Herbert London: When Universalism Threatens National Loyalty

As I stood at a public meeting hand over my chest pledging my loyalty to this republic, I asked myself how many giving through this ritual actually care or appreciate the unique character of the United States. So far down a universalist slope have we gone that few objected when a former Mets first baseman, Carlos Delgado, refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner. Even Superman, the distinctly American comic book character, whose motto was “truth, justice and the American way” has been transmogrified in a 2006 film, mouthing the words “truth, justice and ‘all that stuff’.”

The American character, embracing idiosyncratic national virtues, is under siege through a global dream of common “humanitus.” After all, we are all the same moving inexorably to citizenship of the world. Or are we? Should Superman wear a U.N. badge as he engages his mortal enemy Lex Luther?

Transnationalists from Ann Marie Slaughter to Dean Coe decry nationalism and, by extension, the need for patriotic sacrifice. What they are saying is join the global party by renouncing your American identification. It is not surprising that several Supreme Court justices used foreign precedents to substantiate opinions on national cases. One wonders what a Zimbabwean court can possibly suggest to American justices.

Citizenship, if it has any meaning, cannot be an appeal to abstractions like worldwide camaraderie. It exists in a particularistic phenomenon related to tradition, the Constitution, language, creed, and custom. “We the people” the first three words in the Constitution, do not refer to any people; they refer specifically to the citizens of the United States. The union in the word “united” applies specifically to our history. We transformed the “United States are…” to the “United States is” through the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution and the Civil War. That is not world history; it is American history and it is woven into the fabric of national identification.

For some, patriotism is antediluvian, an idea that holds Americans back from international cooperation. I see it differently. Patriotism allows us to understand who we are and what our mission may be. I believe in America and what it stands for, but even if I didn’t it is apparent, as the World Football matches demonstrate, that most people are attached to local institutions and national loyalties are embedded in a web of customs and culture that define who people are.

This is not the first moment when universalistis tried to dethrone national sentiments. Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist party in 1922, asked plaintively why Italy did not have a revolution comparable to the Russian revolution in 1917. His answer was found in the Italian fervor for nationalism in a state which had been unified only a half century earlier. Undermine nationalism, he thought, and the communist revolution would unfold. But despite repeated efforts “to march through the institutions” denouncing national fervor, Gramsci did not, perhaps could not, succeed.

Admittedly in some American quarters, particularly in the intellectual community, Gramsci has succeeded . What he could not do in 1922, many of his acolytes have achieved in 2012. But despite sporadic success in Foggy Bottom and the Academy, most Americans sing the national anthem with conviction. Our military men and women willingly sacrifice their lives for the defense of country. And patriotic associations still flourish in small town America.

As an idea universalism has its appeal. After all, there are the common threads of family, passion, disappointment, government, love, employment that unite people everywhere. But these ideas do not account for the idiosyncratic cultural backdrop that gives them meaning. Family in Stockholm is not the same as family in Marakesh. The difference not only counts, it is what contributes to allegiance and devotion. T.S. Eliot noted, “Culture is not enough, even though nothing is enough without culture.” Culture is in the air we breathe and that air has a national scent. If I may modify Edmund Burke’s position slightly that “Manners are more important than law,” to suggest that manners, culture, and custom are more important than law and these characteristics in the aggregate account for how we define ourselves.

Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.