A coun­try, not merely an idea

Amer­i­cans are rooted in shared ex­pe­ri­ence that oth­ers lack

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Robert C. Koons Robert C. Koons is a professor of phi­los­o­phy who has taught 30 years in Austin, Texas.

In his June 16 col­umn in The New York Times, Bret Stephens sug­gested (with his tongue in cheek) that we de­port all na­tive-born Amer­i­cans and re­place them with im­mi­grants, who are (he ar­gues) smarter, harder work­ing, more pa­tri­otic, more reli­gious on aver­age than those born here. Of course, Mr. Stephens’ pro­posal is satirical, but the very fact that he con­sid­ered the idea a plau­si­ble satire sug­gests that, were it prac­ti­cal, both lib­er­als and neo­con­ser­va­tives like Mr. Stephens would be hard pressed to ex­plain why we shouldn’t em­brace his Great Ex­change. For many in the Amer­i­can elite, their loy­alty is pri­mar­ily to a set of ab­stract ideas (equal­ity, lib­erty, eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity and the like) and not to an ac­tual coun­try, mired as it is in the mere con­tin­gen­cies of his­tory and geog­ra­phy. In­deed, it is a com­mon­place be­lief among our elite that Amer­ica is not a nor­mal coun­try at all but rather a kind of cause, al­most a re­li­gion, based on a creed (the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, Lincoln’s Sec­ond In­au­gu­ral and so on). To think oth­er­wise is to be guilty of the heresy of “ethno-na­tion­al­ism.”

But this flies in the face of an ob­vi­ous, un­de­ni­able re­al­ity: Amer­ica is a nor­mal coun­try, a peo­ple oc­cu­py­ing con­tin­u­ously a well-de­fined piece of land on the Earth’s sur­face. This coun­try didn’t come into ex­is­tence with af­fir­ma­tions of 1776 or 1789: It be­gan in the early 1600s with the set­tle­ments of Jamestown and Ply­mouth. Both the Dec­la­ra­tion and the Con­sti­tu­tion pre­sup­pose that we were al­ready “a peo­ple.” We shared a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of self-gov­ern­ment, perched on the edge of the wilder­ness, a peo­ple “very sim­i­lar in their man­ners and cus­toms,” as John Jay put it in Fed­er­al­ist No. 2. Of course, Amer­ica was never a sin­gle fam­ily or a tribe. It has al­ways com­prised a patch­work quilt of dis­tinct her­itages, Euro­pean, na­tive Amer­i­can, African and even­tu­ally Asian, but in this re­spect Amer­ica is far from unique. This same could be said of many other nor­mal coun­tries, like Spain, France or Great Bri­tain. As the English philoso­pher Sir Roger Scru­ton has ar­gued, what unites us is what unites ev­ery coun­try: a shared his­tory, grounded in par­tic­i­pa­tion in a po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity within a set of ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries (shift­ing grad­u­ally over time).

Aren’t we a uniquely propo­si­tional na­tion, “con­ceived in lib­erty” and “ded­i­cated” to a cer­tain “propo­si­tion” (as Lincoln put it in the Get­tys­burg ad­dress)? I would be the last to deny that our com­mon his­tory has be­queathed to us cer­tain truths, in­clud­ing those in the pre­am­ble of the Dec­la­ra­tion, but, again, this is far from unique to Amer­ica and does not re­duce Amer­ica to a mere creed. What makes us all Amer­i­cans is some­thing that can­not be put into words nor re­duced to an af­fir­ma­tion of ab­stract ideas. We share what the Hun­gar­ian philoso­pher Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowl­edge,” a vis­ceral un­der­stand­ing of what it is to be, to feel and to act as an Amer­i­can. This tacit knowl­edge takes the form of non-cog­ni­tive tra­di­tions and prac­tices, in­clud­ing how to run a Lit­tle League, how to par­tic­i­pate in a town hall and how to feel about the flag and the na­tional an­them.

What’s the harm in indulging in the myth that Amer­ica is an idea and not a coun­try? My an­swer: The myth has per­ni­cious con­se­quences in our think­ing about im­mi­gra­tion and cit­i­zen­ship and in our for­eign pol­icy.

If Amer­ica were merely a creedal as­so­ci­a­tion, then it would be im­moral for us to deny cit­i­zen­ship to any­one who sin­cerely af­firms the same propo­si­tions. There would be no grounds for re­fus­ing cit­i­zen­ship to any right-think­ing per­son sim­ply on the ba­sis of the ac­ci­dents of parent­age or birth­place. It is true that Amer­ica wouldn’t be Amer­ica with a steady in­flux of ea­ger new­com­ers, but there is a limit to ev­ery good. No po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity can sur­vive the in­flux of too many im­mi­grants in too short a time. As Aris­to­tle long ago rec­og­nized, it is shared habits that mat­ter, not merely com­mon ap­proval of ab­stract prin­ci­ples, and habits can­not sur­vive if over­whelmed by the ar­rival of the un­hab­it­u­ated. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­sus Bureau, im­mi­grants com­prise 13 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, with an­other 11 per­cent chil­dren of im­mi­grants. In 2050, th­ese fig­ures will be 19 per­cent and 34 per­cent —nearly half the pop­u­la­tion, un­prece­dented lev­els.

Fi­nally, if we em­brace the myth of propo­si­tional na­tion­al­ism, we will fall prey to the idea that Amer­ica has a global mis­sion to prop­a­gate Amer­i­can ideas, just as Napoleon be­lieved that he was cho­sen by fate to spread the ideals of the French Rev­o­lu­tion to the whole world. If, in con­trast, Amer­ica is an or­di­nary coun­try, then Amer­i­cans will be once again, as John Adams put it, “the friends of lib­erty ev­ery­where but the guardians only of their own.” We Amer­i­cans need to fo­cus on do­mes­tic ills, in­clud­ing un­der­em­ploy­ment, the dis­ap­pear­ing mid­dle class, and abysmal mar­riage and birth rates, be­fore we can tackle those of the rest of the world.


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