When there's nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire
March 7, 2019 6:48 AM   Subscribe

A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story - "The origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine; of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome."
"In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds." –Frederick Douglass describes the "Composite Nation" (1869)
The United States is different from other nations—every nation is different from every other—and its nationalism is different, too. To review: a nation is a people with common origins, and a state is a political community governed by laws. A nation-state is a political community governed by laws that unites a people with a supposedly common ancestry. When nation-states arose out of city-states and kingdoms and empires, they explained themselves by telling stories about their origins—stories meant to suggest that everyone in, say, “the French nation” had common ancestors, when they of course did not. As I wrote in my book These Truths, “Very often, histories of nation-states are little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state.”

But in the American case, the origins of the nation can be found in those seams. When the United States declared its independence, in 1776, it became a state, but what made it a nation? ... Nineteenth-century nationalism was liberal, a product of the Enlightenment. It rested on an analogy between the individual and the collective. As the American theorist of nationalism Hans Kohn once wrote, “The concept of national self-determination—transferring the ideal of liberty from the individual to the organic collectivity—was raised as the banner of liberalism.”

Liberal nationalism, as an idea, is fundamentally historical. Nineteenth-century Americans understood the nation-state within the context of an emerging set of ideas about human rights: namely, that the power of the state guaranteed everyone eligible for citizenship the same set of irrevocable political rights...

The most significant statement in this debate was made by a man born into slavery who had sought his own freedom and fought for decades for emancipation, citizenship, and equal rights. In 1869, in front of audiences across the country, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the most important and least read speeches in American political history, urging the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments in the spirit of establishing a “composite nation.” He spoke, he said, “to the question of whether we are the better or the worse for being composed of different races of men.” If nations, which are essential for progress, form from similarity, what of nations like the United States, which are formed out of difference, Native American, African, European, Asian, and every possible mixture, “the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world”?
This Is Your Brain on Nationalism: The Biology of Us and Them - "Sapolsky on the primate origins of in-group bonding, out-group antagonism, and how the entire dualism gets short-circuited by human cultural affinity is like a mini-course on how the American national identity was manufactured. Tribal nationalism is like sexuality or religion: you can try to banish it or pretend it doesn't exist, but it'll only re-appear in yet more destructive and perverse form. Best to bend it toward pro-social ends via whatever compelling story works. The alternative is far worse."[1,2,3]

China, India and the rise of the 'civilisation state' - "'A civilisation state is a country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilisation'... This illiberal idea is also appealing to some on the American right."[4]

Making America Great - "I teach English as a Second Language to adult immigrants. Students range from 18 to over 80. Many came here from Guatemala, but some are from Peru, Venezuela, Algeria. A whole group of elderly women are from Russia, Ukraine and Iran. Some have never had any schooling at all. Some speak a dialect as a first language, Spanish as a second, and now are strapping on English. They take nicknames to fit in better: Francie, Cindy, Lucy. They want to make it in America. They inspire me."

-Ernest Gellner: Nations and Nationalism[5]
-Benedict Anderson: Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism
-When the Virtual Becomes the Real: A Talk with Benedict Anderson

also btw: radicalism is now realism
  • The Oppression of the Supermajority - "The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It's the thwarting of a largely unified public."
  • Managing the Discontent of the Losers - "In the early-mid 1990s, Social Structure of Accumulation (SSA) theorists identified the solidification of a neoliberal SSA that included a capital-citizen accord based on 'managing the discontent of the losers'. This created social stability by reconciling working households to material hardships emanating form the neoliberal labour market by means of either coercion or non-economic distraction. This paper argues that there was, in fact, a fundamentally material basis to the neoliberal capital-citizen accord, including the ability of households to accumulate debt in order to limit the growth of consumption inequality in the face of burgeoning income inequality. The material basis of the capital-citizen accord broke down during the financial crisis of 2007-09, destabilizing the accord itself. The result is that an SSA that has resisted top-down reform is now threatened by bottom-up 'reform' in the shape of rising populism. The outcomes of this process are highly uncertain – a key characteristic of the periods of inter regnum that separate successful SSAs." (via)
  • The Democratic Party Divide Is About Theories of Political Power - "Dianne Feinstein's dust-up with activists over the Green New Deal revealed that progressives are unwilling to tolerate a political system that they feel threatens planetary survival."
  • A Clinton-era centrist Democrat explains why it's time to give democratic socialists a chance - "Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney's health care policy, with John McCain's climate policy, with Bill Clinton's tax policy, and George H.W. Bush's foreign policy. And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they fucking did not... The baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left." (thread)
  • The transformation of left neoliberalism - "The left is enjoying a resurgence in the US (not so much elsewhere). There are coalitions being formed, plans being conceived. But there are enormous obstacles to be overcome. First in the US (where the system seems almost deliberately designed to prevent the radical action required e.g. to tackle global warming, and where billionaires can credibly threaten to pull down the election if the Democratic candidate is not to their liking). Second, at the global level, where the soi-disant liberal order is in decay, and it is not clear that there is very much that is going to replace it. There may be no plausible choice in American politics other than the left right now. That doesn't mean that the left has a very good chance of doing the things that it needs to do."
  • Michael Moorcock on H.G. Wells, Reluctant Prophet - "Wells joined the Fabians in 1903, but he was already on his way to being a convinced socialist. His ideas about the future of capitalism are, of course, thoroughly reflected in his depiction of the Eloi and the Morlocks, amongst whom the main adventure takes place."[6]
posted by kliuless (8 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
This is a fantastic collection of links. It's going to take me a while to get through these but I wanted to say that I appreciate the work that went into this post. Thank you!
posted by gauche at 7:32 AM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm just here to say the phrase "creedal nation"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:41 AM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I know it's meant to be a broad generalization, so it won't do to be excessively dogmatic, but our jurisprudence is not primarily Roman. (Except for the unreformed parts of Louisiana law.) The common law as a separate and default source of governing authority is not Roman. Roman law, in the form of canon and civil law, was essentially evicted from English institutions during the Reformation, though some relics remain in the form of the building blocks of international law.
posted by praemunire at 8:13 AM on March 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

Well this is a post and half. Thanks!
The bits under the radicalism is now realism are especially interesting to me. The left is in dire need of hard unification, and these links make it seem possible and reasonable.

The Making America Great is also lovely. Anyone who works with or alongside immigrants will tell you they're great for this country.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:24 AM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

The pull quote is from a 19th century author, and our understanding of historical details have changed (the roots of English are also not in India, but rather both English and some Indian languages drink from the common Indo-European well). But I think the cosmopolitan sentiment of American origins and national identity holds up well.
posted by biogeo at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Roman law, in the form of canon and civil law, was essentially evicted from English institutions during the Reformation, though some relics remain in the form of the building blocks of international law.

This is accurate. American law was initially derived (I believe, but could be wrong) mostly from English common law, but has evolved considerably; reading court decisions on a variety of topics from, e.g., the 19th century will demonstrate that jurists have historically had no problem declaring that this or that legal issue may deserve or require taking into consideration the notionally unique character of the nation. We've invented our own legal system whose contents and character have always been engaged in a complex dialectic with culture, commerce, and morality.
posted by clockzero at 12:37 PM on March 7, 2019

The origin of the language we speak carries us to India; our religion is from Palestine; of the hymns sung in our churches, some were first heard in Italy, some in the deserts of Arabia, some on the banks of the Euphrates; our arts come from Greece; our jurisprudence from Rome.

Bancroft was writing in the 1800s and I'm sure we can see that his formulation is outdated, and offensive, and exclusionary, but is it even conceptually possible to update it? I'm not even going to get into the "churches" thing, but what can you say about "the origin of the language we speak" that doesn't dismiss indigenous languages, as well as African, Asian, Semitic etc. ones? Or their arts? And if you can somehow construct a paean to the USA as a country in which every language may be spoken, isn't it pretty obvious that the subtext to that is "but for most purposes only English and sometimes Spanish really counts."
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:26 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

What's upsetting is that this short history doesn't seem to make it easier for us to learn our history of keep it straight. We've got the founding fathers, the civil war, some trains, two world wars and Reagan. And that's it. That's what we draw upon for the bulk of our collective national history. Maybe the rest is just too controversial and torrid. 'Course lots of us think the Reagan bit is pretty torrid, but it stuck and that's why the right still, amazingly, is considered the more patriotic party by some immovable default.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:10 PM on March 7, 2019

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