September 21, 2015: AMERICAN "NATION"
I'm currently working on a piece for Military History magazine on the Greek war of independence, which took place over the ten years between 1821-1831, and it has inevitably led me to wonder about America now. Not that we face a war for our own independence, but some of the same issues that we cannot resolve, and have never fully resolved, faced the Greeks. As in:
After 400 years of occupation and control by the Ottoman Empire, Christian Greeks under Muslim Turks, Greek society was hardly a unified thing. Parts of the country were under the effective control of mountain warlords, Greeks, yes, but far more loyal to their own regions than to any idea of a Greek "nation." They no longer had any experience of being a nation. The cities, or better to describe them as large towns, had mixed groups of Greek and Turkish merchants running things, under sometimes nominal, sometimes firm Turkish control. Many of the more learned Greeks served in the Ottoman government; others served the Tsar of Russia. The majority of the country consisted of a peasantry that chafed under Ottoman taxes and arbitrary Ottoman rule; the peasantry nurtured the hatreds necessary for revolution but not the means. The revolution began not in Greece but in Ottoman provinces on the Danube. Eventually they achieved independence, but they never put together a modern countrywide army in the process and received a great deal of outside help, from France, Britain, and Russia in particular, without which they would have failed. As it was two civil wars followed this victory. In the end they needed a king, who was chosen by the great powers that had led them to independence. Was Greece a "nation," then?
In Imagined Communities, his brilliant book on the subject, Benedict Anderson argues that it takes common experience, and common beliefs, to make up a nation, and that it also takes shared historical experience over time. We can point to a lot of that: a Revolution, a Civil War; our Constitution, two World Wars, both of which drew on citizens from all over the country and threw them together under extreme pressure in deadly circumstances, which, precisely because of the threats, does create bonds. And there are other things that tend to form a national bond, ceremonies like the Super Bowl, Fourth of July parades, the Oscars, national holidays; shared anxieties, like Red Scares; and so on. But there have always been fault lines in American society, and they persist. Racism is one, and the election of President Obama has turned it into a zombie, back from the dead, not reducing it but intensifying it. There are long-standing ideological differences that go back to the beginning. An intense regionalism persists. And the ideological differences have only become more passionate, less reasoned. We have always debated what America was about, what it meant, what its purpose was. Now the debate has grown hysterical, and the voice of reason has died away. We have had two major political parties from the 1790s on; until the Civil War, they managed to govern, even when they were at odds.
Now? One has opted out. One has become dangerously unreasonable and backward looking, intent on undoing what cannot be undone--the history of the twentieth century. This has only intensified the deep regional differences in the country. Texas seems to think it wants to secede. The Bible Belt and its acolytes in Washington conducts open warfare on the rights of women and minorities. I don't have to cite chapter and verse; newspapers report this news every day.
Where does this leave us? On a downward slope toward incoherence and chaos. To be a nation, a people must adhere to its own principles, its historic identity, its common values. But we are a people which increasingly does not know its history, which cannot agree on its values, and thinks of themselves more as Texans, or New Yorkers or Floridians than as Americans, and whose standing armed forces are not composed of a citizenry required to serve their nation but of expendables hired out of the labor pool. Increasingly we look like a banana republic; increasingly we ignore our radical decline in the standings of civilized industrialized countries in relation to educational levels, health care, upward mobility and a host of other measures. Our foreign policy is an embarrassment, our ignorance a tragedy. Are we a "nation"?