America, America

Our cyber-pal Kevin Kim has gathered up a nosegay of posts spanning the gamut of opinions about the Ground Zero mosque. I haven’t written much about it myself — obviously I don’t want to see it built — but I will say that the proposal has done more to get people speaking frankly about Islam than anything I can remember, including 9/11 itself.

Another thing this controversy has done has done has been to bring into sharp distinction two views of America that have been the subject of much debate for some time in conservative circles, but not so much elsewhere. Ross Douthat (how do you pronounce that name?) summed it up very well in a recent Op-Ed piece:

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

The term generally used to described the first view of America described above is that we are a “proposition nation”: it’s the view that all that is essential about America is a revolutionary set of abstract principles. This view — that America owes its greatness to an ennobling philosophical vision conceived by an extraordinary assemblage of men, a vision that has succeeded beyond the wildest imaginings of its Founders precisely because of its universality — is very appealing, and it is a majority view on the Left. But there it has taken on another aspect as well, namely that America’s greatness and prosperity are due only to those abstract principles, without regard to the culture in which they are instantiated. To put that another way, the assumption is that so universal are these abstractions, so generally do they address the yearnings of every h. sapiens, that they will bring forth the same fruit without regard to the particular soil in which they are planted. Furthermore, the extended assumption goes, such is the transformative power of these abstract principles that any human minds, once conditioned by them, will thenceforth function as entirely interchangeable parts in the machinery of society. Ties of ethnicity, religion, language — all the things that have been, throughout history, what has bound societies together, and rent them apart — simply will no longer matter, save as something resembling hobbies. E pluribus unum, we are reminded (although that motto refers only to the joining of the States into a new Republic); such is the greatness of the Constitution that it carries forward, into a sunlit future, all that really matters about human nature, leaving behind only those primitive urges and emotions we can do better without. There is no shortage of metaphors to reach for here: one can see the Constitution as a great sieve, lifting our better nature from the murk, or as a decanter that pours, from history’s bitter lees, the clarified wine of human reason and virtue. It’s a splendid vision of human progress, and it’s easy to see why so many people believe it with such righteous ardor, and defend it so jealously. I used to do so myself.

I have come to realize, though, as my shadow lengthens eastward, that as uplifting as all this is to contemplate, it is also terribly naive. Yes, America’s founding principles are the very root of its greatness — in that sense the first view of America is quite correct. But the second view is correct as well: the soil from which the flower springs, and the climate in which it is nurtured, are every bit as essential to its vitality as the seed the Framers planted.

Both views of America are essential to understanding its uniqueness, its exceptional place in history, and its prospects for the future. But to assert the importance of the second view contradicts the fashionable, “extended” version of the first — the idea that America’s greatness is due only to its founding abstractions, and in no important way to its historically predominant culture and ethnicity. So offensive is this contradiction to educated society nowadays that to insist upon it is to be marked as a bigot, a xenophobe, a racist, a Know-Nothing, a Yahoo (and a morally reprehensible one at that, as I find out from time to time in my email).

This marks an essential distinction between current-day liberals and conservatives. Conservatives, for the most part, readily acknowledge the power and importance of America’s philosophical foundation. But they also realize that culture matters, and that no nation, even one inoculated against faction and injustice by the Constitution, can thrive if it is not the homeland of a united culture and people. Liberals, however, insist — with the force of taboo — that such claims are not only wrong, but despicable. The propositions are sufficient, they tell us.

Well, we will see how this goes. Facts are stubborn things.

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31 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    Thanks for the shout-out. I hope I didn’t mischaracterize your position in my brief write-up. If I did, I’ll change the wording.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  2. Dom says

    Douthat = “Mouth it”

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    No, Kevin, you got it right. Thanks.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Excellent, Dom. Thanks.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  5. the one eyed man says

    When the Constitution was written, voting rights were limited to white, property-owning males. This group held the levers to society and formed its values, while the rest of society was more or less marginalized. American society then expanded to include those who don’t own property, and then further expanded to include blacks, then anyone born in America, then women, as well as waves of immigrants who came with different cultures and spoke different languages. So I think it is wrong to say that America’s “historically predominant culture and ethnicity” are responsible for its achievements, because they formed a moving target which continually expanded and moved the country in new directions. Today’s culture and ethnic composition are different than they were a generation ago, which was different than the generation which preceded it, and so forth.

    As each group came into American society, they met opposition from nativists who told us that we were doomed because (insert ethnicity here) were coming in droves, diluting the national character with their odd way of talking, dressing, or praying. In each case, they were wrong, as the new immigrants revitalized and grew American society, whether it is Sergey Brin or a cab-driver. Today’s scapegoats are Hispanics and Muslims. The irony is that people whose grandparents were vilified for being immigrants have forgotten their roots and are often the ones who are the most vocal about keeping the status quo unchanged. However, it is only because of the continual change in the status quo that they have the things they take for granted.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Exhibit A.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Athenians of old obviously didn’t know anything about, or appreciate the virtues of democracy. In the modern era, the French are equally benighted. Or so one might infer from what I’ve read.

    As for the mosque, I figure that Americans lost a great opportunity in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy when we didn’t declare loudly and proudly that we intended to build a mosque to rival any in the so-called Islamic world at ground zero. Of course, some would be incapable of seeing this as anything but craven, cowardly appeasement. Others, though, might see it as heaping coals of fire on the heads of our enemies. (cf. Proverbs 25:21-22)

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Dom says

    “When the Constitution was written, voting rights were limited to white, property-owning males…”

    And apparently they did a good job. To see this simple point, look at the “voting rights” (to the extent that they even exist) in most other nations (not all, of course). There is a reason, after all, that the “waves of immigrants” who, you seem to think, find nothing but hell here in the States, continue to come. You won’t find many immigrating to Moslem nations like Egypt or Lebanon.

    I think it is obvious that they want to participate in the predominant culture of America, despite the fact that (I am told) it is still a white male culture.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  9. the one eyed man says

    I don’t know whether immigrants “find nothing but Hell here,” but I know from personal experience how difficult it is to live in a strange culture with a different language (and I was in an Asian country which likes Americans). Anyone who is willing to come here in search of a better life – especially if he comes with skills and capital – is someone I want to have here.

    Of course “you won’t find many immigrating to Moslem nations like Egypt or Lebanon.” We have a much more open and welcome culture here. Your point is what?

    It’s not a white male culture. Hasn’t been one for years.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  10. Dom says

    “Your point is what?” — Obvious.

    “It’s not a white male culture. Hasn’t been one for years.” — And if you go back a few years? It’s a closed and unwelcoming culture? But as I said, you will find many people — feminists, say — who will tell you it is a white male culture.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    So, Peter, just to be clear: do you see this view as misguided?

    But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

    Do you really deny that America, which was 90% white/European heritage as recently as 1950, has a distinct culture as described?

    And to be clear – very few people are complaining about admitting highly intelligent, Jewish/Russian engineers like Sergey Brin. I’m certainly not.

    Immigration has proceeded in fits and starts throughout US history. New England went for about 200 years with almost no immigration at all. Previously there was always an expectation of assimilation, rather than a doctrinaire celebration of Diversity, and slack periods in immigration allowed new arrivals to join the ambient culture. And for the most part, these new arrivals were themselves far closer in their own background to the Judeo/Christian, European culture that they were expected to join.

    What immigration is in America now is very different now from what it has ever been, and we can already see, in Europe, how well large numbers of Muslims do at assimilating into Western societies.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  12. the one eyed man says

    I think American culture is really an amalgamation of many different cultures. It is as vibrant as it is because it has continually been refreshed and influenced by immigrants, whether they were the Eastern European Jews who started the Hollywood studios or the descendants of slaves who started jazz and blues (including America’s greatest composer, Duke Ellington). It’s not all John Wayne and Donna Reed. American culture is very different from, say, Japan, whose culture is rigid and moribund, largely because of the exclusion of foreigners which is part of their culture. (Of course, they don’t have Snooki, so maybe there are some advantages in xenophobia.)

    I would be very surprised if 90% of Americans were whites of European provenance in 1950. One would think that blacks, Asians, and Hispanics would be much more than 10% of the population, let alone people from other parts of the world.

    There are plenty of people who oppose bringing in highly intelligent people. CEO’s here in Silicon Valley are forever complaining about their inability to get H1B visas, so the best and the brightest often go elsewhere. The stingy allocation of H1B’s is a direct consequence of our rampant anti-immigrant hysteria.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    I would be very surprised if 90% of Americans were whites of European provenance in 1950.

    Well, you may be surprised, but that’s the way it was. When the doors were flung open in 1965, the debate in the Senate revolved around whether such a dramatic loosening of immigration policy would drastically alter the nation’s cultural integrity. Opponents said it would, proponents assured them it wouldn’t. But nobody disputed the idea that the nation had always had a distinct, traditional English-speaking, Judeo/Christian culture of predominantly European heritage, and all agreed that it was worth preserving. Things have changed a very great deal in a very short time.

    Yep, we have had some interesting music over the years, customarily sung in English. And I’m a big Ellington fan, though let’s not forget Gershwin and Copland.

    I certainly agree with you that America is not like Japan. But to say that Japan, a society that has been amazingly stable for thousands of years, is “moribund” is rather an audacious claim. I agree also that I wouldn’t want to live in Japan, which is as you say a rigid place. But it’s all about balance. Even if we stopped immigration altogether, it would take a long time to assimilate all the poorly digested “vibrancy” we’ve admitted over the past 45 years. There is a broad middle ground between complete resistance to all change, and complete unconcern about any and all transformations of society. You wouldn’t know it from the terms of this debate, though, in which anyone who doesn’t just want to invite the whole world here to do as they please is a racist or a “xenophobe”.

    If “plenty of people” are opposed to allowing the intelligent, talented and gifted to come here, they aren’t doing so very vocally. But even if so: are we really so incapable of developing our own talent? And aren’t there already a great many U.S. engineers and scientists who are unable to find work? And anyway, one only assumes there are no considerations to be made here other than economic ones if one has already accepted the idea that America is nothing more than a proposition nation, which is the whole point of this post.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  14. the one eyed man says

    The data you cite do not prove your point. They just reflect skin color, not country of origin. I’m white, but my grandparents did not come from Europe – they came from Russia. Besides Russia, this category also includes whites from other countries, such as Canada, Australia, India, the Middle East, and South America. The census report does not quantify Hispanics, who are presumably subsumed into the “white” category. America may have been 89.5% white in 1950, but it was nowhere near 90% white European.

    Japan has been a stable culture – which one might expect from a prosperous island nature – but their distrust of outsiders has made their neighbors’ lives miserable. I can’t imagine America participating in the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, or the colonization of Korea. I think that a polyglot culture is a brake on the militarism which xenophobia can encourage.

    Maybe it’s more a local issue, but there are plenty of technology leaders here who are quite vocal about the H1B restrictions. In the competition for human capital, I would rather see the cream of the crop go to Oracle than SAP. I would like to see the foreigners who study at MIT and Cal Tech stay here, instead of going home because we won’t give them work permits. While we could cultivate the best engineers in the world – and in some cases, we do – there are plenty of reasons why we don’t. Among these are reasons beyond our control (there are a lot of smart people outside our borders) as well as those within our control (mediocre public education, a culture which does not value intellectual achievement, a sense of complacency among those whose families have been here for a few generations). In my view, America’s best chance to retain its pre-eminence is to admit as many immigrants as possible, especially if they come with skills, brains, or capital. They will continue to bring the work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit which has propelled our economy and culture in the past. We have a society which is self-satisfied and preoccupied with trivia, while the strivers who come here from distant places are the likeliest ones to move us forward.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Well, interpolate, if you like. According to that chart, there were fewer than 2 million Hispanics in the 1940 census, and 116 million non-Hispanic whites. In 1940, then, Hispanics were 1.4% of the total population; non-Hispanic whites, meanwhile, made up 88.3%. Presumably almost all of those were of European (and I’ll include most of Russia in that) Christian or Jewish stock.

    As of 2000 Hispanics were 12.5% of the U.S. population; no doubt the number is far higher now. That is an enormous change in a very short time.

    Regarding Japan, your argument appears to be that we can justify admitting millions of Mexican peasants, Somali goatherds, etc., because by doing so the USA will make itself less likely to initiate a Bataan-style death-march. Is that about right? (I assume also from your “polyglot” reference that you see no reason to stress the importance, for social cohesion, of regarding English as the nation’s language.)

    I completely agree with you about the shortcomings of our culture as regards shallowness and valuation of intellectual achievement, and I have written at length that our immigration policy should favor those who are talented, creative, intelligent, productive, etc. (Certainly it behooves us to enforce some sort of coherent policy.) However, the fact that our education system is failing as badly as it is might itself not be entirely unconnected with its being swamped by wave after wave of poorly assimilated, hard-to-educate immigrants.

    And of course the primary context here is not Hispanic immigration, but how well Islam integrates itself into Western societies. The early results from Europe, where they are farther along in the project than we are, are not encouraging.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  16. the one eyed man says

    One of the problems with census data is that they rely on self-reported information. Would Barack Obama’s mother have said that her boy was black or white? (Oops. I forgot that he’s Kenyan.) Would Mrs. Woods have said that her little Tiger was black or Asian? (We do know that he’s different than Santa Claus, who only had three ho’s.) My guess is that kids who are racially mixed would mostly be self-reported as white. Also, the number for Asians seems awfully small. There are tons of third- and fourth-generation Chinese around here. The number of white Europeans is more than I would have guessed, but I don’t think it was 90%.

    I wouldn’t dismiss Somali goatherds so easily. The ethnic group in California which has the highest percentage of high school valedictorians is the Hmong. These are people who basically were airlifted from a medieval society to America in the 1970’s in gratitude for their help in the Vietnam war. When they got here, they would get in trouble for things like roasting goats in the back yard. These Hmong kids will do far better than many of their white counterparts, whose role models are Lady Gaga and The Situation.

    I think that a country has the right to limit immigration, and it ought to give preference to those with family members here and those who can contribute skills, brains, or capital.

    I think that the failures of our educational system has little, if anything, to do with immigrants, although I recognize that kids who do not speak English place a burden on it. I think it has much more to do with unionized teachers, a culture which accepts mediocrity, and a cultural emphasis on things like sports and cheerleading above academics.

    I think the difficulties of Muslims integrating in Europe says more about native Europeans than it does about Muslims. They don’t have a Statue of Liberty, an Ellis Island, or a nation comprised of immigrants. Their cultural DNA is different than ours, and it shows in the way that Muslims are treated (and the way they react to that treatment.) Detroit is an example of an American city with a very large (and completely assimilated) Muslim population. New York is another. (Fareed Zakariah said on the Charlie Rose show that there are 800,000 Muslims in New York, in the context that their wishes ought to be considered in the controversy surrounding the peace center in lower Manhattan. If that number is correct, then ten percent of the people in New York are Muslim, which I would imagine to be equivalent to major European cities.)

    Not that long ago, America was a place where blacks were lynched, Japanese were incarcerated, Chinese were disenfranchised, Jews were restricted from Ivy League schools, and the armed forces were segregated. When I was a boy, there was a cross which was burned on the lawn of a black couple who bought a house nearby. We are a much better country now than we were. Why is this? In my view, there are two primary causes.

    The first is that a country which successfully absorbs waves of immigrants learns that people who are different are not necessarily enemies. Diversity breeds tolerance. (I’ve always said that before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in his shoes. Then, you’re a mile away when you criticize him, and you have his shoes.) The second is that landmark liberal legislation (the Civil Rights Act) and court decisions (Brown vs. Board of Ed) have used the power of the state to foster equality. (I would note that this progress was bitterly opposed by conservatives, and not just of the Lester Maddox / Strom Thurmond variety, but also its intelligentsia. The obituary on James Kirkpatrick in the Times yesterday noted his published views about the “inferiority of the black race.” William F. Buckley echoed this view in the National Review.) Despite lots of evidence to the contrary, I do believe in human progress. In this instance, progress came both because it was learned and – gasp! – because of the benign influence of government.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  17. the one eyed man says

    Hey, I thought you were on the vacation? Instead of going through US census data, shouldn’t you be digging clams?

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    I’m looking for things to agree with here. For starters, there’s this:

    I think that a country has the right to limit immigration, and it ought to give preference to those with family members here and those who can contribute skills, brains, or capital.

    I would quibble over the “family members” part, which quickly becomes an endless chain, and “capital”, which simply seems to imply that you can buy your way in, but am with you on the rest.

    I will also agree, without reservation, about America having made moral progress as regards fostering equality of opportunity. (We have since gone beyond that to insisting on equality of outcome, but that’s another matter.)

    I will also agree that it is more difficult for Muslims to assimilate in Europe than America at least in part because Europeans are more protective of their unique cultures than we are. The assumption seems to be, however, that they are blameworthy for wanting to preserve that ancient cultural identity. Everyone sympathizes with the need to preserve indigenous cultures in their homelands (even the UN!), except when those cultures belong to white Europeans or their descendants. Nobody is touting, for example, the blessings that Diversity, in the form of Han Chinese settlement, is bringing to Tibet. Indeed (I guess I’ve run out of things to agree with here), your statement that “diversity breeds tolerance” is rather completely at odds with historical, and present-day, reality pretty much everywhere in the world. It certainly hasn’t bred tolerance in the Balkans, Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Turkey, Xinjiang, Malaysia, India, Lebanon, Israel, Darfur, Indonesia, Somalia, and Burundi, to name but a few, and it clearly isn’t breeding tolerance in Europe. Increasing Diversity has been shown again and again, as in the famous Putnam study, to reduce “social capital”, and to make people less, not more, gregarious in the public square. It increases tension and faction. Here in America a vast industry has sprung up simply to manage the enormous new problems and difficulties caused by Diversity in government and the workplace (see here, for example). Yes, there are benefits to it as well (the one that people mention first is usually food), but more often, what we hear about is the “challenges” it presents, and how we will just have to rise to meet them, because it is axiomatic that Diversity should always increase, and that more Diversity is always better. In what rational way can one possibly argue that Sweden, for example, is a better or happier place for admitting so many Muslims? The question should not be “can we manage to absorb enormous numbers of foreign adherents of a religion whose basic tenets and cultural axioms are fundamentally at odds with our own, but rather, why should we want to? How has Sweden benefited in any way from this?

    Islam has a permanent agenda of expansion at its core. Yes, there are those at the fringes of Islam those who want to live in a secular nation, in which one lives under the laws of Man rather than God, and naturally they are the ones that will self-select to emigrate to places like America. But Islam brings its unchanging root-stock with it wherever it goes, and eventually the tension between the secularizing fringe and the expansionist center arises, as we see for example here.

    Meanwhile, the man behind the WTC victory mosque is also the author of a book called A Call to Prayer from the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of America Post-9/11; you can read more about that here.

    This exchange of comments demonstrates, as I pointed out in the post, that while conservatives and liberals agree on the value of our nation’s founding ideas, they have very different visions of the importance for human happiness of a shared, and generally stable, cultural identity.

    I will say this for you, Peter: you articulate the “proposition-nation-only” viewpoint as well as anyone does. (I used to believe it myself.) I’m glad to have you to keep me honest.

    As for vacation — I’m not really on vacation yet, though I am up in Wellfleet: I’ve been telecommuting all week. After tomorrow I’m off until the day after Labor Day. I did manage to snatch about five dozen oysters from the bay on Sunday.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm | Permalink
  19. bob koepp says

    I think Douthat has a blinkered perspective on what is distinctive about American culture. The set of “political propositions” that he interprets in terms of “allegiance to the Constitution” are better seen as core moral principles that “constitute” classical liberalism of the Enlilghtenment. His “other America,” it seems, demands allegiance to silly things like a particular language — not ideas that can be expressed in any language; a particular religious heritage — not freedom of conscience; and Anglo-Saxon social norms and mores — I suppose this means fish and chips and neurotic bathroom humor. Just as those from other shores and climes can be tolerated only to the extent that they accept the constraints of Enlightenment values, so with this “other America.”

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    I don’t think a shared language is a silly thing at all; it is a very important ingredient of a cohesive community, and cultural faction and disintegration very often happens along the fault lines of language. People naturally prefer to associate with others they can speak to.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    Of course a shared language is important to social cohesion, — usually self-interest suffices to promote learning the majority (and that’s all it is) language. In Douthat’s other America, newcomers are expected to assimilate, “and quickly.” Well, my ancestors had the luxury of 2 generations to “quickly assimilate” before English became their “first” language. I don’t see any reason not to extend the same “courtesy” (not an Anglo-Saxon more, I’ll grant) to those coming on board today.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says

    Well, to acknowledge the importance of a shared language already puts you at odds with many on the left, who see regarding English as America’s national language as bigoted Anglocentrism.

    But when you refer to English as “the majority (and that’s all it is) language”; the implication is that there needn’t be any emphasis on seeing to it that English remains the majority language. Your comment seems to say only that while it still happens to be the majority language, immigrants will tend to learn it, but that Americans should have no reason to care about its preservation in that role.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  23. Malcolm says

    But more than that, Bob, there is more to a culture than “ideas that can be expressed in any language” (i.e. proposition-nation-only). There is a reason why languages are idiomatic.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  24. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I’m quite happy to be “at odds” with those who carelessly employ terms like ‘bigot.’

    Still, it seems obvious that what’s of value in the American experiment doesn’t depend on what particular language or idiom is used to express what is valued.

    And the fact remains that the “other America” described by Douthat is anti-enlightenment.

    BTW, yesterday I observed an exchange in which a burqua clad woman quite assertively told a fellow Somalian to mind his own business when he presumed to criticize her for smoking a cigarette. I suspect that the most pungent of her curses were delivered in Somali — but I wasn’t about to ask for a translation.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  25. Malcolm says

    Well, that’s the point, exactly, of this whole debate: it doesn’t seem at all obvious to a great many of us that all that is “of value” about America is contained in its foundational abstracta, as ennobling and vitally important as they are. (Of course, to a Somali coming here, that may well be the case.)

    What is also of value, to most human beings, is having in their homeland a culture to live in, to share, and to identify with — and cultures are more than propositions.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  26. bob koepp says

    Freedom is neither a proposition nor a linguistic entity. I don’t think we should be confused on this point.

    I happen to believe that personal freedom, though imperfectly realized, is an aspect of American culture that ought to trump other aspects of that culture. I even think it’s worth fighting and dying to preserve and protect that aspect of American culture. Douthat apparently disagrees. That’s why I think his anti-enlightenment views are anti-American.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says

    While I don’t agree that “people should be free” is not a proposition, I do agree that it is a vitally important one.

    In any society, though, that proposition is, as you say, at best imperfectly realized — and that is why a shared and homogeneous culture is naturally conducive to a free and happy society, and why freedom is necessarily diminished in the public square as societies become more heterogeneous: the more homogeneous (and less crowded) the society, the less likely it is that the ways in which people will choose to express their freedoms are apt to alienate, divide, and offend one another.

    So yes: freedom is of the highest importance — but given that in any functioning society it must be limited, there is a three-way tradeoff to be made between maximizing Diversity, increasing social tension and faction, and those limitations on freedom that are needed to preserve the peace (as exemplified, for example, by all those rules nowadays enforcing “cultural sensitivity” in school and the workplace).

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  28. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    My point was that freedom, if it’s anything, is not an abstract thing; even if we can’t refer to it without employing abstract notions.

    I take issue with your blanket claim that “freedom is necessarily diminished in the public square as societies become more heterogeneous.” It depends on what aspects of society we’re talking about. But I’m quite certain that, beyond the formal requirement of reciprocity, freedom is diminished when conformity is required.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  29. Malcolm says

    But that’s just the point – in more homogeneous societies, a general sort of conformity is not “required”, and need not be artificially imposed, because it arises in a perfectly natural way. There naturally tends to be less friction, which in turn reduces the need for limitations of freedom needed to reduce that friction so as to keep things running smoothly.

    This deserves a longer post, which I am gestating.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  30. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    It’s trivially true that there won’t be any need to restrict freedoms when nobody is inclined to behave differently from how everybody else behaves. The issue only becomes an issue when, as in the real world, there’s variation in the population. If the question is how much of what sorts of variation are compatible with the freedoms of others, then I’ll look to enlightenment thinkers rather than Douthat for guidance. And just to be clear, unlike “post-enlightenment liberals” (who are about as illiberal as can be) I don’t count such things as not being offended, criticized, held responsible, etc, etc, as forms of freedom. Indeed, I’m inclined to the view that embracing freedom means one will be offended, criticized, held responsible, etc, etc.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  31. Malcolm says

    I’m inclined to the view that embracing freedom means one will be offended, criticized, held responsible, etc, etc.

    Right, Bob, and I agree. But it’s still the case that the more homogeneous the society, the less one has to put up with any of that, and the less strife and friction there is generally. And it’s also pretty obvious, if one reads the world news, that those tensions regularly build up into bloody conflict, followed by violent disaggregation into more homogeneous communities.

    So there is clearly a tradeoff to be made here, and good reason to question the prevailing dogma that says more diversity is always better, diversity breeds tolerance, etc. Certainly one can reasonably question the wisdom, if one wants a free, happy, and peaceful society to live in, of making the maximization of heterogeneity something to encourage. Culture matters to people.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink