Politics & Policy

One Nation, Under God or Not

Living in America.

After all the hysteria over the Pledge of Allegiance and school vouchers, it’ll be hard for me to get you to take a slice of your Friday afternoon to read yet one more column on the separation of Church and State. So let me see if this gets your attention:

The Constitution doesn’t matter that much.

Let me explain. For all the talk about how America is a “nation of laws,” it’s also just a nation, period. While they can take it too far, the central insight of the “paleocons” is absolutely correct. America has a culture, a history, a “people.” (See John Derbyshire’s wonderful discussion of American culture.) Americans, as Derbyshire notes, spend a vast amount of time whining and arguing about their differences. But we are actually remarkably united around the important things. Which is why, as a wise man once noted, America can choke on a gnat but swallow tigers whole. America is not just a state with a bunch of laws. America isn’t like a 747. You can’t swap crews and expect it to run the same way. If you emptied the United States of all its current residents and replaced them with immigrants from all over the world, you could not recreate America — even if you kept all of the laws and rules we operate under.

Yes, it’s wonderful that we’re a nation of laws, but we are not the great nation we are because of the cleverness of those laws. Rather we are great because of the people who respect those laws — and sometimes we are great because of the people who don’t respect our laws.


Take Canada, for example. The political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset has studied the differences between Canada and the United States. In many respects, the first Canadians were ethnically identical to the first Americans. The main difference between the two groups is that the Canucks were the folks who stayed loyal to the British throne. Lots of Royalist Americans fled to Canada when they lost the American Revolution (and good riddance, too). Over the years, American culture was further nourished by immigrants with the guts to start over in the New World, free from arbitrary and tyrannical rule. The definitive source for this analysis is, of course, the movie Stripes.

We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi, we’re not Spartans, we’re Americans! With a capital “A,” huh? And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world!

Ultimately, America and Canada became very different cultures. One of Lipset’s favorite illustrations of this point is the metric system — or as good Americans say, “the hated Jacobin perfidy known as the metric system.” Canada and the United States both instructed their citizens to use the metric system at around the same time (1970 and 1975, respectively). The Canadians, true to their Royalist toady roots, leapt to their feet and declared, “Aye, aye, eh!” The Americans yawned. Today, the Canadians do everything metric-style while we still kick it old-school. The only metric-system stuff we know is that cocaine is sold in kilos. (If you’re interested in learning more about the metric system — get your ass out of my country. Just kidding. See “Dispatches from Skeeve Central.“)

Some liberals actively dislike American culture, believing it to be racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever. But in reality most liberals and most Americans in general are in a state of active, ideologically-driven denial that there’s an American culture at all.

Consider the use and abuse of the phrase “the American way.” People for the American Way use the phrase ironically, to suggest that there is in fact no American way. Whenever local communities or government institutions of any kind try to “impose” a cultural norm which offends one minority or another, they swoop in to denounce the majority’s tyranny over the minority. Whenever conservatives use the phrase “the American way” to justify, say, school prayer, it’s denounced as McCarthyism. The only time Americans can agree that “the American way” is a legitimate term is when it’s used to emphasize the freedom of the individual to do things his own way.

But this cult of personal liberty obscures the fact that Americans belong to a culture. I remember when I was taking Czech lessons before I left for Prague to teach English and be a Starving Writer (I batted .500, neither starving nor writing). My tutor, a Czech immigrant living in New York, explained how difficult the transition to American culture was. “Why do you ask strangers how they ‘are doing’?” “Why do you say ‘hello’ in elevators?” When I got to Prague, I discovered she was an extrovert compared to the Czechs.

One more quick story: One of the reasons I was an unsuccessful writer in Prague was that my friend and I spent so much time in Czech casinos. And the reason we spent so much time in the casinos was on account of our Americanness. The manager of one establishment, a South African who’d worked in casinos all around the world, explained to us that Americans were great for business — but not because we were big spenders (we weren’t). Most Europeans gamble as if their kidneys were on the line. You see: It’s a Very Serious Affair, wagering. Americans gamble like teenagers in a rumpus room. European gambling culture arose in hoity-toity men’s clubs, the manager explained. Gambling in America, meanwhile, took root in saloons and cowboy towns.

For this reason — or maybe because my buddy and I were drunk idiots playing with money only marginally more valuable than seashells — the manager liked to have us around because we made the place more fun, we’d yell “bada-bing!” every time we got a card we liked, and we’d jokingly demand “even money” payouts when the dealer got blackjack (“No, no, I take your money now,” the confused lady blackjack dealer would explain. “No, if we were in Italy, that would be a blackjack. But since we’re in Prague, you pay me,” we’d respond).

Our uniquely American buffoonery gave the room a buzz and got the high-rollers to bet bigger, which is why the South African guy fed us free drinks and free food whenever we showed up (and why the regulars cheered our arrival like we were Norm from Cheers).


Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, America has a culture. But we also have a Catch-22 clause written into our cultural DNA (“Now that’s a mixed metaphor!” my couch just yelled from the comfort of his new digs). This clause says that we cannot trust our culture. We need written laws to make us behave properly. This genetic glitch expresses itself most powerfully among liberals who believe that “hate-crimes laws” will keep people from committing murder where homicide laws, including the death penalty, will not. But conservatives suffer from this malady too. All sorts of conservatives believe that democratically debated, legally enacted laws on, say, military tribunals or FBI surveillance of libraries have the power to usher in a police state. Not to rehash my skepticism of such arguments, but I don’t buy it.

Samuel Huntington, the famed author of The Clash of Civilizations, wrote in Political Order in Changing Societies:

The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government. The differences between democracy and dictatorship are less than the differences between those countries whose politics embodies consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, [and] stability, and those countries whose politics is deficient in these qualities.

What the acclaimed political scientist was saying is in a sense extremely un-American, but entirely true. A dictatorship can be more “liberal” (in the classical sense) than a democracy. A dictator — or monarch — can, in principle, protect civil rights and the rule of law as well as a democracy does. Americans are often led to believe that democracy, by definition, protects civil rights. But — speaking solely of the abstraction we call democracy — democracy has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. Under a democracy, 51 percent of the people can vote to pee in the cornflakes of 49 percent of the people (slave-holding states were ruled by tyrannical majorities, after all). In Saudi Arabia, if elections were held tomorrow, it’s entirely likely that the people would vote to keep their system of government unfree. Indeed, in America it is not the ballot box but the judicial branch — the only non-democratic institution we have — which preserves our liberties. And it was in the United Kingdom that individual rights were born — out of monarchy and an unwritten constitution.

For most people in the world, being able to vote is a secondary, if not trivial consideration when contrasted with the freedom to work and own property, to speak, to travel, and to worship freely and to be immune to the arbitrary intrusions of the state. I haven’t done much traveling in the Third World, but Robert Kaplan has. He writes of Huntington’s assertion, “The statement that the distinction between democracies and dictatorships is less important than it seems will come as no surprise to those who have experienced the social chaos in, say, Nigeria and Ghana, despite the elections that those countries hold, and have also experienced the relative openness and civil stability of more-autocratic societies such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Singapore.”

In other words, if you’re a normal person with normal ambitions, living in a dictatorship isn’t necessarily all that bad. If I were black, I’d certainly rather live in 1980s Chile than 1850s Alabama and, as a Jew, there were lots of “tyrannical” places I’d rather have lived than democratic Germany in the 1930s.

In short, I think the rule of law is more important than democracy by a long shot. It’s not even close. People who place democracy on a higher pedestal than the rule of law exalt the self-esteem and ambition of the mob over all else. But the funny hitch is that democracy is, to date, the best (or least worst, as Churchill might say) system we have for protecting the rule of law. When I say system I mean exactly that, a system. You can draw it on a big piece of paper: Citizens (easily defined) vote (easily described process) on a certain date for candidates for specific offices. There’s no magic or mystery to an election. Like with babies, anyone can have one.

But having a baby isn’t the hard part. Raising a baby successfully takes values, discipline, knowledge, virtue, instincts — innate and learned — and a host of other intangibles. Similarly, having an election is the easy part. Any mob of crypto-Nazis or Islamic radicals can pull a lever and declare their views to be “democratic” (it’s happened before). What is required for a successful society is more than Jimmy Carter nodding his approval at a bunch of stuffed ballot boxes. In other words, it takes a culture which instinctively understands what is important and what isn’t.

If you step back and listen to the arguments over the Pledge of Allegiance it’s amazing how diverse, and often stupid, the debate is. There’s almost no argument, pro or con, which hasn’t been made ten times over in every variation of passion. Yeah, intellectually, many liberals agree with the court. And many conservatives are content to concede that this decision is at least consistent with legal precedents (even if, to paraphrase Dickens, the precedents are an ass).

But emotionally, instinctively, most people think this was an idiotic decision at minimum and a dangerous one at worst. The instantaneous 99-0 vote in the Senate, the little-noticed fact that evangelical secularist Barry Lynn and the plaintiff are pretty much the only two people willing to defend this decision on TV, the general mockery from late-night comics — all point to the fact that most Americans don’t care whether the constitutional reasoning is solid. Whatever the Constitution says, we’re Americans; we’re one nation, under God, for the most part, indivisible, when it matters, with liberty and justice for all — whenever possible.


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