What Makes America Great? (A Response to the New Right)

Written by Luke Matthews

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me,

As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

                          Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Julia Ward Howe

What does it mean to die for freedom? It means an unconditional commitment to serve humanity. To put freedom first is to recognise our natural ignorance of the world amidst an insatiable thirst for truth. It is to engage in the principal of plurality, based on the belief that every individual is unique, but no individual can possibly have a grasp of absolute truth.Truth remains a mystery, yet it still exists – this is the natural contradiction of our being. This is not just a logical argument; the moral weight of freedom is found in how it serves as a necessary pre-condition for friendship with others, and therefore humanity writ large. Contrary to common assumption, this state of freedom is no utopia. It would mean, at best, a deeply uncomfortable life where we are constantly challenged in our beliefs and values. To live with humanity, and our own agency, we must stand on paradox and abandon the comfort of absolute foundations. Insofar as freedom is not just logical but also profoundly moral and difficult, any community that gives harbour to freedom, gives harbour to greatness. In America, I believe there has been a significant tradition of freedom. This may be found in the existence of an open space in the public sphere, wherein individuals living in America have been able to criticise it. The presence of open criticism therefore becomes major evidence of greatness in politics – it becomes an end in itself. Regardless of the limited validity of the critic’s views, what is important is that they raise difficult questions; they help us think for ourselves, and therefore aid us in the search for our own authenticity.

Ironically, such a view of greatness in freedom is often lost on the American nationalist of the New Right. All for the cause of apparent comfort in certainty, the American nationalist often carries a dangerous tendency to suffocate the existence of the open space. For them, America comes first. Any criticism of what their opinion of what America is or should be becomes an attack on both America and their personal identity. Such individuals surrender to the confidence man – who lures them with tales of victimhood and greatness as a birth right; not as a serious, personal, struggle for truth in an unknown world. The American nationalist of the New Right thereby evacuates the challenging state of freedom, and submits to the care of a leader who soothes them with the lullaby that they are uniquely made of moral, American “star dust.” It should be no surprise that such individuals handle any criticism of America as a personal insult. Perhaps the answer to their confusion lies within the remarkable quote above. To serve God and Freedom, America must be willing to die. The act of criticism is emblematic of this, as all other truths, including America, are put on trial. This is what makes America great. Freedom, not America, comes first.

America is a place of paradox. There is a dark thread woven deep within the history of America. Among the horrors left in its wake are slavery, which served as a foundation for American power, as surplus labour enslaved from West Africa was used as a chief gear of the New World economy and industrial revolution. America is also guilty of genocide, as expansion into the West (another pre-condition of its power) was combined with the systematised mass killing of Native Americans (which, it has been argued, to some extent inspired Hitler). But running parallel to its evil sibling, we can perceive of another seemingly redemptive thread, woven in the same American cloth. The American declaration of independence and constitution proclaimed a fundamental promise of freedom of thought, religion and speech. Within American history, we also saw the growth of inspirational civil rights movements dedicated to the rights of women, Black Americans, Native Americans, and many others. This severely complicates the story above about exploitation, racism, and genocide. But both threads remain parallel. The evils of America were in part constitutive of its victories, as a lack of political rights, slavery, racism, sexism, and genocide spurred these movements on the back of tragedy. Here we arrive at an uncomfortable position of paradox about a nation and a history we still know very little about. The important point is that we are aware, and allowed to be aware, of this paradox. This presupposes the existence of a discussion between critics and apologists; in short, an open space wherein we are encouraged to think for ourselves and share our ideas with others.

Our anchor is that within America, and throughout much of the world, we can question History. If we are to live with humanity, and see ourselves honestly, we must be willing to confront good, evil, and everything in between. We know America is responsible for greatness as it created the language we need to criticise it. If freedom comes first, then even America itself must be placed in the dock. The fact that discussions as to the essence or fundamental construction of “America” are taking place, is a great thing. It allows us to engage with different ideas in the process of finding an answer that will remain imperfect – such discussion will therefore be challenging, and uncomfortable. Societies that embrace this take the first step of freedom, setting up a foundation for individual authenticity as we are encouraged and able to talk openly with one another in the pursuit of truth; a precondition of friendship. A tradition of open criticism in the public space is therefore evidence of a step towards greatness – this is a tradition we find in the United States.

With the rise of totalitarianism, within and without America, the tradition of freedom is under direct threat. The regimes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping represent two major examples of this. Whilst arguably not fully totalitarian, they have succeeded, to a large extent, in martialling the public space in a flattering procession to the regime. So we find extreme forms of nationalism that blame the ills of the world on the “foreign”; the implied solution being enhanced ideological purity. Many regimes and nationalisms across the world have devoted their existence to certainty through artificially promoting an opinion to absolute truth. Here we find the sovereignty of madness. Terror and propaganda are left as the only remaining tools to hide the lie for whose cause people are treated as machines; “willing” supplicants to the engineering of the “Great Leader” of Truth. Even more worrisome, this tendency is increasingly alive in the New Right of America. The siege of the nation’s citadel in the name of Donald Trump is perhaps the most severe symbol of this to date. If America is Great, and Trump is Truth, all that must be done is to remove the existence of genuine plurality and dissent as “alien” to America and truth. In a harrowing reminder that America’s greatness is far from incarnate, the public space in America is slowly closing, as a divide blockades the formation of friendship between Democrat and Republican. Segregation is never a recipe for freedom or civility. It would be a tragic distortion for the world if American freedom died for “America”.

Too often, when the identity of an American nationalist is forged, the reality of freedom melts into exile. If America comes first, it comes before humanity, friendship, and our own individual dignity. But what is great about America is that there is a strong tradition that puts freedom first; its stage is paradox and the fallibility of human life. It is in large part because of America that I am able to write this blog, and others are rightly equipped to criticise it. We encounter a major problem when this is considered to be a bad thing. The truth seems to be that we can only ever have an opinion of what America is, and what it should be. Along the way we might indeed find Margaret Attwood’s dystopia of the Handmaid’s Tale, or Martin Luther King’s dream. Both are possible, not assured. What we do know is that both visions were born in America, and both visions are valuable in that they challenge our beliefs about America; they help us think for ourselves. We know America is responsible for greatness as it founded the means by which we criticise it; in such moments it dies to make us free. The conclusion follows; what has America done, to help you think?


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