Nationalism, American style

March 23, 2021 2:02 am

Boulder Theater in Boulder City, Nevada (Photo by Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons 2.0).

The third clause of the American Pledge of Allegiance speaks of “… one Nation under God, indivisible….”

The pledge, and the clause, is an American commonplace, quotable by most, recognized by all.  When I was a child, it was declared each school day morning.  Perhaps, in classrooms here and there across the nation, it still is.

Nation itself, however, is a complicated word; one that nowadays is sorely abused as often as it is properly used.  And the confusion is leading self-professed American nationalists down strange lanes.

Out of the box, a nation is a political thing.  It’s also about territory.  A state, we’ll call it.  It’s a geographical space over which a political system practices sovereignty.  Iceland is a state.  So is India.  So is the U.S.A.

In this sense, a nation – a state – has laws that define life within it.  It has geographical borders that define its boundaries.  States have foreign policies that shape their relationships with each other.  They even rub shoulders: The United Nations is a union of them, hence the name.

But the word nation isn’t just about law and territory.  It’s also about, well, anthropology.  About culture.  In this broader meaning, it’s not so much about space and statute.  It’s more about customs and costumes.  About language and religion, diet, about rites of birth, of passage, of mating, of death.  It’s about a way of life.  In this anthropological sense a nation is a folk.  It’s a group of people – often a large group – who speak the same language and worship the same god.  Enjoy similar meals and follow similar lifestyles.  Lives of all are recognized by each.

Hence Iceland.  A nation in either sense of the word.  An island state whose borders are its shores.  But a folk, too —  speaking Icelandic, worshiping a Christian God, a Lutheran one, to be precise.  A folk so entwined with itself that it’s telephone book – when it still had one – was said to be alphabetized by given name because family names were too few and too widely shared.  In short, a nation.

Hence, too – or, I should say, hence “not” – India.  Standing next to an Indian, the Indian standing next to you speaks one or more of 240 languages, worships one or more of a hundred gods.  Costume and diet are regional:  more sari in the South, more shalwar kameez in the North; more mutton here, exclusively vegetarian there.  When dead, an Indian’s remains are cremated (if Hindu or Sikh), buried (if Muslim), or pecked apart by carnivorous birds (if Parsi).  Is India a state?  Yes. A nation?  No.  Is it several folk jostling about within a single state?  No doubt.

And then we’ve got the United States of America.

It’s actually “the flag” to which American schoolchildren pledge their allegiance.  The United States has one, of course, along with all the other accoutrements of statehood —  a constitution and a government, a territory with borders, laws within them and foreign relations beyond.  It goes without saying: In terms of politics and geography, the U.S. is a state.  But it is less clear America’s status as a folk.  Even less certain are the adhesive properties of the cultural glue that’s required – may I quote once again from the Pledge of Allegiance? – to maintain “one nation under God, indivisible.”

I see that you’re reading the Daily Montanan.  May I jump to conclusions?  You speak English.  You’re white.  You’re a Christian, probably Protestant.  Your customary dress is remarkably similar to your neighbor’s.  Sometime today you’ll eat meat.  These and other details make you – or so you imagine – a normal American.  An anthropologist – or that hypothetical visitor from Mars – might categorize you as a member of the American folk.  Or so you imagine.

Unfortunately, many residents of the United States are inconveniently different from what you imagine to be the American nation.  In the home, nearly 15 percent of them speak a tongue other than English, and many others speak an English that you would find indecipherable.  (They’d have trouble with yours, too.)  Forty percent identify themselves as Hispanic or as persons of color.  (And each week there are more of them than there are of you.)  A quarter of them don’t worship a Christian God.  (And many of them don’t worship one at all.)  Many wear funny clothes or eat strange food.  (The clothing is often too colorful, the food too spicy.)  There seem to be many nationalities jostling about within the nation of the United States.  Indeed, Americans of different stripes and shades live within American borders as though they were living in parallel universes.

Diversity needn’t be troublesome.  Tolerance is often a virtue.  Austria-Hungary was a multinational empire for 500 years.  Most African states embrace many nations.  Switzerland, nine times smaller than Montana, has four official languages.  In the U.S., however, a third definition has entered the fray — one less lenient, one less tolerant of diversity.  Less politics, less culture, more ideology, or just more attitude.  Like the other definitions, predictably, it too is called American nationalism.  But, as I’ve already noted, these particular American nationalists are leading us down some strange lanes.

Sometimes American nationalism is simply fans at the rodeo standing and cheering when the cowgirl races into the arena, “Old Glory” unfurled.  Sometimes, more darkly, American nationalism is why people avert their eyes – or silently approve – when politicians suppress the voting rights of blacks or Hispanics or native Americans.  Sometimes, still more darkly, it’s what stirs people when a politician raves about “America First.”  At the nether edge it’s why they applaud – or even join – the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys or some other band of overweight but camouflaged and armed “militia.”

As we descend from the cowgirl’s flag to the “militia’s” camouflage, though, a common denominator resonates: A misunderstanding of what the American folk really were, or are, or might become.  The misunderstanding comes in two flavors, nostalgia and aspiration.

Nostalgia remembers wistfully what, in fact, never was.  It has forgotten, if it ever knew, about Jim Crow or cigar store Indians; it’s forgotten about all their bitter meanings.  It would like it if the folk would gather ’round a dinner table drawn by Norman Rockwell.  It Facebooks an old postcard of your hometown “back then” and wonders whether you can identify the street corner.  Or a photograph of a wringer clothes washer or a sparkplug or a rotary telephone.  Do you recognize this, it asks.  Nostalgia’s eyes are closed.  When they open, the folk will have reappeared.

Aspiration is a rougher crowd.  Aspiration wants to incite a mythical past into a glorious near-term future.  In the face of cultural diversity it chants “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville.  In response to a “stolen election” it mounts a Capitol insurrection in Washington.  Sometimes, it wants to kidnap or kill people.  Or, it cheers when others actually do that.  Its eyes are bloodshot.  When they refocus, the folk will have appeared.

Whether by nostalgia or by aspiration or by something in between, the strange lanes of this third nationalism lead us on ominously.  This is why legislation to protect the rights of minority voters gets a straight arm in Congress.  (These people shouldn’t actually be voting, they say.)  This is why it was OK for Donald Trump to call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim travel to the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  (These people are not actually among the folk, they say.)  This is how Congressionally-allocated funds are diverted to build “The Wall.”  (You remember that story.)

I’m among those who think that Congress should make it simple for eligible voters to vote.  I’m among those who doubt that a few more Muslims in the country (they were 0.8 percent of the population when last we looked) would be cataclysmic.  And I’m among those who think that immigration across the southern borders is a complicated issue that deserves serious and pragmatic attention, not a dog whistle that signals a politician’s more general intent.

And by the way, I’m among those who will always stand and cheer when the cowgirl brings the flag into the arena.

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana.  A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Red Lodge and Vienna.

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Bruce Lohof
Bruce Lohof

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he divides his time between Red Lodge and Vienna.