Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 5: Nationalism

So in the fifth installment of this series, based on my friend Ron Miller’s parsing of American culture in the first chapter of his great book, What Are Schools For?, I’m plunging into his thoughts on American nationalism, which weaves together the first four themes. When I reread his words on this topic, it seems apropos to what’s going on in Washington this week with the Beck/Palin rally. According to a CNN dispatch on that event…

In what resembled more a revival than a political rally, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck urged the large crowds at his “Restoring Honor” event Saturday to “turn back to God” and return America to the values on which it was founded.

According to Ron, America has wrestled throughout its history with an ongoing identity crisis of sorts. Quoting the words of Thomas Paine…

We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

So per Ron’s thinking…

American nationalism has, ever since, had an aggressive, missionary tone. According to the American worldview, no other nation offers humanity a better example to follow. The negative meaning of nationalism, however, is a nagging insecurity… Americans… have surrendered their ancestral ties to come to the new world. They need to prove their loyalty to a set of abstract ideals. Seen in this light, assertive nationalism is a defensive gesture to reassure Americans that they do, indeed, belong to the national community.

Is there a strong thread of projection in Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and the constituency they tap into? Are all of us who get caught up in this missionary nationalism projecting a fear that we are not part of some sort of “tribe” that will protect us and give our lives a collective meaning? Is it particularly difficult because ours is a virtual “clan” built on abstract ideas rather than the good ole clan unity of race, ethnicity, common ancestry, etc?

Ron puts on the hat of America’s national therapist diagnosing its obsessive/compulsive disorder…

Especially in the early years, the ideals themselves needed to be proven; not since antiquity had citizens forged a successful republic. The American experiment was not an assured success. As a result of this insecurity, American culture has generally mistrusted foreign cultures and periodically resorted to xenophobic crusades against immigrants and dissidents. This has taken the form of federal laws, political parties, outright violence, and the notorious Congressional “unAmerican activities” investigations. And, of course, education has been a major weapon in these crusades.

Further, according to Ron…

This self-righteous nationalism has had positive as well as negative connotations. Since European societies were considered to be corrupted by tyranny of church and state, by poverty, ignorance, and superstition, emerging American nationalism was a secular restatement of the Protestant urge to create a holy commonwealth, a model society to inspire the rest of the world. Early Americans, religious and rationalist both, were exhilarated by the sense of being on the verge of a monumental human experiment.

We seem to be a nation, a virtual clan, obsessed with the idea of “crusading” and “reforming”. If we accept the Calvinist innate depravity view of human nature then we must constantly create and improve institutions to counter and reshape that nature. Embracing “scientism” (that is seeing science as a panacea beyond its legitimate scope) we count on its latest and greatest insights to socially re-engineer our society toward some version (secular, or not in Beck and Palin’s case) of the Puritan’s “Holy Commonwealth”, the “shining city on the hill” that Reagan invoked. We know our Founding Fathers loved democracy, but fully practicing it and letting the chips fall where they may gets dicey when the wisdom of the majority goes against perhaps the crusading ethic that has made America America. And finally, despite all these abstract intangible ideals, we measure ourselves in such materialistic terms that compel us to work and/or shop until we “drop”.

I get completely stressed out just thinking about it! We have to go against our nature and kill ourselves in order to try to be successful. But of course, it is an impossible utopian vision we are obsessed with, and so the need to continually reinvigorate the crusade. Obama did his part with his whole “change” theme, and now Palin does hers by calling for a return to “honoring” America.

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