Sep 022010

Having returned from my trip to Northern Ireland positively overwhelmed with thoughts on activism, religious dialogue and the peace process, I find myself still working to organize and articulate my reflections into an interesting, half-way coherent post. But bear with me — a post is on its way!

In the meantime, however, I thought I would direct folks’ attention to an insightful article by Will Wilkinson, a liberal libertarian, who explores the concept of American identity along lines very similar to those I discussed back in July (although he tackles the issue far more concisely and adeptly than I did!):

Americans certainly aren’t “a people” in the sense that the Japanese, the Kurds, or the Jews are a people. There is no American ethnicity; the U.S. is a resolutely multicultural (and multilingual) country. The usual idea is that American identity is creedal, or organized around a distinctively American set of ideas and values.

The trouble is that even when there is widespread agreement on nominally common values, conceptions of those values vary wildly.

Wilkinson goes on to examine specific examples of just how certain values — for instance, “individual freedom” — have widely variant conceptions among modern politicians and political theorists, and how often these modern conceptions do not accurately reflect the intentions of the Founders, who themselves were often in disagreement.

Some of them took the ideal of individual freedom to be consistent with chattel slavery while others correctly found human bondage obviously at odds with liberty. Some defended a robust conception of freedom of conscience while others wished to ban the practice of certain religions for freedom’s sake. And so on.

These reflections echo my own thoughts on the matter. Even when we can agree on what to call these “common values,” our ideas about what exactly such values mean in detail or what they might look like in practice are often so different and diverse, it would be difficult to argue for a set of “American values” as in any way distinct from human or universal values more generally.

This issue comes up powerfully in Cara’s recent post on Glenn Beck’s promotion of “honor” at his rally last week. Few of us are willing to argue against “honor” as a valuable character trait. However, I do think many Americans, myself included, find such talk of honor couched in overtly religio-conservative-militaristic terms to be disconcerting to say the least. The “affirmation of middle-class, white Christians” as exemplars of honor as Beck conceives it gives us some indication of precisely how we might expect such a value to be upheld and put into practice.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that so much of U.S. politics these days revolves around issues of identity and cultural values, much more than around particular policy decisions and matters of governance. What we are experiencing in the United States right now is quite explicitly a kind of “culture war” in which the American identity itself is up for grabs. Personally, I suspect this focus on values and identity is a deliberate attempt to obscure or distract from the particulars of policy-making. Matters of governance are rarely evaluated in practical terms of merit or consequence, but are immediately placed into the context of competing cultural values. Political leaders make policy decisions based on how it will effect their “image” in the public eye and whether it will help or hinder their chances in future elections, not on a realistic analysis of the pros and cons of putting given policies into practice. As Wilkinson explains,

That’s why movements to glorify, elevate, and honor a particular conception of American identity based on a particular conception of the American creed necessarily  marginalize equally or more historically plausible conceptions and therefore tend to suggest that citizens who favor those conceptions are less or even un-American.

It is hard to imagine a common ground or process of compromise in such a situation, in part because it is often hard to pin down precisely what the similarities and differences in governance actually are. As long as the debate remains focused on whether honor or compassion, self-reliance or social justice rest at the heart of “real American identity,” we will continue to find ourselves stuck in a war of values that demeans or dismisses our political opponents, instead of seeking ways to compromise and work with them.

My suggestion? Let’s set aside this talk of “American identity” and accept instead that such an identity, if it exists at all, is far too diverse and complex to give effective guidance to the specifics of political process. Let us return to discussions of the policies themselves, and allow each citizen to determine for her- or himself how best to embody “honor” or “justice” or “self-reliance” in their political and personal lives. Let’s expect more from our political leaders (and, dare I say it?, talk-show hosts) than the non-stop pandering to group-identity conflict and the inevitable fear-mongering that results. When Glenn Beck and the Tea Party can promote practical suggestions for effective governance, instead of populist unrest and self-congratulation — even if I don’t agree with those suggestions when they come, I’ll be more than ready to engage them in debate.

  6 Responses to “Creedal American Identity and the Culture War”

  1. Have you looked at the Coffee Party, Ali?

  2. Everything you say makes sense… But there are some serious questions raised here.

    There is a very good reason why presidential candidates talk about “hope” and “change” and “honor” and “justice” and “self-reliance” and so on instead of specific policy proposals (as you suggest they should). They do this because talking about policy proposals doesn’t win elections. The more specific they are, the more likely a voter is to hear something specific that they don’t like. And the more specific they are, the more they sound like a wonk, and the more people tune out. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a big country, there’s no way the average person (or anyone, really) should be expected to keep up with all the vital issues affecting it.

    When people vote for national offices, they CAN’T vote on the issues — there’s too much to know. So they have to vote on character, and hope that by electing a good person, they’re electing someone who will also do a good job. And so you have our current situation.

    What is the solution?

    • You caught me! You’re very right about where this argument leads: right back to the notion that a focus on actual policy requires a break up of large government and a return to emergent, local community organization. Hello, I am an anarchist after all! ;)

  3. Let’s just hope that it’s not the kind of “honor” which results in the murder of family members over insane tribal customs.

  4. Solve et coagule. It is the only solution for this country.

  5. And hopefully what is reborn has nothing to do with the nation-state whatsoever.