The unspeakable American culture
In a recent speech at the National Press Club, Katie Couric expressed somber disapproval of the jingoistic excesses after 9/11. Among the things that vexed her: “The whole culture of wearing flags on our lapel and saying ‘we’ when referring to the United States.” From what I can tell, nobody among the journalistic swells bothered to ask, “Who isn’t ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”
I don’t want to revisit those supposedly Orwellian flag pins, which sat so heavily on so many journalistic lapels. But it’s worth recalling that during World War II, civilian correspondent Walter Cronkite -- whose anchor job Couric now holds -- gladly wore a uniform, not just a pin, and subjected himself to military censors. He also used, I’m sure, the word “we” when referring to the United States.
To be clear, I have no interest in “questioning” Couric’s patriotism. Rather, I’m interested in questioning her definition of it.
I’ve come around to the view that the culture war can best be understood as a conflict between two different kinds of patriotism. On the one hand, there are people who believe being an American is all about dissent and change, that the American idea is inseparable from “progress.” America is certainly an idea, but it is not merely an idea. It is also a nation with a culture as real as France’s or Mexico’s. That’s where the other patriots come in; they think patriotism is about preserving Americanness.
Yet the strangest and most ironic aspect of our national culture is that we have an aversion to talking about a national culture. Samuel Huntington, one of the country’s premier social scientists, has become something of a pariah for constantly reminding people (in books such as “The Clash of Civilizations” and “Who Are We?”) that the United States is a nation, not just a government and a bunch of interest groups.
Many liberals hear talk of national culture and shout, “Nativist!” first and ask questions later, if at all. They believe it is a sign of their patriotism that they hold fast to the idea that we are a “nation of immigrants” -- forgetting that we are also a nation of immigrants who became Americans.
As the host of the “Today” show in 2003, Couric said of the lost crew members of the space shuttle Columbia: “They were an airborne United Nations -- men, women, an African American, an Indian woman, an Israeli. . . .” As my National Review colleague Mark Steyn noted, they weren’t an airborne U.N., they were an airborne America. The “Indian woman” came to America in the 1980s, and, in about a decade’s time, she was an astronaut. “There’s no other country on Earth where you can do that,” Steyn rightly noted.
For cosmopolitans like Couric, however, the very best thing you could say about those heroic astronauts was that they weren’t part of the national “we” but of the global “we,” for the only “we” that counts is that of “we are the world.” That also seems to be the view of the elite crowd that chews the foie gras at places like Davos or wherever the Clinton Global Initiative meets. For such globalists, it just seems obvious that the U.S. Supreme Court should consult polls of Africans or the laws of France to glean the real meaning of the American Constitution. And, of course, John Kerry was right to say that there’s a “global test” for what America can do in the name of its national interest.
The hitch to this kind of thinking is that it rules out the possibility that the American “we” might have answers to problems that the global “we” doesn’t.
In Europe and Canada, the cure for every malady seems to be multiculturalism. This is the odd notion that all cultures are equal -- except for that of your own nation, which should be made to constantly bend to the aggrieved sensibilities of minority cultures. In Vancouver, Canada, smoking has been banned pretty much everywhere, except in Muslim-run hookah parlors. British schools were advised to ban crosses and crucifixes but not Muslim symbols. Honor killings among Muslims have gone ignored by police in progressive European countries out of some twisted sense of respect for Muslim culture.
The dirty, embarrassing secret is that this sort of multiculturalism has made Europe a wellspring of Islamic radicalism and terrorism, but America’s Muslim community has remained overwhelmingly peaceful. Why? Well, if the answer doesn’t lay in President Bush’s “outreach” -- and few think it does -- or in Euro-style multicultural condescension, maybe it has something to do with the American “we” that Couric and so many others seem so embarrassed by.
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