Evan Sayet opened up a conversation about American conservatives vs American liberals several years ago with a great story which I paraphrase here. A man and his friend were out to dinner and as usual, the friend was complaining about his wife saying how much he hates her. The man, accustomed to hearing the complaint dismissed the invective and heard the friend out and the dinner continued. Just then, he could see a woman being mugged outside of the restaurant, in a moment of shock he realized it was the wife. He told his friend that his wife was being attacked by a criminal. The husband looked over his shoulder and witnessed the crime saying, "Yeah well, she probably deserved it." The realization came that the husband was very serious about hating his wife.
Sayet went on to compare American liberals to the husband over the question of 9/11, which makes it a powerful analogy for the kind of political enmity people often demonstrate over what America ought to be and what Americans ought to do about it. But I think it makes a more interesting distinction when not directed at any particular ideological group. I find it a very apt description about what the 300 millions of us think about each other and what that state of conflict reflects in a democracy. Our jawboning is not about the proper ideas about our nationhood, rather it is about what we feel about each other. The feeling is acrimonious and shallow, and it is self-perpetuating.
Americans are trying to, in the words of that Army commercial, be all that they can be. We have a sort of addiction to learning, doing and being that promises expansion and growth, riches and wisdom. But we also have a particular intuition that other non-learning, non-doing Americans are getting in our way. Our politics and culture manifest this competition for perfecting ourselves in ways that are counter-productive to the actual creation of policy and maintenance of society. We throw ideas and concepts at each other as if they were bricks, hoping to knock some sense into our opponents' heads and then go about their proper business. We don't do so as if we ultimately wanted to be friends or to actually depend upon one another. We are long past the era in which some collaboration for the sake of national unity was the aim. We want people to go away and sin no more, according to our definitions of sin.
Over the weekend I was reminded that there is something I have in common with some 'little brown people' which is the some measure of paternalistic condescension from a certain class of white liberals. Pops informed me of a Muslim woman who spoke up about being sick to death of hearing American blather on about 'islamophobia'. I do in fact take that term to be something of a political invention of those opposed to President Bush's engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan against AQ and its subsidiary and collateral rabble. I have no idea at present how many people are driven to be jihadis, how many Wahabbists are agitating for the establishment of a Caliphate or how many 'moderate muslims' sit ready to be radicalized for the expansion of Sharia in Western democracies. But I do know these are non-zero numbers and real enemies of justice and peace. I do not fear them, nor would I because I am Christian or American. An enemy is an enemy.
But what kind of enemies do I really have and what are they going to do? Well, I confess that it's difficult for me to conceive of me being in the specific sights of jihadis. My dead body is just as good as any other American dead body as far as my interpretation of their aims is concerned. Only my domestic political enemies wish me ill in particular. I am, in the words of the immortal cliche, not part of the solution and thus part of the problem. I stand in the way, by dint of my mocking disinterest, of their progress. I stand allied to a different kind of freedom struggle, one that doesn't have at its kernel the gibbering invectives of the chatting class. I take the exceptional nature of America seriously, but I am not so reduced to checking its pulse every moment of the media cycle.
Rather I am content to continue considering America as an exceptional place to live concerning its non-blood & soil relationship to citizenship, the consequence of which is a kind of permanent tussle over who is a 'proper' American.