Are We A Nation?

One hundred and fourteen years ago, French historian Ernest Renan, in a lecture delivered at the Sorbonne, posed and answered the question, "What is a nation?" Renan began by disposing in short order of the arguments that nations are made by race, religion, language, commerce or borders. Many nations, he noted, do not share a common language, race or religion. Commerce, he said, does not rise to the level of a collective soul, a national principle; and there is neither rationality or permanence to borders.

Instead, he said, with a disarming simplicity that has made his essay immortal:

Now, the essence of a nation is that all its people have a great deal in common, and also that they have forgotten a great deal.

What Renan meant by this is that a nation, in the words of Benedict Anderson, is an "imagined community," a group of people sharing a common story, a community by choice. They may not even share any borders; the world wide Jewish community and the denizens of the Internet may both be characterized as nations under Renan's definition:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which, in truth, are really one, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is the present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the undivided heritage one has received.... To have the glory of the past in common, a shared will in the present; to have done great deeds together, and want to do more of them, are the essential conditions for the constitution of a people....One loves the house which one has built and passes on.

However, Renan is astute to say that to be a nation, we must have forgotten as well as remembered together. No French citizen, he points out, can tell you if he is Burgundian, Alain, Visigoth in origin; every French citizen is required to have forgotten the massacre of Protestants in the Middle Ages. Similarly, in the U.S. our nationhood--when we had it-- required us to forget that our nation was built on war crimes and genocide.

Can we say, on the eve of the millenium, that we still have an American national story which meets Renan's requirements? Witness John Jay's answer to the question of nationhood, almost 100 years before Renan, in Federalist No. 2:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs...

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.

What is our national story today? It is hard to imagine that a cross-section of Americans would give a consistent answer. Jay, writing in 1787, knew a story, which had been established just 11 years before: Americans, he said, "by their joint counsel, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence." But this story has become almost meaningless to us now; the bold deeds of the past must not only be supplemented by more recent ones, but must also be suffused by shared values, or else a story is insufficient to create a "soul".

You and I may differ; I may believe in larger government, you in smaller; but we must have some shared pivot, some point around which we both rotate, to be members of the same nation. If the shared story, the pivot of all Christians, is the Bible, I respectfully suggest that the central point of the American nation ought to be its Constitution, which I have said elsewhere constitutes the metadata of the American system. The Constitution itself may be built of words, but those words sing. They sing of the following:

The Constitution, as Ronald Dworkin aptly said, is a novel one chapter of which is written by each new generation of judges; they may invent the plot, so long as they are faithful to their characters and the developments sketched by those who have gone before. In Renan's terms, the Constitution and the case law decided under it is the evolving embodiment of our long national story; and it is a tale informed by humility, tolerance and optimism. We protect free speech because we are humble and not too quick to say that only our own ideas may be right. We recognize diversity, of ideas and races, because we are humble and tolerant. And we are optimistic, as we must be to trust ourselves and our fellows and to believe that all will always come out right in the end.

The problem is that this is a story that almost no-one knows today. Most people have not read the Constitution and will not recognize sample language from it. More seriously, demagogues have arisen, on both ends of the political spectrum, who have convinced millions in this country that our national story does not involve humility, tolerance, or optimism; that equality does not exist; that fairness and justice are not important; that privacy is dangerous and that freedom of speech is our destruction; and that the Founders never really intended us to be a secular nation.

Such people have a national story of their own wholly alien to the Constitution, and destructive of American democracy. You don't need to look on the fringes to find wilfull blindness and frightening denial of the American story. The other day I picked up a copy of the National Review, which I always believed represented mainstream, loyal conservativism, and found the publisher's editorial recommending the passage of a Constitutional amendment forbidding the Supreme Court from holding any statute passed by Congress to be unconstitutional. Such an amendment, would of course, pull out one of the pillars of our system, subjecting us to the tyranny of the majority, something the Founders deliberately avoided with their arcane system of endless checks and balances. But here it is again, in the Republican party platform for the '96 election:

The federal judiciary, including the U.S. Supreme Court, has overstepped its authority under the Constitution. It has usurped the right of citizen legislators and popularly elected executives to make law by declaring duly enacted laws to be "unconstitutional" through the misapplication of the principle of judicial review. Any other role for the judiciary, especially when personal preferences masquerade as interpreting the law, is fundamentally at odds with our system of government in which the people and their representatives decide issues great and small.

If one of the two major political parties in our system has diverged this far from our national tradition, one can't help but wonder what common strands unite us as nation. Is it possible that this attack on the judiciary as a check on tyranny is a blind spot, an unfortunate mistake that should not distract us from a common interest in liberty?

Use my bulleted items above as a checklist and ask yourself what the commitment is of the same voices to compassion or tolerance, to justice or freedom of speech or to the secular nature of our nation. This year's unmistakeably frightening phenomenon was that of the Republican candidates paying tribute to the religious right, the group whose newsletter, "Christian Nation", by its very name expresses belief in a national story completely at odds with the Constitution.

If we are still a nation, what do we have in common if not our Constitution? I am personally desperate to believe that the apparently growing, and ever more vocal forces of fundamentalism in this country have not overwhelmed, and will not, the peaceful middle. It is hard, no matter where you sit, to detect the common strand in 240 million Americans, but if we hope still to be a nation by any stretch of Renan's definition, that hope lies in the center, where it is easy to imagine that there is still compassion, good fellowship and common sense.

I was raised to believe that ours is a compassionate story; and it is not hard to find the traces of compassion in the Constitution's protection of fairness and freedom of worship and speech. Even if we did not have our Constitution in common, if you and I had compassion in common, we might still be a nation, or at least the beginnings of one. But what that compassion means is that, no matter how radically I disagree with you, I am still beholden to you, responsible for you, dedicated to aid you when you need me, and entitled to expect your help when I am in need. So, though we agree on nothing else, we may agree that we belong to each other.

But this country is full of people today who have identified large numbers of their fellow citizens as outsiders, as "the other", with whom they have no bond. This year's initiatives to penalize legal immigrants in this country, to end Aid to Families with Dependent Children and affirmative action, may hide behind a mask of compassion. But it does not take much time or much energetic inquiry to determine that most proponents of ending these programs don't offer any alternative, nor feel there is a need for one. In their hearts, they are not ending dependency, or pruning back big government; they are jettisoning the trash people, who may be left to their own devices to scratch or die. But this is not our national story of justice. Because if you felt that the poor, the disadvantaged and the foreign belonged to you, were part of your nation, you could not act this way.

Renan points out that a crucial underpinning of our national identity is our continuing desire, reaffirmed each day, to continue living together:

A nation is a great act of solidarity, constituted by the memory of the sacrifices one has made and those one is inclined to make in the future. A nation supposes a past; it expresses itself in the present by a tangible fact: the consent, the desire clearly expressed to continue living together. The existence of a nation is (excuse me for the metaphor) a daily plebiscite, in the same way that individual existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.

It follows from this that if a fragment of the nation concludes that it no longer shares the national story, it must be able to withdraw from the "great act of solidarity;" the majority cannot deny it the right to do so. "A nation has no more right than a king," said Renan, "to say to a province: 'You belong to me; I will take you.'"

Looked at this way, the American nation died in 1861, when President Lincoln decreed that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," then resolved that the way to end the division was to force the South to remain. Doubtless I will get letters posing the question whether the South should have been permitted to withdraw, if that meant the perpetuation of slavery. While the termination of slavery seems to me among the very few legitimate excuses for a war, the North--if slavery was its true or its main motivation--could simply have ended it, left the South and conditioned the future peace on the continued abandonment of slavery. By forcing the Southern states to remain in the Union, the North dealt a wound to the American idea of nation that has continued to fester to this day. The decision to force states that wished to secede to remain in the Union against their will undercuts everything we know of Lincoln as a philosopher, and contradicts the intentions of the Founders. There is an unbearable contradiction between our reverence for the Declaration of Independence, and our contempt for the South's own declaration. Renan says, "A nation never has a legitimate interest in annexing or retaining a territory in spite of itself." And he is right.

The question, are we a nation, leads inevitably to a related question: should we be? There is an argument that large states were necessary for a period of our history when they were our only defense against other large dangerous states. The Soviet Union's recognition a few years ago that it lacked a national story, and its decision to dissolve into smaller units that had one, may have set off a wave of similar actions around the globe. Not only have many of the former Eastern European nations dissolved; even Canada seemed willing to let Quebec go, if its citizens had decided that they no longer wished to participate in the Canadian story. It is possible that the United States, a thousand years from now, will no longer exist, or if it does, that it will not resemble the United States of today even slightly. What we refer to as the Roman empire was Italy, then Europe and part of Africa, and then, in its last years, existed only in the East, having given up even Rome to the barbarians. Everything changes, and eventually, everything passes away.

From this perspective, it might not be a bad thing if the United States one day divided up into multiple nations. Perhaps Renan was naive; perhaps there never was a nation in history that fit his definition. Probably there have always been countries in which people holding different national stories were somehow woven together. Since no people has ever unanimously believed anything, does it take 51% adherence to a story to create a nation or more? Renan leaves us without guidance. If a nation really consists of twelve nations, is it not a step in the direction of self-realization for the component peoples to separate, so that they no longer have to endure, and compromise with, one another?

However, the Federalist papers effectively answer the question of why we should want larger nations: precisely because their diversity is the best guarantee that we will live peacefully together. "Among the numerous advantages," says James Madison in No. 10, "promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than the tendency to break and control the violence of faction":

[I]t may be concluded, that a pure Democracy, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.... Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention....

A Republic, by which I mean a Government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking....

The two great points of difference between a Democracy and a Republic are, first, the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest: secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. (Emphasis added)

Thus Madison believed that the best way to avoid the violence of faction--the dark side of the national story--was both a system of checks and balances and a larger country, with a greater diversity of citizens, so that no one opinion could too easily hold sway. If we need a laboratory example of his thesis, it is neatly proven by the former Yugoslavia, which found genocide on the path of becoming small.

We are in danger of the same. There is a constituent element of the American polity which desires to be separate, is authoritarian and even fundamentalist, and which believes in violence as a potential solution to its problems. These are the people I have written about who have twisted the metadata to mean that the only significant statement in the Constitution is the Second Amendment, which in their opinion grants an individual right to revolution. This faction essentially believes that all humanity, including all Americans, is divided into two basic categories: those who deserve to be shot, and those who have a right to shoot them.

I believe that we now arrive at the answers to both questions:

Are we a nation? The answer is that we are just barely a nation, if are still one at all. There has never been an era in our country when more faction existed, when more of us were more hateful and certain in our hate, and desirous to terminate our bonds with one another.

Should we be a nation? The American story--if I am correct that it is a tale of humility, tolerance, and optimism-- is a beautiful one. It is being destroyed but can still be saved. The solution to saving it is, of course, to practice humility, tolerance and optimism. We must want to be a nation in order to be. We must search for the common ground, the overlapping thread in our stories. We must believe it is there in order to find it. A leap of faith is needed.