June 19, 2019
Author: Chilton Williamson
Since 1892, when the original text was composed, the Pledge of Allegiance has been revised three times. Viewed chronologically, the alterations appear to have aimed at a greater specificity, but also a wider and deeper self-assurance. The current text, dating from 1954, capitalizes “Nation” and adds “under God,” as if the editors (a committee, no doubt) suspected that American citizens needed to have their sense of nationhood, and of their security under the special protection of the Deity, reinforced for them. Today, when 1954 seems as distant as 1054, it is tempting to discern in the history of this small document an anxiety, unconscious perhaps, regarding America’s future that was not only justified but prescient, almost prophetic. At the end of the second decade of the 21st century the dissolution of the United States is as obvious as her fundamentally changed political form; no longer a republic, nor “one Nation under God, indivisible,” nor a country “with liberty and justice for all,” but a decaying empire with one law for its rulers and their allies and another for its subjects, one form of logic for the governing class and its specially protected clients and another and parallel one for the common majority. From the vantage of the present moment it seems that the United States, far from being the “exceptional nation,” is, rather, quite an ordinary one—perhaps not a nation at all, owing to her preternaturally accelerated history made possible by her freedom from geographical constraints before 1890 and foreign ones up to 1914, and the unprecedented pace modernity has kept since her founding in 1789. Two and a quarter centuries, viewed in historical context, are, historically speaking, a very short space of time for a nation to take form. So perhaps America is truly exceptional only as a not-nation that has got away with the pretence and appearance of being a real one for as long as she has done.
America is an historical anomaly chiefly for reasons of time and space. The United States began as a newly joined assembly of English colonies, dissimilar in many ways, stretching along the North American coast, a seaboard republic that only 14 years later became a continental empire when President Jefferson in 1803 arranged the Louisiana Purchase, which added 828,000 square miles to the young country’s territorial extent, more than doubling its original size and adding an indigenous population of perhaps a few million people whose presence changed its demographic and social complexion radically, and forever. Westward expansion led to the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War, which added Mexico’s northern and northwestern territories to the Union, and with them a substantial Spanish and Indian population. Less directly, it was responsible for the War Between the States a dozen years later, which freed the black slave population, naturalized it, and enfranchised it. Indirectly, too, by force of expansionist habit, it encouraged imperial expansion into the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which brought on the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of the Philippines, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands and with them their own remote peoples and their cultures. Concurrently with these vast territorial and human gains, a steady stream of immigrants, mainly from the British Isles and notably from Catholic Ireland, began in the 1820’s. Well before the Civil War the stream had widened to include German immigrants and others from Northern Europe. After the war and the reunion of the states, the stream became a wave whose origins now included Southern and Eastern Europe. The new immigration, though prompted by political revolutions in Europe, was encouraged and facilitated—actually, demanded—by American industrialists seeking cheap labor to build the vast industrial plant they were creating continentally. Rapid industrialization thus joined territorial expansion, immigration, and imperialism as a major transformer of the original nation, not yet a century old.
Major results of this transformation were a growing loss of national identity, as real as it was deeply felt and sharply perceived, and popular uncertainty concerning the reality of democracy in America and its prospects for the future that aided the imperial program of extending democracy to the little brown brothers overseas and crucially benefitted President Wilson’s efforts to take the United States into a European conflict he presented to the country as a war to make the world safe for democracy—America’s first ideological war. Her participation in the Great War, despite the two more or less isolationist decades that followed the peace treaty that ended it, guaranteed the country’s eventual total commitment to Europe, first in World War II and then during the Cold War; a second imperial adventure, justified by Washington as an ideological Armageddon to which the United States as the leader of the “free world” was indispensable, that completed America’s metamorphosis from a republic to a world empire. It was for ideological reasons too (liberalism at home, Cold War propaganda abroad) that Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened up America to immigration from the non-European nations and transformed the country—demographically, culturally, politically, and economically—in the space of a few decades. So rapid, so many, and such foundational changes wrought upon a wide-flung and loosely knit society over a mere 23 decades are not conducive to nation-building, a process that in the case of all pre-modern countries—Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the great non-Western ones including China and India—took centuries and even millennia to accomplish. So it is reasonable to argue that America is not, and never has been, a nation in the true sense of the word, and that she is unlikely to retain even the semblance of one in future. The signs are all around us that this is so.
Since 1965, farsighted critics with an understanding of history and human nature have warned that the new immigration would lead, and is leading, to the balkanization of the United States of America. Democrats and liberals, as well as radicals, have steadfastly denied the likelihood, even the possibility, of such a thing; whoever argues otherwise, they say, is a racist and a xenophobe. All human beings, the left insists, are precisely alike except in the most superficial ways; their cultures, too, are minor variations on one another, and so are their religions, including such radically opposed ones as Christianity and Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, Confucianism and Santería. Liberals persist in maintaining this fantasy, whose falsity is demonstrated by liberalism itself in its new guise of identity politics, whose rise coincides exactly with the arrival of scores of millions of nonwhite, non-Christian, and non-Western peoples and whose program is ideally fitted to the phenomenon, as well as a reflection of it. (It is possible that liberalism’s latest obsession with sexual identity is a clever means, whether conscious or not, to disguise the underlying racial one.) Balkanization is no longer a possibility, near or remote, for the United States; it is a reality. It is happening right now, and it appears unstoppable, for the excellent reason that there is nothing to stop it, save for the sometimes contradictory efforts of the present administration in Washington. Moreover, racial, cultural, and religious balkanization is a major factor responsible for the intellectual and ideological balkanization of the American public, among whose bitter and poisonous fruits is the hatred one half of the country feels for the other half, each living in its separated mental, metaphysical, and emotional world. After eight years of Barack Obama the left felt confident, before Donald Trump’s descent from the vasty heights of Trump Tower like some evil deus ex machina from the skies, that hegemony was not only graspable, but actually within its grasp. Its present panicked hysteria suggests it no longer believes that, and its hyperoptimism about the coming off-year elections is probably as much feigned as felt and will likely remain so throughout Trump’s presidency, whatever the outcome in November. By now, both sides recognize that the Enemy is not going away, since total victory by the one over the other is impossible in the foreseeable future. In 1861, the United States was a house divided (though not nearly so widely as she is thought to have been). In 2018, she is a house shattered and tottering. You could make two good houses from the separated halves of one house, if that house were big enough and solid enough to start with, but nothing from the violently scattered and half-destroyed fragments of an exploded one—nothing, anyway, that resembles a proper house. America today is comparable to Christianity after 1517, when the initial separation by the Lutherans from Rome led inevitably, in fact and in logic, to a chain of subsequent fissions among the Protestant churches whose end is not in sight even now. Similarly, California, whose immigration, environmental, and other policies are those of a seceded state, is being defied by some of its own towns and counties and now the city of San Diego which, out of patience with the plague of illegal aliens, have chosen to comply with federal immigration law instead of what passes for it in Sacramento. Fission, once begun, easily becomes uncontrollable; a cancerous process that gave humanity the atom bomb.
From about the time of the Spanish-American War down to the post-Soviet era, Americans were fairly in solidarity with their countrymen against a dangerous world, and any perceived threat to their democracy. But since the demise of the Great Satan from the Russian Steppes, that solidarity has been shaken by popular disillusion created by lost or unwon foreign wars and the expenditure of American blood and fortune on the battlefields of countries Over There, countries many of whose own people, after proving themselves unenthusiastic and ineffective allies of the United States, were rewarded by being granted refugee status Over Here. As for democracy, only the politicians profess to believe that the U.S. is any such thing anymore. The majority of Americans are weary of war, weary of financial and human sacrifice, weary of unsavory allies, weary of unpleasantly foreign, unsuitable, and unassimilable hordes arriving from uncivilized places to transform their country into a congeries of crowded International Houses subsidized at their expense. Victor Bulmer-Thomas, an English historian who has spent much time, and taught, in the United States, argues in a new book (Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States) that the future of the United States is as a postimperial country. Americans, he says, no longer wish to pay the price of empire (a future Bulmer-Thomas approves, so long as the transition from empire to republic again is managed responsibly and well). The larger and more essential question, which he does not address, is whether it is possible to recreate a new American republic from a people that has ceased to act and even think as a people—a nation. The return to something like the Articles of Confederation might be an answer, or a geographically contiguous collection of political and cultural entities similar to the original 13 colonies, created this time by a process of voluntary self-segregation according to political belief and cultural affinity that has been going on for some time now and seems likely to accelerate. But the future is unreadable; it cannot be planned for—just as America’s history from 1789 to the present day was unplanned.
Viewed from the East Coast of North America, the Atlantic Ocean seems to recede eastward toward the country’s historical and cultural origins, the relatively gentle surf (save along the rocky coast of Maine) drawing us backward in time and vision. On the West Coast, the violent surf, driving in from the ungraspable immensity of the Pacific and crashing against an endless shore of sharp and jagged sedimentary rock in great bursts and blowing clouds of spray, seems like a huge invisible hand pushing back against the continent, as if to say, “So far, and no farther.” Perhaps, in its premature old age, the nation that never was a nation may look backward upon itself to discover a previously unimaginable future.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture – May 10, 2018