September 19, 2013
When someone says he is an American, that means something very specific, right? It connotes a specific landscape, historical experience, set of cultural proclivities and value system, right? Indeed, it has been asserted frequently that all Americans -- Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims -- are, nevertheless, voluntary Protestants, because it is the Protestant creed and work ethic to which they have all subconsciously subordinated themselves in the course of immigration and naturalization. This is all true, of course. However, it is also true that the American character is itself changing and becoming, perhaps, more subtle. This was exactly the theme of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's last book before he died, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (2004). Huntington believed that the massive influx of Latinos over recent decades, coupled with an American elite that was becoming more international and less American, made it questionable whether the very word, American, meant the same thing that it used to.
It isn't only Americans who face these identity questions, but much of the rest of the world. Immigration, refugee migration, the emergence of a global elite as distinct from national elites, jet travel, the rise of expatriatism, and so forth are all, little by little, eroding the basis of nationality, and with it, of national characteristics. Nuance is required here, because nationalism may actually be on the rise in mono-ethnic Asian societies such as Japan, and homegrown populist movements in the United States -- themselves reactions in part to the internationalization of society as a whole -- may, too, be more feisty than ever. Then there is the ugly specter of anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe. Nevertheless, as technology shrinks geography and people move around the planet more and more, national characteristics are less and less clear-cut and cosmopolitanism is on the upsurge.
Liberal intellectuals would not be displeased. National characteristics -- while relatively benign to the American experience -- have proved disastrous to the European one. Here is the philosopher Hannah Arendt inThe Origins of Totalitarianism (1951):
"When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into 'white men,' as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans," it will "signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death."
And yet that simply cannot be the end of the argument. For it is a long, long way from outright racism to the reasonable assumption that, for instance, Americans are generally different from Frenchmen, Norwegians are generally different from Greeks, Germans are different from Chinese, and so forth. Though, in the world of humanist intellectuals the distance is less vast than one might think. And for good reason: the belief in national characteristics, taken to an extreme, was an element in Nazism and Japanese fascism. The Holocaust is one lifetime removed from our own, a nanosecond in human history. So it is right that intellectual life (as well as foreign policy) exist in the shadow of it. The upshot has been an intellectual assault on the very notion of national characteristics. This is something that people who study geopolitics need to be mindful of.