Sunday, March 27, 2016

Paul Ryan and the Question of American Identity

I don’t get it. Apparently, Republican establishment types and the conservative commentariat think the world of Paul Ryan. When Republican House members were looking for a new Speaker, everyone lined up to support Ryan, as though he would be something of a savior.

I don’t get it.

Those with a slightly longer memory recall the moment when vice presidential candidate Ryan sat down to debate Joe Biden during the 2012 presidential campaign. And they call that Biden cleaned Ryan’s clock. To be nice about it, Biden made Ryan look like an overgrown boy scout. Considering that Mitt Romney had chosen Ryan to be his running mate, the performance damaged both Ryan and the Romney campaign.

For reasons that escape me, the weak performance did nothing to dim Ryan’s star.

As I said, I don’t get it.

The conservative commentariat will rejoin that Ryan is a great thinker, a deep thinker, a serious intellectual … what have you. Heaven knows where they got that idea… perhaps because Ryan can quote Ayn Rand.

On that point, I really don’t get it.

Anyway, enough of a preamble. Last week Ryan gave a speech in which he declared that America was a great idea. He meant that the nation was founded on an idea, not an identity.

It was very idealistic of him, and perhaps revealed his youthful exuberance, but it was not conservative. The latter philosophy values tradition and custom, balance of powers, negotiated compromise and pragmatic considerations.  It’s not about imposing anyone’s ideals on the populace.

Come to think of it, the liberal left is all about great ideas—like the idea of equality and the idea of social justice.

Yes, indeed, the left is awash in great ideas. Republicans and conservatives have preferred to take the more pragmatic side of the argument. Not Paul Ryan.

Writing in the Daily Caller Scott Greer took serious issue with Ryan. Greer correctly pointed out that Ryan got it confused. America is about identity, one’s identity as an American, more than it is about ideas.

Greer explained:

According to the Republican leader, “America is the only nation founded on an idea — not an identity. That idea is the notion that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. Our rights are natural. They come from God, not government.”

Ryan then decided to give a history lesson on the idea-obsessed founders and how America’s greatest leaders have always come together through compromise and debate.

With that lesson in mind, he called upon America’s modern politicians to return their focus to “ideas” and instead of pandering to their respective bases.

The speech is obviously a rather gooey attempt to bridge the political divide, but there’s one line that stands above the platitudes and cliched allusions — America is a nation founded on an idea, not an identity.

It’s a popular notion to think that our nation was created in a vacuum and created solely to uphold abstract principles. That line of thinking believes there’s no cultural basis to the American proposition, and there’s no real national identity outside of the belief in meritocracy.

That’s pretty quaint — and largely untrue.

To be fair, Ryan probably meant to strike a blow against identity politics. He might have been inveighing against those who would define themselves in multicultural terms, in terms of their local ethnic groups or races. He might have been attacking those who aspire to be hyphenated Americans.

If so he would still have missed the point. Among America’s greatest achievements, often noted and often emphasized, is its ability to treat everyone like Americans. No matter where you come from, once you become a citizen you become an American. Very few nations on the face of the earth can make the same claim.

One recalls that Theodore Roosevelt found the notion of hyphenated Americans to be anathema. Americas become Americans by observing certain customs and rituals, by pledging allegiance to the flag and respecting the laws of the land and the decisions of the majority. You cannot be loyal to your ethnic group and still be primarily loyal to your nation. If you are loyal to an ideal, your loyalty will similarly be divided. Practices make us all Americans—or, at least, those who are citizens of the great country.

Keep in mind, if we are Americans by virtue of our belief in some idea or other, then we will enter into the world of inquisitions and witch hunts. How, otherwise, do you know what anyone really, really believes. You can see whether someone pledges allegiance to the flag. You can see that he does or does not practice civic virtues but you cannot see what is in his mind.

Teddy Roosevelt made the point vigorously in 1915:

There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all … The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic … There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.

For his part Greer refers to Samuel Huntingtion, who argued in his book Who Are We? that America as a nation arose out of a specific culture, an Anglo-Protestant culture. Had the nation arisen out of Spanish Catholicism it would have been an entirely different place.

Greer explains:

… America’s founding ideas are actually an outgrowth of the nation’s Anglo-Protestant identity. Put another way, that unique identity gave birth to the unique ideas that made us the nation we are.

America’s belief in individual rights, liberty and equality of opportunity could only come about from the specific culture and institutions that were brought to the New World by British settlers, as Huntington notes. That culture — which placed a premium on liberty and representative government — was unique to Anglo-Protestants and provided the worldview from which our Founders forged a nation.

If the 13 colonies were primarily settled by another people — such as the French or Spanish — we would almost certainly not be the country we are today.

Our Anglo-Protestant culture also bequeathed the nation’s strong commitment to hard work and the adoption of English as the all but official language of the land. Ryan endorsed that last quality by delivering his speech in that particular language, not French or Spanish.

It is true that our Founding Fathers were very much animated by ideas, but they also didn’t conjure up our country out of thin air. The reason many of them wanted to separate from the British crown and start a new country was over the feeling they were being denied their rights as Englishmen, not that they one day suddenly thought it’d be better to found a country on the idea that “the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life.”

And our Founders were keen to emphasize the cultural identity the citizens of the new country would share.

At a time when Europeans and Americans are debating the question of whether or not certain immigrant groups can assimilate into Western civilization, the multicultural left believes that they should not and that they need not.

Some groups have no real problem adapting to Anglo-Protestant culture. Some groups find it very difficult. Some find it impossible and set out to undermine the cultural foundations of the nation.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I had an interesting conversation with my Mother the other day. She said, "Politics is not a profession. Politics is a game."

The game for the Republican establishment (GOPe, as some have abbreviated) is to lose respectfully... to be reasonable. That respectability comes at the expense of victory. But the GOPe's purpose is not to win... it's to look good. Nothing is more important at a country club than appearances.

For my entire lifetime, it's been "His turn." Paul Ryan was the VP pick in the last election. It's "His turn." He doesn't even have to run! Hell, he didn't want the Speaker job, why not just give him the Republican nomination for president?

You don't have to get it. That's just the way it is. Hate Donald Trump, despise Ted Cruz... their real sin is not waiting their turn.

Ares Olympus said...

It's an interesting argument I've not really heard before, or thought about.

Cultural identity is an interesting question, and it makes sense for empires to encourage citizens to see their primary identity to their country over all other differences. And it makes sense that ethnic groups that fail this quest, will have a harder time integrating themselves into the whole, and benefiting from a common culture.

The stickiest ethnic identity might be Nature-American, people like Elizabeth Warren, with Indiginous roots in this continent, going back perhaps as much as 10,000 to 50,000 years depending on who is counting.

I also reflect on my visit to Mexico City and seeing people with 90% European/Spanish ancestry considering themselves ethnically closer to their 10% native heritage. They see their genetic ancestors of the Spainish as foreign invaders, enemies who committed atrocities. Apparently there was much more genetic mixing in South and Central America, and more cultural mixing since european foods and skills didn't match the landscape they were entering, so nearly everyone has some fraction of their ancestors from the "Native American" genes.

I'm not actually sure which is "better", to feel yourself part of a 20,000 year heritage, or to be part of a 250 year "oldest democracy" in the world, or republic as you like, or Economic Empire if you're feeling ambitious.

And in contrast Europe is still a mess of ethnic identies, and all the 1000 year old ethnic conflicts as well. But when our European ancestors came to America, we abandoned our ethnic identies, which were a part of the insanity of europe, and collected together, more or less as one people.

It does seem however, if you abandon ethnic ties, that ideas are what create identity. So we are one people, under one set of laws, under a constitution, living or not, that defines how we interrelate.

And ideas like the protestant work ethic for example is one common ground we might all share, along with the idea of "progess" that we're all moving towards a better future, one where everyone has a place, as long as they follow the rules, and work hard.

And these "ideas" are what define our collective identity. And we've been a country that has been blessed by "great men" and "great resources" so we've had more or less continual growth of prosperity and hope for a greater future.

It does seem like that narrative is breaking down, and the illusion that Americans are better than everyone else, just for being Americans, is harder to maintain. And we've used globalization to continue the illusion, and the rest of the world "works for us now", just like the savage Friday worked for Robinson Crusoe.

It is a glorious idea to believe there is only "one way to live", and everyone should be like us, and progress will lift all boats, and yet it really doesn't make sense - everyone can't be rich, or who would be left to work for $0.50/day?

The Jeffersonian Democracy is another romantic idea, in opposition in ways to our modern world of "progress". It is more "democratic" because you can imagine the wealth of the land being divided up as widely as possible, and wealth isn't "power" but responsibility and stewartship, that the land you maintain is your livelihood, including the people who depend on you. I suppose this model may also move towards feudalism, where opportunity is limited by your birth parents.

Perhaps someday, after this globalization fails completely, something like that Jefferson's ideal will return out of necessity of an unstable world, but as best we can see now, Urbanization is winning, because that's where the wealth is, and where opportunity for common folk is greatest.

Marsh said...

Good post. Ryan is a globalist, who wants open borders and more rapeugees. It's not about his youth. This is the direction he wants to go.

Next week, President Obama will open the largest mosque in the world here in the United States. He will be accompanied by Erdogan of Turkey.

I read something once that said when a nation gives up their country's religion, it's not replaced w/ atheism, it's replaced by another religion. Christianity/Judaism is being replaced w/ Islam.

Ares Olympus said...

Hey Marsh, I was curious what your scary mosque was about. Antichrist?!?!? What?! The president of Turkey is the antichrist?

It looks like the building is here:
Diyanet Center of America (DCA) is a non-profit organization based in Lanham, Maryland serving the needs of the Turkish American populace and Muslims in general in the Washington Metropolitan Area.
In the media

The local Muslim population was excited about plans to establish a new complex. However, the center also came to the attention of some Islamophobe extremist and evangelist groups with hatemongering pages on their websites.

They have a website here:

If you decide to visit, note the dresscode.
Diyanet Center expects attendees to dress appropriately in modest clothing. Because our environment is a spiritual space, we ask that the surroundings are respected and modest attire is essential.

Modest attire for men includes any form of clothing that properly covers the body. For women it includes any form of clothing that properly covers the body including head.

Attendees are expected to demonstrate good judgment and modest taste. Courtesy and respect to our surroundings and for those who worship at our mosque is essential to maintaining our spiritual environment.

Incidentally, isn't Turkey considered an ally? Hey, they sound a bit like the United States!
Turkey is a parliamentary representative democracy. Since its foundation as a republic in 1923, Turkey has developed a strong tradition of secularism.[98] Turkey's constitution governs the legal framework of the country. It sets out the main principles of government and establishes Turkey as a unitary centralized state. The President of the Republic is the head of state and has a largely ceremonial role. The president is elected for a five-year term by direct elections and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the first president elected by direct voting.

So should we be fearful of Turkish-Americans? Oh, wait, we're not supposed to hyphenate. But at least we know our cultural integration does NOT require religious integration. They're apparently free to worship without persecution.

Did we become a Christian Theocracy instead of a Constitutional Republic when I wasn't looking?

I missed that in the newscycle.