American Idealism, American Identity – Thread by @dhnexon, with Brief Comments

The main counter to Pillsy’s last tweet points beyond the Twitter fences as well as the framework within which Daniel Nexon was working: From my point of view such lower-level identities are not authentically identities unless they are identities experienced as worth the giving or giving and taking of lives. Otherwise, expressions of supposed “allegiance” would be inauthentic: not truly significant or seriously recognizable, and would in this sense reflect mere affinity, if not affectation, possibly as delusion to be exploited or unmasked or ignored, but in any event not worthy of an irrevocable stance “unto death.” Though further discussion could lead us in many different directions, I’ll just submit here that the problem is implicit in the invocations of “thymos” and, in America, “Jacksonianism” in attempts to explain the rise of the Alt-Right and possibly similar movements.

Tweetstorm re-posted with permission of Daniel Nexon/@dhnexon.

4 comments on “American Idealism, American Identity – Thread by @dhnexon, with Brief Comments

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  1. I think it’s a common liberal desire, and one that isn’t at all easily obtained, to allow people to commit to those identities without ever having their commitment tested to the point of destruction. One of the great triumphs of American liberalism (mostly accomplished before left-liberalism was a distinct thing) was to allow Christian sectarian identities to peacefully coexist without the “unto death” part.

    Viewing this as some sort of anodyne state of nature is where, I think, left-liberals tend to veer into “hollow universalism”. It’s a wonderful and rare form of freedom, and to quote from the more traditional American right (ctrl-right? Top 40 right?), freedom isn’t free. It’s taken a lot of work, sacrifice and care to make it possible.

    As an aside, I wonder if the reason jihadists seem to pose a challenge to liberalism wildly disproportionate to any level of physical threat (relative to, say, communism in the 20th century) is because jihadism is maniacally focused on mass murder/suicide as a demonstration of authenticity.

    • The discussion is an ancient discussion, so I’m not saying anything even remotely new or original if I point out that, in the dialectic of the liberalizing state, a failure point is reached where, precisely for the reasons you offer, people, as we say, “forget who they are” or no longer can tell who or what they authentically are or what they authentically care about or whether they authentically care about anything at all. It’s at the point, explaining why, that we see “the best lack all conviction.” It’s at the same point that a Trump slouches toward DC to be born, the kind of figure we would need to invent if he didn’t arise on his own, as we also say, discounting the possibility that we really did invent him, if not quite consciously. We need an enemy, in this theory, to know who our friends are, and, since we don’t have the evil aliens invading the planet, we turn to and against the evil aliens we conjure among us out of the available human material. In the classic game, the ones who move first meet little resistance, so their power waxes for a time, but over the same period they themselves become enemies much more satisfactory, more really dangerous and reprehensible, than the ones they made up, and so discover and in discovering enable the founding of the true and righteous resistance. Surely it will arise. What seems less certain, and would be unknowable ahead of time, is how much it will resemble either the new enemy or the prior losers.

  2. I’m not sure if the prism Nexon is using here works. Not the least reason is it’s tough for me to put Ike, Reagan and both Bushes on the same plane even if one is trying to draw out a distinction with Trump.

    I also remember a lot of Soros haterade from the ‘traditional’ right on the internet during the Bush II administration, in the vein of ‘he’s not promoting liberal democracy, he’s promoting an international progressive socialist agenda’

    To me, it still comes down to that the foreign policy establishments, left and right, have never really come to grips with the ‘what ought to be’ questions that emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Defeating Nazis and other fascists was easy and straightforward. Defeating Communism was a longer slog, but eventually accomplished (with a lot more people taking credit for it than they deserve). Then after a decade of just operating in the moment, a whole lot of people thought they found their new lodestone after 9/11, but Bush went on a disastrous neo-Wilsonian adventure, and Obama couldn’t decide whether to fish or cut bait.

    • I think you and I see the main thrust or main problem with Nexon’s argument diametrically differently. I think it’s easy to place all four Republican presidents you name (and all of the other presidents since Roosevelt, at least) on the same plane, and I think Trump, perhaps against his will, is being dragged back onto it or is succumbing to its gravity or inertia. The differences are 1) that Trump doesn’t seem even to understand it, as he doesn’t seem to understand much of apparently anything except how to work a room and fool a fool, and 2) that people who are more self-consciously anti-liberal or far-right in the more Old World and America First senses have latched onto him and pulled him along in their direction. At the same time, as I was trying to suggest in the tweet about dual nature of American identity (flag and (liberal-constitutional) republic), and as I’ve been trying to say all along, the Trumpian (“national populist”) impetus has always been there, and there’s no nation without it.

      I agree with you more on the second part, though I’d say Obama fell more within classic retrenchment, and during his 2nd term was readier to fish than the citizenry was.

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