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Monday, April 25, 2016

What Defines America–Texts, Process, And Myth

As part of a two-part series on America, the presenter on the  BBC’s Why Factor (4.25.16) asked why texts were so important – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bible especially.  “Because they are the foundational documents of the country”, came the universal reply.  The codify our beliefs in God, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.  They are who we are.

Most people may read the founding documents of the Republic only once in school, and few may grasp the subtleties and complexities of the philosophy and historical precedent contained within them, but they are common, familiar points of reference.

The Bible, another central text that is more revered than read thoroughly, is nonetheless central to the American ethos.  We are a Christian nation, say most Americans; and even though we have become religiously diverse , the principles of Christianity are respected by all.   Assimilation, perhaps the most defining feature of America does not mean leaving Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism at the door on the way in, but adopting the Judeo-Christian propositions on which the country was founded and which provide the foundation for moral action.  The Ten Commandments are as much important secular guidelines as religious ones.

Was the BBC presenter right in focusing on the importance of texts?  Wouldn’t it have more correct to focus on tradition rather than documents?  Yes and no. 

The British, for example, do not have a written Constitution; but their belief in if not reverence for Anglo-Saxon law, jurisprudence, and institutional arrangement is as strong and devotional as that of Americans.  Nigel Morris of The Independent (2.13.09) suggests why Britain has no Constitution:
Essentially because the country has been too stable for too long. The governing elites of many European nations, such as France and Germany, have been forced to draw up constitutions in response to popular revolt or war.
Great Britain, by contrast, remained free of the revolutionary fervor that swept much of the Continent in the 19th century. As a result, this country's democracy has been reformed incrementally over centuries rather than in one big bang. For younger countries, including the United States and Australia, codification of their citizens' rights and political systems was an essential step towards independence.
The seeds of democratic rule were sown as far back as the reign of Henry II (1154-89)who instituted the magnum concilium, a council of barons and bishops who advised the king.  Although Henry had and insisted on his absolute rule, this ‘great council’ set a precedent for reforms taken by his successor, Henry III (1202-1272):
The term "parliament” first appeared in the 1230s and 1240s to describe large gatherings of the royal court, and parliamentary gatherings were held periodically throughout Henry's reign.  They were used to agree the raising of taxes which, in the 13th century, were single, one-off levies, typically on movable property, intended to support the King's normal revenues for particular projects.  During Henry's reign, the counties began to send regular delegations to these parliaments, and came to represent a broader cross-section of the community than simply the major barons (Wikipedia)
 Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) ushered in a short period of popular democracy which provided the model for more structural reforms a century later.  Cromwell signed the death warrant for Charles I and went on to promote and establish a rudimentary representative Parliament.  His influence was short-lived, however, the monarchy restored, and Charles II sat on the throne.  Although Cromwell is reviled in many quarters, he was revolutionary in his political philosophy.

In other words,  The Independent’s Nigel Morris was right.  Great Britain progressed towards liberal democracy incrementally, and over the centuries worked out the best, most suitable, and fairest form of government – a truly representative Parliament and a ceremonial monarchy.

In other words our reverence for The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has less to do with the enshrinement of rights and liberties than those freedoms and responsibilities per se.   It is because of the particular conditions surrounding the birth of our nation that these texts have become sacred.

Yet this argument about texts misses a more central point.  What is America, after all, but a nation of process?  Freedom, justice, independence, and civil rights are not simply the mechanisms for assuring economic and social progress, but are the defining characteristics of American culture.

The history of France dates from the Gauls, the Danes, Frisians, Romans, and Normans.  Its culture is defined by the Catholic Church, monarchy, and the secular civilization of arts, letters, and science that both enabled.  A Frenchman when asked what it means to be French will not reply in terms of process and procedure as Americans would – enterprise, individualism, civil rights and authority, equality and justice – but with reference to Louis XIV, the Sun King; Descartes, Pascal, Moliere, Rabelais, and Montaigne; Roland and Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, the Crusades, and the richness and elegance of the French language.

Indians speak of the Aryans, the Mauryan Empire, and the sophistication, complexity, and all-encompassing authority of Hinduism.  Muslims more and more are subsuming their secular life within a religious one.  Islam is their culture, their religions, and their Law.

‘The business of America is business’, said ‘Engine’ Charlie Wilson, President of General Motors many decades ago; and although he has been parodied as a latter-day Babbitt, bourgeois Middle American, and caricature of American ambition for wealth, he was right.  America has no culture like those of Europe or Asia – no ancient dynasties like Egypt and China, no intellectual history like Greece or Persia, no Versailles, Chartres, or Reims.   Our culture is as assimilative and accretive as the process which created us and continued to sustain us – waves of immigrants all subscribing to the American dream (culture) of ambition, opportunity, mobility, and success.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the principles enshrined in our texts have become myth.  We do not exaggerate when we confess that America was chosen by God, given an exceptional place in the world and the obligation to spread the gospel of enterprise and liberty.   Even today when America has taken its licks, appears adrift in international waters, is out-maneuvered and beset by civil unrest, ethnic, religious, and cultural divisions; and is dismissed by many who see our liberal democracy as hopelessly outdated, nearly one-third of all Americans still say it is the greatest country on earth. 

Those who state only that it is ‘one of the greatest’, still have an abiding belief in its foundational principles. Democracy is not just a political philosophy but a God-given right and as such should be promoted universally.  Individualism, free enterprise, and ambition have been the engines of our remarkable and historic economic progress since the beginning of the Republic and should also be evangelized.

In other words, the myth still prevails.  Very few Americans indeed conclude like Vladimir Putin that liberal democracy and the nation-state are mere temporal constructs of the West, and that the restoration of empire based on ethnic homogeneity, religion, and central authority is the wave of the future.  Few of us will admit that the idea of an Islamic caliphate and the establishment of theocracies throughout the Muslim world is not only becoming acceptable but desired. 

The myth prevails because that is all we have; and it is very fragile when compared to the glories of Imperial Russia or the idea of a vast, multi-regional caliphate.  Even France, la fille  aînée de l’Eglise, the country that defended Europe from Islam, that spread Christianity through the Crusades, and set the socio-political standard for the world in The Revolution of 1789, is perplexed by the wave of Muslim immigrants and residents who want no part of French laïcité.

When liberal democracy is questioned as it is now; when it is dismissed out of hand by Russia and the proponents of Radical Islam; or when it is simply thought naïve and foolish by China, America is in trouble.  Not only is our political influence in the world waning, but the very fabric of our myth is being unraveled.   However the political philosophies and politics of India, Russia, or China may change, they will still have Hinduism, Empire, and Confucianism.

Culture does matter, and countries without a distinct, substantive moral, ethical, and religious core around which civilization has been built will be lost in the coming scuffle.

It is not too late for America but getting there.  There is still a chance to regroup, reject the divisive calls for ‘diversity’ which result only in a chaotic pluralism far removed from the vision of Jefferson and Madison, embrace Christianity as the moral foundation of the nation (like the Founding Fathers did), and restore democracy to Jefferson’s original vision – individual rights and the pursuit of happiness only within the context of community and social harmony.  Not much, perhaps, when compared to the great Egyptian dynasties, Ido, or Versailles; but at least a recognizable central core around which our modern cultural, scientific, and technological achievements can be built.

The myth of American exceptionalism may have to be destroyed; but a nation built on solid and unquestioned moral, philosophical, and religious principles without the arrogance of myth does indeed have a culture.

Finally, what is one to make of our texts?  They are far less important than the traditions, principles, ideas, and beliefs they have engendered; but they are essential within the context of myth.  A nation characterized by process and procedure needs a Ten Commandments.  A Christian nation without much to show for it (i.e. cathedrals, Crusades, the Holy Roman Empire, the Vatican) except its faith needs an icon – an untouchable and irreproachable statue of cultural values. 

The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are no different – within a mythological culture they need to be enshrined and revered.

All this may be moot, of course.  There are so many radical changes in political configuration, genetics, cybernetics , and virtual reality that the whole idea of country, nation, republic, or empire may well dissolve in a thousand years if not before.  We have already entered a post-human world with the introduction of genetic modification, mind-computer interface, and robotics.

For the time being it is good to rethink our insistence on text, process, and myth.  At the very least it will prepare us for what’s coming.

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