How Much Self-Disgust Can a Nation Sustain?
Or, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Wokeness
Editors’ Note: Shadi begins the conversation. Damir responds. The goal, as in all Wisdom of Crowds conversations, is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like what you see, subscribe to the newsletter to get future issues before the crowds do.
Because Americanism doesn’t rely on ethnicity or even culture, and because it’s open to anyone (at least in theory), it makes the question of self-criticism more challenging and fraught. You don’t see quite the same thing with, say, being German, since Germanness is more a mere fact than an aspiration. If America is an idea, then, like all ideas, it will and must be contested. Ideas can also be hated, and there is a strain of the American left (although thankfully a small minority) that seems rather content in its self-disgust. How much self-disgust can a nation sustain? A nation must have a narrative that enough people buy into, even if they do so passively.
It is also possible to frame disgust patriotically as James Baldwin did when he said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” In this reading, American exceptionalism depends on understanding America’s sins.
But how much is too much? When does hating who we were prevent us from loving who we might become? The philosopher Richard Rorty, who we were reading in our nationalism book club last week, has a very good quote in the first chapter of Achieving Our Country: “Emotional involvement with one's country—feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies—is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive.” But then he cautions: “Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame.”
Americans on the left feel less proud to be American than at any time in recent history—only 43 percent of liberals say they are either “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be American, for instance. And whatever the factual accuracy of the New York Times’ 1619 project (although lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones reminded us that it was meant to be taken seriously but not literally), its claims are as concerning as they are important because they tempt us with the notion that some sins are irredeemable. They are who we are and always will be.
What, then, is an appropriate pride/shame balance? And when might too much shame undermine a polity?
The thing about the “idea” of America is that it is—or at least it has proven to be—quite flexible. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to reconcile the slave-raping reality of Thomas Jefferson with the ideas he put down in the Declaration of Independence. Maybe one shouldn’t bother.
Rorty nicely encapsulates this flexibility of the American idea. To oversimplify a bit, he seems to be arguing that Americans both subscribe to a kind of secularized faith based on universal precepts, and understand that realizing this faith in this world is a neverending process. What I like about that framing is that it does a complete end-run around the “truth” of the claims of the founding. All that’s left is the question: “Do you believe?”
Protestantism echoes through the American project in innumerable ways, and it’s easy to hear some of these echoes here. Sola fide defines Americanism, with “progress” the byproduct of one’s personal relationship to the secularized almighty. The process of realizing these ideals—“progress”—is of course contested, since there is no higher authority in place to interpret the faith.
Which brings us to your quandary about pride and shame: can one be ashamed and still be a believer? Rorty himself comes down pretty hard on the postmodernist left which seeks to relativize everything. I would agree that a full embrace of relativism is incompatible with Americanism. But is Nikole Hannah Jones, whom you cite above, really being a relativist here?
Maybe, but not necessarily. One could read this as compatible with Rorty’s own conception of productive, progressive conflict: she is presenting a criticism meant to highlight why the project still hasn’t lived up to its ideals. The shame, she might say, is a goad to do better.
What I think your question gets at is something else: how durable is the faith? How much criticism and revision can a set of religious beliefs take before they fracture and shatter? Here I share your concerns. I tend to think Americanists have altogether too much faith in the durability of their project.
Then again, what do I know? I’m just a cynical immigrant. And this endless contestation has worked so far, more or less…
I don’t know if this is a conservative idea per se, but I do think politics, like life, is about tradeoffs. If you get something good, you’ll probably have to pay for it. I’m more skeptical than I was at the beginning that the heightened focus on ending structural racism will actually end up reducing structural racism to a significant degree. But even if there’s some limited success in that direction, it will probably come along with more attacks on the founding and the American faith more generally. How could you have a good thing without a bad thing? That would seem to be contrary to divine justice.
To the extent that well-deserved disgust over past sins becomes a more sweeping oikophobia, or hatred of one’s home, it should worry us. Oikophobia is a mostly modern phenomenon, so we don’t really know what effect it might have if adopted on some mass level or by a majority in one political party. Let’s not test the proposition.
If Americanism, unlike Germanness, is more akin to a faith than a national identity, we know that faiths remain vital and resilient if creedal requirements remain intact. Just as founding moments matter in Islam and Christianity (to wish to escape either’s founding moments would essentially render them void), they matter here. This is why I’m nervous about the impulse that leads to attacking founding fathers and founding ideas, even if the critiques themselves are fair and accurate. Once you start attacking the foundation, the cracks begin to widen, even if that wasn’t your intent. You can’t correct or “treat” the founding (as a body of ideas, to extend the analogy) with surgical precision so that other parts of the structure remain safe and protected. Things fall apart.
What we do know is that oikophobia is not the natural state of things, precisely because it’s so recent. And it doesn’t come naturally to human beings for a reason, presumably because it undermines our capacity and will for survival. Not all learned traits are good, but, also, not all learned traits are bad. Sometimes we learn them for a reason, because they speak to something we need. In this case, we need to believe in America, even if that belief is based partly on a fiction.
Oikophobia—live a day, learn a new word. Greek roots, but makes me think of Pig Latin.
As a parting shot, let me just stress again: Americanism as faith has held together so far. I’m not religious, nor have I studied comparative faiths very much, but I do wonder if we’re over-worrying largely because neither of us has been brought up Protestant. I’m reminded of my own puzzlement when I first read Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, especially with the idea of predestination. I went back last night and leafed through it again. Here’s one good passage:
This means, however, fundamentally, that God helps those who help themselves, in other words, the Calvinist “creates” his salvation himself (as it is sometimes expressed)—more correctly: creates the certainty of salvation. It further means that what he creates cannot consist, as in Catholicism, in a gradual storing up of meritorious individual achievements; instead, it consists in a form of systematic self-examination which is constantly faced with the question: elect or reprobate
The Protestant is constantly impelled to “do the work” not because the work itself is objectively good—given the lack of central authority, there is no way to judge such things—but precisely because such things are unknowable. Weber posits that this endless creativity is a byproduct of the “tremendous inner loneliness” that Protestantism (Calvinism, really) instills in the individual. There is no mediating institution, just the individual and the belief.
This applies to what we’re discussing, too. Weber, after all, was arguing that most of this harsh Calvinist dogma had long since been secularized, but that it had left profound traces in how modern capitalist societies were organized. We’re not talking about capitalism, but more broadly this Americanist faith as outlined by Rorty. It should, however, surprise no one that the “spirit” animating both the economic and political spheres in America is one and the same.
Maybe we worry too much about cracks in the foundation widening, as you put it. Maybe the metaphor is all wrong. We’re not talking about a building. We’re talking about a collection of atomized individuals struggling to realize their faith. This leads to the pluralization of efforts, and is perhaps at the core of America’s seemingly endless capacity for reinvention.
That’s about all the optimism I can muster for today. Rest assured, I remain worried.