Reimagining A Healthy American Nationalism

Photo by Fabian Fauth on Unsplash

The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education and family.- Alexander Hamilton

Nationalism. When you say this word, it evokes images of hate, bigotry, racism, and other assortments of negativity. Why?

When one group of people or one political party takes over a word or concept, it does not give them a monopoly of that construct. We need to parse between a healthy American nationalism and an unhealthy American nationalism. What is the value of nationalism for this country? How would most people define nationalism? Is it possible to have a healthy and unhealthy American nationalism? The term (like most terms) is not inherently pernicious. Of course, we should critique the pernicious forms of unhealthy American nationalism, but we should not neglect discussing what a healthy American nationalism looks like.

Many associate American nationalism with conservative values. Why? Shouldn’t all citizens of this country have a healthy American nationalism? What would a liberal American nationalism look like? Would there (should there) be a difference? One political party should not have a monopoly on the codified definition of American nationalism. Shouldn’t healthy American nationalism be encouraged by all Americans? Shouldn’t all Americans hold a check on each other when nationalism is abused?

The purpose of this piece is not to present a definitive, codified, or absolutist notion of nationalism, immigration, or race. Rather, the purpose of this piece is to function as a mental stimulant for constructive dialogue about how we, as a nation, consider these important themes together.

Nationalism is the lubricant for holding collective identity through time in one place. It’s the glue that keeps connecting with who we are as a group of people in place through time. How can this be a value for strictly one political party? The creation of a collective identity is imperfect and subject to evolution, but this does not negate the value and importance of the strong bonds that connect people in one place through the use of symbols, rituals, and traditions. Places are not stagnant through time and there have been waves of people coming to the United States for many decades. When one place is seen as a haven for possibility and opportunity there will be many people that desire to explore these options. It should come as no surprise that the country started with people coming from other places and this holds true until today. Our founding fathers were the sons and daughters of immigrants just as our sons and daughters today are the children of immigrants. When discussing a healthy American nationalism, we should simultaneously discuss immigration. These constructs have created a momentous epoch of our age within our society at present.

When we leave our country of origin, do we leave to find ourselves or do we leave when we have already found ourselves?

There is a confluence of various concepts with various intersections that all strip down to being and identity. The United States is a country of immigrants. Even Native Americans, at some point, also immigrated here from different regions of the earth over different periods. Yet, since the 15th century with explorers charting the seas and finding “new worlds,” there have been massive immigration waves to the US. Pick any century in the past 600 years and you will find at least 2–3 immigration waves to the US from various places. Immigration is embedded in the nationalism of the United States. Now, we have progressed forward in time to have people that have resided in one town, city, or region in the United States for five, six, or even seven generations. Yet, waves of immigration persist. This is an archaic and modern, old-fashioned and recent piece of fabric in “American culture.” Because there has been an established “culture” in the United States, there is an open-ended call to assimilation.

Let’s spell this out. When you are a citizen of this country, there are certain components that we have established as baseline. We have national holidays, rituals, colloquialisms, and symbols just like any other country. These provide the glue for holding groups of people in one place through time. If you do not have these healthy elements of nationalism, you have chaos. You have disorder and nothing holding people together. These ornaments of healthy American nationalism are derived from generations and generations of immigrants, along with black slaves freed and un-freed, creating and fostering their own way of establishing identity. This is a beautiful, new thing for the US compared to other older countries of the world. Of course, there are dark chapters in US history and there are growing pains for sure but there is also lots of beauty in a young nation emboldened by ideas of western enlightenment (i.e., skepticism, reason) that still stand today. There is an allegiance, a commitment, and respect for those before us and, yes, a determination to create and solve challenges as time moves ahead.

In this way, there is an implicit expectation that people who migrate from other countries assimilate and have allegiance and commitment to these collective symbols, values and history that others before them have created together. This is not novel to the United States. This is true of many countries. This does not promote groupthink or show disdain for a person’s individual liberty, previous country of origin, or any of their previous symbols or cultural artifacts. The beautiful thing about the United States is that it welcomes those things and may even incorporate some of those other elements, though not at the expense of the healthy American nationalism already in place.

There is a curious wrinkle in this tapestry of American nationalism that has a collective ambivalence towards any resistance on these agreed values. It is unmasked when an immigrant may suggest that they can leave this country. When they claim they may go back home when things are difficult or move away to a new country altogether, it may foster disdain or frustration in those with allegiance to the country. For some, it may signal that the person is not completely aligned with the country. It provides possible doubts that this “other” person from an out-group is not reliable or trustworthy. It can suggest, for some, that there is an ungrateful attitude towards the potential possibilities and opportunities their adopted second home has provided to them. There are so many natural-born citizens who have many generations of family and community that have sacrificed, suffered, and established themselves in this country from their own family history of immigrants. Imagine hearing some new immigrants that have recently arrived talking about abandoning their new adoptive home. Is it not difficult to consider that these new immigrants may be potentially disloyal or ungrateful? If others in generations past could acculturate and assimilate to create the new American identity, why is it that some new immigrants may not also want to do this? This can create a void for these folks that often times leads them to entertain or indulge in an unhealthy American nationalism. To prevent this from happening, we must re-examine the fundamental question that originated these thoughts.

When we leave our country of origin, do we leave to find ourselves or do we leave when we have already found ourselves? At the core of this question is identity and being-in-itself. While many people debate this, the psychological scientific literature is mixed on if and how personality changes throughout one’s lifetime. Many people agree that the core characteristics of one’s personality is established in early childhood and continues throughout one’s lifespan. In a sense, this makes intuitive sense. Identity is mapped onto personality and temperament, which is a composition of those elements and other aspects in the environment such as culture, race, gender, and orientation. Both are very important; however, the starting point should always be with the individual. What do I mean by individual? I mean being in-itself. One’s dasein (being) is possessive-it’s always their own. Another way of saying this is that no one has your being in the exact same way as you. There is not another you walking around this universe. Your individuality is all you have, yet there are so many aspects of individuality that are unknown even to ourselves. The authenticity of being is uncovering, unveiling, and accepting all the unknown parts of us that are yet to be determined. In this way, identity can be the wheels of the cart in which individuality rides on the highway of life. You can have all the individuality that you want but if you have no mechanism and no receptacle to carry that individuality then you have stasis and stagnation. Individual Identity is the movement which motivates cultural and national identity.

There are different motivations for immigrants coming to the United States. When immigrants come to the United States, they come here to escape hardship in their own countries. They come here because there are limited possibilities in their own countries. They come here because they want a fresh start. In many cases, immigrants do not want to leave their country, but they make hard decisions that are often pragmatic and attempting to fulfill basic needs. In this way, it can be very challenging and difficult to assimilate to another country because they do not view it as their home. They take a utilitarian approach to the United States which is an appropriate use of the country that has opportunity and possibility embedded in its constitution. And is this not what the founding fathers and many current politicians preach? How many natural-born citizens do not make good use of their opportunities and their possibilities? Yet, this is a country with values, symbols, history, and that collective construct is what can create “home” for many people. In this way, immigrants have to acculturate and assimilate. This does not imply that one has to forsake their established identity or their individuality. Rather, it indicates that there is a social agreement made with fellow humans in one place that incorporates some of their general national values while simultaneously maintaining their own values. My hypothesis is that this can be either harder or easier for some immigrants than for other immigrants based on their development of their identity, which harkens back to their understanding of their individuality and being in-itself. For those immigrants that already have an identity developed and have their own country of origin as their home; it will always be a challenge to accept any assimilation to the United States because they already have an identity. It could be perceived as a betrayal of who they are. It could be perceived as a betrayal of one of the facets of their individuality. For those immigrants that do not have a strong sense of identity; it is likely to be much easier to assimilate to the national and cultural identities of the United States. Of course, there are immigrants that do not fall in either of these options. The point remains that there is a complicated comportment that all individuals have when seeking their most authentic identity.

This returns us to the main thesis of this essay. What does a healthy American nationalism look like? I have spent some time explaining the various objections and have interacted with the current negative components of nationalism. Yet, it is important to not only be against something or be reactionary. It is most important to be for something. It is important to, at the very least, provide an alternative to various positions.

A disclaimer about what a healthy American nationalism should look like. Again, I am not attempting to give a codified or absolute notion on this topic. I simply am seeking to find a general heuristic in which there could be different components. There should be room for individual differences and diversity of thought to have a healthy American nationalism.

Healthy American nationalism is developing and creating a space where individuals can explore their individuality with respect for their fellow citizen. The power of the individual, the possessive dasein that we all carry, is all that we have. We cannot play these games of obsession over group categorization on traits that we did nothing to earn or gain. No, the respect for the individual is the ultimate life-force. This is the will to power that Nietzsche was aiming to attain and hoping to promote for humans that have true “free spirits.”

Healthy American nationalism is a respect and acceptance of all aspects of collective history. A nation, at its core, is a collection of these individuals. We have to accept the diversity of thoughts and ideas. We have to encourage these diverse thoughts. We cannot masquerade our doubts and our inhibited ambitions behind taking offense or with faux slander. No, we must build and create a healthy American nationalism that is respecting the speech and thoughts of others sincerely. When we respect and accept but not necessarily agree with the speech and thoughts of others in our nation, we are cherishing and valuing the pursuit of the other person, our fellow human’s desire to unlock their hidden moments of their being. We must have this as front and center in a country with a healthy nationalism.

Healthy American nationalism is a profound respect, reverence, and honor for the ideals of the nation’s founding. Those ideals which are rooted in the precepts of the enlightenment. Western civilization has the enlightenment as the unlocking mechanism towards the pursuit of the individual first but not also excluding the collective. A healthy American nationalism is the unifying composite of individualism and collectivism. To that end, we must move beyond groupthink and replace this with emboldened communities. An emphasis on community as opposed to groups is more everlasting. In one way, the community is a meritocratic expansion of the nuclear family. The nuclear family is a cross-cultural, anthropological, and evolutionary concept and value for us as “social mammals.” For the most part, no matter where people may immigrate from, the value of family and community (by proxy) are intrinsically solidified. A healthy American nationalism will promote the expansion of a community that has the well-being of each person as primary. This is the juxtaposition of big and small government coalescing together to promote these tenets.

Immigration is the key lynchpin to how a healthy American nationalism progresses in this country. You may ask how immigration is so connected with nationalism? The answer is that, unlike other countries, every single century in the United States has had these waves of immigration. We are a nation of immigrants-this is our history. We all trace our family history to people coming from other regions on this planet. Our history, our symbols, our rituals, and our traditions are explicitly or implicitly created out of immigrants-that is our history. We move forward towards a healthy American nationalism by respecting that history and respecting all these traditions and symbols we have created. Immigrants and those of multi-ethnic characteristics will be a key piece in creating a future with a healthy American nationalism.

For this reason, we have to make race the most uninteresting thing about a person as we move forward in the 21st century. Race is a construct to help us understand groups of people but it is a misleading and, at this point, an unhelpful construct. Rather, we have to recalibrate our focus with the starting point being on the individual. We can consider their backgrounds, their ancestry, but we cannot be misled on the egomaniacal premonitions of race. Race is a red herring for our society. It is the ultimate deflection and distraction from pursing the well-being of each individual. For example, most Latin American countries are an amalgamation of races and ethnicities; much of this is due to five century old colonialism and imperialism. Yet in modern-day Latin America there is a well-accepted fact that everyone is mixed with so many different places. Mestizos (those mixed with European and native descent) are the majority in many Latin American countries; but this is not viewed negatively. Rather, it is accepted that there is a complicated, violent, and diverse history. That acceptance allows people to focus less on the spurious fascination with race and focus more on economic and social well-being. There is collective focus on that anthropological value of family and how that fits within a collective identity.

We are at a familiar crossroads being in the midst of a demographic transition that is causing national inflammation. This national inflammation is sparking identity partisanship peppered with racial tensions. Instead of relying on the perversions of our tribal instincts, we should lean on our collective, communal vestiges that have pushed us deeply, social mammals this far on our evolutionary journey.

Why am I saying all of this? Because immigrants are going to continue to come to this country (just as the country’s founding and history has progressed) and it will make the following generations more multiethnic; and we already see this with the current generations. Today’s youth have so many different races and ethnicities. Once we get past the phantasmagoria on race, we can focus on the individual and the well-being of each individual. Immigrants and those with different ethnicities will join with the majority here in the United States (whom also have descendants a few generations ago as immigrants) to create this healthy American nationalism. which will have the individual front and center. It will uphold enlightenment values. It will have an emphasis on the values of family and community, not groups or various intersections of those groups. It will value the history and institutions already created by immigrants. It will accept the dark chapters and respect the grey chapters of our history but most importantly, it will learn from all of it without erasing any chapters.

Life is living in the gray. Yet, our lives always seem to be pulled to polar extremities; towards two proverbial black holes. In this way, life in the gray is the space to avoid the magnetic pull of these black holes of extremism and false dichotomies. We must abandon these false dichotomies of strict individualism alone or hide behind collectivism alone. Instead, we should oscillate between both individualism and collectivism because this convergence of the two stances is the true American identity. We do not have, “I as a part of the people.” No, it is, “We the people.” It is not the divided states of America, but the United States of America. The national identity inscribed on our collective hearts is one that respects the individual while simultaneously understanding the collective voice of all our fellow Americans. We will forge our way into the 21st century that has an emphasis on individual collectivism with rationality, free thought, and the well-being of each individual. This healthy American nationalism will foster a moderate liberalism and refine a modern social conservatism that will provide a more united and harmonious America.

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