Defining America: Ideals vs. Just an Address

Is America more than an address? And if so, what? These are questions that we're having extraordinary difficulties answering together in contemporary America.

America has always faced a challenge in defining itself as a nation. Unlike the historic situation in, for example, France or China, nationhood in the United States has not been a matter of shared ancestry, nor a timeless connection to the same stretch of land.

America was a special case of a nation constituted by an act of will to realize certain ideals. Even at the outset, "the American people" was a diversity of peoples, held together by a common commitment to certain ideas and values - like those connecting legitimacy to the consent of the governed and those asserting everyone's having been created equal-- and by a constitutional form of government that embodied that commitment.

The US has been able to absorb waves of immigrants into full and equal membership in this nationhood. This ability derived from the unquestioned dominance of American culture by a vision enshrining those ideals. Amid diversity, veneration of the founding culture held sway. Immigrants and their children, exposed to America's self-confident political culture and civil religion, were thus readily enculturated into the understanding that America was more than an address.

But in recent years, America has been engaged in a cultural civil war. When questions arise - such as "How should the history of this country be taught to our children?" and "What works should comprise the basic canon of ideas to which an educated person should be exposed?" - the response has been bitter dispute, not consensus.

That makes this an inopportune time for this society to be trying to absorb great numbers of immigrants. But we have constant new arrivals needing enculturation into what it means to be an American: our children.

While the combatants in America's culture war - the ideological elites of right and left - do battle, the cultural vacuum gets filled by a popular culture that gives Americans some vestige of shared experience. As the shared connection to the meaning and history of their country attenuates, the majority of Americans have less and less to hold them together besides the shared experience of Super Bowls, "Titanic" films, and Big Macs.

But the popular culture that is "Americanizing" the rest of the world is hardly enough to hold America together. Mass entertainments and consumer goods can hardly replace the moral and spiritual vision that came to fruition in the birth of this nation. And a group that shares only those pieces of culture that garner high ratings is not a people but only a multitude, lacking the coherence of purpose required to meet the challenge of making society work.

AS nations around the world split apart on ethnic, religious, and tribal lines, surely it would be foolhardy for us Americans to conduct an experiment to see if a sense of shared nationhood is altogether dispensable. The "American experiment" should be about more than finding out whether it's enough for a multitude simply to play out the game of their individual lives on the same piece of North American real estate.

To restore a meaningful sense of nationhood, this country needs a successful "peace process" in the culture wars. It needs to regain some consensus on the meaning of this nation - a vision of shared heritage that entails resolution of some contentious issues.

Central among these are: How much should American history focus on the traditionally dominant Anglo-Saxon groups, and how much on the other diverse - often oppressed - groups that also have comprised the American story? And how much, in our cultural canon, should the works of "Dead White Males" be given privileged position?

A resolution on these divisive questions is possible - one that honors both the reality that history does confer priority on our founding culture and the reality that this culture had flaws and has been enriched by other cultural currents. But as for the particular lines of that resolution -- well, that's another story.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler writes on philosophical issues from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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