National Identity


Decision in Philadelphia, a book by brothers Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, teems with tension and excitement.  It explores the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  If you desire a vicariously front-row seat at the decision-making process of the historic Philadelphia Convention, then I invite you to read this riveting volume.  

The Colliers, in their final chapter, entitled "The Most Remarkable Work," expound upon the reasons why the Constitution has "allowed American democracy not merely to survive but to thrive."  The first reason they advance is the following:  "the men at Philadelphia drew their document out of the American spirit.  As Charles Pinckney [a delegate from South Carolina] said explicitly, and the other delegates quickly understood, this was to be an American document, for the American people.  (This helps to explain why attempts to use it in other cultures have not always worked.)" [italics added]  The authors have packed a load of wisdom and insight into a few sentences here.  My guess is that this may be an example of their being far more perspicacious than perhaps they themselves even realized. This sometimes happens in the grip of inspiration.

The "American spirit" is, as these historians suggest, another way of speaking of American culture.  They are asserting a truth that many would like us to forget, that the Constitution is a product – an outgrowth, if you will – of a particular culture.  Its success is attributable to, and dependent upon, that culture.

"And what culture is it?" you ask.  The answer is an Anglo-Protestant one.  The States chose a total of 74 men as delegates to the Convention.  55 of them arrived in Philadelphia.  They were all Anglo and, by and large, Protestant, with two Catholics and a few Quakers in the mix.  The American population in 1787, in spite of a host of religious creeds and undeniable sectional differences, was blessed with a broad-scale cultural homogeneity. It was not an ephemeral characteristic either.  Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1831-32, commented on American culture as follows:  "one finds [in America] a vast multitude of people with roughly the same ideas about religion, history, science, political economy, legislation, and government."  James Bryce, toward the end of the same century, wrote of a multi-faceted "national feeling" that unified the country.  "In the United States," he asserted, "all the elements of a national feeling are present, race, language, literature, pride in past achievements, uniformity of political habits and ideas; and this national feeling which unifies the people is reinforced by an immensely strong material interest in the maintenance of a single government over the breadth of the continent."

Through approximately the first two-thirds of the 20th century there were still signs that newcomers to America were expected to assimilate to its culture.  The tacit premise of the "Melting Pot" was that, without the unity provided by a single predominant culture, transactions between citizens would become challenged, citizens would eventually find themselves alienated from one another, and the nation would be hopelessly divided.

Then, as if in a flash, various peoples from the Third World began pouring into this country seeking a better life for themselves than they had in their native lands.  Once here, they petitioned for their wives, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, sisters, and cousins, and all those came too.  And need I add that they are still coming?  They are coming not to a rigorously disciplined society, confident of its identity, and insistent upon newcomers' assimilation to American traditions and practices.  No, they are coming instead to a land reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, a place where cultural pluralism is the order of the day, where immigrants are encouraged to hold on to the old and not to embrace the new.

Consider the weight of this development upon the Constitution in light of the Colliers' astute observation. The question becomes whether we in this country can continue to sustain a successful democratic republic, when the cultural values to which those in American society adhere are so radically at odds with one another.  The "American spirit" is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize in American public life and is on the pathway to extinction.  The extinction of the American spirit means, in short, the destruction of America itself.

The respective cultures of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are vastly different from the one on which the Constitution and American experience are built.  This observation holds true for the cultures of Mexico and Latin America as well.  Make no mistake about it:  cultures other than our own have a right to exist.  I have never argued otherwise.  There are mysteries and riches within them well worth the time to explore.  These cultures should be respected in this country as objects of study.  But they should not be imported into the country with the idea that they stand on an equal footing with American culture.  A bold line should be drawn in the sand. 

What, then, should be our response to Buddhists who, as non-theists, are offended by the Pledge of Allegiance, or to Muslims who are angered that foot-washing facilities are not provided in American airports, or to Hindus who complain that their children are often paired indiscriminately in public schools with those from a stratum of society different from their own?  Or what about our response to Mexicans who are exercised over the fact that May the 5th and September the 16th do not receive the same attention here as July the 4th?  What we say is simply this, "You came voluntarily to America.  American culture is what it is.  We have no intention of re-inventing it for you.  If you are unhappy with it, then go home."

Oh, I know, such words are "mean-spirited," "unduly harsh," "racist," "xenophobic," "fascist," and all the other things that mindless left-wing ideologues claim.  Yet a decisive, matter-of-fact response is the only way short of war to retain our culture and those treasures, like the Constitution, which have been inspired by it. Without our cultural identity, we will perish as a nation and as a people.  To quote Hamlet, "To be or not to be is the question."  

The choice, at least in this context, is a no-brainer to me. What do you think?

December 14, 2008