A month or so back, Americans gathered together with friends and family to celebrate the Fourth of July. Had an anthropologist from another planet been on hand to observe the event, she would have no doubt quickly concluded that we were celebrating either a great military victory or an historic breakthrough in the monetization of commerce.
If she were a particularly skilled and persistent social observer with some ability to access our language, she might conclude that the holiday also had something to do with “freedom”.
But I suspect that actually defining the nature and dimensions of that freedom would be well beyond her ken. Why? Because most of the available “native” informants would be unable to provide her with a coherent and minimally truthful account of the historical imperatives which gave birth to the nation, and from there, its annual birthday celebration.
People in the US like to talk about “freedom” as if it were a wholly autonomous and self-sustaining concept. But, in fact, the struggle for freedom is almost always contextual, that is, we seek it and “declare it” in reaction to some real or perceived form of oppression.
According to the Cliff Notes version of the American War of Independence that now circulates in our schools and on our airwaves, the founding fathers desperately wanted to gain their freedom from British Colonial “oppression”, especially in regard to the matter of paying taxes. While this is certainly true, it leaves out very large and important elements of the story.
The American reaction against British control can only really be understood in the context of the larger, pan-European drive (the most notable event of which was the French Revolution of 1789) to dismantle the ancien régime, which is to say, the caste system developed in the high middle ages to organize and regulate social relations in most continental societies.
Under the ancien régime, individualism as we currently understand it did not exist. Rather, a person’s identity was seen as being determined by a series of pre-existing and largely unchangeable relational dynamics; a person was viewed as some combination of the following: a) someone’s son or daughter b) a member of a parish or diocese c) the effective property of a lord d) the subject of a monarch and, in the final analysis, e) a child of an all-powerful god.
Put another way, people’s identities were almost exclusively group-dependent or tribal in nature.
When, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote of the “self-evident” nature of certain rights for “men” he was clearly writing about such people as individuals and thus writing against the long-standing group concepts of identity described briefly above.
Indeed, this document and the Constitution of the newly independent nation approved twelve years later are remarkable for the extent to which they avoid acknowledging any criteria--except of course the equally “self-evident” (to them) curses of blackness and femaleness-- that could be used to generate new tribal, blood, or corporate loyalties within the new Republic. All European white males people were to be accorded rights as individuals and their civic value calibrated as a function of their personal comportment under the law. The nation only existed insofar as these people decided to freely grant their allegiance to it.
This contractual concept of the nation had much in common with that propounded by the leaders of the French Revolution in 1789 and spread across Europe at the point of a gun by Napoleon (yes, that was like the American founder’s embrace of slavery a huge, hard to swallow, and perhaps, fatal contradiction) in the first years the nineteenth century.
This view of nationhood, which places a high value on the universal underpinnings of the human condition, political provisionality and the non-coerced consent of the citizenry, is referred to as voluntarism and was neatly summarized by the French thinker Ernest Renan in 1882 when he said that a nation’s existence is, and should be, a “daily plebiscite”.
However, no sooner had the Americans and the French developed this formula for collective political organization than a group of German thinkers (living, not coincidentally, in many of the lands forcefully “liberated” by Napoleon’s troops) led by Herder and Fichte, developed a very different concept of the nation, this one rooted not in the idea of forward-looking and necessarily erratic flows of collective will-power, but rather the inherited and putatively eternal concepts of language, geography, shared blood and a mystical national spirit.
In other, words they sought to reorganize under the “new” (in regard to the ancien régime) conceptual umbrella of the nation, many of the “attributes” of the seemingly vanquished schema of “old” tribal values.
The European authoritarian regimes of the early and mid twentieth century (Mussolini, Salazar, Horthy, Pilsudski, Franco and Hitler) as well as the inventor of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl all relied quite heavily on this historicist vision of collective identity to justify their respective national projects.
All this came to mind as I watched last week’s orgy of praise for the 30 US servicemen killed when their helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan on August 6th. In a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base on August 8th, President Obama spoke of the “exemplary” courage of the fallen men. Over the next several days, we were treated in the media to countless feature stories about the lives of these wonderful fathers and heroes.
Excuse me, but we are talking about paid assassins here. That’s right, armed bands who fly around in the middle of the night in a far off country whose people have done nothing to threaten or hurt us (read Gareth Porter and the late Seleem Shazhad if you still think the Taliban Al Qaeda are basically the same thing) breaking down doors and, “eliminating” people.
In this context, it seems fitting to ask a simple question of the type that all morally conscious people must ask from time to time.
On the basis of what underlying concept or value am I supposed to see these people--who if they were doing what they were doing in the service of any other nation, we would correctly identify as thugs or terrorists—as paragons of civic and social virtue?
The only way to do so that I can see is on the basis tribal loyalty.
We praise and support these authors of grave acts of violence and death--acts we would find absolutely unconscionable if done to “our people”--because we share with them a language, a territory and a mystically configured national spirit.
The US was launched 235 years ago as part of an international drive to an end to static and tribal ways of portraying the human spirit.
Today, however, we Americans seldom seem to miss an opportunity to say, in one form or another, “Long live the Tribe!”