The Fourth of July is the centerpiece of American nationalism and identity . . . even if few remember what exactly they are celebrating.
But even in their comical ignorance, Americans seem sure that there's an ultimate meaning to the Fourth: Freedom! . . . from . . . uhh . . . the South . . . er . . . the Nazis? . . . or whatever.
America, it is assumed, achieved independence from some sort of big, bad traditionalist oppressor.
Many nation-states celebrate "independence days," which usually mark important or unlikely military victories over invaders or imperial powers. As memory gets mixed with myth, these events are imagined as popular liberations. Mexico's "Cinco de Mayo," which might soon displace the Fourth in prominence in the United States, is emblematic in this respect.
But the Fourth of July—as well as France's Bastille Day of July 14—are holidays of an entirely different character (whatever surface similarities they might share with others).
America and France are the twin "proposition nations" of the Western occident. (This sibling rivalry explains much about the popularity of France-bashing and l'antiamericanisme in opposing countries.) Their "national" days are unique in the world in that they celebrate historical events that were cast, at their very inceptions, as liberal advancements for all humankind.
Today, of course, every nation-state on earth—from Nigeria to North Korea—mouthes some sort of "human rights" mumbo-jumbo. But the U.S. and France are exceptional in that they emerged as direct ideological expressions of the Enlightenment, and occurred at a critical moment in its history. One hundred years after the death of Spinoza, the French and American Revolutions marked the point at which Enlightenment values left the realm of philosophy (and what could be called the 17th-century "radical fringe") and entered the realm of state-making and geopolitics. Both Revolutions would, in turn, occur some 125 years before the Great War definitively ended the Old Order. Every state thereafter would be "American," the vestiges of aristocracy and monarchy persisting only as tourist attractions.
"The Rights of Man" . . . "the pursuit of happiness" . . . "inalienable rights . . . endowed by our Creator" . . . The great slogans and myths of 1776 and 1789 have a quaint ring to them today. They hail from an older phase of the Left, and thus have become, as it were, "conservative."
These platitudes function like dogma and form the unexamined basis of political action and speech. This is most obvious through a familiar political shorthand; in the words of Congressman Paul Ryan, America is "more than just a place . . . America is an idea." (As geography is thrown out the window, so is race, people, culture, history, and more.) Ryan's meme is reiterated across the spectrum—from a rock star's urgings that Americans be "one" with the world, to the inaugural addresses of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Much of political discourse in America involves politicians accusing rivals of not believing in the American dogma hard enough.
To be an American is to be committed to liberty, equality, and individual autonomy—perhaps even to have left one's home and people in the name of such principles. America's highest ideal is, in a way, an anti-ideal—that the state shall not express a people's spirit and history, a source of wisdom or tradition, or a vision of something greater, more dominant and powerful than an individual. The character of America is imagined as an endless tabula rasa or Etch-a-Sketch; it gets written on, but always returns to zero.
The “Founding Fathers,” as they are know, are revered not so much as martial heroes but as the wise designers of the world's greatest legal mechanism. There seems to be no parallel in other Occidental cultures to the reverence of the Supreme Court, as a set of nine Talmudic Judges who, depending on your persuasion, will either divine the Constitution's One True Law or else view it as a living will.
Other countries might have negative national consciousnesses. Germans, for instance, have internalized de-Nazification. But Germans remain, despite it all, self-consciously German. Americans, on the contrary, are nothing . . . they're always starting over . . . they like to tell themselves they have an unbounded future, but only at the cost of never having a past.
One can be an American and also be Roman Catholic . . . a Muslim . . . a Buddhist . . . or a trans-gendered performance artist. American society is, indeed, encouraged to fragment into as many pieces as possible. So long as no identity, ideal, or meaning predominates over others; so long as every identity ultimately wants the same.
Religion in America, particularly Protestant Christianity, has rarely opposed this anti-identity; at critical moments, it has reenforced it. There is a "storybook" history to the many fanatics, who, choosing to abandon their homes and cultures, sought to create a "new Israel" in the New World. What we call “tradition,” they called “corruption" and "poison."
One could imagine an alternative reality in which American religious institutions had opposed the 1776 Revolution (or at least had been highly skeptical of it), urging loyalty to mother country and mother church. Instead, the 18th-century pulpit was a place of revolutionary fervor. Jefferson’s Independence Declaration had resonated with—and was, indeed, continuous with—a whole series of "compact" beginnings for Christian Americans, who in a spirit of Hebraic separatism, desired to break with Europe.
The Europeans had been Germans . . . Gauls . . . Russians . . . Lombards . . . Britons before they were Christians. In their national consciousnesses, they could remember conversion experiences. Americans, on the contrary, were Christians before they were Americans.
One could counter that the American dogma is all rhetorical—that the Founders, some of the wealthiest men on the continent at the time, sought to secure an aristocratic order, that American society has been informed by ethnic, political, and monetary agendas, etc.
But to understand America, one must understand its outcome—that there are certain impulses and implications that only become clear later on (ironically, when the entity has reached its end point). Today, the United States has achieved the most robust and most popular civic religion that explicitly denies its racial, historical, and civilizational identity. This spiritual negation is more devastating than the displacement of the founding stock through mass immigration.
Our perspective is of living in America, without being of it. As we escape America's assumptions, we can look upon the entity objectively.
A century and a half ago, Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, was faced with the prospect of the victory or annihilation of his nation and fledgling state in what is now referred to as the American Civil War.
In his greatest address, “The Cornerstone of the Confederacy,” he did not speak (mendaciously) about "states rights" or any kind of Constitutional legality. He instead cut to the heart of the social order he was opposing. He stressed that the Confederacy was based on the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was wrong; the "cornerstone" of the new state was the "physical, philosophical, and moral truth" of human inequality.
Ours, too, should be a declaration of difference and distance—"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created unequal." In the wake of the old world, this will be our proposition.
This article was originally published on July 4, 2014.