Amer­ica’s in­dis­pens­able para­dox

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— In this odd po­lit­i­cal sea­son — so shal­low in rhetoric, so fun­da­men­tal in con­se­quence — Amer­i­cans are not only cel­e­brat­ing their na­tion’s in­de­pen­dence, they are con­sid­er­ing its mean­ing. Of a sud­den, the most ba­sic ques­tions in our democ­racy are on the ta­ble: What is a real or good Amer­i­can? How do we de­fine what is unique and great about our coun­try?

At least a por­tion of the cur­rent pop­ulist wave is a na­tion­al­ist back­lash against cos­mopoli­tan elites. In this view, Amer­i­cans do not merely love a set of philo­sophic ab­strac­tions; they love a con­crete na­tion, with an iden­tity that is un­der siege. An An­glo- Protes­tant her­itage of law, re­li­gion and cul­ture is threat­ened by a va­ri­ety of forces, within and with­out: mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and po­lit­i­cally cor­rect lead­ers who refuse to even name our en­e­mies.

It is a para­dox that those who want to em­pha­size the unique­ness and par­tic­u­lar­ity of Amer­i­can cul­ture — rooted in a spe­cific eth­nic and re­li­gious back­ground — are ac­tu­ally adopt­ing the most typ­i­cal form of na­tion­al­ism. His­tor­i­cally speak­ing, na­tions de­fined by eth­nic­ity, mo­ti­vated by grievances and look­ing back­ward to a golden age are com­mon­place. What has been dif­fer­ent about Amer­ica is its re­mark­able abil­ity to make a na­tion out of na­tions. This is a trib­ute to na­tional ideals that emerged from within one cul­ture, but now ap­peal and in­spire far be­yond it.

No na­tion, of course, is dis­em­bod­ied. It is le­git­i­mate to love the rocks and roots of a def­i­nite plot of ground, and our plot is par­tic­u­larly grand and lovely. It is not a co­in­ci­dence that one of Amer­ica’s first sym­bols was a rat­tlesnake in a de­fen­sive coil. But an­other sym­bol was the ris­ing sun on Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s chair at the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion, as hope­ful as the break of day. Amer­ica’s founders thought their work was some­how the cul­mi­na­tion of age-old long­ings and a new or­der for the ages. This is the rea­son that the term “Amer­i­can creed” is rich in mean­ing, and “Amer­i­can race” sounds like a pro­fan­ity.

The hypocrisies of our his­tory are star­tling. A na­tion ded­i­cated to free­dom was a prison for mil­lions of slaves. In the found­ing era, many towns cel­e­brated Pope Day, in which ef­fi­gies of the Bishop of Rome were cheer­fully burned. While Chi­nese la­bor­ers worked on the mas­sive foun­da­tion of the


Statue of Lib­erty, Congress tight­ened The Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act, which set im­mi­gra­tion rules by race. Even now, some would have those rules set by re­li­gion.

But how do we even know these are hypocrisies? It is be­cause they are re­vealed by the light of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence. Amer­ica’s founders set a prin­ci­ple in place that has judged and changed cul­tural prac­tices for over two cen­turies. It is pri­mary to our na­tional iden­tity.

Keep­ing the bal­ance be­tween a real com­mu­nity — with the right, like any other peo­ple, to de­fine its bound­aries and tra­di­tions — and the lib­eral prin­ci­ples of jus­tice and equal­ity has not been easy. It has led to a trou­bled and bloody his­tory, which is also a shin­ing achieve­ment in the con­science of hu­mankind.

The Amer­i­can who un­der­stood both of those as­pects best was Abraham Lin­coln. In July 1858, he spoke of the strength that Amer­i­cans draw from pride in their fore­fa­thers who founded the na­tion. Then he said words worth re­call­ing in full as we cel­e­brate our in­de­pen­dence:

“We have be­sides these men — de­scended by blood from our an­ces­tors — among us per­haps half our peo­ple who are not de­scen­dants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe — Ger­man, Ir­ish, French and Scan­di­na­vian — men that have come from Europe them­selves, or whose an­ces­tors have come hither and set­tled here, find­ing them­selves our equals in all things. If they look back through this his­tory to trace their con­nec­tion with those days by blood, they find they have none, they can­not carry them­selves back into that glo­ri­ous epoch and make them­selves feel that they are part of us. But when they look through that old Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence they find that those old men say that ‘ We hold these truths to be self- ev­i­dent, that all men are cre­ated equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sen­ti­ment taught in that day ev­i­dences their re­la­tion to those men, that it is the fa­ther of all moral prin­ci­ple in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Dec­la­ra­tion. And so they are.”

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post. com.

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