Saturday, September 01, 2012

"[T]he most important American value of all"

I've watched some of the RNC, and can make the following observations:

-The guiding principle of the speeches appeared to be scrappiness oneupmanship. Necessary both to inject some populism into a campaign for the least rabble-rousing Republican ever, and to stay with the "we built it" message. ('I come from humble beginnings. My medieval ancestors didn't have indoor plumbing.' was the general idea.) I especially enjoyed hearing about Ann Romney's Welsh coal miner heritage. As someone of Canadian-Jewish peddler and didn't-get-out-of-Europe-on-time heritage, who never thinks to assimilate that story into my own grew-up-UMC-in-New-York one, I now see I've been doing it all wrong. If your parents didn't have much - or, heck, if someone you're vaguely related to wasn't in fact a member of the British royal family - this is part of your story. Your third cousin twice removed once took public transportation? Fair game. Oh, and there was that time when Mitt ate pasta! Mitt, you see, got a JD-MBA from Harvard, which tells us not that he's a fancy elite, but rather that he experienced life as a broke grad student, which is an experience not entirely unlike being poor.

-"Our national motto is 'In God we Trust,' reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all." This from the allegedly reasonable one, Marco Rubio. This remark, which sheds doubt on the loyalty of a great many Americans, is really up there with the Akin "gaffe." If you don't have faith in the god Marco Rubio believes in, you're basically an enemy of the state. Some evidently go for this sort of rhetoric, and yes, a (problematic) motto supports it, but it's just reprehensible. How could a country with religious freedom also be one where to be a patriot, you have to hold specific religious views? And this is, remember, above and beyond the usual "person of faith" rhetoric, where that "faith" could be deism, Zoroastrianism, whatever. This is saying that you need a particular kind of religion, or else. Nor is it like, "May God bless America," which is at least plausibly about the individual saying this expressing his own views. No, this is different. Where's the outrage?


Withywindle said...

Lacking important American values =/= enemy of the state.

It's not a scandal because the Democrats talk all the time about how some value or another (often "tolerance," tactically defined) is American, and not being Tolerant (=on board with the latest Democratic talking points) is unAmerican. As I've said before, Daniel Larison has a very important point when he says that defining Americans solely by a creed inevitably leads to a hunt for traitors. I don't think we're particularly far down the path, but I rather think the Democrats use the lingo more than the Republicans do.

Phoebe said...

A few things:

-Political rhetoric, esp. at things like conventions, is always a lot of vague language that might refer back to something more specific, and will for some audiences, but anyone with half a brain gets that whatever's being said could be summarized as, 'our side is better for America.' There's no such thing as neutral, generically pro-American language in that context, so when a Democrat says "tolerance," you're right that this refers back to the Democratic platform, just as when Republicans say ""values" or whatever, this is code for 'vote Republican.'

Your feeling is that Democrats do this more, but my only evidence for this is that you "rather think" it. My own guess is both sides do this about the same. And I'm not sure what use there'd be in fighting what is basically the definition of non-policy-centric political speech, unless your goal is to strip this down to just policy debates. Which might be good, too, but of course this would impact both sides tremendously.

-You'll notice that I'm not complaining about Republicans' equivalent of "tolerance" - i.e. all the stuff about how America was once the greatest nation, then this Obama came and ruined everything. I get that the Republicans in this election have to walk a fine line. In every presidential race, you need to show that your candidate is the one who's better for America, and that some on the left (and I'd lay the blame in part on some on the right - birthers, racists, and the like) are primed to imagine that every time Republicans say Romney is better for America, this is some kind of claim that Obama is a secret Muslim terrorist communist traitor. When the reality is, yes, sometimes dog-whistles exist, but Republicans should be allowed to be pro-Romney and anti-Obama without this fact alone being seen as inherently racist or disrespectful to the sitting president.

-No, my issue isn't with Republicans using vague language to allude to their platform. It's with Rubio's remark, which - and you twist this - wasn't merely calling "faith in our Creator" an "important value," but "the most." How exactly does this not imply that those who don't believe, or who believe something different, are not quite American, and are anti-patriotic? (I'm curious as to whether the issue here is just that you agree with Rubio that those who don't share this creed are less American, which you're not address, but which could be the elephant-so-to-speak in the room.) How, with the First Amendment, could the most important American value possibly be a specific religious belief?

-How is "faith in our Creator" analogous to "tolerance"? The former refers to something specific. We can sit around discussing what Democrats mean with "tolerance," or Republicans with "values," and conclude that this is code for 'vote for our candidate!', but "faith in our Creator" means what it sounds like it means. This isn't coded language getting people to vote Republican. It's actually straightforward language saying, if you're someone who thinks America is and must remain a Christian nation, vote Republican. It's not the same as with things like tolerance or values, where both sides lay claim to being the side to vote for if X is what you want. This is about a specific difference between the two sides.

Withywindle said...

1) I think the Democrats do it more because they can get away with it--the media won't call them out on it. If a Republican uses the phrase "unAmerican," the McCarthy macro goes into overdrive. If a Democrat does, the media nods with somnolent approval.

2) You can think an unbeliever a lousy, inferior American without getting to "enemy of the state." I am going to suggest that you may be importing post-Dreyfus-culture-war-corollaries into an American context where they don't quite fit. (Soviet culture war corollaries also work, or Bismarckian ones; them continentals dontcha know.)

3) Surely you know the argument? It's not new. Unless you believe in a creator, you cannot believe in god-given rights; if you don't believe in god-given rights, you will take liberty as something manmade that can be traded away for whatever else you desire; faith is both the prerequisite and the continuing sine qua non of liberty of every sort. The First Amendment, by this reading, is meant to protect religious belief; and tolerates disbelief not as a good in itself, but as a necessary byproduct.

3) in my own whiffly and insufficient deistic fashion, I think liberty will die without faith. Since I prefer to define Americans more by blood and less by creed, I would not use Rubio's phrasing that faith is an American value.

4) "Faith in our Creator" I would take be be soft-edged ecumenicism. 'Faith in Jesus Christ," or "Faith in Our Savior," is explicitly Christian; "Creator" is open to Jews, Muslims, abstracting Hindus, Deists, vague spiritualists of a hundred stripes (now the American heartland)--most everyone but strict atheists and perhaps the dourer Buddhists. To the extent it divides, it's language that I think puts somewhere north of 90% of the country in the Us camp.

Phoebe said...

1) You think the media's biased against conservatives.

2) It's a nice jab to imply that my mind's so wrapped up in my narrow area of scholarly interest that I'm missing the point here, but no. Dreyfus doesn't enter into this. How exactly is it OK for a politician to declare that those who fail to hold his own views are "lousy, inferior American[s]"? How is this different from un-American? You're adding in a 'but of course atheists are Americans, too' that wasn't in the original. Who let Marco Rubio decide that his belief system is more American than that of an atheist? If I was called a lousy, inferior American, but not a traitor, I was still kind of called a traitor, and am at any rate insulted.

first 3) No, Withywindle, you've enlightened me. I hadn't realized such a thing existed, people who believed that the history of America's founding is such that those who don't share a religious heritage with the founders are inherently less American than those who do! But now that you tell me it exists, I find it utterly convincing. While we're at it, let's add that because there are those who think the only real Americans are those who share racial characteristics with the Founding Fathers, this too is a thing some people think, and thus obviously persuasive. (Sarcasm, if this wasn't clear.) Which brings us to...

second 3) I don't dare ask what you mean by "by blood," and suspect I'd find it even worse than what Rubio came up with.

4) I call B.S. that this didn't refer to Christianity and maybe, if you are willing to be extra-generous, the other main monotheistic faiths. I mean, if this included Hindus, why not those who believe they were created by biological functions?

"To the extent it divides, it's language that I think puts somewhere north of 90% of the country in the Us camp."

What the what, might be my most articulate response. That most Americans are Christians doesn't make America's religion Christianity. A fuzzier terminology that plausibly includes (believing) Jews and Muslims (but not Muslims) as well doesn't change this.

Withywindle said...

1) The thought had entered my mind.

2) There are different connotations for inferior American, un-American, and "enemy of the state." Surely you see the difference between "I disapprove" and "I am of necessity going to arrest and kill"? You may argue for a slippery slope between these different concepts, but you really shouldn't argue for their identity.

2A) Re "Who let Marco Rubio"--I think the phrase is, it's a free country.

2B: Credal Americanism is by definition insulting to anyone who does not ascribe to every element of the proffered catechism. Being told that you're un-American because you oppose gay marriage is insulting. The reverse too--everyone in this country (other than the incompletely indifferent) is by definition now Insulted, because somebody is calling everybody un-American.

3A) America has an ethnic core. It has also expanded by adoption. You can conceive of it as a loose-jointed family; you don't have to define it by creed alone.

4) You can call BS all you like, but the word-choice of Creator is significantly ambiguous. It has a long history in American political rhetoric precisely because it is ambiguous. Obviously it has Christian connotations, but they're not exclusively Christian.

4A) Again, the unity is of all believers in a Creator, however loosely defined. Oh, maybe the agnostics are numerous enough now that it's not quite 90%. But still pretty high.

PG said...

1) If a Republican uses the phrase "unAmerican," the McCarthy macro goes into overdrive. If a Democrat does, the media nods with somnolent approval.

Or if a Democrat never uses the word, a Republican will get upset about the actual policy critiques made and claim that he was called unAmerican, and the media won't even link to the statement in question, much less note that the Republican's claim is inaccurate.

Romney can say Obama's policies are "extraordinarily foreign," and Obama doesn't react. But let Obama say that Ryan's budget plan -- particularly regarding Medicare -- would be "changing the basic social compact in America," and Ryan whines about being called un-American. I'm not sure it's Democrats who are more over-sensitive about being excluded from the US.

3) Surely you know the argument? It's not new. Unless you believe in a creator, you cannot believe in god-given rights; if you don't believe in god-given rights, you will take liberty as something manmade that can be traded away for whatever else you desire; faith is both the prerequisite and the continuing sine qua non of liberty of every sort.

Yeah, what Phoebe said: that this argument exists doesn't make it logically sound. Moreover, to claim that the Creator is non-sectarian yet is the source of all human liberties seems potentially self-contradictory: if by Creator one includes Allah, how is it that Islam comes up with a different set of what these rights are than contemporary Christianity does? To say that the rights one wants people to have (e.g. freedom of worship) are god-given, but those liberties that one deems undesirable (e.g. freedom of polygamy up to four wives) are not, simply dodges the obligation to make a rational argument for why some rights should be guaranteed and others can and should be forbidden.

The only founding document that actually refers to a deity (nothing in the Constitution or Bill of Rights about it) is Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. This explicitly is a document of self-explanation; an apologia for a colony's breaking away from its sovereign, whose position at that time was believed to be God-given. Having deposed a King, the united States of America had to appeal to a higher power than George III, which pretty much left them with the Creator. Yet instead of just resting on "God totally told us to dump the King," Jefferson lays out reasons that a God-placed sovereign has come into conflict with God-given rights.

That this was the best argument to be made in 1776 doesn't mean that the Enlightenment tradition didn't seed the way for further discoveries and reasonings 100 years later. One can find rights in the Laws of Nature, without assuming they come from Nature's God in the sense that a deity is understood by the Abrahamic faiths.

PG said...

Pre-Darwin, and indeed pre-Declaration, Adam Smith had already thought through the application of Laws of Nature to human society. For example, The Wealth of Nations refers to god only in the context of noting humanity's intellectual progress away from superstition. "The great phenomena of nature... are objects which, as they necessarily excite the wonder, so they naturally call forth the curiosity, of mankind to inquire into their causes. Superstition first attempted to satisfy this curiosity, by referring all those wonderful appearances to the immediate agency of the gods. Philosophy afterwards endeavoured to account for them from more familiar causes, or from such as mankind were better acquainted with, than the agency of the gods."

What Smith called moral philosophy has demonstrated itself quite capable of explicating theories of rights that are independent of deism.

(Speaking of America's "ethnic core," Smith also was an early critic of imperialism, not only because he was opposing mercantilism that it fueled but because of its moral shortcomings: "the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project.")

Withywindle said...

PG: 1) My anecdotes are infinitely more satisfying than yours. You're right that Pres. Obama didn't use the exact word "unAmerican"; however, he does use phrases such as "American belief". It's not such a stretch to infer the one phrase slides into the other--less of a stretch than, say, thinking that Sen. Rubio thinks atheists are enemies of the state. I do think that the speech does support the thesis that credal Americanism slips all too easily into a partisan rhetoric that delegitimizes your enemies--and the fact that you don't actually have to use the precise phrase "unAmerican" strikes me as proving all the more strongly that it is credal Americanism in general, not the precise words in particular, that is the root of this delegitimizing evil.

2) Easily parsed: belief in God is necessary for liberty, but not sufficient.

3) It's reasonably well established by now that America combines a Deistic articulation at the founding with an Evangelizing culture, and interpretation of the Founding, from ca. 1800. An irony, but not a surprise.

4) It isn't news either that one Enlightenment tradition erases God from its world-view. It isn't the entire story.

5) The Spanish Empire is gone; the Catholics remain. (Until the Pentecostal missionaries finish their work.)

Peter said...

1)"My anecdotes are infinitely more satisfying than yours."

Good to see you've managed to satisfy yourself so infinitely. Practise makes perfect I guess.

2)"belief in God is necessary for liberty"

Oh dear - completely subjective and absolutely without rational basis. So American atheists/agnostics don't have liberty??

Britta said...


I'm going to ignore 90% of what you've written since other people are addressing it, and I would like to hear you elaborate on your claim that Americans are defined through blood, rather than a shared set of beliefs. I don't know if I've ever heard as a viewpoint except in historical readings about the immigrations acts of the early 20th century, and I am wondering what you beliefs are based on and how they are constructed, if differently from them (i.e. do you draw from Madison Grant?). Also, what are the implications? Would citizenship be jus sanguinis rather than jus soli? How would work?

Britta said...

apologies for the broken English in that comment

Withywindle said...

Peter: For definitions of reason and rationality, I refer you initially to Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method. The question is not whether the godless have liberty (although I think of it more as a practice than as a possession), but whether, over time and as a group, they can sustain it. I would not place any bets that they can, although obviously I would prefer that they could.

Britta: I rather think you could walk down any street in Norway--or China, or France, or Egypt--and find no end of people who think that nationhood has something to do with an ethnic core. You are certainly correct that the idea has been on the wane in American public discourse over the last near-century; this is atypical of our history and world history, and it will be interesting to see whether our nation can survive absent the articulation of the concept. I suspect it is somewhat more common in private discourse still.

As to what I think? Forgive me, but I've talked about this enough on my blog that my own thoughts bore me tears. I would get rid of the ability for any random X to have a kid in America who thereby acquires citizenship. I want to deport every illegal immigrant and drastically reduce the number of legal immigrants. These affiliate with a sense that America is ethnic at least as much as credal; but they aren't necessary corollaries.

I am indifferent to your juses; Germany was a perfectly passable liberal democracy in 1985, with a right-of-return for German ethnics. Madison Grant is a booga-booga figure for the left; it's much the same as asking a vegetarian if he draws his ideas from Hitler. To ask about beliefs is odd--so far as I can tell, most people in the world now, and in history, conceived of themselves as some unity defined very significantly by their kindred, latterly expanded to national scale. It's common sense--or, if you want that slightly expanded, common identity is built on something thicker than creeds, from a shared experience derived from a thickness of private life usually and best derived from shared ancestry. (And where assimilation is possible, but only with a concerted effort over several generations by both assimilators and assimilees to acquire that thickness of shared private life.) Granted, some large number of modern Americans profess oddities contrary to common sense, but I think their beliefs are in need of explanation. An interesting book for this general subject is Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History

Britta said...


I'm not sure if it's worth it, but I'm still wondering what an American ethnicity is. You mention "shared common ancestry," but I'm not sure what that could mean in a literal, rather than metaphorical sense, which you seem to mean since you would like to define citizenship based on "blood." Does this mean "American" means being some amorphous mix of European and tracing your ancestry back to the Mayflower or close to? Does it mean 'everyone living in the US now but no one else henceforth'? Is it simply, Anglo-Saxon? What does assimilating to American ethnicity(?) culture(?) entail? What does an ideal American look like?

Your immigration plan sounds much like the immigration plans of 1921/24 in terms of drastically reducing immigration, also out of concern for American 'ethnicity,' although you don't specify who you would continue allow into the country. Do you have specifications on that?

And quickly, the German Romantic concept of nationalism never is or was a universal or even very widespread belief, so appealing to vague random senses that has run through our veins since time immemorial isn't much of an argument.

Withywindle said...

1) Obviously an English core for the American ethnicity--White Anglo Saxon Protestant--with concentric and overlapping circles around that of Welsh, Scots-Irish, Protestant Germans, Dutch, and Huguenots, Catholic Irish and Germans, Protestant Scandinavians, etc.

2) An ideal American is assimilated. An ideal American loves the ancestors of his (adopted) nation, because they are kin, and not simply because they share beliefs.

3) I would only let in immigrants who compete for jobs earning $100K or more. I am ambivalent about whether or not to have a preference for immigrants closer in character to the American ethnic core. On the one hand, by most traditional measures, it would be easier to assimilate them. On the other hand, the current lot of Europeans are the product of various social-welfare states that have for some generations rotted away the traditions that made for cultural unity with the American core. So I wouldn't let in very much of anybody any longer.

4) I rather think that everything I said would be taken as common sense in 1600 by a Navajo, a Chinese, a Frenchman; German Romanticism does not particularly enter into the matter. You are perhaps overreading "blood"--it became metonymic for kindred long before the German Romantics troubled the earth.

5) All this is somewhat avoids my original contention: that credal senses of nationhood justify ways of delegitimizing and excluding segments of the nation--that they are best fit for justifying civil wars and purges. There are doubtless characteristic deformations for ethnic definitions of nationality; but I take them to be matched, at least, by the characteristic deformations of credal definitions of nationhood.

Phoebe said...

OK, I've heard Withywindle's thing about an "American" ethnicity before, I'm pretty sure explained why I find this interpretation racist and ridiculous before, and am entirely sure this is only very tangentially related to the topic of this post. (The tangential relationship being that, according to Withywindle, it's about the same to define American-ness by ethnicity as by beliefs.)

"I suspect it is somewhat more common in private discourse still."

Yes - thus one of the problems I have with pseudonymous blogging. With those for whom this is an issue, it lets the inner racist (or not-racist but misguided holder of racialist views?) run free. Some things are better, if they must be felt at all, suppressed.

Phoebe said...

Oh, point being, I'm calling an end to that line of conversation in this thread. Withywindle, you've got your own blog, if you and Britta want to discuss it there, by all means.

PG said...

You're right that Pres. Obama didn't use the exact word "unAmerican"; however, he does use phrases such as "American belief". It's not such a stretch to infer the one phrase slides into the other

Sure it's a stretch, especially for a Republican. American beliefs change over time and are constantly in flux. It's downright pathetic that Ryan's response to Obama's assertion, "Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security," was a boo-hoo-hoo about how Ryan's been called unAmerican, instead of challenging Obama's claim about basic measure of security. Hello, what happened to declaring that Obama wants to establish a European socialist state?

That's what I mean about Republican over-sensitivity: instead of sticking to their proper message, let them sniff even a false scent of being called un-American and they forget to point out that what Obama calls an American belief is what they call a furrin one.

To accuse Paul Ryan of wanting to roll the social compact back to pre-LBJ -- of "standing athwart history, yelling Stop" -- is making the heinous accusation that he is a conservative. Again, I doubt Obama would consider it a scurrilous charge that progressives Hope for Change.

And of course, to say that someone's beliefs or policy preferences aren't American is not the same as calling the person un-American. I might think opposition to the 14th Amendment is decidedly un-American, but that says nothing about whether the person expressing the sentiment is an American. It's a bit of reactionary silliness for someone to think that his calling a person un-American means anything useful except as an actual accusation of non-citizenship (which of course lingers on the Republican stage so long as Donald Trump, Joe Arpaio and other birthers are welcomed there).

In contrast, what constitutes "the America we believe in" is certainly worth discussing. But the lineage of a belief isn't exactly what determines its worth. By thos terms, Mormonism is one of the most American denominations/ religions, yet the GOP doesn't seem inclined to highlight those details.

Britta said...


Sorry to start that conversation on your blog, I gave withywindle the benefit of the doubt of not being racist and Social Darwinist, but it looks like I was wrong, and might have known that had I read his blog.

Republicans are getting more and more extreme that I'm beginning to wonder if there's anything they could say that some not insignificant portion of the country would defend. As far as I can tell, the answer is no.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: does "end conversation" mean "prolonged series of parting polemics"?

Britta: You appear to enjoy denouncing favored taboo-violators--German Romantics, Madison Grant, Social Darwinists, racists. It is a pleasant internal dialog.

Phoebe said...


No, this wasn't an invitation to further explain why you think America is a white/British/"Aryan" nation or whatever in these comments.

Withywindle said...

Ah, close reading.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle, some more explanation, if you'd like. I do want a range of viewpoints here. But anything like this - "Obviously an English core for the American ethnicity--White Anglo Saxon Protestant--with concentric and overlapping circles around that of Welsh, Scots-Irish, Protestant Germans, Dutch, and Huguenots, Catholic Irish and Germans, Protestant Scandinavians, etc." - is, for me, going to cross a line. You've read this blog for a while, you know where I stand on things like this, why I might not want to host ideas I consider that vile.

Now, if I misunderstood you, and your point was merely that historically, these have been dominant groups in America, or that popular perception is that "all-American" looks like those ethnicities, I'd still consider this off-topic, but not racist. Of course there's an image, here and abroad, of what "American" looks like. Did I?

However, if what you're arguing is that some ethnicities are more American than others, have more of a right to their citizenship than others - and this was how I read you - then I'm not sure what that would be but racist. Different countries self-define in different ways, and some national histories make ethnic self-definition if not ideal, just kind of the way it is. If we want to talk about American exceptionalism, what we've got going for us is precisely that we don't define national belonging on the basis of race. Whenever someone does, it's jarring - to me, maybe not to anyone else. But hey, my blog, my rules.

I'd even say I prefer Rubio's approach - those of all backgrounds might become Christians, but if your ancestors didn't come from Scotland, nothing about that is ever going to change.

Withywindle said...

I have talked about American ethnicity throughout, although I grant you that "I prefer to define Americans" is susceptible to an interpretation of referring to civic status instead. I take nations--ethnes--to exist, and to have a right, where dominant, to use state policy to favor their national interests. E.g., Germany, Israel. (Contrariwise, a minority ethne has a right to rebel precisely so as to gain the levers of a state in its defense.) Hence the American nation, at any point in time, has every right, for example, to set immigration policy to favor the existing American ethne, however defined. As to what the American nation is, other than an argument: since it has in the past adopted various ethnes, from the Welsh outward, each successive adoption becomes part of the extended family of the American ethne. To say that there is an extended family is not to deny that there remains an English core, both of people and of (political) culture. At this point, the American nation is obviously far extended beyond its English core; I am more interested in preserving the American nation as it is than as it was in 1855. I would like the expanded American nation to feel a sense of continuity with, and affection toward, the older American nation, and to continue to define itself ethnically at least as much as credally. I am sufficiently an American exceptionalist that I am willing to say that anyone can become an American; but I would just as soon maintain the cultural ties--and, yes, ethnic continuities that I take to greatly facilitate those cultural ties--with sufficient strength to provide greater glue than that provided by creed.

PG said...

Withywindle: Creed has actually been pretty effective in unifying the U.S. Our immigrants predominately come for economic freedom and opportunity, and this has gone a long way to helping the U.S. avoid the equating of "child of immigrants" with "impoverished and alienated" that dogs many European countries.

Phoebe: I think I just saw the winner of scrappiness one-upmanship. Hard to beat Tammy Duckworth's having actually come home from Iraq in scraps.

It was nice to have her followed by Lincoln Chafee, RI governor coming from a long line of RI governors, who instead of trying to talk up his tough time shoeing horses after getting his degree in classics from Brown, just focused on why an independent and former Republican is now supporting Obama.

Britta said...


I'm surprised, given your views, that you find being called racist, a Social Darwinist an insult. And given since your argument is basically the thesis of his book, I'm not sure exactly what is, in your view, so offensive about Madison Grant. But anyways, maybe this is veering back too much into irrelevant territory.

Anyways, PG, I agree with you in that no matter what problems we've had/having with immigration and intolerance, our conception as a nation of immigrants oriented towards certain ideals allows us to integrate immigrants far more easily and fully and avoid many of the social ills Europe is experiencing.

Withywindle said...

Britta: I am not insulted; it's just that I wish you would use these words correctly, with some analytic precision.

Withywindle said...

I suppose I really must spell it out: I have no interest in scientific definitions of race. I do not regard nations or ethnes as essential units. I am not interested in qualitative comparisons between races or ethnes, or in ascribing set cultural traits to particular ethnes or nations as biological qualities. I do not take survival as a sign of moral superiority, or take different ethnes or classes to be engaged in a low-Darwinian competition shorn of the conception that cooperation might be pro-survival.

I take these ideas to be characteristic of Madison Grant and Social Darwinists; as I take some blithering mystical essentialism (am I being unfair? reductionist?) to be characteristic of German Romantic conceptions of nationhood and race. Since I espouse none of these points, it seems to me an exercise in aimless invective to label my views so.

I believe in the existence of nations. I ultimately follow Ernest Renan in "What is a Nation?"--regarding yourself as a nation is what makes you a nation. I am therefore open to the possibility that creed and assimilation can make a fusion of the peoples of the world. But I do not think it is easy--while culture is in some ways astonishingly mutable, it also perdures to a remarkable extent. Assimilation is possible, but it isn't easy. I also take human emotions to be bound up in kindred, and the importance of familial-private life to be enormously important in shaping culture, senses of shared nationhood. I have no objection to this as a feature of human character, but more importantly, I take it to be a feature of human character. Communal identity forms most naturally around family and extended kindred; I do not believe this can or should be eradicated from our character; it is idle and often pernicious to ignore this feature of human nature. We therefore should recognize, and support, the sense of ethne as a sense of kindred--as a second-order argument, ultimately, a deference to a perception rather than an assertion of a scientific fact--but no less compelling for being based on perceptions. Even America the exceptional should base its credal nationality in a thick ground of ethne.

I also love my own nation and my own people, and strive to do well by them, not because they are better, not because of what they believe, but because they are mine.

Whatever these arguments have in common with Grant et al is trivial; there is greater warrant for labeling liberalism as a variant of fascism, since their common ancestors are somewhat closer. (I take Renan and Boas to be in the line of ancestry of my thought, and I take them to be farther removed from Grant and social Darwinism than liberalism is from fascism.) I urge you strongly to consider that your labels are a very bad job of intellectual history.

Phoebe said...


OK. So I suppose where we disagree is that I see ethnic definitions of nationality to be always bad but sometimes unavoidable/a fact of life/the best option considering whichever details - European countries, Israel, for different reasons. As in, Israel, because if an ethnicity has been persecuted as such since forever and told by its persecutors to go back to its homeland, it has a certain claim on that land. And Sweden, say, because it's generally believed that there's such a thing as "ethnically Swedish," and if we're going to meaningfully address life in Sweden, we need to take that into account. To say that ethnically Swedish doesn't exist fails to account for life-as-experienced.

I think it's America's great luck not to have an ethnicity. To be a place where, if you speak of someone as "ethnically just American," this is going to offend many people. Life as experienced does not involve "American" being an ethnicity. Sure, there's "all-American," but this is a dated expression when used to refer only to a wholesome blond.

That you're willing to accept that those of any ethnicity can be American makes me want to retract my assessment of your view as racist. (As you can see, in the interest of blood not boiling, I'm returning this thread to this angle, to make sure I've got your view on this correctly. I don't want to be imprecise. I also don't want to veer way off from the topic at hand, but veer I must.)

But your insistence - here and, unless I'm misremembering, either on other posts here or on your own blog or both - that we pay this great homage to the specific ethnicity of certain early Americans (blacks didn't arrive last week, nor even did Jews), your vision of America as an English/white country that assimilated minorities, and not as a cultural melting pot that, yes, tends to use the English language, makes me unsure what to think.

Obviously America's ethnic and cultural makeup isn't a perfect, proportionate mix of every ethnicity and culture on earth. The Founding Fathers did not come each from a different continent, and half of them were not women. But we get to decide how important we think these facts are, and yes, I do think it's racist - given that there's no essential relationship between what the founders happened to be ethnically with the ethnicity of Americans - to dwell on this as if it's of some kind of greater significance. As if, that is, it makes those of that ethnicity living today somehow more American than other Americans. Does a just-arrived Scottish immigrant count as more American than a 5th generation Chinese-American? A "yes" to this would indeed strike me as racist.

Withywindle said...

Pay great homage to the culture, aware that it was bound up in ethnicity. I suppose I take the heritage of English liberty to be an extraordinarily important fact, of great continuing relevance to America; I don't think one can or should abstract that heritage from its particular English roots; and that implies one should have filial attitude (adoption, I keep saying!) toward the English core of the American ethne; the English culture that persistingly sustains the American culture of liberty.

The question isn't "count as more American", but "have more in common with Americans." The answer to that particular question is "no."

I think growing up in New York City is an atypical vantage point for what the sense of being American is--city of immigrants and all that. I certainly think your view of the matter has been in the ascendant for some decades--but it's not yet a universal consensus, and I would say it's ascendancy dates to my parents' adulthood, not my grandparents.

One register, incidentally, is "what do foreigners think Americans are?" (Inaccurate, with a lag time, but still.) For this, I remember some awful agit-prop play from the 1980s by the Irishman Roddy Doyle, I think War, where the American soldiers were to a man thuggish beefy Protestants. (He had no idea, so far as I can tell, that any Catholics existed in America; or at least in the American military.) I think you can find a fair number of foreign treatments of America, even recent, where "white Protestant" is a synechdoche for "American." They also have the every-immigrant-under-the-sun view; and also American=Jewish, but the "white Protestant" shorthand still has power. We may not be regarded as Brother Jonathan anymore, but some part of Jonathan's shadow remains.

PG said...

I think Withywindle may have confused Doyle's "War," which is set at a pub quiz, with "Brownbread," which does involve an invasion by the U.S. Marines. However, I don't remember the two Marines (and statistically, it's quite plausible that if you grab two Marines neither will be Catholic) being all that WASPy -- one is named Bukowski. They're purportedly sent by Reagan to rescue a kidnapped bishop whom Reagan claims as an American, which contradicts a view of Catholicism as un-American.

If anything, the Irish seem almost proprietary about the U.S., particularly the Eastern Seaboard.
"Irish have been coming here for years
Feel like they own the place
They got the airport, city hall, asphalt, asphalt
They even got the police
"Irish, Italian, Jews and Hispanics
Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew
Living happily not like me and you
That's where I lost you in New York"
-- U2

I think growing up in New York City is an atypical vantage point for what the sense of being American is--city of immigrants and all that.

Having come from roughly the opposite of New York City, I still think the equating of "white Protestant" with "American" is bunk today. For all the racial conflict between blacks and whites where I grew up, I don't remember any intimation that the black people were any less American than the white people. And this was a set of white people including some Southern Baptists and evangelicals who used "Papist" unironically. They could think black people to be just as American as themselves, while still regarding them as inferior in other respects.

Also, if the perceptions of foreigners count, evidently certain of them see New York as very American.

The "heritage of English liberty," if by that we mean the common law and background presumption of rights that undergirds the Constitution, is very much recognized by anyone who studies law in the U.S. I am confused as to what this has to do with revering, say, English cuisine. Keep the good, dump the bad, drop the unnecessary "u"s in spelling.

Britta said...


It's not my fault you painted your views with a broad brush and then accused others of calling a spade a spade. Yes, you do differ (less than you ought to) from the scientific racists of the 19th and 20th century in minor but key ways, none of which were apparent from your comments about Anglo-Saxons et. al, rather quite the opposite. Secondly, yes, your comments about German Romanticists are reductionist and unfair, and somehow you seem to think I dislike German Romanticism, when my point was merely that German Romantic conceptions of nation-state are hardly universal.

I personally am not interested in intellectual genealogical gotchas, as every line of thought can be traced back to everything eventually. Yes, OMG, Boas and Hitler! Locke and Macaulay! Hegel and Hegel! My point is not that your thoughts can be traced back to Herder (which they can't), so OMG you must be a Social Darwinist, but rather, that what you wrote could have been lifted verbatim from the 1924 immigration law justification for limiting 'undesirable' immigrants, and I was surprised that someone claiming any sort of pretense to mainstream could still be a scientific racist.

Oh, and the Social Darwinist comment came from my reading of your reference to Europe's "rot" due to their coddling social welfare policies. Maybe I read slightly more into it than you implied, but that's a very common concern of actual contemporary Social Darwinists, who I am somehow a lightening rod for, and yours just seemed like more of the same. (Ex: I once had a Romanian with a Hitler mustache and very large chip on his shoulder tell me, among other things, before I slowly backed away, that Swedes were throwing away their natural Aryan superiority through pacifism and social-welfare' and our hard Nordic bodies were going to become soft and squishy and maybe we wouldn't be prepared for 'next time'.)

Anyways, now I understand that you are an updated, hip racist who has learned to replace race with 'culture' and/or 'ethne,' whatever you mean by that.


I think you are, again, completely right that, for all the problems slavery and its legacy has wrought, it does mean that, from its very conception and at its very core, America has never been a mono-racial, mono-ethnic nation, and this is something all Americans instinctively understand, even if they don't articulate it. Also, Native Americans, who I also don't see as part of withywindle's 'America,' though if anyone has a right to claim the US as their ethnic homeland, it would be them.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: I appreciate very much your civility. I know we do not agree by a long shot on most matters, and you have been a gracious hostess on the occasions I have commented in ways not to your taste. I assure you that while I have the usual compulsions to babble at length, I have not sought out moments to be a dissenting voice; I have actually been more interested in reading you, and in conducting less fraught conversations. (This current comment thread wandered in ways I did not anticipate or intend when I began.)

I do not think, however, that I can respond to Britta any longer with even a pretense to civility. Since she is your guest, and doubtless one whom you prefer, I must retire from participating on your blog; or reading it, since the temptation to comment would be too great. I imagine you will withstand the blow tolerably well; but it is a choice I regret having to make. I thank you very much for the pleasure of having read your blog these last few years, and, again, for your civility in entertaining my rather different views, even though they were not to your taste. All best wishes for the future.