Thomas Fleming: All Gone in Search of America
What does it mean to be an American? Major debates over legislation and proposed constitutional amendments raise the question. Without stretching a point too much, it is easy to see the American identity as the underlying question on the immigration issue, the Equal Rights Amendment, and perhaps even in the debate over abortion. It comes out very clear in discussion of the English Language Amendment sponsored last year by Senator Huddleston of Kentucky and supported by U.S. English, a group headed by former Senator and linguist S.I. Hayakawa. The amendment would make explicit a fact of life obvious to anyone that does not live in Miami or Laredo: the language of England has become the tongue of the United States.
Opposition to the amendment comes largely from the Hispanic community and the professional "rights" lobby. The Christian Century is sharp enough to detect "a suspicious odor of anti-Hispanic prejudice" in this latest effort to keep a crust from forming on the melting pot.
Much of the controversy centers around bilingual education. Current studies estimate there are more than 3.5 million children who "need" some education to be given in their native language if they are to make an orderly progress through school. An article in USA Today goes further in calling for "continuing attention to the child's heritage and culture" as a means of "stimulating both comprehension and motivation." The opponents of the English Language Amendment apparently see nothing strange in the fact that two of the strongest critics of bilingualism are Sam Hayakawa and Richard Rodriguez. In his autobiography Hunger and Memory, Rodriguez argues that bilingualism constitutes a rejection of the American heritage as a "disease."
The amendment would probably win the support of a large number of Americans. I suspect many of them will be quick to say something like: Love it or leave it. If you're unwilling to accept the United States as an English language country, you don't have to come here. On a somewhat higher level, George Will argues that our "Anglo culture" is more than a matter of language: it includes "the political arrangements bequeathed by the men of July 4,1776.”
There are those (Will is not one of them) who see the Declaration of 1776 as a sufficient condition for American unity and natural rights as a secular creed of faith replacing religious orthodoxy. In their eyes, America has never been a nation, but only an opportunity to pursue happiness, and they are prepared to grind under their heel any peculiarity of the American inheritance which conflicts with their ideals. Our particularly British notions of self-reliance and civil liberty—the real basis of our independence from Britain—were forced to give ground to the central Europe-an doctrines of state socialism espoused by many immigrant intellectuals who learned to formulate their alien creeds in the language of Jefferson and Paine. America may be the only country in history in which the newest arrivals felt free to pronounce on the national character. As a German mercenary officer told General Dick Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor, "We will teach you what it means to be an American.”
Most immigrants did not follow the lead of the agitators and ideologues who had found asylum among a people whose kindness has always exceeded their prudence. The Germans, Swedes, Irish, and Poles were eager to become real Americans, "hundred percenters." While their clergy- men and leaders deplored the loss of ethnic identity, the ethnics knew better. If America was going to be their country, then they were going to have to become her people.
But the assimilation of so many new citizens would be a formidable task for any country. For a nation already rent by divisions, it was almost impossible. Even before the Revolution, there had been profound differences between commercial and agrarian interests, churchmen and dissenters. North and South—and, even in the South itself, between the civilized low country and the wild up-country. Of course, each period had its apostles of unity: the high Federalists in the founding generation, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster in the "Silver Age." The last of the great unionist statesmen was the little giant of Illinois, Stephen Douglas. Douglas' defeat in the Presidential election of 1860 was a sure sign that the union had dissolved. Although unionist policies have sometimes been attacked as the subjugation of the West and South to the interests of the Northeast, Clay, Webster, and Douglas offered a vision of America we need to recover: a unity forged in the struggle to defend our rights as Englishmen and yet tolerant of diversity.
But the beginning of the great Völkerwanderung came just at the time of the national bloodletting that symbolized our disunity. In the past hundred years, it has been increasingly difficult to piece together a coherent American mosaic out of so many fragments of ethnic groups, regional cultures, and the "forty jarring sects" of religion and antireligion. It is North against South, East against West, rich against poor, college-educated homosexual Taoists from Cambridge against Midwestern farm family Methodists. The American visage begins to dissolve in the infinite mitosis of race, class, occupation, sex, and age groups.
There have been attempts to recreate an American identity around Walter Lippman's "public philosophy" or John Courtney Murray's "consensus" based on natural law or even on the images presented by Henry Luce in Life magazine. Well-intentioned as they were, such efforts are doomed to failure. National character cannot be enforced by a clerical aristocracy, because nationhood is not the product of ideology. It is shared experiences that make a people, not the bloodless "common values" of natural rights or even natural law.
What defines a nation is a vexing question that cannot be answered in a few sentences. Obviously, a homogeneous tribal people are a nation, sharing a common language, culture, and—so they believe—descent. In the same way, people used to speak of the German nation, although the Germans have never been united since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. But is Great Britain a nation? It is certainly a state, but three nations—the English, the Scots, and the Welsh. (To this day, whenever the London Times quotes "There'll always be an England," any number of outraged Scots will write in to point out there hasn't been an England since the Act of Union.)
The case of Britain raises an interesting point. England and Scotland, after centuries of quarreling, were united in the person of James VI & I. but it was a union of crowns and not of nations until 1707. Still, there is something real and palpable about a living monarch. All the public symbols and ceremonies of Britain emphasize the unity in the crown. Other attempts at union usually involve conquest and assimilation on the Roman model.
America has not been a nation in the obvious and simple sense since the 1860's. It is closer to being a sort of empire under a common legal and political system. It even has a universal high culture spread from one end to another, but few Americans would write about their country with the passionate loyalty of French writers like Charles Péguy or Maurice Barrès. Perhaps the best models for us to look to are the successful polyglot empires of Rome, Byzantium, and the Hapsburgs, in which the different constituents—ethnic as well as religious—are bound together in a mystical unity represented by the "national" symbols of the state and recollection of the collective history.
The alternative is the ideological reconstruction of a new national identity. The greatest experiment along those lines has been made by the Soviet Empire. For all their attempts to annihilate religious and ethnic identities. Party leaders face a rising tide of Islamic nationalism and an apparently indestructible intransigence in what used to be called the captive nations. What an American ideology could hope to accomplish is not at all clear.
It is important to understand what Luce and Murray had on their minds. At the end of World War II, America emerged—almost by default—as the leader of the Free World. A divided nation, a people unsure of itself, was not likely to play a responsible part on the world's stage. The image of America so many of us grew up with in the 40's and 50's was not entirely natural. As Allan Carlson has pointed out in a number of essays, many American leaders made a conscious effort to construct a new vision of a democratic, suburban America.
It was this vision—embodied in textbooks, civics classes, and the speeches of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson—that we took to war with us in Korea and Vietnam. In the end, it proved to be a dream from the gates of ivory, a will o' the wisp that led us on to destruction. America in the 1960's was a nation almost as divided as it was in the 1860's. If there is a "lesson of Vietnam," it should include a warning against attempts to impose an artificial uniformity on the American people.
The initial mistake lies in the perception of the American people as 200-1- million individuals. Viewed from a height of several thousand feet, the swarming masses spread across this continent might convey an. impression of uniformity, and their motions might seem to make part of some grand design. But it is inappropriate to look at us as either a conglomerate mass or as individuals. To work out a national identity on the basis of individuals makes as much sense as explaining the hardness of an iron bar at the subatomic level or ascribing the wetness of water to the qualities of free oxygen and free hydrogen. We don't live as individuals—or as members of the faceless masses portrayed by artists addicted to socialist realism. We live in families, neighbor- hoods, and communities. We define ourselves socially as members of churches, unions, and professions, graduates of schools and colleges, and workers, managers, or owners at a place of business. If (as the song goes) we've "all gone to look for America," we should be looking in homes, churches, and town halls instead of writing propaganda about an abstract country that has never existed and, deo volente, never will.
What does that mean, in practical terms? For one thing, it means taking a second look at our history and recovering a sense of reverence for the myths and heroes that bind us together in a nation. It means recognizing that there is a core of America that is thoroughly British—language, literature, values—that we cannot give up without giving up ourselves. It is the one heart for which there is no transplant possible. But there is also another layer—a sort of common European inheritance through which we have broadened and reinterpreted the original identity and further—a general sense in which we are heirs of that Western civilization%anded to us by Greeks and Romans. Beyond this point, even with all the goodwill in the world, it is difficult to go. Refugees from other civilizations—Asian, Aztec, African will either learn to become naturalized Westerners or condemn themselves to remaining alien bodies in the American bloodstream.
This brings us back to the English Language Amendment. In one sense, the amendment is only the latest effort to impose a standard identity. However, it is not entirely unjustified. It has been government—state and Federal—which has attempted to impose bilingualism and biculturalism on the entire United States. In principle, Latin American immigrants are no different from any others. However, our long and virtually open border with Mexico has meant an influx of illegal immigrants in such vast numbers that they threaten to overwhelm the residual American culture of the Southwest.
It is not the numbers alone that create a danger, Latin Americans are the first immigrant people who can go home at any time to renew their ties with the old country. What is worse, the history of bad feelings between gringos and "Hispanics" goes back at least to the Alamo and the Mexican War. If something is not done to close the border and maintain the preeminence of English in the Southwest, there is a perfect scenario for a massive Hispanic irredentist movement, which would see Mexico—not the U.S.—as the Fatherland.
But a sense of national unity will depend on more than the English language—or, for that matter, hamburger chains, TV shows, and pride in Pete Rose. The hardest part is religion. What unity can there be among Catholics and Protestants, Mormons and Buddhists, Jews and Moslems, believers and atheists? It is small wonder that many Ameri- cans have fallen back on the idea of a secular consensus. But driving religion out of the public schools and town squares will accomplish nothing, except the further deterioration of the national identity. No society has ever held together out of mere self-interest or the agreement to disagree.
The great religious struggles of the past were not so much about doctrine as they were about nationality. Could a Christian be a good Roman? Could a Catholic be an Englishman, a Protestant a Frenchman? The quarrels within Christendom may seem silly from a distance, but both the persecutors and persecuted recognized something we might like to forget: that human beings define their communities in reference to a power that lies beyond their experience.
It is not just the ancient children of Israel or the Athenians (Athena's people). Even an atheist acquainted with the tenacity of modern Israelis or the stability of the Mormon church will concede some truth to T.S. Eliot's declaration that there is "no community not lived in praise of God." But how are we to praise Him—in what tongue, with what formula? Ecumenical leaders might content themselves with Aeschylus' invocation:
“Zeus, whosoever he is; if by this name he likes to be called. . “
But a generalized civil religion is almost worse than institutionalized "humanism."
Historically, we have considered ourselves a Christian people. Even our "deists" and skeptics—like Jefferson and Lincoln—have inevitably expressed their deepest convictions in a Christian language. It is still possible—and desirable—for us to recover a sense of that "mere Christianity" that we experienced at school and on public occasions. Many Jews and Moslems are uncomfortable with the idea of a Christian nation, but what is the alternative? As Irving Kristol (among many others) has pointed out, the great persecutors of Jews in this century have not been Christians, but quite the opposite. When a formerly religious people turns away from their God and creates a total and transcendent state, it is then they set out to destroy all vestiges of an alien faith as impediments to unity. If the United States ever does turn to persecution, it will be because its people have abandoned their religion and, like the Communists and Nazis, have made an idol out of the state.
Perspective, December 1985