Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Goldberg on American Culture and Patriotism

I’m a few days late in posting it, but I keep coming back to this article from Jonah Goldberg that appeared in the LA Times on Tuesday. I like it because I think it nicely summarizes the differences between the left and the right in America--but, more interestingly, it begins to bridge the gap between different elements on the right. Goldberg nods to the idea of America as an idea but, unlike the left, he does not reject out of hand the other idea that America is a nation born out of habits and customs. In fact, both ideas are true and they are not mutually exclusive. What does that mean in a practical sense? Goldberg illustrates with the clear logic and beautiful prose of Mark Steyn:

As the host of the "Today" show in 2003, Couric said of the lost crew members of the space shuttle Columbia: "They were an airborne United Nations -- men, women, an African American, an Indian woman, an Israeli. . . ." As my National Review colleague Mark Steyn noted, they weren’t an airborne U.N., they were an airborne America. The "Indian woman" came to America in the 1980s, and, in about a decade’s time, she was an astronaut. "There’s no other country on Earth where you can do that," Steyn rightly noted.

On another thread, our friend Steve Thomas points us to this article from David Brooks. Brooks is always interesting, but I think Goldberg’s piece may be the answer to him.

Discussions - 17 Comments

I'm not sure what you mean by "the answer." I see the pieces as complementary. I agree that sometimes people who think of themselves as on the left adopt an unthinking cosmopolitanism. They should think about it. America is both creedal and a nation. I think Burke understood that about America.

I only mean that Goldberg says it better. I think Brooks may over-state the Burkean influence and underplay the creedal. But he's trying to offer a corrective to those who emphasize the creedal, so perhaps that's inevitable.

Propositionalism (the idea that your country is just an "idea" or "belief in ideas") is, always has been, and always will be a product of the Left. Such thinking was first promulgated by revolutionaries, and opposed by Burke and De Maistre. The authentic conservative position, and realist position for that matter, as it has been tried and tested for over 10,000 years of history, is the classical view that a nation is rooted kith and kin, and genophilia. Even Greek democracy and Roman republicanism presupposed tribal systems.

Bede . . . don't you see that the irony is that if you're right then Katie Couric was correct: That shuttle was just an airborne United Nations and not an airborne America. We are just a nation of immigrants; not a nation of immigrants who have become American. The extreme of your position is closer to the left than what Goldberg or I suggest. We don't have to throw out our connectedness to tradition, kith and kin in order to accept that America is both that AND an idea. I don't want to suffer the same fate as Greece or Rome or, even, England. We may, even so. But if we don't it will be because of what we've been able to do that was different from those guys as much as (perhaps more than) it will be about what was similar.

I don't want to suffer the same fate as Greece or Rome or, even, England.

We are suffering the same fate as Rome, and for essentially the same reasons. And those reasons have nothing to do with "kith and kin".

don't you see that the irony is that if you're right then Katie Couric was correct

I don't see how that refutes the proposition. Are we required to insist that anything Couric says is wrong by definition?

Goldberg; Yet the strangest and most ironic aspect of our national culture is that we have an aversion to talking about a national culture.

There are elements on the right, very much in evidence here at Ashbrook, which have a strong aversion to any talk of "culture" as being code for "lets get the Jews".

To the extent that American culture is praised by such people, it is on the grounds that it is not like other cultures, and requires almost nothing from those would would be a apart of it.


Goldberg;The hitch to this kind of thinking is that it rules out the possibility that the American "we" might have answers to problems that the global "we" doesn't.

The distinction between the American we and the global we is rather vague for Goldberg and those who think like him. The logical progression of their way of thinking is that the entire world would become part of the American "we".

If anyone in the world can become American simply by professing their belief in an ill-defined liberty (and in reality not even that much is required) then the very word American is emptied of meaning.


Goldberg nods to the idea of America as an idea but, unlike the left, he does not reject out of hand the other idea that America is a nation born out of habits and customs.

He says this as an abstract matter, but when it comes to actual policies I have never noticed that Goldberg is much influenced by habits and customs.

The "out" for the writers at NR is to claim that our habits and customs include the liberal creed, as Yuval Levin writes in NR today. So the nod to tradition is little more than a head fake and an effort to establish some connection to Burke.

If you know anything at all about the history of conservatism and especially of 19th century thought, from which conservatism was born, then you would know that support of propositionalism was born of revolutionary thinking and is essentially left-wing; whereas recognition of the traditional notion of nationhood (a nation based in tradition, kith and kin, genophilia, et al) is the conservative position. Just read Burke or De Maistre on this latter point. Most neocons essentially are 1950s liberals and arguing for such positions. But these ideas did not work for 1950s liberals, and they won't work for neocons either.

I don't know that Burke ever had much to say on the topic of the genetically defined nation state. He wrote before either one of these things (genetics, nations states) became influential.

The American system was not founded upon the ideas of Edmund Burke or the kind of conservatism that Bede is talking about. YOU may like that brand of conservatism - and that is fine - but that is not the American founding is rooted upon Lockean liberalism and the idea of a natural rights republic as is found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - the apple of gold in the frame of silver. The "neo-con" argument you are talking about is a real understanding of the American creed, not the brand of conservatism you like and espouse from your reading.

the American founding is rooted upon Lockean liberalism and the idea of a natural rights republic as is found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

There is an element of truth to this, but it's mostly a crock. The people who wrote the DCI and the Constitution had nothing in common with the modern "neocons".

The "neo-con" argument you are talking about is a real understanding of the American creed

Nobody who reads the founding generation in their own words could possibly think such a thing. The universalist creed of the neocons is akin to that of the French Revolution, not the American.

Nobody who has read the Founding thinks that they were influenced by Burke and De Maistre but rather a "new order for the ages" based upon natural rights principles. Many of the so-called "neo-cons" (which you seem to be using as a pejorative rather than referring to specific thinkers/scholars) are in line with the Founders on this. I think that in your way of thinking the American Founders were a bunch of Leftists who should be lumped in with the French Revolutionaries because they believed in Englightenment principles (Locke, not Rousseau) and natural rights.

The definition of conservatism that means one supports a crown went out ... well ... with the crown.

I think the article by David Brooks is very interesting. In asnwer to Steve Thomas question of why any adults would find Ayn Rand interesting...I present her thought as being the embodiment of "creedal freedom and capitalism."

Here is an excerpt from Capitalism Magazine:

"Thus, the deeper meaning of Columbus Day is to celebrate the rational core of Western civilization, which flourished in the New World like a pot-bound plant liberated from its confining shell, demonstrating to the world what greatness is possible to man at his best.

On Columbus Day, we celebrate the civilization whose philosophers and mathematicians, men such as Aristotle, Archimedes, and Euclid, displaced otherworldly mysticism by discovering the laws of logic and mathematical relationships, demonstrating to mankind that reality is a single realm accessible to human understanding.

On Columbus Day, we celebrate the civilization whose scientists, men such as Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, banished primitive superstitions by discovering natural laws through the scientific method, demonstrating to mankind that the universe is both knowable and predictable.

On Columbus Day, we celebrate the civilization whose political geniuses, men such as John Locke and the Founding Fathers, defined the principles by which bloody tribal warfare, religious strife, and, ultimately, slavery could be eradicated by constitutional republics devoted to protecting life, liberty, property, and the selfish pursuit of individual happiness.

On Columbus Day, we celebrate the civilization whose entrepreneurs, men such as Rockefeller, Ford, and Gates, transformed an inhospitable wilderness populated by frightened savages into a wealthy nation of self-confident producers served by highways, power plants, computers, and thousands of other life-enhancing products.

On Columbus Day, in sum, we celebrate Western civilization as history’s greatest cultural achievement. What better reason could there be for a holiday?"

Why do you say "embodiment"? The quote sounds like something from a conscientious high school principal at a school assembly.

I think that in your way of thinking the American Founders were a bunch of Leftists who should be lumped in with the French Revolutionaries because they believed in Englightenment principles (Locke, not Rousseau) and natural rights.

Would you care to demonstrate by use of the historical record that the founders of this country "believed in Englightenment principles ... and natural rights"?

Because if they did, their understanding of these terms was certainly vastly different from what they mean today.

I see that Rand was as ignorant of history as she was of economics. Many of the people she lists as banishing "primitive superstitions" were devout Christians.

Of course the understanding of "rights" is different today than it was at the Founding, and that's why the Ashbrook Scholar Program focusses on reading original texts (ie the DCI, Constitution, Locke's 1st and 2nd Treatise on Government, etc., etc.) Your knee-jerk reaction against Natural Rights is silly. You're just scared of the word because it was high-jacked by the Progressives to include entitlements (thanks, FDR!) We shouldn't be afraid to discuss the American Founding in the language of the Founders. Read Locke's 2nd Treatise then read Rouseau's Discourses and you should be able to begin to see why the American Revolution and the French Revolution are two very different things.

So, Bede, conservatism was born of 19th century thought? So it was new idea? So it was . . . a product of radical left-wing thinkers! Those damn neoconservatives, curse their eyes! I'm glad Bede has finally exposed his view of "conservatism" as simply Anglophilia. Conservatism goes WAY back beyond Burke, Bede. Please expand your horizons.

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