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Whose America?


OK, so the hot dogs are all eaten and the dead fireworks splayed around the National Mall. We’re still in Fourth of July mode (even if Happy Independence Day has been temporarily replaced by Happy Scooter Libby Day) and so it’s still a good time to turn to the essence of our nation’s independence, the nature of freedom and what it means to be an American in the 21st century.

A collection of essays published last year goes a long way toward providing a look at how some of our predecessors—founders and slaves, lawyers and philosophers—have idealized, crafted and, ultimately, embodied the concept of being American.

Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, edited by Georgetown University professors Michael Kazin and Joseph McCartin, seeks, in part, to answer a fundamental question, one very much alive in current public debate:

Whose America?

We all want to lay claim to America. But as the authors in this volume show, the debate over what constitutes Americanism has raged since the founding of the nation. Today’s vitriolic partisan divide and the debate over immigration are part of a centuries-long dialogue by a country that, after its conscious self-creation, has sought over and over to reaffirm its identity.

And all too often, affirming that identity has meant denying others a part in it.
One of the book’s essays, “True Americanism: Progressive Era Intellectuals and the Problem of Liberal Nationalism,” overviews the efforts of turn-of-the-twentieth-century intellectuals to re-establish the concept of liberal democracy “on a civic foundation consistent with cultural pluralism.” As the essay’s author Jonathan Hansen asserts:

These thinkers all assumed that effective government requires a sense of community or “peoplehood.” They all recognized that political communities, like cultural communities, are constituted by boundaries and exclusions. The nation’s urgent challenge, as they saw it, was to articulate an ideal of American national identity capable of balancing the principles of individuality and cultural inclusiveness with a sense of civic solidarity.

These were rock-bed citizens like Justice Louis Brandeis who believed that “despite their strange customs and lack of English, many immigrants arrived in the new world ‘already truly American’—that is, already in harmony with American ideals.”

If their allegiance eroded on their arrival, the fault lay not with the newcomers but with the hosts’ failure to extend liberal democratic rights and privileges to strangers. Prejudice and industrial dependence, not cultural diversity, threatened American democracy.

Brandeis’s contemporary, education philosopher John Dewey, sought “to reconcile his enthusiasm for cultural diversity with the imperative of national cohesion.”

Dewey viewed cultural differences as a source not only of public enrichment but also of the civic solidarity required of industrial and political reform.

Brandeis, Dewey and others were responding to a tumult of bigoted reaction against the nation’s rapidly-shifting social, political and demographic changes wrought by an influx of immigrants, northern migration of African Americans, women’s suffrage, the shift from rural to industrial production and massive changes in finance and communications. And as often happens, a dominant group confronted with change responds with knee-jerk patriotism.

For every Eugene Debs decrying the nation’s yawning social disparity, there was a Henry Cabot Lodge erecting a model of national loyalty designed to quash dissent and bolster the faltering Anglo-American order.

Hansen, a Harvard University historian, sees the post-World War I era as delivering a body blow to the debate over American identity: “The nation that emerged from war in 1919 was arguably less tolerant of ethnic and racial minorities than at any time in its history.” In fact:

The ensuing Red Scare spawned conditions favorable to the passage of the Johnson-Reid Act in 1924, which, by establishing immigrant quotas based on national origin, effectively silenced the idea that cultural diversity was America’s greatest asset.

Although arguments over American identity emerged periodically throughout the next 50 years, it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that a national debate emerged over the issue of cultural diversity.

Hansen’s essay, one of several in Americanism to explore the efforts of the nation’s diverse individuals to define what it means to be American, offers critical historical grounding in the current debate over immigration. He shows that although the struggle was not easy for those who fought the forces seeking to build literal or symbolic walls around the nation, they stood strong.

They rejected the notion that patriotism entailed uncritical loyalty to the government in wartime and that patriotism and internationalism were incompatible.

And they did not lose hope. For in reclaiming a patriotism expansive enough to embrace a munificent vision, these Progressive-era thinkers also reclaimed a nation.

They did not see America’s jingoism and racism as a reason to give up on the idea of the nation itself. In a world in which political rights and legal protections are tied to national membership, their experience suggests, individuals who simply disdain nationalism of any sort commit their fate to the political right.

Or as we say at sports events and in classrooms around the country:

One nation. With liberty and justice for all.

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