idea itself…the easy part, as John Hope Franklin suggests.
So I click through to Franklin’s piece, since I’m a big believer in starting with the easy part.
If the American idea was to subdue Native Americans and place them at the disposal of European settlers, to import several million Africans to the New World and subject them to a lifetime of slavery, to impose on Asian immigrants a lifetime of discrimination, then perhaps the American idea was not so admirable.
If the American idea, once the Civil War had concluded, was to sentence the freedmen to a lifetime of racial segregation, discrimination, and humiliation, then perhaps the American idea was not so praiseworthy.
A litany of abuse and failure follows. I keep digging, looking for an idea, or a pony, and find:
The American idea is the nationâ€™s holiday garb, its festive dress, its Sunday best. It covers up an everyday practice of betraying the claims of equality, justice, and democracy. It calls for Thomas Jefferson to advise his young protÃ©gÃ© Edward Coles to abandon his plan to emancipate his slaves and migrate to Illinois, and to reconcile himself to his countryâ€™s “unfortunate condition.” While Coles did not accept Jeffersonâ€™s advice, many of his contemporaries did, thus strengthening the American idea of inequality and injustice.
It is fairly late in the game, but one hopes that there is still time to grasp the reality of American life for those of different racial and national backgrounds and to embrace the countryâ€™s professed ideals of freedom, equality, and justice.
If that’s what ‘the countryâ€™s intellectual leaders’ really think, we’re well and truly f**ked. What’s worse is that it reads almost word for word like a slam that I laid out against just that kind of thinking. I did a post on patriotism back in 2002 (yes, I obsess over the issue) and in it I said:
I know two really bad parents. One is a couple that simply refuses to control their children; they love them totally, and so, they explain, they love everything they do. Unsurprisingly, they are raising two little monsters. The other is a single mother who explains that everything bad in her life is the fault of her child, and that everything he does is wrong. Unsurprisingly, her child is depressed, withdrawn and equally badly damaged.
I’ll define patriotism as ‘love of country’. Both the parents above (all three of them, actually) claim to ‘love’ their children. But to blindly smile and clean up when your child smashes plates on the floor is not an act of love. And blindly smiling and waving flags when your country does something wrong is not an act of patriotism.
But – there is a point where criticism, even offered in the guise of love, moves past the point of correction and to the point of destruction. It’s a subtle line, but it exists. And my friend (who is less of a friend because I can’t begin to deal with her fundamentally abusive parenting) is destroying her child. And there are liberals who have adopted an uncritically critical view of America. Who believe it to have been founded in genocide and theft, made wealthy on slave labor and mercantilist expropriation, to be a destroyer of minorities, women, the environment and ultimately they argue, itself.
I’m sorry but their profession of love for America is as hollow to me as that [bad] mother’s profession of love for her son. Are those things true? As facts, they are an incomplete account of this country’s history. As a worldview, they are destructive and self-consuming.
(Note the clever tie to the comment thread below and the connection between patriotism and marriage)
Franklin’s piece is to America what that abusive mother is to her child. An intelligentsia that adopts that kind of attitude is not going to create a culture in which mutual connection and a sense of patrimony exist – the root of patriotism as a concept.
Let me go on for a moment and try and explain why it is so important that we have a healthy patriotism here in America (and why other countries need to have them as well).
Schaar explains it well –
“To be a patriot is to have a patrimony; or, perhaps more accurately, the patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts; one is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines what he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two are barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its homes and fears come from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those who will come after.”
Successful societies are ones in which each member adds to the social capital that can be passed on to the next generation. To do that – to save, rather than spend, to build rather than consume – requires some sense of obligation, of one’s place in a chain that stretches from your ancestors to your descendents – and which is broad enough to expand ‘ancestor’ and ‘descendent’ to include other than your blood kin.
Habermas talks about it differently. He bases his view in Marxist and Enlightenment philosophy (unlike the Frankfurt School of post-Marxists, he embraces the Enlightenment). He’s always a difficult read, and his arguments are hard (impossible, really) to reduce to bloggable soundbites.
I’ll do something on his views over the weekend.
But the reality is that someone who sees the central American Idea as Franklin does owes – what, exactly – to the future of America?
Yes the things he talks about are part of the American history, people, and idea. But they do not define the American idea, and people who believe they do – as does Yglesias, I’ll suggest (from his own words and from his suggested reading in the area) are fundamentally missing what it is that Middle Americans see in America. And in doing so, they do two things – as the ‘shapers’ of our culture, they mis-shape it in fundamentally damaging ways (thank God for hysterisis), and they isolate themselves increasingly from the mass of American people who are grateful for the patrimony America has given them, and who are willing to contribute to the future.
Perhaps that’s why children are so out of fashion in certain circles…
Welcome Instapundit readers…it appears to be ‘patriotism’ week here, so please check out the four posts I’ve done this week on the subject: ‘Patriotism – Goldberg to Couric to Yglesias‘, ‘You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me‘, ‘Patriotism Rears Its Head Yet Again‘, and ‘Rorty on Patriotism‘