Pessimism about one’s own nation is an all-encompassing and all-defining condition, because everything any of us positively can be or seek as individuals is affected where not wholly determined by our membership in a national community – the state broadly defined. When we refer to an “unhappy childhood,” it will usually matter a great deal whether we’re referring to our own childhood, and the same is true when we refer to the unhappy conditions of our national upbringing or to a “broken” national home. Yet national pessimism is still not the same as absolute pessimism. We can imagine the failure of any nation, including our own nation, as we have seen great national disasters, that would not equate with the failure of history itself. We could even come to equate the failure of a national idea as essential to some higher good: It would not be the first time for us, just the first time that we were referring to ourselves.
A national pessimist suffers a kind of exile from his own future, but he can still visit happier outcomes, on a kind of spiritual visa. Over time, he may even be accepted by the natives, and find a new home. Americans are particularly well-prepared to make this transition, because our national identity, paradoxically, is already built on the cancellation of nationality, on immigration and nothing else. Our new citizenship may not be full and authentic, of the blood and soil, but neither is the one with which we are born. The American idea at inception had before it a vast national phase to undergo, but what defined the American nation was that it was not and never could be a nation like the others: The idea of a new world had to take on a purpose-fabricated national costume for us to assume and sustain a place within the world of nations, but the realization of our idea could never have been contained in a merely national destiny. For the same reason, the victory of our “Greatest Generation,” at our national apogee, was the victory over ultra-nationalism, in favor of a new international system implying the supersession of nations, justifiable as an American national project strictly on that basis. All of our history since that time has been governed by the same paradox of nationalized internationalism, but from the other, declining side, as accompanied by the conversion of American energy into mere mass – the accumulation of material wealth alongside the decay of national institutions.
We can therefore look forward to the completion of our creative self-destruction with greater hope, or at least with greater equanimity, than others in our approximate position have been able to muster. What we stand to lose is everything we never really thought was worth having. What we stand to gain is what we always sought.