Nation, Culture, and Identity

by A. Jay Adler on October 19, 2010
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The truth is that none of the ideas against which Adam Levick argued last week in response to my “The Churchill Doctrine” and “Incoherence on Race and Culture“ are positions that I hold. How can that be? Adam is the estimable managing editor of CiF Watch, a blog finely dedicated to exposing the rampant, ugly anti-Semitism of England’s Guardian newspaper, and a man wonderfully aswoon with love for his wife. The only question I can raise about him is the dubious nature of his baseball allegiances, but these being of the nature of affection for the hometown team (which by someone’s grace is not Boston), one supposes he can be forgiven.

Oddly enough, allegiance to the hometown team is one of the issues of this discussion, as Adam directs it, and to which I’ll return, but there is that matter I just raised to be disposed of – how it is that I advocate none of the positions against which Adam argues in ostensibly arguing with me. Note first of all that while Adam directed questions, indeed, to me, his arguments were always made against – brace yourselves; sit if necessary – liberals. This is one of the difficulties in addressing the ideas of this discussion. They are part of the traveling liberal-conservative road show, center stage in the three-ring entertainment that is the contemporary Left, Right, Left of political debate that never gets anywhere. One scripted element of this diversion is that interlocutors are almost always assigned, to quote Adam, “arbitrary” and “static” positions in the ring, even if that is not where they, individually, stand. But, to be fair, while Adam did attack the straw man, he did inquire of me. My answers begin in insisting that to understand each other, and the issues at stake, we must stop drawing them out to their extreme and caricatured representations.  Truth is a subtler figure than those.

Returning again to the words of Newt Gingrich that Adam admirably wishes to steer clear, but which are central to the finer points, not blunter instruments that I wish to engage here

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

As despicable as was Gingrich’s purpose in these words, I argued that they contained the only hint of a valuable idea in all he had said. What Adam rightly fears, but wrongly suspects I might be arguing is for some kind ethnic and cultural determinism to an individual’s ideas and world view. However, it is Gingrich, in those words, who is making that pernicious argument. What I argued is that the root of Gingrich’s cynicism is in the less pronounced truth – that people are bound to be influenced in some way, to some degree, by their circumstances – drawn out to an unsupportable, simplistic totality, which lends itself so readily to demonization. Adam himself makes my point:

Is there not, a huge distinction, in your mind, between, a protestant immigrant from England and a Jewish immigrant who escaped Poland in the 1930s?

I won’t address how “huge” the distinction may be, but is there bound, pretty often, to be a notable one? Indeed. Not many people would say no, and it is the obviousness of this insight that Gingrich sought to leverage into the making of a monster. This was intended as, I thought, a fairly inarguable foundation for a greater point I wished to make about the reasonableness of what President Obama’s feelings about Winston Churchill – which we do not, in fact, know – might be. In making this point I drew out the issue for consideration, that at least as historically significant as Obama’s race is part of what is his cultural history – that it includes a people and a nation with a history of being colonized and of being brutally oppressed by the colonizer, rather than simply, as with the U.S.A.’s original and still predominating culture, a world history perceived from the vantage point of the colonizers. Why would the other cultural and historical factors Adam notes be influential, but this one not? It is Gingrich who argues that it must determine how one sees the world. Cannot more honest people more reasonably argue that it is likely to influence how one sees the world?

In considering what the nature of this influence might be – or in wondering what I might be arguing, in some cases, it should be – Adam asks,

Does one inherit the sins of his fathers? And, if so, does one also inherit the achievements of his fathers?  If so, don’t we also, as European Americans (whatever that denotes to you), also inherit the noble sacrifices of our ancestors which defeated the twin totalitarian movements in the 20th century – fascism and communism?

I have blogged about this topic several times, with my most purposeful statement on it coming in Historical Identity and Cultural Responsibility. To draw at one point, with Adam’s help, a line more sharply than ever: no, “one” does not inherit the sins of the father, anymore than any one of us inherits the nobility and grit of our forebears. As individuals we make our own moral mark on the world, display whatever nobility or vainglory it is within our own individual characters to summon. But here comes an idea that I know from experience is a very pronounced sticking point for many conservatives. It is not a complex idea – it is one, conceptually, that they accept in so many other constructs – but in this regard they just cannot get around it without becoming immovably stuck on the idea of “responsibility.” Apparently intelligent people become so desperately hung up, begin to ratiocinate so uncontrollably in consequence that they cease to be able to distinguish between the notions of “responsibility” and “guilt.” The idea is that of a separate common and historical identity.

I offered several distinct examples of it in HI & CR, for instance, the generally agreed upon obligation of national governments to honor the commitments of preceding administrations, even those of long ago. Different administrations, same government. The German government just finished paying off the interest on a loan it took years ago to help pay the reparations it was charged in the armistice that ended World War I. But why? Few Germans today likely bear any responsibility for the Second World War, let alone the First. Why should they be taxed in order to fund the loan repayment originating in acts they did not commit? Different individuals, same nation – same people: the German people. In court, it is “the people” v. whomever. The people: a collective construct. It is “the State of California” v. whomever. The state? It was my car he stole, not the state’s. But the state is a whole of which I am a part. The state is a concept that conceptualizes and incorporates a common interest, the interest of all individuals, that none of their cars be stolen, so when someone commits a theft, it is a crime against all of us, against the state, and when the state punishes it does it in all our names, as all of us. The history of any nation adheres to it, just as the past of an individual is unshakably his, however much character and actions may alter.

In part, it seems, Adam wants to acknowledge this. He believes in American Exceptionalism, and he is concerned that many on the Left “mock” the notion. But what is American Exceptionalism (I prefer a less blaring and obnoxious lower case “e”) if not a belief in a continuing trans-historical identity for the United States? I have written on this subject before too:

I believe the American advent, the American idea, and the American experience are exceptional: a nation of laws, and not of men and women, a constitutional democracy founded in and devoted to the liberty of its people, a culture and nationality not of ethnicity or spiritual uniformity, but of the motley assemblage of ever broadening immigrant populations and their descendants, with the constantly renewable spirit to create and recreate their lives. No other nation is quite like this, and everyone knows it.

American exceptionalism should not mean that Americans are in anyway inherently superior to other peoples. How could they be? There is no natural American people to hold inherency: the American people are a construct of many other peoples. The United States has no inherently greater rights than any other nation. And as the American experience has often fallen far short of the American idea, so, too, do Americans, like all other people, fall short of human ideals.

It is not an inherency in the people, a notion which is a perversion of the national character, the same as any other chauvinism that stakes its value in just that belief that Adam fears.

I hope you would agree that the truth or falsehood of ideas (or the merit of one’s achievements) have nothing to do with their racial, ethnic, or religious origins.

I do agree, completely. And they have nothing to do with national origin either.  I agree as well that there are those on the Left who too readily diminish patriotism. I have written about that before too. For too many on the Left, the end of thinking about patriotism came when they learned Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It seems not to occur to them that Johnson’s observation is more of commentary on the nature of scoundrels – hypocrisy being the homage that vice pays to virtue once again – than on the nature of patriotism. Esteem and love for, and attachment to home, family, neighbors and high ideals are all virtues.  However, too intense a focus on unique national character is precisely what produces the patriotic kitsch I discussed in the post above as well as the primitive, reactionary hagiography of the founders of a Glenn Beck and so many Tea Partiers.  Rather than esteem the birth of the American republic as a landmark advance in human ideals and political organization – one of which all Americans might be proud to be the inheritors, while they continue to uphold and advance those ideals – they diminish it. They diminish it, ironically, by excessively exalting the founding, and reifying its ideals, as an epic of civilizational origins, with the founders as mythic heroes whose descendents are naturally privileged with an exceptionalism they themselves may not have earned.

The balance that should be struck in esteeming, but not deifying the founders, by valuing patriotism, but not becoming its servant, is the same that should applied in approaching the legacy of colonialism. Writes Adam,

You seem, in certain passages to admirably reject the rigid categories of post-colonialism but, in others, seem to accept them – at least in your understanding of the West’s (and the America’s in particular) relationship with those previously colonized.

Well, I do reject the “rigid categories” of post-colonialism, but that is not to reject post-colonialism, if by post-colonialism we may mean a non-rigidly-ideological historical understanding of the nature of the colonial era and its human, social, cultural, and political consequences. An almost half-millennial colonial era – the effects of which are still visible all over the world – is barely fifty-years ended. Yet many on the Right, not much later than they ever first encountered a different conception of history than the one propagated by those who colonized, grew already tired of having to hear of it.

Adam writes,

Post-colonial ideology, in its essence, assigns quite arbitrary, and static, moral labels.

I disagree. In its common ideological concentration it does those things. In that form it serves to erode “support for, and confidence in, the Western world,” particularly by uncritically applying a “facile, and seemingly immutable, oppressor vs. oppressed paradigm.” But that is not the essence of post-colonialism. The essence of post-colonialism is first to acknowledge the nature of colonialism and its cost to those who suffered by it, neither idealizing its victims nor rationalizing the behavior of those who profited from it. And then, to revise Delmore Schwartz, in acknowledgments begin responsibilities.

One further acknowledgment returns us to where we began, and that is to recognize that our experiences, including those of colonizing and of being colonized, and of being products and inheritors of cultures on either side of that divide, while they determine nothing, help to order our understanding of the world and our perspective on it. To go back to Adam’s first question to me,

What does “a nation of a European colonizing culture” mean?  What is its significance?

Its significance is what I have just noted, in how it may influence our perceptions and thus our actions in the world. It is never noted that the bust that President Obama substituted for that of Winston Churchill is one of Martin Luther King, Jr. A different choice to be sure than would be made by a President Gingrich, but is it not a proud American one? Does it not speak to differing mentalities – those that may be influenced by where one comes from and from where one stands in the world, that rather than British colonialism and the brutal suppression of a rebellion against colonizers, it is Kenyan anti-colonialism that Gingrich seeks to demonize?

A few years ago Rachel Donadio wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review entitled ”Revisiting the Canon Wars.” In a letter of response I acknowledged the “excesses of ‘the multiculturalists,’” but I also made a further point about W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” and Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, titled from a line in the poem, the two of which were used to make a facile, but revealing point in Donadio’s essay. Achebe’s novel, like the Yeats poem, is a towering achievement – a profoundly human portrayal, on the individual level, of how one society, driven by economic imperatives, may overwhelm another, and the cultural disintegration that follows among those crushed by circumstance.

[I]t is worth stating (arguably, as always) that the novel — historically, culturally and artistically — is at least as significant as the poem. Understanding how that might be so, in a nutshell, was what the ”canon wars” were all about.

Understanding why there might be resistance to this comparability, and what one source of that resistance might be, was the meaning of the posts to which Adam responded.


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