The idea that is America

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Photo by Win McNamee

America is not my country, so why do I feel like it is?

Why have I been so utterly, physically, absorbed in its political drama over the last week, even reduced to tears by it?

I hate it when foreigners comment on or criticize UK domestic affairs, even if I secretly agree with them.

And I’m white. The only experience of racism I’ve ever suffered was when I went into a restaurant in Japan and was told it was full, when it was completely empty.

But I feel a greater kinship with America than with any other country, after my own. And over half my readers are from the US.

So I’ll risk a few words, then share some links by voices with more lived experience of the issues than me.

Three days ago, president Trump held a press conference outside a church in DC, with his Defence Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was after Trump said he would invoke the 1807 insurrection act, which allows presidents to use the military against American citizens.

It was a bad move, because it opened him up to the military publicly distancing themselves from his remarks. The upper echelons of the Pentagon hate Trump, for calling them ‘a bunch of dopes and babies’ over their failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The day after Trump’s photo op, Trump’s former Defence Secretary, General Jim Mattis, wrote a piece for the Atlantic comparing him to Hitler.

The same day, President Trump’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, released a letter to all US military, saying:

And he wrote, in his own handwriting:

It’s pretty remarkable. It’s basically saying (as far as I can see) ‘don’t push us Trump, or we will mutiny’.

I don’t quite know what would happen then.

The four ideas of America

I want to consider his line: ‘the idea that is America’.

It seems to me America was never one idea. I can count at least four:

1) The idea that all people are born equal and deserve equal rights, regardless of their race, creed, gender or sexuality.

2) The idea of America’s manifest destiny as God’s country to spread Christianity across the world.

3) The idea that the white race is the superior race, and it should (and inevitably will) dominate less advanced races, leading to other races’ subjugation or (if they resist) their extermination.

4) Wild West capitalism — the right to your own property, your own happiness, your own gun.

These themes have all played out at the same time, and sometimes the disharmony between them is more glaring and jarring than at other times. Right now is one of those times when the American symphony is hitting some jarring atonal chords.

One reason for that is demographics. People with white skin are set to be a minority in the US by 2044. That has freaked out some white Americans, who think it spells the end of American civilization. Some white nationalists want to bring back segregation.

I don’t quite understand how they think this would work in practice. I’ve found one white-skin supremacist online who suggests the South would be preserved for white-skin Christians, New York for ‘Jews’ (I don’t know if that means secular Jews or just practicing Jews), Detroit for black-skinned people, and so on. It doesn’t seem very thought out.

Perhaps white supremacists plan the expulsion of non-white-skinned people from the US, or even ethnic extermination. If that sounds alarmist, don’t forget the Nazis’ eugenics programme was directly inspired by American eugenic legislation of the 1920s.

The first wave of white fascism, in the 1920s and 30s, was expansionist — it was a scramble by Italy, Germany and Japan to grab territory, in order to catch up with the British and French empires.

All of those empires were explicitly based on ideas of racial supremacy, by the way. Aryan supremacy or Japanese or Roman or whatever the fuck.

This wave of white supremacy is defensive. It’s a reaction against the slow decline of white-skin majorities in western countries. It’s based on a similar idea as the first wave — that history is a zero-sum competition between different ‘races’.

The slipperiness of ‘race’

I put ‘races’ in quotation marks because the definition of ‘race’ has changed over time and it’s not clear what it means scientifically. People have talked at different times of the white race, the Caucasian race, the Anglo-Saxon race, the Aryan race, the Celtic race, the Slavic race, the Frankish race, ‘white British’, ‘British-Irish’ etc…’Race’ is a very slippery and historically shifting term. Is ‘black’ a race for example? There are 3000 ethnic groups in Africa speaking over 2000 languages. Are Tutsis a race, and Zulus, and Kukuyus, and Igbo, and Yoruba? Certainly people have strongly identified with these ethnic groups, and killed other groups over perceived differences. But that doesn’t mean they’re grounded in identifiable biological differences. I’m Irish-Nordic-Saxon-Frankish, am I mixed race? Is Obama black? Most Americans think of him as mixed-race, but he ticked black rather than mixed-race on his census form. Do we have to choose? Based on our own choice or how others treat us?

Julian Huxley and other scientists, stung by the adoption of their eugenic beliefs by Nazi anti-Semites, published the UNESCO report on race in 1950, in which they denied that race meant anything scientifically and championed the alternative term ‘ethnic group’, meaning

So are gay people an ethnic group? How about Dead-Heads? Gooners? Are the Evanses an ethnic group? What if I’m adopted?

Race and ethnicity may be very slippery and transient terms. But for that very reason they are incredibly dangerous. But if they’re real in some else’s mind, it can kill you. It killed George Floyd.

James Baldwin once said:

A battle of ideas

What’s happening in America now, it seems to me (and I’m quite possibly wrong) is a battle of ideas. It’s a clash between the idea of liberalism — that all people deserve the same rights, including equality before the law — and the idea of ethnic national identity (and in particular, white political dominance).

I write about this battle, even though it’s not my country and I’m not black and I’m very likely wrong on these foreign affairs, because it is a battle that matters for all of us around the world.

We are at a moment where American power and credibility is in decline around the world, and Chinese power and credibility is on the rise.

What is the idea of China? Xi Jinping says it is the ‘Chinese dream’. And what is that? ‘Fulfilling the great renaissance of the Chinese race’.

The idea at the heart of contemporary China (it seems to me, and I’m very possibly wrong) is the supremacy of the Han ethno-cultural group.

The Han constitute 92% of the population. If you’re one of the 100 million Chinese who belong to a different ethnic group, you have fewer rights and less access to the top positions in society. If you resist assimilation to Han culture, you could be put in a re-education prison camp, where as many as 1.5 million Chinese Muslims have been detained.

This ‘Chinese dream’ is open to outsiders. Only 7000 foreigners living in China have been granted citizenship. In the US, 700,000 immigrants become American citizens every year. China tolerates thousands of labour migrants from Africa, but they have few rights. When the pandemic hit, Africans were ejected from their homes and sometimes forced into quarantine, on the perception they were unhygienic. China has accepted 700 refugees from other countries. America accepts at least 50,000 a year.

I am fascinated by Chinese culture, I deeply admire it. But the ‘Chinese dream’ is not open to outsiders — at least, not in its present configuration. I prefer the ‘American dream’, by which I mean specifically the ideal of a creative improvisation between different ethno-cultural identities, rather than some boring monotone march of the Han.

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Han-tastic! The Beijing Olympic opening ceremony

What’s happening on the streets of America, then, is a battle of ideas. A battle of dreams.

However, it is far too simple to say ‘liberalism is right’. Because the Enlightenment liberal universal ideal — that we are all equal members of the rational global cosmopolis — did not sufficiently recognize how local cultures bind people together and give them a sense of identity and meaning.

Liberalism can produce ‘thin communities’ — where everyone is tolerated but no one feels at home. Thicker communities emerge when people feel like the people who live around them share certain cultural traits and values — in other words, an ethno-cultural identity.

Take the hero who let 80 protesters into his house in Washington DC. An African-American came to say thank you the day after, and said ‘I wanted to thank him for helping my people’.

That is an example of a thin community / thick community intersection.

America at its best has room for both the thin community of liberal universalism, and the thick community of ethno-cultural identities. It creates a safe space for meetings and encounters of respect and creative fusion between these thicker identities.

But that doesn’t work if a particular ethnic group doesn’t feel safe. If they feel under threat, disrespected, suspected, exploited, hunted, hated.

It doesn’t work when identification with one’s ethno-culture turns rigid, defensive, paranoid. When it collapses into a narrow and rigid identity based on how much melanin you have in your skin. If it forces you into box marked White or Black.

I sometimes feel, why go on about skin colour. Why ossify us into these made-up categories? Isn’t Melananism boring?

But that’s a luxury others don’t have. It’s a failure of imagination on my part. If I was constantly blocked in my life aspirations because of my red hair, if people’s red-hair prejudice threatened my safety and the safety of my loved ones, I would need to talk about it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to. I may want to talk about of other things. But I would need to say ‘first can we talk about the fact that because of my red hair I have shittier life chances than you. Then we can talk more generally.’

People are going to see me as White as long as they feel put into a box themselves. I would love a future without these boxes but that’s not where we are right now.

This issue is not going away. It will play out, again and again, around the world, over this next stormy century.

And it will play out against a backdrop of natural disasters and emergencies — pandemics, climate change, mass migration — which will strain our ability to reach towards a collective universal identity and tempt us to fall back to rigid, defensive, and paranoid ethno-cultural, nationalist and melaninistic identities.

The balancing act is hard. I have hope we will get through. I still think the future of humanity lies in the balancing of local cultural identities with a universal global ideal.

In the meantime, good luck to the protesters, and good luck to my second favourite country. It heartens me that the protests have widespread popular support (unlike the Black Lives Matter protests of 2013–2017) and you seem to be gathering together against racism and in support of equality for all before the law.


Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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