Back into the culture wars we go, and when better than the Fourth of July? The occasion: The Atlantic’s publication of an article arguing that the nation needs a new concept of American-ness, and therefore a “new way to be American” culturally that’s “delinked” from “whiteness.”
Before traditionalists go ballistic (and before multi-culturalists go smug), I’d urge everyone to read this (long) piece all the way through. It’s much more compelling in many respects than those opening claims indicate, and it seems as wholly legitimate to contend, as it is necessary to recognize, that at least important aspects of American-ness will change over time. In fact, in a country like the United States, whose fundamental identity has nothing to do with “blood and soil” but rather with ideas and beliefs, nothing could be more American. That’s why I’m especially grateful to author Eric Liu for introducing me to Albert Murray’s view that “the essence of American life is that it relentlessly generates hybrids. American culture takes segments of DNA—genetic and cultural—from around the planet and re-splices them into something previously unimagined.”
The author also deserves praise for making a strong case that the nation needs “a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols,” and that those who pay the highest price for “illiteracy” in this regard are the poor and the powerless. Moreover, he makes a valuable contribution by writing that “It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, Americans need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. ”
But Liu makes one error that’s important enough to undermine his uber-point that the nation needs a new foundational “story of ‘us’” reflecting the imminent reality that “’us’ is no longer by default ‘white’.” And ironically, it stems from his own inappropriate blood-and-soil-centric thinking. Because for all the longtime dominance of America’s politics and economy in particular by the descendants of white Europeans, the irreducible core of American-ness has never flowed ultimately from their ethnic or racial background. Instead, it stemmed from the ideas they developed, and from the (truly) revolutionary and successful institutional scaffolding it provided for our – yes, ever evolving – national edifice.
Interestingly, Liu himself unwittingly validates the ideological focus in two ways. First, as he correctly observes, “America is foundationally English in its language, traditions of law, social organization, market mindedness, and frames of intellectual reference.” Note the adjective: not “white” but “English.” That’s because, although there was no shortage of white people in Europe back in the day, the vast majority hadn’t developed or come to accept the “traditions of law, social organization, market mindedness, and frames of intellectual reference” that have flourished so spectacularly in America. It should also go without saying that for roughly a century after the republic’s founding, white Europe ex-England could only hope to live in a place where this framework existed by crossing the Atlantic – and millions did.
Moreover, Liu compounds the error by implicitly equating this English contribution to the African-American contribution to America’s identity — or at least coming awfully close. Of course, the latter has been crucial. But “changed speech and song” have nothing to do with the essentials of the way of life that Americans have been willing to fight and die for. And slavery manifestly did not “change” the nation’s “civic ideals” – certainly not in any proactive sense. Instead, it reminded of how shamefully short of them the nation had fallen – just as continuing racial and similar injustices have reminded how much of the challenge is still unmet.
Second, Liu confirms the primacy of that distinctively English contribution by very astutely citing a major insight of the scholar E.D. Hirsch. He observed that political and other forms of radicalism in America become more powerful when they draw on and invoke those traditional, truly foundational ideals. But more than simple opportunism clearly has been at work here. Radicals seeking genuinely constructive change, and who knew American history, also have couched their appeals in traditional values because (a) they were rightly confident that these values were broadly supportive of and consistent with their agendas; and (b) the very prevalence of these values is what makes gaining political traction possible for such radicalism to begin with.
So let’s by all means work to update our national portrait and narrative to include all the groups who have contributed major facets. And because this isn’t an exact science, let’s debate prioritizing them robustly but respectfully. But let’s not forget where the civic and economic diamonds at the core came from, and how central they must remain to preserve what’s worthy about the nation’s exceptionalism. And let’s keep in mind that they’ve been preeminent not because they’re “white,” but because they’ve worked.