Finishing the job

The Revolutionary War established the independence of the American Colonies from Great Britain. The initial Articles of Confederation soon proved inadequate for the effective maintenance of the fledgling state, and a new constitution was drafted. To become operational, it had to be approved by at least 9 of the 13 states, and when that milestone was reached with New Hampshire’s ratification in the summer of 1788, the United States stood up among the nations of the world, representing the greatest experiment theretofore by any of them. The truth is, though, that it remained yet a working concept, and a decidedly tenuous one at that.

Surely this experiment was historic, invested with world-changing promise and hope, a triumph of incredible vision, genius and sacrifice. But the great and immensely difficult art of politics, exercised by monumental masters in its practice over those months hammering out the new constitution and guiding it to ratification, succeeded both by enshrining in the fabric of the nation unprecedented institutions ensuring new liberties and freedoms, and by turning a willfully blind eye to the continuance of another.

Several other genuinely vital issues divided equally dedicated patriots in those early years. But none was so searingly fissionable, so fundamental to the core identity of the nation and to the viability of the state as this one. And so tests of how we would define ourselves came frequently over the following decades, only to be put off with further dissimulation and incriminating compromise.

The final test – the grim understanding that the time was come to confront and remove this seething division – finally appeared, fully nine decades later, with the awful, wondrous American Civil War. The country was on the cusp of maturity, and could go no further without first closing this wound.

The nation understood the gargantuan stakes. Lincoln, on his way to take office even as the country was coming apart, knew he was about to undertake “a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” It was the entry – eyes wide open, now, and determinedly entering, still – into the agony of this war that finally and firmly established the United states as an enduring fact. Paul Johnson, in his magnificent “A History of the American People,” noted

The civil war . . . constitutes the central event in American history. It is also America’s most characteristic event which brings out all that the United States is, and is not. It made America a nation, which it was not before.

Why is that? Why was the formation and secure institutionalization of this country so fraught with risk, danger, so much anger, so much blood?

Why, despite all of that, was it ventured – and gained – nonetheless?

We will look at that next, with reviews that hopefully will help us see who we were over this formative period, what were our internal strengths, weaknesses, our conflicts over these, and what these made, and continue to make, of us.

But first, we’ll review a device I’ve come to only lately, but happily, and without which covering much of this ground would have been distinctly less gripping and edifying – and maybe even unlikely.

Breathing it all in

It can be startling, when you come to discover that you make decisions or evaluate events based on your sense of your nationality, to find that those (nominally, you feel) fellow nationals whose examples you abhor and whose decisions you condemn claim to be applying the same criteria. What are we to make of that?

Well, the truth is that this argument as it occurs between Americans, for all its energy and even vehemence, is perfectly natural – even quintessentially American. And it isn’t new – not in any respect – not in the hostility it generates, not in the partisanship it foments, not even in the seething fissures across society it leaves in its wake. One reason it is so natural to us, actually, is in the fact that our sense of nationality is the very consequence of such endless self-questioning – self-discovery – about who we are. In an especially American way, our debates, collaborations, and disagreements themselves both define our disparate views of what America is or ought to be – and unite us as Americans. We, as has often been noted, are unique among the great nations in that we quite literally created our own nationhood, a dynamic and continuous phenomenon – not an isolated, static  event. We are, and continue to be, that creative debate – and all the greater, it can be argued, for the intensity we so intimately and vigorously invest in it.

The questioning I often find myself dealing with as an expat, though, has tended to have another effect on my own acutely felt sense of nationality. The sometimes genuinely puzzled, sometimes insidiously curious scrutiny comes from foreigners whose experiences with nationality are decidedly different from my own. And when they question me about events in the States, or query me about my reactions or accommodations to local cultural/societal/political events, I find that the surprisingly difficult endeavor to find enlightening answers leads me to see a broader sense of the Americanness that characterizes us all, that binds us together as citizens of a wonderfully united nation – as immediately identifiable individual evidences of a distinct nationality – that we (it is worth noting here again) began consciously forging centuries ago, and that we continue to create – not merely to refine or distill, but to renew – today. We are a river, always changing, but ever more deeply distinct and recognizable for precisely that.

The expat experience can also heighten (or awaken) one’s patriotism. It certainly heightens my awareness of how I evaluate myself, and my passage through life’s major milestones, on the basis of the Americanness that so profoundly, so fundamentally, defines me and shapes my world view. I must say as well that the expat experience, rather than mediating that, strikingly informs and thus deepens it. Neither rooted nor rootless, then – neither Chesterton’s peasant nor his cosmopolite – I nevertheless breath the winds of the world, wherever I am, as who I am –  as an American. Finding myself in the midst of that experience in these circumstances is refreshingly edifying.

And much of what we talk about here will itself be shaped by that. So, let’s get to it . . .


Many of the choices we make in life, as we’ve noted, can be not merely portentous, but remarkably controversial as well. So, we might ask, fraught with so much potential drama as they are, on what basis do we make them?

For that matter, on what basis do we make any of the decisions in life that affect our paths through it, even if they seem plainly inconsequential?

Two approaches typically used here are expediency and self-examination. Expediency may well be the most natural, and the one we most often take recourse to. We adopt the religion of our parents. We attend the schools convenient to our resources. We pick a field of study at university for any of a number of often trivial reasons. Whether we bother with school or not, we take the job that makes itself available to us. This often works out just fine, especially if we take time to understand and accommodate ourselves to these choices as we go. In this approach, we fit ourselves to the contours of identity that we slip easily and naturally into, even if those choices seem more or less casual or coincidental.

Self-examination tries to reverse that process, to consciously select and then pave our paths through life such that they best suit, and provide the firmest and most sustainable possible footing for, both the trajectory and the topography that we each believe most appropriately conform to our character and our aspirations. What kind of person do we believe we are? What does that suggest to us about how we should order our personal, social, and professional lives? As unanticipated factors appear to expose the weaknesses in our assessments, we simply add that new information to our criterion, and adjust as we go.

Which are you? Do you let the path pick you? Or do you try to write the story of your own life? Perhaps, like many of us, you later learn that you’ve been doing both.

In either event, though – whether actively choosing or later accommodating ourselves to our various courses though life, we apply yardsticks and principles that seem fundamentally sound to us. Which are those for you?


Identity and culture

I once heard a person, who had converted faiths, described as a “traitor” to the religion of his birth, in which he was raised. He was excoriated for turning his back on the venerable creed of his parents, his forbears, his people; the very font of their sense of nationhood and identity – not to mention, he was gravely informed, the only true faith.

This argument points to the powerful connection between the cultural milieu in which we are raised – in which our parents, relatives, and members of our community are raised – and who we are at the most profound level of our selves, even as we change and evolve through our interactions with others, and as a result of our personal struggles – alone and jointly with our fellows – with the milestones that test our commitment, our identity. It is a strong argument, as old and viscerally robust as humanity itself.

In the case of this person, though, it seemed to me that the religion of his birth had no chance against the religion of his personal, carefully considered choice. He was an adult. He knew himself, had wrestled with and learned what were his values, and had come to understand what his religious beliefs truly were; and he thus was, from the most straightforward sense of integrity, compelled to act accordingly.

That strikes me as not just reasonable or acceptable, but as profoundly appropriate. We do ourselves a distinct disservice, perhaps even a violence, to allow ourselves passively to be defined by external associations, however supremely overriding of other considerations they may be viewed as being by others. Self-definitions imposed by religious obligation are, at bottom, meaningless if adhered to solely for that reason.

The very mechanism of such affiliations makes a mockery of one’s “faith,” which can only be genuine when it comes from within, rather than being unwittingly grafted on us from without. Certainly the religion of our birth can, as it often does, become our religion of sincere reflection and choice. And just as certainly, it better informs our lives, and we better serve as witnesses to its truths, when that relationship with it has been achieved.

But this discussion isn’t about religion per se. Rather, it is about self-identity and cultural identity. And it, perhaps, suggests that any value systems we adhere to, beliefs we profess to maintain, allegiances to which we commit ourselves – however sweeping or consequential – are best the products or results of our own deliberation, our rigorous self-discovery, and our own consciously crafted choice.

That would seem self-evidently to be very effective – not to mention rewarding – across virtually all major dimensions of life – from religion, certainly, to politics.

As for me, though, there turns out to be one fundamental point along this continuum where I have been unable to untangle my personhood as discussed above from the cultural sea in which I swim. The choice and the chooser cannot be distinguished, the one from the other. Surely, many people experience something like this, and, as suggested above, it often is encountered in the deeply elemental matter of religious identity.

But in my case, this conundrum, as it were, has to do with national identity – my Americanness. Since this sort of Gordian interweaving of culture and identity is central to much of what we’ll be talking about here, it may be worthwhile to look at that question just a bit more before we move on to the main topics of these pages . . .

The Americans

Surely we, in the States, have our own relation to the “rooted-rootless” debate. Which are we – the cosmopolite, or the peasant?

It could be argued that, as a nation comprised of the peoples of the world, we are inherently and quintessentially cosmopolite. Our culture is constantly renewed and enriched by the varying waves of immigration we have experienced here since the beginning. Uniquely, this phenomenon simultaneously strengthens and contributes fresh momentum to the vibrancy – even the distinctiveness – of the culture enjoyed here. It adapts, grows, expands; but it remains incontestably and, indeed, exceptionally American.

So, perhaps we have managed somehow to incorporate perspective into a natural cosmopolitanism?

Well, maybe not. Whether we have been here for several generations or just recently arrived – why-ever and however we got here – we left “there” physically behind us, and now we proceed to leave it psychically behind, as well. We seem to want to just withdraw behind the splendid barriers that buffer us from the outside world, most notably the mighty oceans to our east and west. We dig deep, draw fully from the winds that rise from and shape our dynamic culture, roaring with youth and vigor amidst what we imagine to be the very “winds of the world.”

Sometimes, though, harbingers of danger penetrate our isolation; omens and actions that cannot be ignored. We find ourselves drawn across those same protective barriers, to address the threats.

But it’s never really clear what kind of America ventures out into the world this way. Are we the cosmopolite, after all, with a superficial and misleading appreciation of where we are going and what we are getting into? Or the peasant, filled with pride and certainty that the winds filling our flag, giving voice to our freedoms and vigor, will give such breath as well to those elsewhere, who will immediately recognize and welcome them.

Whichever of Chesterton’s archetypes we imagine ourselves to be, we typically are left rather unsure as to whether we get these adventures right or wrong. So we return, glad to be home, riven by, on the one hand, pride at our good intentions and efforts and, on the other, by resentfulness at having those ill-appreciated, or, indeed, greeted with outright contempt and hostility.

But we have learned that, for a multitude of reasons – many of which we may touch on here – we cannot fully and finally withdraw from the world; it, after all, will not withdraw from us.

So how shall we approach, then, our engagement with it, if engage we must? As Chesterton’s peasant, or as his cosmopolite? Do we continue to oscillate between them? Or is there another way?