Obama’s ‘America’

american flag and liberty statue declaration

What the president means when he says America is an idea, not a bloodline

Written by Ira Straus

President Obama told us this week that we must legalize millions of illegal aliens because America is “a creed, an idea” — and is not what he calls “a bloodline.” The latter is an ugly term, hinting at Nazi-style racism, but what it caricatures is a more accurate view: that America is a concrete country with a concrete citizenry that has concrete habits, institutions, and mutual relations and obligations.

Obama buttressed his view by pulling out the line that America is “a nation of immigrants,” with only the “idea” to hold itself together and make that nation “America.” In reality, America was founded by a migration, not an immigration — one that took place within what is now a different concrete society: England. That society sent settlers across the ocean to consolidate and expand its newly claimed territories for itself. It was a colonial implantation of an existing society, not a nation of immigrants who formed a new society out of nothing but an idea. Immigrants came later and assimilated into the preexisting society.

That society is the concrete America, and it is one about which Obama himself feels at best ambivalent.

Here we have the president of a vast concrete country proclaiming his loyalty solely to one of its ideas. It would not be surprising if this profession of limited, conditional loyalty had come from an ideologue without responsibility for anything, brought up on the narrative of America and the West as the source of the world’s problems. It would not be entirely surprising either (in fact, it would in many ways be understandable, given the sufferings of black history) if he truly meant this profession — if he were loyal to the country only when it is supporting his ideas, or if he shared the sentiment of his wife, who, as she put it, honestly if crudely, was proud of America only when it voted for him.

Understandable, but not acceptable. Not for a president holding in his hands the fate of the country.

But what, after all, is “the idea” that is Obama’s “America”? Maybe that makes it all right after all. The idea, he told us, is simply that “we are all created equal.” (He also threw in a line about being able to make something of your life; a nice touch, but not very significant.)

“Now wait a moment,” someone might object. “Didn’t Abraham Lincoln say the same thing?”

No, Lincoln didn’t say that. He did simplify a lot, in his flowing rhetoric at Gettysburg; but even then, he spoke of a concrete society with multiple ideas. He said the founders had “brought forth a new nation” — a concrete thing, birthed by specific people (although he postdated the birthing; it actually was born in 1607, as a colony; 1776 was a political restructuring). And he invoked two ideas for it, not just one: “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Liberty and equality, two ideas that often have to be measured and weighed against each other before we can decide how best to protect and advance them — and that, in their complex interplay, create a dialectic that ends up encompassing many of the other ideas that constitute the actual creed of this society.

Lincoln was no Obama. He simplified for wartime rhetoric and invoked the norms of America, but he did it with at least a modicum of subtlety. And his rhetoric was in defense of the concrete America and its power. He used it to rally the troops who were out there at the front, laying down their lives in terrible numbers to save America from the forces fighting for its deconstruction.

Today we have the opposite: The president reducing his fiduciary charge from a living, breathing society to a single idea, the idea of equality. Even for those accustomed to thinking of America as a creed, this ought to be an unacceptably extreme form of reductionism. And it is invoked not, as with Lincoln, to rally the troops to the defense of the concrete country — and in so doing to liberate the victims of an evil, slavery, of which its society had been the author — but to condemn what he calls the country’s “hypocrisy” and tell it that it must make more concessions to the endless stock of people who can be defined, in his neck of the ideological woods, as “victims” of its “privilege.” And, of course, to hint that if it doesn’t, it will cease to be the America he is loyal to.

The actual creed shared by most Americans is not Obama’s creed. His “American idea” is only one among a whole slew of ideas that are held by Americans. These multiple ideas, woven together into a societal system through a common history, and woven together in our minds by shared narratives: This is our actual national creed. It is also our national identity.

Obama’s single “American idea” is, significantly, the idea that has most often required interpretation and drastic rewording to rescue its kernels of truth from its prima facie falsity. Clearly we are not all “created equal.” Every serious proponent of this phrase has had to explain in what sense we should regard one another as equal — and in what sense we should not and cannot.

Obama himself, as an apparent atheist, doesn’t believe we were “created.” What Obama does believe is that America — the actual America, not the “idea” — is based on massively institutionalized inequality.

Yet at the same time, he equates the category of “America” with the line “we are all created equal.” Does it follow that this idea is the only thing to which he understands himself as owing loyalty as president, not the concrete country? Logically, it would indeed follow.

We may be relieved that in practice he is not consistent in reducing America to this idea — but only partly relieved. All too often he does reduce America, in his policies, to this one idea.

And what of the paradox that, while he believes this line to be the definition of “America,” he does not himself believe it to be true in itself, nor accurate for describing America — indeed, he believes it to be very nearly the opposite of the actual America, which he sees in terms of massive institutionalized inequalities? Here we have a difficult dialectical situation, far more difficult than Lincoln’s. The president may need some help on this one from his theorists.

The help is readily available. Mr. Obama is not alone in reducing America to the idea that “we are all created equal.” Political correctness and deconstructionism also take this as the only idea they allow for their “America.” “Foundationalism” may be rejected as oppressive to the relativity and equality of thoughts, but the Declaration of Independence is preserved as the one and only foundational document permitted, and “equality” as its one and only foundational thought, the basis for everything.

The concrete America, the one that is called “Eurocentric” and deplored on that basis, is not only to be deconstructed; it is to be turned into a future, ideologically defined “America,” one built around the sole idea that “we are all created equal.” Along the way, it must be emptied of everything that stands in the way, which may well be practically all of American society. “America” (the idea) is to be used against America (the country). That way it can be transformed, dialectically, from its reality as “the greatest purveyor of inequality in the world,” so to speak, into its almost opposite ideal type.

But, one might object, isn’t this normal for idealism? Aren’t all people and societies to be measured against their ideals, in order to improve them when possible? Yes, indeed; but with two provisos: 1) It has to be done with benign intention, and 2) they have to be measured against the totality of their ideas and ideals, so as to try to reach sound judgments on whether and how they can be improved, not against a single idea that is set loose to run over everything in its path.

The goal of deconstruction of America and the West is not benign. The use of a single idea, and one readily turned to leveling, at that, as the measure against which to judge America, is not a path for reaching wise judgments or better realization of the actual basket of American ideals.

When equality is taken by itself as the sole measure, it is bound to get invoked, whether in one gulp or serially, to dissolve any and all societal structures. It is perhaps only logical, then, that when deconstructionists say they want to dissolve all hierarchies, it means they want to dissolve all settled societal structures. This is done in the name of a future utopian world of purely horizontal relations. But in reality, it is the benign hierarchies of the world that the deconstructionists attack, not the malign ones.

The strongest hierarchy in today’s world — the hierarchy in which the Western democracies maintain a modicum of order at home and provide a modicum of leadership and coherence in the world — is a benign one, but deconstructionists attack it as the main enemy. This inevitably serves to empower the far more malign hierarchies that are struggling to take its place. It is not accidental; it is a deliberate strategic choice. Deconstructionists do not always explicitly align with those malign hierarchies as allies in the fight against the West, but they do so often enough.

It works the other way around, too, to be sure. Many deconstructionists chose to become deconstructionists in the first place, and to attack all hierarchy, because they have always wanted to attack the West and this is a fashionable new way to do it. Besides, they can pretend to be acting on general libertarian-sounding principles, not just on concrete bad attitudes toward the West.

Which leads to a final question. Which way does it work for Obama? Does he undermine the actual America because he thinks America is merely an “idea” of equality? Or does he say America is merely an idea of equality because, in his neck of the woods, the social game is to find new arguments for undermining the actual America?

Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own.

This article was originally posted at the NationalReview.com website.