The Brood: The resurgence in white nationalism and a reckoning with the darker aspects of our national character have left many asking if America is worth saving. In fact, what is America, anyway? In one of the most complex nations on earth, this reckoning is inevitable. But it need not be a defeatist death knell.
One of the frustrating and exhausting aspects of living in America today is that no one can seem to agree what America is. I hinted at this in my Thanksgiving article, but across the political spectrum, race, and religion, there are fundamentally different ideas. The clash of interpretations and the emotional tenor of the conversation can be overwhelming.
On the far-right, you have people who believe that America is fundamentally a white, protestant nation, and any other citizens are either unwanted guests in the country, or permanent sources of involuntary, cheap labor. It’s rooted in white supremacy, white nationalism, or whatever people are calling Nazis and Neo-Confederates these days.
There’s another narrative which says that the American story is one of the rich preying on the poor. 18th century Founding Fathers seeking independence to freely prey on the slave. 19th century Robber Barons preying on labor. 20th century military-industrial complexes profiting off of draftees. 21st century “elites” who plunder through predatory lending, banking, and policy only ever intended to help the rich. There is nothing redeeming in America according to this narrative, only class warfare and the struggle of Jeffersonian rural workers, and/or an inherently just service-class proletariat.
There are many other potential narratives. Today I’ll focus on the progressive wing, in which postmodern interpretations of American history have become dominant. These reject grand, sweeping narratives, absolute truths and absolute morality. Everyone must “live their truth”. These rejections have been critical in re-examining and re-centering centuries old injustices.
After all, its healthy to question, for example, why is one religion better than another? Why should we trust straight, white men to lead, after centuries of conquest and genocide? Why should we believe one nation is better than another, after the horrors of the Cold War and the War on Terror? After decades of middle class decay, why should we believe democracy is the best of all systems?
But if it encourages us to question tradition, “knowledge” and authority, it also manifests itself as a philosophical endorsement of moral relativism and tribalism. After all, if everyone, and every thing, has its own truth, what reason is there to have common ground? Or to believe in anything at all? In fact, perhaps there is no such thing as America, other than as it exists in the minds of those who benefit from the subjugation of its many peoples.
These ideas evolved out of the 1960s, a time when a rebellion against conformity and tradition exploded into being. As Kurt Anderson explains in an article summarizing his book Fantasyland:
Even the social critic Paul Goodman, beloved by young leftists in the ’60s, was flabbergasted by his own students by 1969. “There was no knowledge,” he wrote, “only the sociology of knowledge. They had so well learned that … research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they did not believe there was such a thing as simple truth.”
No wonder, then, that disinformation and tribalism are seeing their days. Americans across the political spectrum are left in utter contempt of their nation. Worst of all, although they know what they are against, they very rarely know what they are for, at least precisely. I’ve pointed this out in the gaping hole that Progressives have in their foreign policy, but I think it extends into our interpretations of our own society, too.
If we believe that White Supremacy, Homophobia, Sexism, Crony Capitalism, etc. are the foundational essence of our society, and that there are no redeeming qualities, then we are, in a very ironic way, agreeing with the arguments laid out by the very white nationalists we oppose. We enter into thought patterns that amount to an exhausting exercise in national self-loathing. After all, the logical conclusion to believing that historical narrative is to tear the country down. But what do we replace it with?
Which is shockingly what brings me, and not for the first time, to agree with David Brooks: We need a new national narrative. One that binds us together in a common history. For all the justified celebration of American multiculturalism, there still needs to be a story we can tell ourselves that binds us together into one people. David Brooks emphasizes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address:
“In his speech, Lincoln realistically acknowledges the divisions and disappointments that plague the nation. But he does not accept the inevitability of a house divided. He combines Christian redemption with the multiculturalist’s love of diversity. In one brilliant stroke, Lincoln deprives Christian politics of the chauvinism and white identitarianism that we see now on the evangelical right. He fills the vacuum of moral vision that we see now on the relativist left. He shows how American particularism always points to universalism — how the specific features of our settler’s history and culture point to vision of communion for all mankind. This is a story we can join and live into.”
I understand the anger and hesitation people have about this. I am a white man, and so is David Brooks. You might be a woman, or a person of color, or LGBTQ. Who am I to try to erase your historical sufferings by trying to tell you that you should be apart of some universal identity? As someone who may have been burned or abused by America’s judgemental churches, you may find this concept of “redemption” as being laughably religious, hypocritical, or not even possible in the first place.
But I want to engage people on this. America has never been perfect, but then again who has been in human history? China and Russia are nations born of genocides and conquest, too. Progressive / Democratic Socialist lovebirds like Sweden and Norway are home to white supremacists and nativists themselves. You think places like Brazil don’t struggle with the legacies of slavery? If there is no concept of personal or national redemption, then surely we as progressives must also condemn these places.
But many hesitate to do so. They recognize those places as being culturally unique, as having complicated histories that we couldn’t possibly judge, or even have the moral authority to judge because after all, “what about what we did to __________”. Besides being strange such people would afford other nations more patience than their own, that position is also the death of our progressive ideas. The moment we shrug our shoulders at injustice somewhere is the moment we give into injustice anywhere. That idea was one of the selling points of Barack Obama.
So it’s not enough to teach a postmodern critique of America. We must also create a necessarily uncomfortable story in which we confront our sins, but also see a path for our redemption. I’d love to write another article and list some often left out figures in our history that ought to have a much larger share in our textbooks and op-ed reflections. Characters (white, black, native, foreign, immigrant, queer, straight, christian, muslim, asian, latin, etc.) that both point to America’s troubled past, from which no one is left without blood on their hands, and to its’ perpetual struggle at redemption.
And I think Americans can walk and chew gum and the same time. Human rights and the desire for democratic self-agency are universal goods. When those things fail at home, we say so and fix it. When we see a potential movement for those things to bloom elsewhere, we nourish it. We can only do those things when we see our own story as redemptive, because only when we believe in our own redemption can we see it possible in others.
I tend to see American history like the initial attempts to get a rocket to escape the atmosphere. The sheer gravity of the ground below demands repeated attempts at trying to reach escape velocity, at just the right angle. That is to say, the gravity, humanity’s default, is our innate love of tribalism, strongmen and certainty. The rockets are our iterative attempts at escaping, altering, or mitigating our nature, so that one day we can live free of tribal war, of autocratic oppression, and feel comfortable with the doubt that accompanies wisdom.