America: proposition nation?

There isn’t much more inhuman in our national life than the notion that the United States is a “creedal” or “propositional” nation. We need something to hold us together, so it is said, and we don’t have blood and soil, which sounds Nazi anyway, so we have to rely on our national creed - the proposition that all men are created equal. It is acceptance of that creed that makes us American, and since anyone can accept it, anyone from anywhere can become an American immediately simply by saying the magic words, while otherwise staying just as he is.

So what’s wrong with the idea? Lots:

  • The more insistent people get that America is a propositional nation the more conclusions they try to extract from the notion of equality. Equality quickly becomes destructive, however, because all it can tell you is that nothing can have any quality that makes it different from anything else. A little equality may be good, as a restraint on other things and as recognition of certain respects in which we are indeed equal, but it becomes crushing and inhuman when made the sole basis of a constitution. It doesn’t help to add liberty, since on the abstract line of thought proposed liberty turns out to be identical with equality—everyone has the same right to get his own way. (If the two weren’t the same why would the ACLU be so strongly committed to diversity, inclusiveness, affirmative action and all the rest of it?)
  • If a nation is creedal the people can’t be self-governing. The creed’s coherence requires an authorized interpreter, and whoever the interpreter is gets to tell everyone else what to think and do, and no backtalk. Since dissent from the creed is a direct attack on the social order, the more the implications of the creed get translated directly into law the narrower the range of permissible opinion. If the creed is liberty and equality it will therefore turn out in practice to be a form of those things that is indistinguishable from servitude.
  • What happens to people who are born American of American parents, live in America, marry American, have American children, work for a living, obey the law, pay their taxes and mow their lawns, but decide they reject the creed? Do they suddenly become not American? What’s so tolerant, inclusive and un-mean-spirited about that? Shouldn’t there be an essential difference between a nation and a political movement?
  • Does anyone anywhere have the right not to be an American? If being an American is simply accepting human equality, and if accepting human equality is incontestibly right and refusing it is simply embracing discrimination, oppression and violence, then why shouldn’t it be universally compulsory? If American government is based on a universal proposition and not on particularist claims and loyalties, then why doesn’t whatever right American government has to rule America apply equally to Madagascar?
For all these reasons it’s wrong to view America as a propositional nation. America is a particular group of people living together in one place under common institutions and joined together by their history as such, and by the beliefs, attitudes and habits, the loyalties and aversions, the personal and family ties, and even the distinctions and disputes that have grown out of that history. To reduce all those human realities to a proposition is unforgivable. It is certainly legitimate to propose that our life together be inspired by certain truths about man and the common good. The practical function of defining America as a propositional nation, however, is to foreclose discussion of just what those truths are. It is to abolish America as a human reality in the interests of America as the ideological project of a manipulative elite.
Posted by Jim Kalb at June 03, 2002 12:26 PM | Send

I’d recommend Robert Locke’s extended variation on this theme in today’s (June 4) FrontPage.


Posted by: William Wleklinski on June 4, 2002 3:01 PM
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