Since the first human settlements, people inside a human society have needed something to bind them together. They may have had common interests, like protection of a hunting ground or agricultural land, but economic interests are transitory. In order for people to sacrifice for one another or defend the society, they needed a shared belief, a common sense of reality that defined them versus outsiders. In addition to blood and soil, the commonly held set of rules held by a people is what defines them as a people.
One of the things that set the Athenians against the Spartans was the realization by the Athenians that the Spartans were enslaving Greeks. The Athenians always knew this in the abstract sense, but once they saw it up close after the earthquake of 464 BC, the reality of this difference between themselves and the Spartans was made plain. No matter how much they had in common, no matter their past cooperation, Athens did not enslave their fellow Greeks. It’s not who they were, to use a term familiar today.
Now, there were many other causes, more important causes, to the Peloponnese War, but this sense of a great difference between the two powers, in terms of their identity as people, made war easy. The American Civil War is another obvious example, where families and communities were divided over a moral question. The sense of identity, built around a common morality, can transcend blood relations. The phrase, “That is not who were are” is probably responsible for more violence than any other expression.
This is something the civic nationalists get right. The shared reality, along with a shared morality, is what defines a people, more so than blood and soil alone. When they talk about the American creed, they are not wrong that it is what defines the high concepts of American identity. Europeans think of Americans as relentless moralizers, because that’s the identity projected to them by politicians and the media. That’s because America is mostly defined by its sense of morality, rather than its history.
This is not just an American thing. France used to make a fetish of what it meant to be French, because there is a lot of diversity within France. The people in Brittany are different than the people of Provence. Therefore, it was necessary to impose this unifying French identity in order to hold the nation together. On the other hand, Swedes never developed a strong civic religion, because until their recent madness, it was obvious to everyone what it meant to be Swedish. The Finns are another good example.
The thing that American civic nationalists and credalists get wrong though is who decides these definitions. People like Ben Shapiro can never bring themselves to say who came up with the American Creed. His counterparts on the Left intimate that America as an idea just sort of happened by magic. They love quoting the Declaration, but never mention the men who wrote it or why they wrote it. For the modern credalists, the America Creed is disconnected from the American people, like a cloud hovering over the land.
That’s why it cannot work. While every society has a shared reality with a common morality, it is always tied to the people. It is the people who shape that reality and define that morality. Most important, the people inside define who is and who is not inside that shared reality. For example, to call yourself a Jew, you have to meet certain criteria, but also be accepted in by the Tribe. Similarly, if you wish to call yourself a Native American, you have to prove it to the people of one of the tribes. They decide, not you.
It’s why banishment has always been one of harshest punishments in human society, reserved for those who commit crimes against the people. To expel someone from society literally strips the identity from the person. At the same time, unlike death, it offers the opportunity for redemption. If the banished can prove he belongs, the people can restore him to the group. Again, this is not based on objective criteria handed down from some mysterious place. The people decide when the banished can return.
The way civic nationalists imagine this working is the people have no say in who is and who is not inside the group. If a Somali believes in the carried interest deduction and a hawkish foreign policy, he can be an American, according to Ben Shapiro. If a Guatemalan is good with a leaf blower and promises to vote Democrat, he’s ready to be an American according to the modern Progressive. Since no one inside has a say in the matter, everyone on earth can become an American just by saying so.
This obviously drops the value of being an American to zero, as something anyone can have for the asking is by definition worthless. It also makes citizenship entirely unworkable, as citizenship relies on exclusivity. The citizen is someone inside a well-defined society. If everyone can just walk in and be a citizen, then there is no well-defined society, so no such thing as a citizen. The very basis of human organization collapses, leaving nothing but ad hoc collections of deracinated people.
The truth of these binding ideals like an American Creed or French civic nationalism or Britishness, is that these shared ideals are the mortar that binds the bricks of society. The bricks are things like biology, race, shared history, physical location and even shared interests. The shared reality and common morality bind these together to define the wall between the people inside and the people outside. From time to time the people will need to repoint the wall with new ideals, but it is always in service to that defining wall.
Ultimately, what defines identity, whether it is national identity or culturally identity, is who defines it. For a national identity to exist, you first need a nation willing to define it and enforce it. Similarly with a cultural or religious identity. It’s why every religion has a process for new adherents. They must prove to those inside that they are worthy of inclusion in the faith. The American Creed can only exist if Americans exists with a separate and unique identity, one they define and enforce.
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