BY MATTHEW HERBERT
This is an essay about what it means to be American. It came to me in three parts. Each part is guided by a group of intellectual heroes; I follow their ideas progressively further out onto a limb.
In the first part I stayed comfortably close to the core of America’s self-image. Our country is a place where one can think, say or do whatever one likes so long as one’s thoughts, words or acts do not harm others’ rights to do the same. Call it the attitude of “live-and-let-live” if you like. I tried to give it some of the heft it deserves by presenting it as John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” We Americans can rightfully claim to have a genius for it, I believe. No matter where you come from, if you land in America, you can expect others to yield a broad swathe for your private goals, tastes and interests. “God bless;” “Live long and prosper;” “Whatever turns your crank;” these are the kind of thing we say when we witness someone taking a path to happiness that differs from ours. “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” That’s another thing we say.
So far so good. Except for a few theocratic dinosaurs such as Robert Bork, almost all Americans believe in the harm principle as Mill frames it. Bork, on the other hand, believes it is possible to harm others simply by holding an opinion they find distasteful. If you have any sympathy for this idea, it is worth bearing in mind that Bork’s puritanical concept of harm matches that of the Muslim clerics who incited the deadly riots against the infamous Mohammed cartoons in 2005 and 2006. Muslim outrage was legitimized, they said, by the mere expression of an offending opinion. Parties of God tend to think like this whether they’re Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Not for nothing was the Christian conservative William Bennett’s 1998 book attacking moral tolerance called The Death of Outrage. (If you want to dig deeper into the new theocrats’ position, you can find it in Bork’s 1996 Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline and his 1997 The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law.)
In the second part of my essay I argued that nonconformity is, if not a defining American trait, then a highly desirable one and one to which great Americans urge us. America should be a big country populated by lots of different kinds of individuals free to do their own thing. This idea is based in an argument begun by John Stuart Mill and amplified by Walt Whitman and John Dewey that says we are better off following our own private ambitions, no matter how eccentric, than aligning our goals with common opinion. I think of this as the “diversity principle”: we all benefit if each individual boldly and creatively pursues a life experiment that is informed by thoughts, perceptions and interests that are uniquely her own. This idea is also at the core of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essay, “On Self Reliance.”
I think there might be a temptation to see this idea simply as “rugged idividualism,” an already established American trope, but that is not quite what I (or rather Whitman and Dewey) have in mind. Rugged individualism, as I understand it, tells a one-sided story about the most desirable human destiny, one in which the individual struggles mightily against obstacles, overcoming them but leaving them intact for the next adventurer to confront and surmount. In my idea of the diversity principle, though, the effect of many different individuals creatively confronting established problems actually impacts the institutions of social control that make up the obstacles in the first place. Pioneers change the very landscape; they don’t just navigate it. The mere “rugged individual” may win great moral victories, but, as a lone actor who rides into the sunset of personal heroism, he contributes to no larger project of altering the framework in which future lives will assert new kinds of individuality.
To take one example of what I would mean by a “diversity pioneer,” when gays in America started experimenting with queerness as an identity marker, the trend could have plausibly been seen as an exercise in “mere” rugged individualism–lone actors making a principled assault on the status quo. Their collective effect over time, though, tells a different, and more interesting story of social change. Today, we can see how, in many parts of America, queerness has helped shift the status quo to open up new vistas for expanding personal freedom. Things that used to be barriers for gays (primarily the expectation that they strictly keep their identities secret) were dissolved by experiments in queerness (among other things, of course). These days, at least in big cities, people whose idea of the good life implicates a central role for gayness need not start where their fellow travelers did in, say, the 1970s, closeted and stigmatized. They can launch newer, bolder life experiments starting from a higher level of liberty. (The level at which straights tend to start any life experiment.)
This idea that freedom surges forward through diverse life experimentation–and that it is a good thing even if we cannot see where it is all going–is very much what Emerson, Whitman and Dewey had in mind when, through their writings, they encouraged Americans to follow their own lights. Our national destiny, if we have one, should be an adventure that invites all comers.
So far, my consideration of what it means to be American is all fair weather and optimism. We are a great people because we have won key successes embodying certain abstract principles that arc toward freedom. We are a nation built on a philosophy. As a philosopher, I like that.
Philosophies, though, never have the last word. Real humans do. They populate our history, define our dreams, betray our secret sins. And so I come to the third and hardest part of this essay. What I am about to say may cause flinching, but it is by no means meant to debase our identity as a just, freedom-loving people. If we are to move forward, we must be able to take pride in our ideals no matter how imperfectly we have pursued them or how far we have fallen short of them up till this point. We must, as Richard Rorty argues, craft a national narrative that acknowledges our shortcomings without rendering us incapacitated for reform. We must still be able to hold our heads high enough to see the good country we wish to achieve.
But we will never do this, I am convinced, if we insist, generation after generation, on basing our national image in a set of orthodox myths that are clearly false and sanitized of painful historical facts. We are a freedom-loving nation but one founded on an unstated ideology of racial supremacy. Our founding fathers owned slaves; Lincoln, the great emancipator, viewed blacks as inferior even as he led a war to free them. Even with the Civil War half won, he beseeched America’s blacks to return to Africa, where he thought they belonged. Our growing country’s competitive advantage as a rising mercantile power on the world stage was secured by the use of cost-free slave labor. This point calls for some bluntness: the auction block and whipping post made us powerful and, by extension, “great.”
In fact, it is hard to avoid the more general conclusion drawn by Gore Vidal that our country climbed to “greatness” on the back of a series of race wars. Slavery was its own kind of war. Manifest Destiny, the notion on which our country’s westward expansion proceded, was enabled by a genocidal war against Native Americans, accompanied by the drawn-out, almost casual conquest of Mexican powers who refused to sell their land. The wage-enslavement of Chinese railroad workers enabled our final push for a land empire. After we encountered our country’s “natural” boundary at the Pacific coastline, we were persuaded by Britain to keep going and to conquer the Philippines. Britain’s own colonial glory fading, she convinced us the fate of the Pacific’s colored peoples were a moral burden that needed taken up by the white man. And we took it up. Hadn’t our whole history prepared us to rule people of color?
Even the least literate American is aware of these facts. But he is just as likely to have imbibed the official attitude that goes with them: the past is gone, and we Americans live in the present, our vision and vital energies stretched out toward the future. Henry Ford is the most famous protagonist of this attitude: “History is bunk!” he said.
We Americans do not dwell unprofitably on recriminations against our forefathers, who struggled heroically to build our nation and, as Theodore Roosevelt eulogized, “dare[d] mighty things, . . . even though checkered by failure.” We, mere observers, owe our allegiance to their sweat and blood, not to the grievances of history’s forgotten actors tossed in the wake of titanic great deeds. Thomas Jefferson, on this view of things, must be remembered for calling down the very voice of God to declare the world’s first republic of free and equal citizens. How he regarded–and treated–his own African slaves, including his concubine Sally Hemmings, is mere “bunk,” real history’s effluvium, which we simply must get over.
Countries great and small create their historical narratives through a process of forgetting, Milan Kundera wrote. The ugly, less useable parts of a nation’s story must, in a certain sense, be left out if that country’s citizens are to keep faith in a dignified national purpose. Historical static is mentally removed from the airwaves so we can hear only the clear, sweet signal of our national myths. And a country as consequential as our must do a prodigious amount of forgetting to tune into this signal. We are, according to our myths, not just a decent society, but a model, a light to the rest of the world.
But our studied ignorance of the past is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is highly useful for preserving national pride, a necessary condition for political action. If we were to hang our heads as low as our crimes against principle and humanity demand, we would never be able to raise them and gaze on the American promise.
On the other hand, though, our wilful blindness makes it hard for our moral creditors to take us politically seriously. How can we be trusted to act in the best interest of all our citizens if our national narrative is constructed around a blind spot cultivated precisely to ignore the interests of those most harmed by our past crimes? I think this undischarged moral debt is what the historian John Hope Franklin had in mind when he wrote, “If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past.”
For those who have followed me this far out on to the limb, you have probably noted that I slipped unannounced into applying the first-person plural “we” only to America’s ruling class where I must surely have meant to speak for all Americans. This is, after all, an essay about what it means to be American pure and simple, not what it means to be a member of its Leitkultur. Actually, though, this is the rub.
This “we” sneaked into my thoughts the same way it showed up in the Declaration of Independence, with the best of intentions. It purports to represent all people who hold certain admirable truths to be self-evident about human beings–that freedom, dignity and equality are our rightful condition. But in reality it refers only to an elite group of professional experts who laid down the law of our land and the heirs of that elite tradition. Our country is founded on abstract, universal principles, but our history is an unbroken narrative of the callous, flagrant violation of those principes by the very class that claims the closest allegiance to them–the political elite. If there is a discharging of moral burdens to be done before our house can be set in order, this is the class that must lead it, and this is why the “we” in my essay applies to them (or us, as the case may be).
I admit that, even as I approach the climax of my sermon, I am pussyfooting, holding back. This is probably because I feel unqualified to say what I think needs to be said next. Luckily, it has already been said, and much better than I can manage it. The third principle of being American, as far as I am concerned is to refuse to treat white supremacy as an incidental distraction from our history and instead to face it front-on as a central fact of our history. It is to take seriously this moral indictment, laid down by one of America’s greatest essayists, James Baldwin:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
. . . [A]nd this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.
Baldwin, clearly, is a pessimist. He is convinced that our brainwashing, our myths, our careful cultivation of ignorance keep us from seeing the truth–keep us from wanting to see the truth, a much more serious condition. But I am an optimist, and I think it is possible to change the attitude that caused Baldwin to despair, the refusal to confront white supremacy and the myths that support it.
The real human voice–the one that gainsays philosophical principles–that has so far had the final say on who we are is the voice of unacknowledged white supremacy. As Americans, we owe it to ourselves to re-examine our history and to stop cultivating the ignorance that lets us so easily adopt this voice as if it were an inevitable, abstract force of history, as if it were, say, the disembodied voice of the principles written down by Thomas Jefferson. Those principles surely still belong to us, but we must actively claim them, and we must do this by taking up James Baldwin’s stinging challenge that we do not even want to know our past.
Country preachers often add a quiet denouement to a ringing sermon. I don’t know if I succeeded to ring, but I find I can’t resist the quiet afterword. I grew up listening to country preachers, and I think many of their habits are worth keeping.
If you wish to feel out the contours of the chastized American liberal, the person who feels his country and its animating ideas are truly great even as the ruling class veers this way and that away from those ideas–in short, if you want to see an illuminating example of the post-Baldwin elitist–you can find that character appearing throughout the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. With wonderful good humor, Vonnegut performs the same service for America that Thomas Mann and Günter Grass did for Germany. He explains what it means to be a privileged member of a civilization that is automatically of great historical consequence (however lowly one’s personal stature within it) and to take in stride the fact that we did dreadful things along the way to becoming so consequential. Taking such things in stride is not to erase them, of course; it is to acknowledge you can face them and still keep your head high. Vonnegut’s novels envision a kind of moral re-orientation that I believe could be uniquely American, if we heed our better angels.