Politics & Policy

Who Americans Are

Crowd at Fenway Park in Boston, 2014 (Photo: Cpenler/Dreamstime)
Philosophical patriotism and cultural identity in our factious time

1. The Freedom Shrine

The public schools of my youth always had a wall on which had been mounted something called the “Freedom Shrine.” The Freedom Shrine comprised replicas of various great documents of America, such as the Declaration of the Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Lincoln’s Gettysburg and second inaugural addresses, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Maybe you have seen a Freedom Shrine as well; the National Exchange Club sells them to civic and educational institutions across the country.

I have been thinking about the Freedom Shrine because I have been thinking about what America is and who should get to be an American. Our answers to this deep question imply much at the surface of politics. Matters of immigration and refugee policy, for instance, depend on who we think should get to be an American, or at least get to be in America.

In the election of Donald Trump and kindred European populisms, we have seen reassertions of ancestral loyalties — of geography, culture, religion, ethnicity — against multiculturalism, whatever that precisely is. Public soliloquizers have wondered whether this amounts to a resurgence of nativist bigotry or is a meet reply to an unjust demand that particular peoples give up aspects of their particularity for the sake of a political abstraction. Perhaps a bit of both, the proportion varying with the issue and the individual?

So we should also think about this question: What is, and should be, the relation of liberal democracy to the cultures and peoples that have tried to practice it? Closer to home, what is and should be the relation of the Enlightenment beliefs that inspired the founders of this nation to reflect that “all men are created equal” and endowed with certain “unalienable rights” and on that basis to wage a revolution, to the people who enjoy the fruits of that revolution today?

The Freedom Shrine is a useful cultural artifact from which to approach such questions — or is it a useful political abstraction from which to approach such questions? Intriguingly, it is both — both a collection of documents and, in my case, a childhood memory, something I saw on the way to the lunchroom and associate with an emotionally and aesthetically ambivalent olfactory memory of the cafeteria lasagna.

And that is an important clue. If the Freedom Shrine can be simultaneously a cultural artifact and an abstraction, then America can be simultaneously a people and an idea. But what kind of people, and what idea? How are they related? And might the details help settle arguments lately had?

2. The American Idea

Reflect, first, on what has been called the “American idea”: the political-philosophical beliefs that lie at the foundation of our politics and form of government.

More specifically, consider the maxim that government should be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” in Lincoln’s pleasingly parallel phrase. This means, I take it, that citizens should have equal standing to participate in representative government under laws equally applied to all. Let’s call this, the pith of the American idea, “procedural liberalism.”

Note that so far we have not said anything about what the laws should be. Procedural liberalism is formal, not substantive: It is just a process for making laws. Most of the Constitution is devoted to prescribing the details of the procedure.

Procedural liberalism is formal, yet the form implies content: certain preconditions absent which liberal procedures will not work, certain limits the government must respect if they are to keep working. Much of the First Amendment, for example, can be seen in this light. Procedural liberalism will not be possible if the people lack the freedoms of speech, of assembly, of the press, because it is through such freedoms that they conduct the political process.

But this way of putting things makes it sound as if procedural liberalism were the goal and the rights of individuals merely a means of attaining it, justified only because it is. The justification is the reverse: The procedure is worth practicing only if, and because, it secures the rights of individuals. The procedure is the servant of human beings.

In broadest terms, the rights of individuals are adumbrated in the Declaration’s triad of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The last — Jefferson’s expansion of the Lockean “property” — is sometimes alleged to involve a contradiction, for suppose my pursuit of happiness involves blocking yours; or, in a more contemporary formulation, would it not be intolerant not to tolerate the intolerant? But the perception of contradiction is due to an equivocation. For what we must tolerate are pursuits of happiness defined without reference to other people’s pursuits (“I’d like some ice cream now”), or else with cooperative reference (“Let’s go have some ice cream”), while what we do not tolerate are pursuits of happiness parasitically defined in terms of coercively1  blocking others’ pursuits (“I won’t let you get your ice cream”). (Pursuits can of course be negative; I can want not to have any ice cream, and your pursuit of happiness would be parasitic on mine if you compelled me to eat some.) This is something a child can understand. When I was young, a friend celebrating his birthday observed a ritual of wishing upon the giver of each gift a just recompense. My gift of something Nerf being particularly splendid, he wished me whatever I wanted. Upon his bestowal of the next wish to his cousin, with whom I was in a state of war, I exercised my own by wishing hers unfulfilled. But my friend was intuitively a procedural liberal, and he thwarted my authoritarian impulse by amending my wish to “a billion dollars.” (It has not proved efficacious.)

So we think people have rights. Why do we think this? The answer must be that we think human beings matter. We think that human beings, regardless of their specific attainments and attributes, possess some kind of worth and dignity just because they are human beings. That is what the Declaration of Independence should be taken to mean in its assertion of human equality. That is why we care whether human beings get to pursue their happiness. That is why we establish governments to guarantee the rights they need to pursue it.

With its assertion of universal human dignity, the American idea crosses from politics over into ethics, and often into religion. In the spirit of Jefferson, we might speak of the Creator as having endowed all people with dignity. In language like Kant’s, we might call human beings “sources of value.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we could invoke the worth of the soul. With ancient Stoics, we might perceive human participation in a divine logos. We might reject the need of a why and present our belief in human dignity as axiomatic. And this is not an exhaustive list. Different versions of the ethical fine print are politically compatible as long as they all point to the conclusion that people should get to pursue their happiness.

The freedom and good of the human individual — not that of government, or society, or the culture, or any tradition — are the purpose and measure of politics.

That conclusion implies that the freedom and good of the human individual — not that of government, or society, or the culture, or any tradition — are the purpose and measure of politics. The polity in all its dimensions exists for the sake of the citizen. But this does not mean that the individual is a hyper-autonomous Randian superman. He cannot, except under very unnatural and austere circumstances, exist apart from a particular society, and he depends on that society to respect his dignity.

Which reveals something important: that the acknowledgment of human dignity must be a cultural reality if it is to be a political one. Only a culture that respects the individual “in his single majesty”2 can be trusted not to democratically abridge his rights at its whim or even to replace procedural liberalism with an authoritarian alternative. Procedural liberalism thus could not be practiced in a society that believed in rule according to Scripture, or subject to the divine right of kings, or under a “revolutionary” party that forbade competitive elections, because then government would not be by the people but rather by some authority to which the people must submit themselves.

Nor could procedural liberalism be practiced stably in a society that enforced a caste system, since it would be impossible to justify unequal treatment in the face of a nominal commitment to the universality of human dignity. This was the lesson that America’s founding evil, racial chattel slavery, imparted at an appalling cost in blood. To adopt the Old Testament style that Lincoln arranged to influence our thinking about the Civil War, it was as if the ideas of the Declaration could not stand the contradiction and came down like Jehovah full of wrath. But what the Founders had perceived — clearly if, in some cases, hypocritically — was enough eventually to light that particular moral darkness, and others besides.

3. Peoples of the Idea

Curiously, nothing I have said so far is specifically American; it is just a set of beliefs about human beings and what governments owe them. How does the distinctively American culture fit in? Does anything unite Americans other than their practice of republican democracy? The Declaration speaks of governments, but one might challenge the plural: for if rights and dignity are universal, if in the spirit of Schiller and Beethoven we are all brothers and sisters, what reason is there to maintain the more particular loyalties that are the historical bases of most nation-states?

Enlightenment liberalism has posed that question with a unique urgency, but it is also ancient. A millennium and a half before the Founding, the philosopher and manumitted slave Epictetus was recorded to have made the following startling remark:

If there is any truth in what the philosophers say about the kinship between God and humanity, what course is left for human beings [other] than to follow the example of Socrates, and when one is asked where one is from, never to reply, “I’m an Athenian” or “I’m a Corinthian,” but rather, “I’m a citizen of the universe”?3

Yet Epictetus was certainly no revolutionary; and so despite its provocative flavor, “citizen of the universe” should not be taken as a political label. “Athenian” and “Corinthian” indeed refer not only to polities but also to distinctive cultures and ways of living. The hortatory purpose of Epictetus was not to suppress such forms of particularity but rather to emphasize a kinship, and an ethics, compatible with their plurality. Epictetus lived under Rome, but he was also a Phrygian from Heirapolis. I am an American, but I am also many things connected to the place where I grew up: a liker of mountains and deserts who has a conservationist streak; a lapsed member of a particular church; someone with a practical need for a vehicle that isn’t especially fuel-efficient. A world without such particularity, and without the endlessly varying personal and social identities its admixtures make possible, would be a highly coerced world. And therefore — to the political point — not every place can plausibly have just the same laws and forms of administration, since these things will have to interact with and respect the many contingencies of pre-political life in sundry ways.

Perhaps philosophical patriotism must even harness our more concrete loyalties to convey it toward its noble destinations. As my colleague John O’Sullivan writes in his eloquent and insightful essay “A People, Not Just an Idea,”

the philosophical understanding [of America] is a very thin identity compared with the full richness of one rooted in the lived experience of a particular free society. . . . Americans are a distinct and recognizable people with their own history, culture, customs, loyalties, and other qualities that are wider and more various than the most virtuous summary of liberal values.

For example: When a local symphony orchestra played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a recent concert and the person sitting next to me did not rise, I felt a little irritated. I got a little choked up as I sang. And I suspect I would not have had such a reaction to “God Save the Queen” at a concert in London, even though it no less than “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the anthem of a liberal nation.

Still, we cannot assume that our ideological and tribal loyalties will irenically coincide. Suppose they clash. Suppose that elements of our culture are illiberal, or suppose they become so. What it means to be a liberal people is that in such cases we will take the idea as our guide. We will try to be truer to it.

Traditions don’t require any affirmative justification, but they do have to pass the test of being compatible with the American idea, which is the instrument by which we prune away bad growths.

This provides an insight into the value, and danger, of traditions. Traditions are very often crystallizations of wisdom acquired gradually through the experience of many. But the traditional is not to be preserved simply because it is traditional, because traditions can also fossilize not just ancient inefficiencies but ancient hatreds, perhaps spiritualized into subtle and semi-aware forms, and must be subject to our ongoing practical and moral evaluation. Traditions don’t require any affirmative justification, but they do have to pass the test of being compatible with the American idea, which is the instrument by which we prune away bad growths. Otherwise, we leave the culture to flourish naturally in its freedom.

Any pseudo-quantitative question of whether America is more an idea or a people should therefore be dismissed. The idea and the people are not of the same kind, susceptible of measurement in their proportions, but rather constitute a relationship between a set of beliefs and those who try to live in harmony with them.

4. CliffsNotes or Criterion?

The nature of that relationship may become clearer if we contrast it with an alternative way of thinking about the American idea that Mr. O’Sullivan has put forward, in response to a reader, with the metaphor that the American idea is a kind of CliffsNotes to the American culture. This metaphor captures a certain truth, but at the expense of trivializing the need for reflection on the philosophical grounds of one’s patriotism. It suggests that, just as one has little need for summary of a book one has read, the American idea would be largely unnecessary if one were immersed in and identified with the full-blown American culture.

Now Mr. O’Sullivan had remarked in his essay that America was founded on the political ideas of “liberty and equality, which Jefferson helpfully wrote down in the Declaration of Independence”; and it’s clear that he wants the culture and not just the political system to embody those ideas; and it’s certainly true that one needn’t go around with thoughts of liberty and equality in one’s head in order to practice liberty and equality. Reflection on the principles of the Founding will be, for most Americans, infrequent and unnecessary. That is the truth in the CliffsNotes metaphor. But if one felt, say, a twinge of resentment toward a minority group or a political adversary, explicit thoughts of liberty and equality might become suddenly important. One might need to resolve a moral or political dilemma with reference to them. And that is what the metaphor fails to capture; it elides the need for ethical justification and obscures the way in which the American culture takes the American idea as its guide and not just its summary. It thus makes it hard to see the idea as anything more than a preference: If the idea is just a reduction of what we already are, then we practice a liberal politics just because we already want to.

Unless we don’t. What was the Confederacy if not an attempt to preserve an American subculture that defined itself in terms of a master–slave relation? What even was the correct CliffsNotes for the United States of the Civil War era? And what justified abolition? The mere historical fact that the Confederacy lost the Civil War and the American culture thereby changed? No. The Confederacy would have deserved to lose the Civil War even if it hadn’t. Jefferson helpfully wrote down the reason why.

One strength of defining Americanness in terms of culture, Mr. O’Sullivan writes, is that “an American identity rooted in cultural familiarity will be more genuinely liberal than one attached to the American idea. It allows someone to reject the dominant ethos of his society without losing his claim to be an American — the concept of un-Americanism being essentially un-American.” For example:

How does the American idea cope with the native American Marxist? He denies the American idea but he can’t be denied entry to American institutions? At least in principle the idea insinuates disloyalty but offers no solution to it. A broader cultural concept holds that an American is likely to be a less consistent Marxist in practice than someone brought up in a despotic culture.

Quite plausibly. But even if so, there is, again, a lot of history testifying against blanket assumptions that the culture will be liberal. And regardless, the American idea is well equipped to cope with a budding homegrown despot. The guarantees of the Constitution secure his right to speak his mind — and, yes, “to enter American institutions.” He may even propose to abolish those institutions and replace them with authoritarian ones. But if this is what he wants to do, we should be a little wary of him. We should see him as disloyal to our political principles, for he wants to replace them with something different and incompatible. And if he becomes a revolutionary, we will have no choice but to imprison him. The American idea appropriately brands him un-American reciprocally and proportionately to the nature of his rejection of it. It does this on distinct political and cultural levels. Politically, it demands his lawfulness; culturally, it guards us against his suasion.

A philosophical understanding of national identity will be especially important in a multi-ethnic polity, since such a polity will need some trans-ethnic understanding of community to inoculate itself against cultural fragmentation. The moral-criterion aspect of the American idea is useful here, in that it helps us conduct debates about assimilation and multiculturalism without treating them as monolithic and mutually exclusive alternatives. Mr. O’Sullivan finds that,

if Americans are a distinct people, with their own history, traditions, institutions, and common culture, then they can reasonably claim that immigrants should adapt to them and to their society rather than the reverse.

If America is an idea, however, then Americans are not a particular people but simply individuals or several different peoples living under a liberal constitution. That vision of identity would inevitably become a carrier of multiculturalism. For if Americans are not a particular people, then there is no justification for America’s common culture to be “privileged” over the cultures of current and future immigrants.

But as Mr. O’Sullivan’s reader asked, what is to be privileged? Do we want assimilation in every aspect of culture? Most of us are certainly multiculturalists when it comes to dining and booze. On the other hand, as noted above, a caste system or a demand for legal deference to Scripture must be regarded as hostile to procedural liberalism and therefore to the American political system. Certain preconditions must also be met if political cooperation is even to be possible. The polity must, for example, speak and read a common language, even if some groups also have tongues of their own. The American idea, in its role as moral criterion, asks us to examine how different aspects of culture relate to our system of politics and holds that we may justly expect citizens to assimilate to that, and only to that, which the system requires. It thereby helps ensure both that assimilation does not destroy particularity and that particularity does not devolve into a Balkanized condition. In two words, it helps us see why we should worry about sharia but not burkinis.

A philosophical understanding of national identity will be especially important in a multi-ethnic polity, since such a polity will need some trans-ethnic understanding of community to inoculate itself against cultural fragmentation.

Finally, consider the moral standing of nations, and specifically of the United States. If American exceptionalism means that the United States is categorically or intrinsically superior to other nations then of course it must be rejected as chauvinistic. This was the subtext of President Obama’s remark “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But in respect of politics, America is, and other liberal nations are, superior to illiberal nations, and nothing bars any nation from adopting procedural liberalism and the implied constellation of ethical beliefs as the moral criterion of its own political and cultural particularity. In that sense, a liberal exceptionalism is not an exclusion but an invitation, and the nations that have accepted the invitation are those with which the United States can ally itself in unblemished conscience.

5. Illiberal Progressives and Latter-Day Calhounists

Distorted understandings of the American idea and its relation to American culture can harm both, and the Left and the Right each has its characteristic distortion.

On the left, there is a temptation to implement progressive policies through coercion, with implicit contempt for the consent of the governed. As my colleagues Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru have compellingly argued, such contempt has been evident in everything from the Obama administration’s wish to expand prosecutorial discretion into a cover for categorically declining to enforce immigration laws,4 to the increasing power of administrative bureaucracies to fill in the substance of vague legislation, to the Supreme Court’s semi-regular discovery of new legal rights that no lawmaker or citizen ever voted to recognize. I myself have sometimes liked the outcomes, but the means must be considered illiberal. Moreover, the notion that disagreements permitting a variety of resolutions compatible with procedural liberalism are to be settled with reference to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence rather than calmly submitted to the political process implies that at least one viewpoint in the dispute is not simply mistaken but un-American. That implication is usually slanderous. When so, it marks the transition from disagreement to calumny. At the extreme, it occasions political violence.

The ready defense of procedural illiberalism available here is that certain outrageous forms of injustice, such as slavery and racial segregation, were not removed by the consent of the governed. But the injustices at issue, far from having been political controversies among free and equal citizens, originated in an explicit refusal under the law to let slaves participate in the political process or enjoy basic liberty at all, and, later, to allow black Americans equal access to civil institutions and established public goods. All of this differs categorically from the circumstances surrounding various causes mistaken today for the leading edge of an intellectually unified progress toward full civil rights: issues such as same-sex marriage or transgender bathroom access in public schools, which the Constitution and Title IX protections of gender equality, respectively, never contemplated, and which therefore want legislative resolution.5 Perhaps one lesson of American racial history is that grievous, considered departures from procedural liberalism can have drastic consequences that will be corrigible only via further departures. Yet this is no argument for coercion in areas where the political process is working and compensates for a longer gestation by delivering reforms of greater legitimacy.

Another lesson is that martyrs will often be required to establish the cultural preconditions of liberalism. Yet this is no argument against the American idea: Anyone who rejects Enlightenment liberalism on the grounds that people are inherently tribal, mobbish, nasty, brutish, and cetera should instead be grateful for what our forebears achieved against the odds. Which brings us to the characteristic problem of today’s Right: Precisely because people are tribal and cetera, if one fails to exercise philosophical discernment in deciding which aspects of culture are to be treated as important, one might end up wanting to exclude people for petty and inconsequential reasons, or perhaps for no reason at all.

Consider in this connection an anecdote from W. V. O. Quine. In an otherwise unrelated essay discussing “extensionalism” — broadly, the practice of defining terms by reference to the objects they apply to, rather than by reference to abstract properties considered independently of their instantiating objects — Quine reports:

My first inarticulate hint of extensionalism may date from boyhood, when my liking for some Jewish schoolmates collided with someone’s occasional derogatory remark about Jews. I reasoned in effect that a class is to be evaluated, if at all, by evaluating its members individually.6

We derive certain facts about classes by evaluating their members individually; that is how we get averages. But evaluating people often involves making decisions about how to treat them, and I take the young Quine to have recognized that abstractions about classes should not serve as grounds for mistreatment of flesh-and-blood individuals, not one of whom need conform to the average.7 Such a recognition was notably absent in, for example, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remark that “if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” Prescinding from questions of gun policy, note the stereotyping sloppiness of “those Muslims”; what Falwell ought to have said is “those terrorists,” a term denoting just the subclass to which his consideration applies. Consider as Exhibit B Donald Trump’s remark, in announcing his presidential candidacy, that “when Mexico sends its people [to the U.S.], they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Only as an afterthought did Trump concede that “some . . . are good people”; the emphasis was strongly and imaginatively elsewhere.

Such a remark may be unconsidered and therefore corrigible, and the speaker will be more inclined to open his mind if we reason with him rather than shout him down. What is troubling about the small but recently prominent movement known as the alt-right (alternative right), however, is that it embraces this kind of prejudice deliberately. Some of its adherents do so in flippancy, say Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, two of its apologists, who assert that the proliferation of bigoted memes on alt-right social-media accounts is meant “simply to fluster [the posters’] grandparents” and is a “typically juvenile but undeniably hysterical” protest against political correctness. What is apparently under protest, however, is not political correctness but common decency, which is practiced not exclusively among senior citizens and requires, among other things, that one not refer to a white couple’s adopted black child as their “niglet” or photoshop her face onto an image of a slave, as anonymous alt-right bullies did to the daughter of my colleague David French and his wife.

More insidiously, Bokhari and Yiannopoulos write that

the alt-right’s intellectuals would . . . argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved. A Mosque next to an English street full of houses bearing the flag of St. George, according to alt-righters, is neither an English street nor a Muslim street — separation is necessary for distinctiveness.

The example is so inapt as to seem a sly propagandistic diversion: “English” is an ethnic label, not a racial one; “Muslim” is neither. The example is falsely reductive in its treatment of cultures as monoliths. And if meant to apply generally, it amounts to a defense of unkindness, even cruelty, in the name of aesthetic preference: for imagine some group of refugees who pose no threat and are keen to embrace our political principles. Are they to be excluded from our community — and some, let us suppose, thereby made to die — in the name of architectural uniformity? This follows from the criterion that the example implies.

As for the example itself, the authors would presumably maintain that the presence of a mosque will coincide with things more alarming, such as a desire to live under sharia rather than British law when the two conflict. But this would still be grossly unfair to every British Muslim who does not so desire. If one wishes to speak of sharia, one should speak of sharia. The overbroadness of the mosque as a metonym marks the point at which criticism becomes demagogy.

In any case, what the alt-right’s intellectuals actually believe about race is worse. It is not merely that “culture is inseparable from race” and that cultural distinctiveness should be preserved, as if all cultures-cum-races were equally to be cherished. Rather, in a kind of updated Calhounism, prominent alt-right intellectuals such as Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor believe that some races and ethnicities are less socially desirable than others. In some cases, as in the alt-right’s conspiracy-minded anti-Semitism, this attitude represents a revival of familiar bigotries. But in other applications the prejudice comes with a sophistical patina of scientific pseudo-justification.

For instance, alt-righties routinely point to racial gaps in average IQ scores, posit biological explanations of them, and draw normative conclusions hostile to certain races. In a 2010 essay8 at the alt-right webzine Radix in which he attempted to explain “why an alternative right is necessary,” Richard Hoste wrote, “We’ve known for a while through neuroscience and cross-adoption studies — if common sense wasn’t enough — that individuals differ in their inherent capabilities. The races do, too, with whites and Asians on the top and blacks at the bottom.” Hoste also claimed that “low-IQ Mexican immigration is the greatest threat to America.” This kind of argument is often made in defense of such alt-right enthusiasms as restricting immigration to people of European and perhaps Asian descent or — in the words of Radix publisher Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” — promoting “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and “white Zionism” to bring about “an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans.”

There is no expert consensus such as to justify the empirical portion of Hoste’s reasoning. Some researchers have found a statistically significant correlation between racial ancestry and average IQ after trying to account for environmental factors; some have presented evidence casting doubt on the existence a causal relation between the two. Some expect partial genetic explanations of the “racial IQ gap” eventually to be found; some think the explanation will be fully environmental. If genetics does play a causal role, it is presumably a very complicated one depending on many genes whose expression may in turn depend on environmental factors, and it may not align neatly with broad racial categories such as “Caucasian” or “African” or “Asian.” Nobody knows how one inherits intelligence9 even from one’s parents, let alone from one’s ancestor group more broadly defined.

We should be ready to explain why what the alt-right seeks would be wrong even if its premises were granted.

As always when people reach conclusions that the evidence has not established, it is appropriate to ask what might have motivated the leap, and the alt-right political program can leave little doubt about the answer in this case. But as always when the evidence is inconclusive, it is wise to prepare oneself for unhappy turns. We should be ready to explain why what the alt-right seeks would be wrong even if its premises were granted. Suppose, then, that scientists discovered genetic explanations of differences between the average cognitive or character traits, however defined and measured, of racial or ethnic groups. Would it follow that we should encourage voluntary segregation or try to keep certain races and ethnicities from becoming Americans?

Much of the public would surely misunderstand the nature of such explanations and embrace a crude reductionism like Hoste’s. They would do this largely in ignorance, interpreting small differences in gene frequencies as if they were “essential properties” of races.10 This error would partake of the whole sad current tendency to regard human nature as something biologically determined rather than biologically influenced and then, performing a contradiction, to draw ethical conclusions from that supposed determinacy — as if fate could be just another factor in one’s deliberations.

Where such carelessness catalyzed preexisting prejudice, it would provoke a lot of abuse of the “undesirable” races; racists do not, after all, typically tell minorities to get out of their communities by publishing webzines. There would also be spiritual damage to the character of the targeted people. If I am dismissed as unintelligent simply because I have a certain genetic ancestry, might I not be discouraged to learn? If told that I have a criminal’s genes, might I not take a rebellious pride in flouting the law?

But the most basic problem with the alt-right political program is that it seeks to treat a great many people badly not because of anything they have done — committed a crime, performed poorly in school — but rather because of what others of their group have done. In this the alt-right rejects any defensible idea of justice or moral accountability.

There are times when certain kinds of group averages reasonably inform public policy. But such policies will not unjustly harm individuals. To respectfully police a geographic area with higher-than-average rates of violent crime, for example, is no harm to the dignity of its residents; it is the opposite. But to tell someone he should leave the neighborhood because his skin color correlates with violent crime in a statistically significant way — that is a grave affront to his dignity when he is no criminal.

If the genetic arguments for bigotry are newish, the implied moral question — shall we trample all over large numbers of individuals, guided by statistics and hunches, chasing after some probabilistically predicted social benefit? — is not. I have pointed a finger at the alt-right, or the Dixiecrats, or the Confederacy, to trace an ideological morphology backward, but remember as well that the eugenicist (and often racist) bent of the Progressive era culminated in forced sterilization under the logic of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s opinion that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Why not go the alt-right a step farther, subjecting children of all races to IQ tests and assigning each to a career that a bureaucrat in consultation with a professor has deemed suitable for his cohort? Sterilization will in some cases be a job requirement.

Against this, the Freedom Shrine. Justice Holmes’s command was, as Richard Spencer has said his ethno-state would be, “based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.”

6. ‘Thou’ Is Not a Plural

There is something subtly wrong with the völkisch spirit even when it is not malign, which is that it can become a shackles on the individual.

Cultures provide an inheritance of ways of living and things to live for, and the individual becomes who he is in part by selecting among them or having certain ones imposed by families, friends, churches, schools. This is something that liberty- and authenticity-focused ethics usually downplays. But communitarian and traditionalist ethics downplays the possibility that the imposition of identity will become coercive or that too heavy a cultural inheritance will chafe.

Where one could meet a unique human individual, how sad to keep his or her mind and character hidden beneath one’s prior judgment, even if benign, of a racial or ethnic category, or to let such a judgment keep one from fully meeting oneself.

And at least culture is the right sort of thing to shape a personality. It addresses the mind and character and calls forth their personal response. That I am white, by contrast, that I have a certain ethno-genetic ancestry — this means as little as that my eyes are blueish and my hair is brown. This has nothing to do with personality. It is not untoward to have a personal response to something that itself cannot be personal, as in being moved by a sea- or mountainscape. But where one could meet a unique human individual, how sad to keep his or her mind and character hidden beneath one’s prior judgment, even if benign, of a racial or ethnic category, or to let such a judgment keep one from fully meeting oneself. In doing this one gives up Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim of judging individuals by the content of their character.

I do realize that I am lucky to be able to take such an attitude toward my race and ancestry. There are unhappy times when, in response to injustices of all kinds, it becomes necessary to stress collective identities more than we should like. “In order to construct a life with dignity,” writes K. Anthony Appiah, “it seems natural to take the collective identity [of a maltreated group] and construct positive life-scripts.” And yet beware:

Demanding respect for people as blacks and as gays requires that there are some scripts that go with being an African-American or having same-sex desires. There will be proper ways of being black and gay, there will be expectations to be met, demands will be made. It is at this point that someone who takes autonomy seriously will ask whether we have not replaced one kind of tyranny with another. If I had to choose between the world of the closet and the world of gay liberation, or between the world of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Black Power, I would, of course, choose in each case the latter. But I would like not to have to choose. I would like other options. The politics of recognition requires that one’s skin color, one’s sexual body, should be acknowledged politically in ways that make it hard for those who want to treat their skin and their sexual body as personal dimensions of the self. And personal means not secret, but not too tightly scripted.11

7. Generosity

The character of our culture is of consequence, and fortunately it is also under our joint voluntary control. We can at any time, in good republican spirit, reflect on the virtues we might like to characterize us as Americans even if the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution don’t mention them. I think one of them should be generosity. And we might like it to influence not only our political judgments but the political process itself.

Generosity or its lack is certainly relevant to contentions over immigration and refugees, to go back where we started. For example, an argument that some proposed group of immigrants is no more likely to commit crimes than the native population and that concerns about criminality among that group should therefore be dismissed has failed to appreciate that we need not tolerate any such risk: Immigrants are not yet our fellow citizens; we are not already faced with whatever dangers they might present; and taking them into our polity must therefore be understood not as a duty but as an act of generosity.12 Yet should generosity not move us, even if prudence must restrain it in ways that are hard to define schematically?

It perplexes me whenever I hear or read a conservative Christian with a deport-’em-all-and-lock-the-gate attitude. If we take seriously Jesus’ concern for the poor, why assess the desirability of an immigrant purely in terms of his skills and abilities, even if we must also beware social stratification and the creation of a de facto servant class? If we take the Sermon on the Mount’s theme of returning good for evil and the parable of the Good Samaritan’s expansive definition of one’s neighbor, what is implied about how we should treat vulnerable people — even when they are not very much like us, even when kindness toward large numbers of them is not free of peril? Only a saint would volunteer to let newcomers’ misdeeds descend on himself, but if we all prospectively accept that certain people among us — we know not which — will die for the sake of efficiency because we choose not to mandate a 40-mph speed limit on freeways (and why not 20?), will we refuse to put ourselves statistically, infinitesimally on the line for a nobler purpose?

We could be glad, in our abundance of spirit and property, that we are able to be generous. We could want to be generous as a way of actualizing our strength and our pride.

Not that Christianity has a monopoly on generosity. Any commitment to intrinsic human dignity will provide grounds for concerning ourselves with the well-being of others. Perhaps generosity can even have a quasi-egoistic basis. Aristotle believed that what motivates a benefactor is that the act of benefaction actualizes an aspect of his potentiality and, in that sense, brings him more fully into existence.13 In a similar way, we could be glad, in our abundance of spirit and property, that we are able to be generous. We could want to be generous as a way of actualizing our strength and our pride.

We could certainly be more generous to one another. This is true in the obvious sense that we should be able to disagree about a wide range of legislative questions without calling one another wicked. But it is also true of the spirit in which we criticize and receive criticisms of America itself. Much as in private conduct it is proper to be more concerned with one’s own errors than with others’, a great nation should hold itself to the highest standard. Criticism born of such a motive is an expression not of anti-Americanism but of patriotism. Yet it is also possible to swathe the substance of such criticism in a rhetoric of damnation, and in a culture full of disloyal protest, patriotic Americans might close their minds to loyal criticism because they mistake it for its rebellious cousin. They might also misperceive expectations of basic courtesy as the malicious censoriousness of a politically correct culture.

So it would be interesting, and might encourage generosity, to try an experiment in socio-political role reversal, with proportionally more voices on the right finding loyal fault and proportionally more voices on the left cutting some slack. The goal would be a politics simultaneously more tolerant overall and less tolerant of bigotry — more tolerant of (because more inclined to correct gently) the careless or unconsidered remark, less tolerant (because more responsive to such criticism) of latter-day Calhounists. Such a politics would be better equipped to practice the American idea; such a politics would become more American.

— Jason Lee Steorts is the managing editor of National Review.

1 I say “coercively” because one person’s pursuit of happiness can still frustrate someone else’s if mutually exclusive outcomes depend on the liberty of others (“And here is why you should hire my firm . . . ”) or simply on dumb luck, but this we must live with; this is part of freedom. So is hostile or even hateful speech; “coercively” is also meant to rule out its prohibition — though not its potential subjection to social opprobrium, which is also a matter of free expression (and free association). There will be cases in which we dispute what constitutes coercion. Some libertarians, for example, would say that the government abridges my pursuit of happiness by taxing me to pay for safety-net programs. I would reply that no particular pursuit of mine is blocked, nor any important one if the taxes are not too onerous, and also that preventing both extreme deprivation and the social consequences of extreme inequality is a public good whose provision serves everyone’s interests. Disagreement on such matters calls for further refinement of our understanding of the free pursuit of happiness, not the substitution of an alternative concept, and as the disagreement becomes more fine-grained, we should become cooler in our rhetoric, less prone to speaking as if the meaning of America itself were at issue.

2 Frank S. Meyer, In Defense of Liberty

3 Discourses, 1:9; Robin Hard, translator

4 A practice that the Trump administration has now imitated at least once, on the matter of the Johnson amendment.

5 The root principle here is that common law and constitutional jurisprudence should not develop in ways that beg questions in political dispute rather than merely specify the application of preexisting, more general laws or precedents. (Again, there will be disagreement about the further definition and application of the principle.)

6 Confessions of a Confirmed Extensionalist,” in Confessions of a Confirmed Extensionalist and Other Essays

7 They could be worse! But you wouldn’t know that either until you met them.

8 Ramesh Ponnuru brought Hoste’s essay to my attention in “The Alt-Right Makes a Dubious Claim on Conservatism,” Bloomberg View, August 25, 2016.

9 Both the definition of general intelligence and the adequacy of IQ tests to measure it are also disputed.

10 There is an ongoing hermeneutical debate about whether “race” is even an objective rather than a socially constructed category (whatever that distinction is taken to mean), with one argument against reification being that there is more variation within than between races. That is too vague; we must next ask, “What kind of variation, between specifically which groups?” If we are talking about variation in cognitive and character traits, and our groups are Census racial categories or man-on-the-street racial categorizations, then the basic thrust of the anti-reificationist argument is sound: There is more variation within than between the groups, and if certain actuarial claims could still be made on the basis of race, they would nonetheless be poor approximations of what could be known more accurately in other, more direct ways, and would not justify any default assumptions about any individuals. Whenever you hear someone arguing that “race is real,” stop and ask, “With respect to what?”

11 “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction,” in Multiculturalism; Amy Gutmann, editor

12 At least in the abstract. How does justice come into play if a nation goes decades without enforcing its immigration laws and gives every indication that unauthorized entrants will be allowed to stay? Is the nation not partly responsible for the resulting situation?

13 Nichomachean Ethics, Book IX, Chapter 7


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