I haven’t made up my mind about the debates regarding “nationalism,” conducted mostly in terms of epithets and denials, that have poisoned political debate since Donald J. Trump burst onto the U.S. political scene. “Nationalism” has been defined as an aspect of our self-identification with our country or “homeland” that is “…based on shared characteristics such as culture, language, race, religion, political goals or a belief in a common ancestry.” More narrowly, it has been defined as the favoring of self-government by those living in a nation” rather than by an occupying power, say, or colonial power. Yet another definition, which takes us into the controversy that arose in the 2016 election, is “the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one's own nation viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations.”
Our overnight most famous contemporary “nationalist” is Steven Bannon, the successful businessman, movie producer, and revolutionary media innovator who became head of President Trump’s successful election and is now his national security advisor. That Mr. Bannon has become perhaps the most feared, loathed, and attacked (and smeared) man in America says little about his views, but everything about the god of American “progressivism”: multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism is the contemporary brand name of “cultural relativism,” the view that there cannot be an objective standard by which to judge the relative merits of different cultures. It is a variant of subjectivism, which argues that each of us, inescapably, sees the world from “inside” his culture (as well as his sex, economic class, race, and ethnicity) and that limits our ability to discern truth. Therefore, each culture must be accepted and judged strictly on its own terms.
It is worth mentioning, parenthetically, that “globalism,” especially economic globalism, does not entail “multiculturalism”—only the view that under conditions of free trade, free movement by workers, and peace every individual in every country potentially can benefit far more than under economic nationalism. Globalism does not refuse to apply objective moral standards to other countries; but rests on belief that a global free economy produces the greatest benefits for any group, including cultural group, that participates.
Varieties of Nationalism
Mr. Bannon has been called, or labeled, a “white nationalist” over and over, daily, in what has become a kind media tic, a political Tourette’s syndrome. He has denied it. What is interesting is that he is a self-proclaimed nationalist, a European cultural nationalist, who argues that cultural, social, and political values from the Western European tradition have shaped what is distinctive and essential about America and that America cannot survive as America if the majority of her citizens do not espouse these values.
Although this is anathema to the multiculturalists—implying that American culture is exceptional, must be preserved, and is in danger of “dilution” by other cultures—it is not their typical charge against Mr. Bannon. Their charge remains that he is a “white nationalist.” Why? I believe because “white nationalism” is easily and rightly denounced as racism, discrimination based upon inherited biological characteristics—not on the choices that make up an individual’s morality and character. “Cultural” nationalism is a philosophical concept dealing with ideas and values available to any individual. What is hateful about this to multiculturalists is that it valorizes a given culture (Western, European, and American) over others.
Of the many forms of “nationalism,” including identification of a nation’s essential character as racial, religious, or ethnic, the one favored by traditional (true) liberals has been “civic nationalism,” the view that a nation is defined and sustained by a certain view of the role of government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and how government earns its legitimacy (e.g., democratic procedures). From what I have read of Mr. Bannon’s views, he seems to believe that sustaining “civic nationalism” depends upon sustaining underlying ideas and values. Put thus generally, I can agree: philosophical premises underlie and undergird political principles. It is worth noting that Mr. Bannon specifically and vehemently rejects the “Atlas Shrugged sort of view,” which he sees as unrelated to underlying American culture.
Because any culture comprises the philosophical ideas (including political premises), the moral values, traditions, sense of life, and common literature and other art of a majority in a country, Objectivism rejects cultural relativism, boldly asserting rational standards for judging the relative merits of different cultures. In a nation where large minorities of people have different cultures—say, French and English culture in Canada or American and Latino in the United States—the same judgments can be made. Of course, assessments of a given culture tell us little about any individual. No one knows that better than Objectivists who know the tale of the Russian Jewish girl who gave her heart to French Romantic literature and yearned to be American.
Limits of the “Melting Pot”
It has been America’s boast and pride that it absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, including two waves of tens of millions in the early 20th Century, and remained America. The striking metaphor of the “melting pot” emphasized that those who arrived in short order became indistinguishable from other Americans; in college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my father changed his name from “Dziedzic” to “Donway,” becoming, as I used to jest, a good Irish immigrant. Ayn Rand, in one of her unforgettable philosophical clarifications, pointed out that immigrants did not “melt” into an “indistinguishable gray mass” but yielded their national and ethnic identity to the philosophy of American individualism.
In his brilliant Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Shuster, 1987), philosopher Allan Bloom gave the “melting pot” a human face:
… by recognizing and accepting man's natural rights, men found a
fundamental basis of unity and sameness. Class, race, religion,
national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when
bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common
interests and make them truly brothers. The immigrant had to put
behind him the claims of the Old World in favor of a new and
easily acquired education. This did not necessarily mean
abandoning old daily habits or religions, but it did mean
subordinating them to new principles. (p. 27)
As I understand it, and feel it, the question confronting America today is if the culture that makes America distinctive, makes it the America we cherish as exceptional, remains potent enough to absorb more millions of immigrants of a different culture? It is by no means a new question. Americans were asking it, with anguished doubt and anger, a hundred years ago, as the millions entered through New York’s Ellis Island.
Should we say, as many Objectivists do, that questions about immigrant culture are concrete-bound, a diversion? And that the issue, as Ayn Rand said, again and again, is that a nation’s intellectuals must defend its best values, its best ideas, and its political principles. If they do not—and if no “new intellectuals” come forward to do the job—then the ideal, the beacon to mankind, will be extinguished. No cowering together with lovingly preserved traditions, inside border walls, will save the dream. Only philosophy can do that.
But can explicit philosophy, in this case, Objectivism, really keep the best of America’s philosophical premises, values, and political traditions alive, if over several decades, America becomes, say, 40 percent Hispanic? (The Pew Research Center reports: “There were 55.3 million Hispanics in the United States in 2014, comprising 17.3% of the total U.S. population. In 1980, with a population of 14.8 million, Hispanics made up just 6.5% of the total U.S. population.”) In fact, it may be that only in the America of the time it was published would Atlas Shrugged have achieved the impact that it did. It expressed the specifically American sense of life and glorified uniquely American achievements and attitudes. It was a novel written for, about, and to the genius of American life.
The Making of One American
Consider what I have written as stating some definitions, terms of discussion, but not pretending to reach a conclusion. What I would like to do is marshal my own personal experience with becoming American, asking what fostered my abiding lifelong consciousness of being part of an American nation. Growing up, what was it that made me feel inalienably part of America, fostered my identity as a citizen, and brought me to adulthood wanting to change nothing essential about America?
If this exercise seems self-congratulatory, perilously parochial, and likely to be bias-confirming, I have this defense: I wish to state only my experience as I see it, now. My goal is to encourage others to state theirs. If, under this weight, my enterprise collapses, so be it.
I return to the statement “wanting to change nothing essential about America.” As I got on in life, I met individuals who said they loved America—they just wanted to make America better. They longed for a socialist, welfare-statist America, an America where “communitarianism” replaced individualism, an America that no longer fancied itself “the last best hope of mankind” or “a beacon of freedom.” If those things could be changed, America would earn their love. It reminded me of nothing so much as the man who declares imperishable love but would like to change everything about his wife. Archibald MacLeish wrote: “They love not us at all, but love; It is not we but a dream must cover them.”
I think of the girl in Leninist Russia who glimpsed America in fleeting images on the movie screen, fell in love with what she saw, risked everything to reach America, and spent her life understanding, affirming, and defending what made America great.
What seems to me (then it is your turn) the roots that yielded my lifelong affirmation that I am American. in America, and glad of it?
1. I was born and raised in a small New England town in a neighborhood of small farms. My parents were born in America, but my grandparents on my father’s side came from Poland, on my mother’s side from Ireland. No one in our neighborhood was “American” in the Mayflower sense. Almost all were second- generation Swedes who flocked to the region to work for the manufacturer, Norton Company. I don’t recall, growing up, any friends my age referring to their “heritage.” My parents seldom mentioned “roots,” although I visited my father’s parents regularly and they spoke only Polish. For example, I never knew from what regions or cities in the “old country” my grandparents emigrated. My mother sometimes sang Irish folksongs. I have an indelibly powerful sense of “home” as a landscape, town, and region.
2. Growing up, I knew no one not Christian. Our town had New England’s great garden of Protestant sects and Catholic churches. My family attended the Congregational Church. The Christian holidays, the songs, the rituals sank deep into my emotions and still linger. But by the time I entered high school, I was an atheist and that has never changed. America itself from the start—including in New England, of course—was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. Those creeds fostered America’s profound individualism for 250 years before the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Churches in New England, when I was a boy, had convictions and my mother argued them at Sunday dinner after church. Individualism seemed to prove much stronger than sectarianism; my first wife and present wife are Jewish.
3. My parents were prosperous and entrepreneurial. I knew that their success set me somewhat apart from other children. Can I overlook that materialistic support of my “Americanism”? America, for me, was a good thing and my parents, especially my father, articulated that often: you can be anything you want to be in America. If we had struggled more, done without more often, failed, I might have different feelings about America.
4. No one I met in 12 years of public school spoke anything but English. It would have seemed preposterous to hear anyone claim they must be taught, and speak, anything else. How important was this? My grandparents spoke only Polish; and that is what my father spoke around them. That seemed obvious. I took pride in learning to count to 10 in Polish. Not only English, but American English, but also Yankeeisms run very deep in my American identification.
5. In school, we began each day with the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag always there. That adds up to many thousands of repetitions of the pledge and prayer. I liked it; I liked being part of it.
6. By about my fourth-grade year, television arrived, with just three networks, and spread like a pandemic. How important to my Americanism? On television, back then, “we” seemed much the same: mostly white, English-speaking, patriotic, ever-concerned with America’s glorious past, and privileged future. I view the TV westerns as a powerful force for acculturation to America: our past, it seemed, was a story of exploration, heroism, the fight for justice, good triumphant over evil. I would rate this influence very high in my Americanism. Not least because it coincided with my coming of age to appreciate stories.
7. I grew up in the years immediately following World War II. American arms, the prodigious American economy, and American heroism had triumphed in the world conflagration—indeed, America was the last nation standing. In the wake of that American victory, it seemed, life was all about America: its products, its culture, its influence. No country in modern times had achieved the position of America. I took it for granted, of course; but it was unique in history. I would suggest this triumph of American economic power and American ideals shaped my generation as did nothing else. And I was just in time. By 1960, when I was 16 years old, the bi-coastal internationalist culture and media were scorning American materialism, religion, popular culture, family and sexual values, and America’s role in the world. The counter-culture was in full swing; the snarling at American folly had begun. Many, including myself, experience this as a profound loss, a vanished Eden. As generations come of age, now, unfamiliar with this American triumphalism, will their patriotism be the same?
8. I must add, immediately, that, although I grew up with American triumphalism, in the same era, I lived in the almost incomprehensible world of “Dr. Strangelove.” A minority of Americans, mostly Jewish immigrant intellectuals from Eastern Europe, were ardent supporters of Soviet communism. But, overwhelmingly, Americans, and American individualism, proved willing to stake everything on winning the Cold War. Living for two decades or more with the daily specter of nuclear war, Americans became (sometimes hysterical) do-or-die patriots.
9. I had been graduated from high school, in the summer of 1966, when Atlas Shrugged came into my hands. I locked myself in my bedroom, under the eaves, and in three days I read it. When I emerged to eat, I did not speak. When I had finished Atlas, whatever loyalty or love I felt for America had become boldly conscious and explicit, now inseparable from my view of knowledge, morality, economics, and politics. In view of what I wrote about the onslaught of the counter-culture, my chancing upon Atlas Shrugged must rank as near miraculous. It was the very year that I turned 18, an adult, and was preparing to attend a typically liberal college--just as the 1960’s cultural revolution got rolling. I began four years of college as though inoculated against the drug culture and hippiedom, New Left anti-Americanism, counter-culture philosophy and esthetics, the explosion of the welfare state and “civil rights,” and the patriotic pull of America’s first failed war.
10. Although “10” is a nice round number to conclude a list, I make no further points. After encountering Atlas Shrugged, my impassioned identification with America—and the ideals that define America—became myself.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world….
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free…
(Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem written to dedicate the Concord monument on July 4, 1837, commemorating the Battle of Concord, April 19, 1775, the beginning of the American Revolution.)
Walter Donway is a novelist, poet, and writer about contemporary issues from the perspective of Objectivism. His most recent novel, about the 1970’s New Left violence, is The Way the Wind Blew. His articles for TAS publications, his presentations at summer seminars, and his contributions to this site can be found in the archives. His most recent book, Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist, with a preface by David Kelley, is a comprehensive look at loss of economic freedom in America; it is available on Amazon.
Nationalism: Will It Help a Country Thrive? by William R. Thomas
Universal Equality and Nationalism in the European Refugee Crisis by William R. Thomas
Objectivist View of Multiculturalism by William R. Thomas
Multiculturalism and Its Discontents by Bruce S. Thornton