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Nation or Idea? Neither and Both.

In response to Did Obama’s Staff Fail Him in Dealing With Wright?

I’ve appreciated the sparring among Jonah, Charlie, Michael, and Rich over our last podcast. Allow me to add a brief thought.

Jonah says in passing that he’s not enamored of the nation-vs.-idea framing of the “What is America?” question. I’m not, either, but for somewhat different reasons. What that binary makes impossible, to my mind, is any strong connection between ideas and their origins — which, as I tried to suggest on the podcast (alas, clumsily and unsuccessfully) come from experience.

America may be a “propositional nation” — a nation “dedicated to the proposition(s) that . . .” — but that is of limited use without knowing where the ideas embedded in those propositions come from. Crucially, they did not spring fully formed from the mind of James Madison. Rather, the Founders gave abstract form to pre-articulate experiences of liberty. For example, the right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishments” was not an idea that the Founders thought up wholecloth and set up as a goal toward which the new country would strive. It was the formulation of a truth they had lived and so knew to be true — even before they had come up with the particular words to express it.

If it is, in fact, the originary experiences that ground the formulations — that is, the ideas — then two things (at least) follow: First, the further the ideas become abstracted from the experiences that give rise to them, the more the ideas will be emptied out and become manipulable to unintended ends. Second, we must be constantly striving to reground the ideas in experience — which means that the formation of the individual soul is paramount; it ultimately determines the survival of the ideas.

All of this is to say that America, then, must be understood in the perfect tense; it is neither an idea, spinning pristine in the Empyrean, nor is it the overdetermined product of a particular blood and soil. Rather, America must be understood, at least to some extent, as the pre-articulate experiences of liberty and oppression of a particular people at a particular time, which were then given durable conceptual form — forms that, for the 240 years since, have been in an unfolding relationship with the experiences that they adumbrate — which are lived anew and uniquely in each successive generation — and which, in their turn, modify the ideas.


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