Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Challenge of Retrieving the American Founding

American audiences applaud King George III's bravura performance in Hamilton. But however much we may sing his song and secretly wonder whether what he was saying would turn out to be the truth, we all know who is going to win and whom we are supposed to be rooting for. After the Revolution, the Loyalists largely left, and there was really no one left to challenge the fundamentals of the founding consensus. 

According to the common view that Louis Hartz famously formulated in 1955 in The Liberal Tradition in America, the U.S. had no feudal past and hence no French-style social revolution - and no Tory-like political party to propose alternatives to the established Liberal consensus. Americans might be federalists or anti-federalists, Republicans or Democrats, but they are all classical Liberals at heart, all operating within the commonly accepted liberal republican consensus.

And how could it be otherwise? Without a monarch and a shared history of centuries of common experiences and values, with what could this new nation hold itself together, especially as more and more people from all over the world with all sorts of different historical experiences kept joining? It had to be some sort of common civic identity rooted in a common consensus based on the foundation the founders had laid.

The one conspicuous exception was, of course, the ante-bellum South, whose slave-owning ruling elite fancied themselves faux aristocrats and self-consciously developed a distinctly anti-Liberal ideology in order to justify slavery and eventually secession. But that exception was eradicated - at least in theory - by the Union victory in the Civil War.

Another philosophical framework that might have offered a somewhat more subtle alternative to ideological American Liberalism - focused less on the individual and more on social solidarity and the common good - might have been Catholicism. But the Catholics who immigrated to America for the most part knew next to nothing about such ideas. And what Catholics came to care most about politically was becoming as American as possible - Catholic Americans but primarily Americans.

So there never has been any significant ethical and philosophical foundation on which to build American society other than the founding narrative. It may be flawed, but all narratives are  at least to some degree. Think of the French Republic’s famous history textbook, taught throughout the French colonial empire, which began its narrative with the words Nos ancĂȘtres les Gaulois (" Our ancestors the Gauls").

The issue then is not inventing some new national narrative, as 20th-century totalitarians tired so hard to do. (That they were notoriously unsuccessful was evident, for example, in how much about the Soviet State could be best explained by remembering Russia.) The issue is rather how to retrieve our already very powerful and attractive national narrative with some mix of honesty and inclusion. A musical like Hamilton is admittedly entertainment, but it is also a powerful and effective exercise in civic education, which attempts to retrieve the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive manner.

Retrieving the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive direction differs from destroying or undermining that narrative. That (ironically) is what our present president seems intent on doing, not only by his undermining of traditional American liberal political norms but by his thoughtless identification of that narrative with its ideological enemies, the Confederates whose statues and flag he is so ridiculously defending.

The same could be said of the other extreme for which vandalizing statues and symbols seems a substitute for serious engagement with the  removed issues at hand. Of course, Confederate monuments should never have ben erected, ere eventually erected with malevolent intent, and should certainly be promptly removed. But vandalizing statues of other historic figures is a largely pointless exercise which substitutes exhilarating destruction for the harder work of constructing something new. The structures that actually do need to be undone are such social evils as over-policing, zoning laws and other policies that maintain residential and educational segregation, a distorted health care system that spends more than other nations with poorer outcomes, etc. Such efforts at political and social reconstruction would be best undertaken within a common commitment to the long-term promise of the founding narrative and would in turn renew that narrative for a better national future.

No comments:

Post a Comment