The Moral Meaning of America: Two Parallel Narratives
By Jason D. Hill
Race has been endemic to American life since its inception. But I think race always was metaphysically irrelevant to the true spirit of America. Race, like the slavery that is America’s tragic birth defect, was a betrayal of the essential moral meaning of America. When people come to America, past and present, they could not adhere to their tribal lineage and ancestral past in any substantive way as a means of granting them a moral identity. Immigrants who arrive in America, while cosmetically hanging onto their tribal lineage, do not in any fundamental sense appeal to the traditions and customs of their old countries as ways of authenticating themselves over time. One lives not by appeal to ancestry, but by acts used to ratify the validity and legitimacy of one’s personal existence.
Americans are the first individualists and, by design, the first nontribal people in the world.
We may say that the one state in human history that has inserted itself into the world and the global imagination, and offered itself up as a home, a refuge, a place where any person can be welcomed and offered a chance to fulfill any aspiration and goal, was and remains the United States. Today, there are other countries, of course, that fulfill this goal, including Canada, France, and Great Britain. Yet, because America was founded as a nation of immigrants — a cosmopolitan melting pot — it not only has provided the cosmopolitan with an existential referent, a home, but also has reversed a trend in political life that has marked human societies since recorded history. It has undermined the degree of tribalism at the heart of citizenship — belonging — and the notion of the community by making all such distinctions not just irrelevant, but ethically untenable.
The United States has transformed the moral and political prism through which we see and evaluate the status of the aspiring citizen by fundamentally changing the way we formulate the moral qualifications and credentials a person must have to become a citizen of the republic. The answer is, of course, nothing but their naked, singular humanity, with certain rational qualifiers that have nothing to do with tribal affiliation.
Inserted as a nontribal unprecedented phenomenon in the world, the United States has achieved a unique feat of political eugenics. Instead of being an imitator, it is a model for emulation. America has detribalized the world by offering up its model as worthy of universal emulation; it has functioned as an ethical domain in which resocialization of a certain type takes place.
By making foreigners and strangers into Americans, the republic has made them citizens of the world by undermining and de-ratifying the spirit of seriousness grafted onto lineage and blood identity. The American by birth or, even more so, by naturalization, is the concretization of a world citizen because what is central to belonging and citizenship are moral purpose (the inviolable freedom to create one’s own conception of the good life for oneself) and a moral-political commitment to adhere to the fundamental defining principles of the republic grounded, as it were, in a philosophy of individualism.
Explicit adherence to a philosophy of individualism provides the litmus test for how and when one’s actions can be exercised in the world against the freedoms and rights of another. Individualism and its political corollary in the form of individual rights subordinate society to political laws derived from moral laws. This commitment to the principles defending individualism and individual rights, in a robustly political sense gave birth to the rise of the individual and enacted what the honorable ancient Stoics could only have dreamed of: the creation of a republican polity that could be home to all citizens of the world by formal principle.
America is the first country to insert itself into the world and offer itself up as a friend to humanity; it’s the place where citizens from anywhere can belong and play a role in suffusing the nation-state with an original assemblage of who one is.
The United States is the first full-fledged cosmopolitan state for all the reasons advanced previously and more: America encourages human beings not to search for their origins, but, rather, their destiny. It is the first nation in human history where — in spite of lip service to hyphenated identities that are purely symbolic — human beings have been driven to flee their origins and remake themselves through a process of becoming a new specimen, often a radically new man or woman.
Identity makeovers are fully possible only in the United States of America. The social reality that thoroughly suffused an “Untouchable’s” life in India has no existential counterpart in the United States, a country where most Americans are properly unconcerned with the term and the nefarious caste system it denotes. The “Untouchable” lands in America and is perceived as South Asian and, more or less, nothing more than that. Her socioeconomic mobility in America, her associations, and her right to forget from where she came are within her powers. Whereas, in her native India, she was stamped with the mark of closure and social completeness, America grants her the freedom not just to become, but to wipe her social slate clean in order to become, in order to realize her not-as-yet-self. America grants her a philosophy of life that is itself a disclosure of possibilities.
America was the first country that incentivized the individual to prioritize the future over the past, to eschew nostalgia in favor of hope and aspiration.
We are a reformed society. No other country has ever included within the domain of the ethical such units of moral concern during so short a time in its nascent existence as the many persons and groups have in America. Nearly 244 years after its creation, there are no persons or individuals who, on principle, can be excluded from the domain of the ethical and of justice.
There have been, and shall continue to be, concrete examples of individuals who have been excluded; however, it is safe to say that part of the moral meaning of the United States lies in its ever-widening pantheon of inclusiveness. America is the first immigrant country in history predicated on civic nationalism — includes the membership principle, but transcends it in that persons beyond its shores such as immigrants, refugees, stateless peoples, and other victims of political and economic oppression are both welcomed and invited into the United States to seek more than just ameliorative and reparative status in the republic.
This is America, where a Third Founding (taking Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg and the Civil War as the second) was achieved in the civil rights movement and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The inclusive promise of “We, the People” was finally delivered to all people in this country. The formal debt owed to black people, for centuries of enslavement and inexcusable mistreatment and exclusion from mainstream American society, was paid.
America has always been a place of regeneration, renewal, and self-examination; a place where peoplehood is not a given or a smug achievement, but, rather, a long and continuous aspiration.
There is a reason that “Matilda” the maid from Africa or Mexico or Jamaica, oppressed as she might feel by a dominant class structure in her native country, can flee the hermetically sealed nature of those systems and come to America. There is a reason that boatloads of peasants from Haiti and Cuba and other countries have risked their lives in makeshift rafts and leaky boats to seek hope and a better way of life here in America. These people are largely black people. America gives all of them a space to negotiate its ongoing moral narrative.
We must not forget that it was in America in 1903 at Ellis island that immigrants arriving to this magnificent nation were greeted by a copper statue, the Statue of Liberty, whose pedestal bears the words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The essence of that invitation came in a clarion call for people of all types to be reborn into a new type of man or woman: the new American.
This gift-giving feature of our humanity — anathema to the spirit of every variant of tribalism, whether it takes the form of cultural nationalism or racial particularity — is the humble capacity to genuflect before the “other” in a spirit of reciprocity, in respectful brotherhood and sisterhood, and say: I am not so complete that I can resist handing over to you some part of my continued socialization and identity formation as a human being. With you, my friend, my humanity, regardless of its origins, continues to expand and will take me to places I could never have imagined.
I have fallen quite a few times in my journey through the American landscape as I traverse the paths towards my goals. I have picked myself up and looked towards the frontier.
Not once has America disappointed me!