American identity

Amplified: Obama and Uncomfortable Progress on Who We Are

It’s not surprising that it was Obama’s take on Trump that made the headlines from a much more extensive interview with NPR’s Steve Innskeep. There’s a question that appears to be stuck on repeat today, a question of “national identity, who we are.” That was Innskeep’s proposition but Obama’s answer suggests this question has nagged us since the beginning.

Recognizing these persistent questions and the moments when we start changing our answers is an important act of citizenship.

The “Amplified Treatment” of the text below is intended to focus on the most substantive and timeless pieces of Obama’s response to Innskeep’s question about who we are and why that question keeps coming up as we all look for something to hold onto, bracing ourselves for Election 2016.

You can watch the interview or review the whole transcript here.

Obama We the People

A Theory of American Identity: Or the Radical American Exceptionalism: Or Why Baseball is Better than Soccer?

An abstract submitted for you consideration. Your questions and assistance in refining the ideas presented here would be greatly appreciated.

(Submitted by Todd, National Academy alumni, 2001)

Over the last year I have been contemplating the notion of American identity, and what that means.  As I contemplated the bounds of this notion, I began formulating a rather extreme form of American exceptionalism.    I see no way to avoid getting there, so I ask that Politicolor readers will help dispel it or create a more construct for this idea.

I begin with a basic premise that the American founding experience is transformational; I would refer to it as a paradigm shift but I keep falling asleep through Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution.  The state system resulting from the Treaty of Westphalia was the final blow to the medieval Augustinian notion of the “City of God,” or that all governmental forms existed for a heavenly purpose.  The Westphalian system provided two key elements to state systems

  1. linking the idea of property to national territory; and
  2. asserting the political expediency of “Cuius Regio, Eius Religio” that is, he who makes the rules, makes the religion.  So each state began to be identified through property ownership and religious identity.

The American colonial experience missed much of this through two reasons; being mostly English in heritage they had avoided some of the real outcome of the Westphalia settlement because they were fighting their own transformational civil war in England; and that the extreme isolation changed their very nature the moment they stepped of the boat.  They still brought the intellectual tradition of the mergence of classical and biblical thought with them; and settling post-Renaissance/Reformation helped them to have a solid grounding in both traditions at the time of settling.

But we need to add a third intellectual tradition that started with the Colonists, that is the “Natural” mode of thought.  The mere act of survival against hostile land, nature, and yes, indigenous persons (much of it admittedly the colonists’ doing), brought a new form of “metaphysical” understanding.  The character of Natty Bumbpo from the Deerslayer Chronicles is one I am envisioning here; but if you want to go with Daniel Day Lewis from the film, “Last of the Mohicans,” I can dig that. Locke wrote, “America is made both continuous and discontinuous with already extant nation-states by relegating the business of making new landed property, and the state-making system associated with that possession, to a place outside the system of nations.” Americans understood they both are and are not a part of the international state system.

They needed to find a way to merge this third intellectual mode of thought to their traditional modes.  Many of us have already been exposed to this notion; Cicero’s “Scipio’s Dream,” Job’s tour of heaven, and even “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy;” Think of Arthur Dent’s tour of Magrathea. These stories are allegorical of man trying to see a greater order in a chaotic universe.  The “Natural” Mode of thought, in many senses, shatters the collective ideas of the classical and biblical polity.  The battle for survival in nature and endless land led to individual subsistence requirements, and self-reliance on a scale never before seen in Western civilization.

So what is that which makes us “American?”  We can look at Whitman and Thoreau in many ways as the philosophers of the Natural Thought School.  Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond; his friendship with fish, plants, and animals; he could steer a canoe with one paddle; but also his disconnect to a populated, corrupted state system can be used to describe this Natural Thought notion.  Even as he disavows society; he stills clamors to reform it, shape it, even create a new polity.  Walt Whitman provides another example in Leaves of Grass when he writes:

“One’s self I sing, a simple separate person

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word for en-masse”

The trick is finding the schema to describe the American identity.  But it cannot be constructed to describe what Americans are at a current time and place.  How do we get it into a fixed point in time and space but also have the ability to “enlarge the Orbit?”

For this I have thought I will need seven “virtues” to properly border us as Americans along two-dimensionality (national borders), but extra-dimensionally (transcending contemporary thought, and also through-out time).  This means that this a common identity in 2010, and that it would be common in 1810, or even 2210.

So here’s the construct:

I am using a blend of Biblical and Classical notions here:  meaning the square and the triangle are important shapes.  These are important to builders; and I am thinking Masons here; not the creepy Dan Brown Masons, but the real notion of construction.  We have to use the triangle here, because the treble virtues of New Testament Christianity inform our civilizational experience; “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” in their ancient application and definition are what we are looking for.  I invite any helpful definitions; and references to any of this concepts here or hereafter mentioned.

The four “Earthly” virtues are much more difficult to define.  They are what bind us terrestrially in governmental order and polity.  Using a square bounded by four sides, but also thinking cardinal directions on a compass point, and using Aristotle’s notion of “four cardinal virtues,” as the point of departure here, I am thinking we are bounded by four notions.  (I also realize I may be stretching the boundaries of some of the traditional definitions here).

Side One:  Aristotle’s Four Classical Virtues:  Moderation; Justice; Courage; and Wisdom.  It is a little cute to add another square to as a border; but really when you think that this represents the Aristotelian notion of civic virtue in a citizen; there is some elegance to this that can be stretched and defined later.

Side Two:  Enterprise:  My love for Star Trek not withstanding  (although in the Original we see Three main characters combining to live by the standards of the Four Aristotelian virtues-so it fits quite nicely); the notion of risk-taking, adventure, exploration, wanderlust, entrepreneurship, experimentation, and tinkering are so much a part of who we are this seems self-evident.

Side Three:  Prudence:  Again; this is more of a collective concept.  Rational discourse; thoughtful application; or problem-solving through Ratiocination.  This is deeper than the short-term criticism of our “sound-bite” media; or many of the folks who attend minor-league baseball games.  This is still reliant on a rational-choice theory; and perhaps even collective action theory.  So all you economists, chime in.

Side Four:  Republicanism:  The notion of liberty, equality, and confraternity that is so important in our thinking and feeling.


I need to credit a work of remarkable erudition, and accessibility that came out this summer by American diplomat, Charles Hill, entitled, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. Many of these ideas are given words and a base from his work; but many others have been crafted through two National Academies, and a week at Montpelier and conversations with Tim Moore, David Richmond, Justice Susan Leeson at Morro Bay, California last summer.  And lastly, I must credit a wonderful patio bar discussion with my dear friend Mike Williams, who gave grounding to undisciplined thought and forced me to articulate my ideas in a disciplined way.  Lastly thanks to Will Harris for reminding us to cultivate “Makers” Knowledge. Any logical leaps here are my fault, but I hope you can help me make the connections.

Six Word Motto for U.S.

Longing for a fond memories of a National Academy now buried deeply in your memory banks of a time and place too far away? This NY Times contest reminded me of Academy favorites like proposing a new creed or remaking our national currency.

Inspired by this collection of six-word memoirs, the Freakonomics guys at NY Times asked readers to propose a six-word motto for the U.S. As the foremost experts in reducing, extending, and exercising another thousand ways to rewrite text, I know you’re up for the challenge. Why not have our own version of this contest…What six words would you propose?

To flex your muscles, one suggestion at the top of the list was “Caution! Experiment in Progress since 1776.” Post your contribution in the comments below and then checkout the results when NYTimes readers voted on the proposals they received.

Deep Light

On the way home from the store tonight, I listened for the first time to Van Morrison’s rendition (with the Chieftains) of the 19th century folk song Shenandoah.Like many other things the past three weeks, it reminded me of the Academy.

From a purely cognitive standpoint, the Academy was immensely satisfying, and I will transfer a great deal of its content into my 12 sections (seriously!) of U.S. Government this year.

But it is my heart that has changed more than anything. It would be hard to describe what I mean by this, so I won’t (at least not with my own words).

Midway through the Academy, a poem by William Stafford seemed to get stuck in my head, and I’m not sure why or what it means. When I stand in its text, it doesn’t tell me anything definitive, but I feel something, and I wonder if you have had similar experiences with music, poems, personal encounters as a result of the Academy. Here is the poem by Stafford, a western (U.S.) poet, who won just about every major award a poet could win prior to his death in 1993:

Deep Light

From far a light, maybe a hill ranch

remote and unvisited, beams on the horizon

when we pass; then it is gone.

For the rest of our lives that far place

waits; it’s an increment, one more

hollow that slips by out there, almost

a gift, an acquaintance taken away.

Still, beyond all ranches the deep

night waits, breathing when we breathe,

always ready to offer new light,

over and over, so long as we search

for something so faint most people

won’t know, even when it is found.

From “Even in Quiet Places” by W. Stafford

–Larry Mutter–