April 16, 2014
Affection is usually considered a thing that is by nature unreflective. It is a partiality for one person or thing because it is ours, and therefore familiar, both in the sense that we are accustomed to it and it reminds us of our families; the most impartial tie, and one that is mostly not of our choosing. C.S. Lewis wrote that this is an indiscriminate love; it is bestowed on something for its familiarity, rather than its merits. How, then, can a people priding themselves on a nation formed out of reflection and choice claim to have any sort of affection for a regime that is a product of their reason rather than passion, and of their solemn selection rather than familial devotion? To an American, paying homage to a hereditary way of life is an echo to much older ways. This is the habit of old nations, the ones which remember the old wounds and still arrange their lives around them, or even of ancient ones, where to be one of Us is the irreplaceable honor and to be one of Them is synonymous with alien and therefore threatening. Accepting a way of life because it is ours and was our fathers is not viewed as a respect for venerable tradition; rather, it is interpreted only as a hatred for all else that is different. Affection for our own is translated as distaste for all that is theirs. In a nation that prides itself upon being a nation of immigrants, can a beneficial form of unreflective patriotism exist for an American? Furthermore, ought it exist at all, or does this sentiment necessarily veer into the realm ofover-zealous nationalism?
Compared to other nations of the world, the “American” is an infant, with a genealogy younger than the roads of Europe. Alexis de Tocqueville certainly considered that so, but saw a certain purity in that national youth, untarnished by the long and weary experiences of centuries. Americans, who “arrived yesterday on the soil they occupy,” might still consider themselves English or Irish or Mexican for a generation or so, but the moment they began to think of themselves as Americans they were no longer bound by fierce and unreflective passion to their old home. They had become different citizens in a kind of second political birth, and for Tocqueville, America did not have a history of traditions bound together by blood and soil to replace the old. It could be chosen and therefore loved solely for its virtues, and not for an inherited affection. Even at the time of his travels, however, some families and communities had been well-established for two centuries. Today, there is an even greater inheritance for citizens, encompassing wars against friends-turned-enemies (some of whom have made the switch more than once), periods of prosperity and hunger, and an ever-increasing interest to discover if one’s distant relatives were part of the Greatest Generation, or perhaps fought for the Gray or Blue. Every university student knows that it does not take long for a new city to become home; the comfortable familiarity of the buildings and people can even eclipse the surprisingly changeable hometown.
Were there Americans who cherished a “taste for old customs, with respect for ancestors” during Tocqueville’s day? Undoubtedly, but many of those customs still identified them as Germans or English. Are there distinctly American traditions now? That is a more complicated question. Like any nation, we demonstrate respect for our own by pledges to the Flag and bared heads at the Anthem, and these are always things that cannot be shared by a foreigner. Innumerable country songs praise America (or sometimes just the South) for its home cooking and little country churches. It is a badge of honor that the food may not be a gourmet French meal and the church may not be a stunning cathedral; but they are ours, and they are enough. America seems to be accumulating some of the hallmarks of a traditional people, though it has never forgotten that these customs are constantly changing. In a vast Republic, it can be as difficult to find ten families who all celebrate Thanksgiving in the same manner as it is to find ten who all agree on politics. In a nation where a bloodline does not qualify you to be a native, the identification of a national character becomes even more elusive.
There are some traditions in which every American has participated. Pledging one’s allegiance to a flag and a Republic while asserting that they stand for liberty and justice for all is a solemn thing. Someone once wrote those words, and meant them. Someone else realized that by teaching them to the next generation of citizens, he was in part teaching them what citizenship meant. That it is rote does not make the words less meaningful or less powerful. While it might be merely a parroted line for twelve years of public school, an American would not like to be told that he could not say it anymore. Our affection for our home is part of what helps educate us. Our families teach what matters by ensuring we pray before dinner or always visit Grandma on Sunday afternoons. Political tradition can be the same. It can be rooted in something that is true and that is beloved by our nation. Maybe a revolutionary movement that fought a war and drafted a government didn’t need the tradition as much, because they had to know what mattered: they were forced to articulate it as they fought for it. Aware of what he did, George Washington laid his hand on a Bible and took an oath, ending it with the extraneous yet indispensable “So help me God.” He knew he would need that aid. A tradition began.