Out of Mortal Threat, an Opportunity
The present situation will force Americans to define themselves
By Wilfred M. McClay
May 8, 2007
This is one of those moments in our history when we are asking ourselves, with fresh intensity, who we are, as a nation and a people. We are not the only ones in the world asking themselves such questions. The current national elections in France, for example, have brought to the surface a growing unease in the land over the fraying condition of French national identity, an unease that candidates are having to address. Europe itself, along with the countries composing it, suffers from a serious crisis of self-definition, as entrenched dogmas of transnationality and multicultural inclusiveness begin to look like signposts on the road to cultural suicide. But such questions pose themselves with particular force for Americans, whose sense of themselves as a people has always been strongly tied to their shared acceptance of certain conscious ideals.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. Our shared sense of what is central to our national character has become confused and eroded, as our knowledge of our distinctive history has waned, and as the meaning of citizenship itself has been diluted and diminished. Yet there also are reasons to believe that a considerable reservoir of American patriotic sentiment exists to be drawn upon, even if it is not always very visible or very eager to declare itself. There is still, in short, a continuing sense of the American national character, even if it is not always easy to define, and even if it shows its nature most clearly — in much the same way that individual character does — only on those occasions when necessity evokes it.
It should not detract from the urgency of our present concerns to note that they all have a familiar ring to them. We have been here before. Not exactly the same place, of course. History never repeats itself in that way, and many of the particulars we now face are quite unprecedented. But the general shape of the concerns is not. We Americans have always puzzled over the precise shape of our national identity, and worried about the state of our culture. We have always asked such questions about ourselves. Our readiness to ask such questions itself offers an insight into the kind of people we are.
RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING
Why are we this way? Perhaps we can thank (or blame) those fiercely introspective New England Puritans, who made soul-searching into an art form, with their copious diaries and gloomy declension narratives and thundering jeremiads, all animated by a profound sense of mission, of an “errand into the wilderness” that could not be permitted to fail. Or J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, whose proclamation that the American was to be a “new man” amalgamated out of the elements of the old ones offered a vision of America that has run, in various forms, like a brilliant ribbon through the nation’s entire history.
Or perhaps look to the lofty expectations of the Revolutionaries and the Founders, who proclaimed a Novus Ordo Seclorum, saw the new American nation as a successor to Rome, and wondered, with Alexander Hamilton, whether it was “reserved to the people of this country” to decide for all humanity “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” Or to Abraham Lincoln’s more pithy description of his nation as “the last best hope of mankind,” a phrase suggestive of a secular errand just as fraught with ultimate significance as the Puritan one.
In other words, there was a steady succession of voices proclaiming that American history would be the carrier of a larger meaning. The particulars changed, the cast of characters changed, but the theme persisted, clinging tenaciously to our national consciousness and experience. America was to be a land of fresh promise and new beginnings, a grand stage for the regeneration of humanity. It would be the New Zion, or New Israel — or maybe a New Rome, New England, New London, New Amsterdam, New Canaan, New Harmony, New York, New . . . You-Name-It. And for all the complications of our history and tatters in its mortal dress, it has never lost its deep connection to that great theme of renewal and rebirth, even today — which is one reason immigration has always been such a thorny but vital issue for us, lying as it does so close to our sense of ourselves as a land of new beginnings and second chances.
Despite the dedicated efforts of several generations of scholars to exorcise it, there remains about American society a powerful sense of something that is called, imperfectly, American exceptionalism. It is not always clear what this term means. But it surely points toward the nation’s persistent sense of a larger purpose in the world. The one thing that Americans just cannot seem to reconcile themselves to is the idea of being just another country, in a world of countries. (In fact, they are far more ready to believe in the unique and all-pervasive evil of their country than to believe in its ordinariness. Like a Black Mass, this is one of those inversions that amount to a reiteration of the old faith, only with shadings reversed.)
It may seem hard to believe that this same sense of purposefulness could be lurking, latent and inarticulate, in the souls of even the most unpromising young people who cross one’s field of vision in contemporary America. But I would not bet against it. Get these young people away from the fog of their peer culture and away from the confections of their endlessly mediated world, and you may see a different picture. Human nature has not changed. The human heart is filled with endless chaotic yearnings, most of which point toward mirages and dead ends; but what it most yearns for is something that will give it definition, direction, meaning, focus, something that brings the formlessness of life to the sharpness and clarity of a point. That brings redemption to life’s wasted time. The illusions of popular culture will never give them that, and some will eventually be driven to look elsewhere. There are needs that one can’t understand, or even see, until the moment is ripe for them; and then they emerge. That is part of the mystery of character, and of new beginnings.
It is also important to recognize that many of our current problems arise out of distortions and misuses of otherwise good ideas and things. Multiculturalism takes a generous inclusiveness and makes it into a hard-and-fast principle of social separateness. Postmodernism takes a healthy skepticism and makes it into a dogma of weightless agnosticism. Dogmatic secularism reintroduces the very ideological coerciveness it once claimed to rescue us from, and thereby undermines the genial tolerance that is the chief virtue of a secular state. Openness to immigration and to the peoples of all nations has long been one of the defining features of American life — but not when that openness comes at the expense of the very idea of American citizenship and of a coherent and historically grounded national culture. Even our astonishingly toxic and corrupt popular culture tends to be defended by reference to gold-plated principles: free markets and free expression.
One can easily add to this list. Freedom itself, in whose name we justify much of what we do in the world, becomes meaningless when it is not ordered and directed by a sense of proper human ends, but instead serves as a charter for aimless self-indulgence and self-exaltation. The point is that without the right countervailing or balancing forces at work in our society, even the best principles may become pernicious. The corruption of the best can give us the worst. And in all cases, the countervailing forces that we need are fundamentally conservative ones, deriving not from clever abstractions or legalisms pulled out of the air, but out of a high respect for the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, and the sheer momentum of lived experience — which is to say, from common sense. But tradition and common sense are not an easy sell these days. It is hard to gain a hearing for sober, prudential wisdom in the acrimonious and character-assassinating public debates we now tend to have in this country. And it is hard to fight the sheer dynamism of American culture, our ingrained fondness for the new, even if we know that such dynamism cannot last for long without such underlying stabilizers as the rule of law, the discipline of work, intact families, and settled mores.
Hard, because there is no denying the fact that the American dream is in some respects a thoroughly romantic and liberating one: the song of the open road, the prospect of big skies and boundless possibilities, the chance to begin the world over again — or at least one’s own little corner of it. This understanding of America is extraordinarily vivid and powerful, and has deep historical roots; its optimism is a drawing card for people all over the world. It was part of the political genius of Ronald Reagan that, rather than disdaining these romantic impulses of American life, he embraced them warmly, and made them his own. By incorporating them into American conservatism, he provided exactly the countervailing elements and defining horizons that those impulses so badly needed — and endowed conservatism with an élan and vigor that had formerly been liberalism’s province. Conservatives may have winced whenever Reagan quoted Thomas Paine; but he knew exactly what he was doing. He understood that respect for the American dream had to be a part of American conservatism, and vice versa. This is why he remains such a signal figure.
SEEDS OF RENEWAL
As for the toxicity of our manufactured popular culture, which captures and amplifies so many of our other problems and plays a huge role in creating our problematic image in the world, we should not yield to pessimism about the possibility of cultural renewal, as if we were in the grip of determinisms more powerful than those of physics. Conservatives, of all people, ought to reject the lazy deification of the marketplace; and Americans more generally should regain their former confidence in the possibility of making positive transformations in their national life. The realm of culture is precisely the area where intelligent philanthropy can accomplish a great deal of good, particularly in fostering new venues and institutions — think tanks, media, schools, colleges, and other avenues of intellectual and cultural renewal — which can both support fresh alternatives and challenge the existing ones to do better.
Think for a moment of Renaissance Florence. The great cultural flowering that we associate with that time and place would not have been possible without the general prosperity provided by a vibrant commercial economy. But that was not enough. Great art also requires great patrons, and the economics of the market could never have produced the profusion of stunning works that now fill the Uffizi Gallery. That in turn suggests where philanthropy can enter, playing in our day a role not unlike what the Medicis and other great patrons of art played in theirs, giving support to worthy ideas and experiments that hold the promise of cultural renewal. The problem is admittedly vast, but there is no need to address it at every single point. The root of the problem with our popular culture is the degeneration of our elite culture, and the restoration of the latter would soon have a powerful effect on the former.
Finally, we should be mindful of the complexities inherent in the concept of “character” itself, whether applied to individuals or groups, including nations. In the end, character is a mystery of unfathomable depths, that defies all determinisms. We can guess at, but we cannot really know, a person’s character until it is put to a real test. Often the result that emerges will come as a complete surprise, even to the person himself. Braggarts and bullies may wilt in the time of trial, while Clark Kents become Supermen, and gentle mothers become fierce as lions. Ne’er-do-wells miraculously get their act together when the chips are down, while those with perfect pedigrees turn out to be perfect disappointments. That tattooed, body-pierced, video-sated lunkhead down the street may have heroic potential in him that will take your breath away, when the conditions are right to call forth those qualities that, amazingly, were in him all along. In the face of death, some react with bitterness and morbid self-preoccupation, while others respond generously, with gratefulness for the life lived. Why one and not the other? Who can know? Character is not a determinate “set,” something fixed and permanent, like a second nature. We can never know how we will respond until we have to.
So only a challenge can reveal what is there, concealed in the depths of character. Our character is elicited by life’s challenges, and is shaped and reshaped by our responses to them — a fact with immediate relevance to the present situation. In other words, human character must, so to speak, be scored dynamically, rather than extrapolated from current trends. The historian Arnold Toynbee saw the dynamics of challenge-and-response as the testing ground of a civilization’s greatness. The chief sources of growth in a civilization arise dialectically, from its responses to the mortal threats and sharp blows directed at it. The question is what the threats call forth. Do they generate energy and purposefulness? Or despair and inanition? Great civilizations, Toynbee thought, die from suicide rather than murder, which is to say that they die when they cease to have the will to respond vigorously and creatively to the challenges facing them.
The lesson for Americans is clear. There may be today, just as George Kennan famously observed 60 years ago of the Cold War, a certain providential quality to the challenges that have been placed before us at this time. Certainly the challenges presented by Islamist terrorism are ones that confront us (and even more profoundly confront Europe) in the very places where we are confused and irresolute, and force us to see that we have fallen into ways of thinking and living that we cannot and should not sustain. They represent a mortal threat — but they are also an opportunity. By forcing us to defend ourselves, they force us to take to heart the question of what kind of civilization we are willing, and able, to defend. Not merely as an academic question, but a question of life and death.
Mr. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This spring he is Fulbright Senior Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Rome. This essay was prepared for the 2007 Bradley Symposium addressing the topic “Who Are We Today? American Character and Identity in the 21st Century,” on May 3, 2007, in Washington, D.C.
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