April 14, 2008

My original plan for this post was to address the question of what “hubristic patriotism” is, but I will take a detour and address some of Dan’s points from his most recent post.  There is clearly a tension between Dan’s view that any American nationalist will want to preserve the ethnocultural heritage of the Anglo-American and European past and the claim that America is at least partly an ideological nation, because the universalism of the ideology that is said to be a defining trait of America actively subverts attachment to that heritage.  To claim that our national cultural identity is contingent on a particular history is to make claims that the nation embodies or represents universal ideals or has an ideological foundation difficult to support, unless it can be shown that one cannot conceive of Americans as Americans without that ideological foundation or those universal ideals.  Frequently nationalists wish to have it both ways: keep the cultural heritage and ethnic traditions and have universalist aspirations, but you cannot really hold on to both.  In fact, there is a very real sense in which America was America when it was ruled by an emperor, or at least by a monarch who ruled over what we today readily refer to as the British Empire, so it is not something that needs to be imagined—it has already happened.  Were republicanism here to give way entirely to a formal imperial monarchy, it would be extremely bad, but it would not diminish or significantly change American national identity.  To imagine the existence of a different regime, or simply to note the prior existence of such a regime on these shores, is to recognize that who we are as a people has no real connection to the political propositions that happen to prevail at any given time.

If the “creed” is dependent on the Anglo-Protestant core that Huntington refers to, and it is not a case of ideological nationhood but one defined by the cultural norms of certain European peoples who settled on this continent.  Furthermore, once we take the pre-independence history of the colonies into account (a period that spans over one-third of our entire history to date), it is not a case of America existing as an ideological nation, since we can see an American people, or perhaps more accurately American peoples, pre-existing the Declaration, the Confederation or the Constitution of ‘87.  If there was a moment when there was an attempt at construction of the American nation in ideological terms, it would have to be in the 1860s and the decades following, which was then reinforced during the 20th century with the building up of the apparatus of the nation-state.  If America has somehow become an ideological nation in the course of our history, and I stress if, this has happened in the wake of earlier phases of American national history and need not be permanent or accepted as legitimate.  Ideological nationhood has not always been part of who we are, assuming for the sake of argument that it ever has been even a part, which means that we do not have to accept ideological nationhood as some unavoidable part of our history or a meaningful part of the definition of our nationhood.  We are not really a “neocon nation,” and we can certainly hope that we never will be. 

To the extent that political philosophy enters into the question, we find in the colonies an embrace of the Country tradition and Old Whig ideas among the patriot rebels, with which their Loyalist contemporaries were also broadly sympathetic (except for the republican emphasis of some of the radical Whigs).  Of course, Loyalists were Americans, too, which is something that even the most flexible nationalist narratives have never been able to accommodate.  They are forever remembered as the hated enemy within, the collaborators who dared to obey the law, but they had every bit as good a claim to being American as the patriot rebels.  Given the destructive effects of the war on the colonies, the Loyalists arguably had the more patriotic position.  Even when we include republicanism as something distinctive about the patriot rebels, they did not necessarily speak for the entire population of the colonies, and even then the rebels were espousing a patriotism that identified love of country with the common good and the respublica.  That is, they were espousing something that was hardly distinctive to them.  The classical and classicizing 17th century philosophical legacy they drew upon was shared with those whom they drove into exile.  One might as well claim that Canada is an ideological nation of a more Conservative bent, but that would be to see how inappropriate the label is for America as well. 

Rather than strengthening “the element of traditional nationality in American nationhood” against “the hypertrophy of the ideological component of American nationhood,” we would do better to challenge the assumptions behind the claim of the existence of an ideological component.  After all, which ideological component is it that is relevant?  That of the Federalists or of the Jeffersonians?  Though broadly similar in important ways, they represent two very different trajectories and two different traditions in Anglo-American political thought.  As in any national history, different factions fight for political preeminence, but that does not make America even a partly ideological nation, just as that label does not apply to Greece or Ireland because they waged ideologically-charged conflicts at the time of their independence.


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