Weak propositionalism

Many of us on the Right cringe whenever we hear claims that America is a “propositional nation”, i.e. that the essence of being an American is accepting some or other political creed.  Lydia at What’s Wrong with the World takes a stab at defining a less objectionable propositionalism, one that she thinks we should actually endorse:

1. America has become great in no small measure because of the nature of the form of government put together by America’s founders, who were right in their propositional ideas concerning the wisdom of the details of their system–e.g., checks and balances, separation of powers, freedom of religion, and the limitation of federal powers to those enumerated.

2. There is another set of important ideas presupposed by the American form of government which are not, unfortunately, exemplified in all other countries of the world and are centrally important to America’s greatness. These include the evil of government corruption, the equality of persons under the law, the value of honesty and hard work, and the importance of the rule of law.

3. An understanding and love of the ideas in #1 and #2 is a crucial part of being a good American citizen.

4. It is not only theoretically possible but also a live, practical possibility that some people not born in America will develop this understanding.

5. If people can come to embrace these ideas, there is a good chance that they will make good naturalized American citizens. In fact, Americans born in America from generations of American citizens who scorn these ideas may be worse and less loyal citizens than those naturalized who have a deep understanding and love for these ideas. Those who have no concept of these ideas have suffered from a sad gap in their American civics education which should be remedied if and when at all possible.

6. Being of non-Caucasian lineage is not by itself sufficient to make it so highly unlikely that one will embrace these ideas and become a good citizen that all persons of non-Caucasian lineage should be debarred from coming to the United States and attempting to become citizens. While race and ethnicity are closely bound up together and can be important cultural markers, race by itself is not everything and does not automatically designate cultural fitness or unfitness for presence in the United States and future good citizenship.

7. Loving one’s soil and kindred is not enough to make one a good American, per se, as opposed to a patriotic citizen of some country (any country) or other.

 I admire Lydia and her writings a lot, and this explication of propositionalism is less crazy than most, but readers will not be surprised to learn that I’m still against it.  I don’t take it as an insult to me that Lydia has made a definition that excludes the possiblility of people with my beliefs being good Americans.  It is rather America that is insulted here.  Aristotle pointed out that it’s only in a good polis where being a good man and being a good citizen are the same.  A nation that requires its citizens to profess false beliefs would necessarily be radically defective.

I would have said that the only requirements for being a good American is that one loves ones country and countrymen, and one recognizes oneself as a subject of the United States government.  Lydia’s point that most perplexes me is 7.  It seems to be an attempt to turn one of the paleoconservatives’ main charge against propositionalism–that it robs our nation of any distinctiveness, since lots of foreigners can and do embrace all these “American” political principles–against us.  Love of blood and soil is not enough to make one a good American because it’s not distinctive.  Good Frenchmen, good Mexicans, and good Japanese no doubt feel the same way about their countries.

I don’t see why this is objectionable.  The object of one’s loyalty is sufficient to differentiate one loyalty from another.  Let’s consider this from an Aristotelian-essentialist point of view.  What is the essence of America?  The answer is territorial sovereignty.  But how can that be, you ask, since that’s something that all nations have?  Precisely, I say.  America is an individual of the species “nation”.  All members of a species share the same essence/nature/form.  They are differentiated by matter.  America is the form of nationality actualized in a particular location among a particular people.  Propositionalists all end up trying to make America into a form, rather than a concrete being.  This is inimical to true patriotism, because patriotism, like love, is always directed at the concrete and particular.

I will grant that rejecting America’s founding ideology makes being a good American problematic.  In this essay, I address ways that conservatives can navigate through this uncomfortable position.

4 Responses

  1. As a foreign observer, I have always been struck by the extent to which American patriotism is so often identified with attachment to its system of government.

    By contrast, I have known French people (the sort of French people who used to attend the Mass of Reparation for the “parricide” of Louis XVI at the Madeleine on the 21st January); people for whom Christian civilisation began with the baptism of Clovis and ended with the fall of the Bastille. They regarded the Revolution an unutterable calamity, agreed with Coventry Patmore that the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are know instinctively only by very bad children and invariably referred to the Republic and its symbol of Marianne as “La gueuse” (the beggar woman).

    Now the point is that no one, not even their bitterest political opponents ever thought of questioning their patriotism, for, in France, the state has never been simply identified with the nation, in the way in which it has been in America: rather, the state and its institutions are seen as the creation of the nation, which it has frequently altered in the past and is free to do so again.

  2. I’m happy to hear there are still such Frenchmen.

  3. One would wonder if this isn’t a demonstration that the Anti Federalist had a good understanding of the dangers inherent in our government. One could even see this tendency to identify with the Government as a carryover from absolutism.

    And I must now shamelessly self promote. I have just restarted a Blog of my own, at http://traditionandindividualism.blogspot.com/
    My first post is an unpublished essay I wrote.

  4. One would wonder if this isn’t a demonstration that the Anti Federalist had a good understanding of the dangers inherent in our government. One could even see this tendency to identify with the Government as a carryover from absolutism.

    And I must now shamelessly self promote. I have just restarted a Blog of my own, which I have linked at the top of this post.
    My first post is an unpublished essay I wrote.

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