Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two Nations, Not Alike in Dignity

When I studied Civil War causation in graduate school, there was a school of thought called the "Two Nations" theory. This thesis, unlike the economic or constitutional/states rights arguments, did not deny completely the importance of slavery but sought a more comprehensive explanation for the division of the United States. It held that in a whole host of ways, the two sections by 1860 had really become two distinct nations, and slavery was just one factor among many that explained that development.

I found that argument more compelling than the idea that the country split over the tariff, or that the same people who had recently demanded a fugitive slave law that greatly expanded federal power at the expense of the states were suddenly so dedicated to states rights that they needed to leave the Union just because they had lost an election. But ultimately I found the "Two Nations" theory wanting, and agreed with Lincoln: "All knew that this interest [slavery] was, somehow, the cause of the war."

The "Two Nations" idea remains a common and useful analytical tool, however, in a country whose political system naturally lends itself to duality. In my U.S. history survey class I use the familiar "rural v. urban" split to help describe the culture clash of the 1920s. In 1962 Michael Harrington used the idea of The Other America to draw attention to the stubborn poverty that coexisted alongside postwar prosperity. In 1984, Mario Cuomo eloquently and memorably described Ronald Reagan's America as in fact a "Tale of Two Cities." More recently, John Edwards tried to ride his conceit of "Two Americas" all the way to the presidency.

And now we have Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist the New York Times hired after the abysmal failure of its William Kristol experiment. Douthat normally eschews the overt partisan hackery that marked Kristol's brief sojourn at the Times in favor of a more serious-minded approach akin to that of David Brooks. Last Monday's piece, "Islam and the Two Americas" tries to find a way to excuse and elevate the Muslim bashing that has accompanied the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, but ends up doing exactly what the Two Nations theory did for the Civil War--distracting from what is really happening.

Since I had been toying with the same "Two Americas" idea, I was interested in what Douthat would do with it. The first half of the essay is a fair statement of the basic tension between what he calls "two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural." The problem comes when Douthat effectively argues that the two nations are equal: "both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment's success."

Wisdom? Douthat has just noted that the so-called cultural understanding "often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes" and "persecuted" and "discriminated" against some religions. Where exactly is the wisdom in xenophobia and religious persecution?

Douthat wants to portray American history as a game of "good cop, bad cop." The first America says all the right constitutional things, and the second America threatens (without really meaning it, of course) to rough you up if you don't start talking like a good American. Douthat refers to the "threat of discrimination" against immigrants if they failed to assimilate. It was more than a "threat." It was reality. This fact Douthat breezily brushes aside, with a glib sense that it all turned out just fine in the end, so no harm, no foul.

He even asserts (without proof or even argument) that it was this "threat" that produced assimilation, as if immigrants on their own would never adopt American ways. Remarkably, he even states that it was nativist discrimination against Catholics that ultimately made "it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American" by forcing them to change. (And all along Catholics mistakenly thought it was their hard work, political activism, and service in the military that accomplished that goal.)

Although he evidently fails to see it, Douthat actually endorses the bigotry of those nativists. He does not say that the nativists were wrong in their prejudices, and that Catholics were good Americans and others eventually came to accept that, but that Catholics changed and became good Americans in response to discrimination. Thus he essentially argues that bigotry plays a positive role in our history and contains "wisdom."

All of this is meant to put a pretty face on the ugliness behind the reaction to the Islamic center. Douthat seems aware that there are nasty motives lying beneath at least some of the protests. But he excuses them by asserting that they still serve a positive function. This excuse-making is even more insidious than the denial that there is anything at all prejudiced about the opposition. Those people who say "I support religious freedom but ..." are at least paying lip service to principle even as they undermine it. Douthat, in the guise of intellectual sophistication, implicitly acknowledges and excuses the bigotry (even praising it for its alleged big-picture "wisdom").

All of which brings me back to the "Two Nations" thesis. Sometimes the attempt to broaden the perspective does more to obscure than enlighten. Yes, there were differences between North and South by 1860, but none was so great or determinative as slavery. To reduce slavery to merely one of many factors is to distort reality, and ultimately this argument distracted attention from the basic truth Lincoln stated.

Similarly, Douthat attempts to distract his readers from the collective guilt implicit in the opposition to the Islamic center and the bigotry that presumes that Muslims cannot be good Americans. There are two Americas on this issue of basic principle, and one is right and the other is wrong. They are not equal, and they do not both contain wisdom. Apologetics like those offered by Douthat aid and abet the worst aspects of the American character. The "cruder, more xenophobic" strain of Americanism deserves no defense and serves no positive purpose. The "first America," representing "our nation's high ideals" needs every intelligent voice to rally to its cause when so many who should know better are enabling bigotry.

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