Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash
What defines us is not our leaders or our borders. A President does not make an epoch. Borders are normal. Like doors, they allow access and ensure safety. Always shut, they become prison walls, locking in the people and shutting out the world. Americans are defined not by their borders but by their ideas – above all, the idea of America itself.
The idea of America has often been a utopian fantasy. But utopian fantasies have remade continents. We should not underestimate their power. White Protestant America has defined America to its elites since its birth, and that America has always hovered between deceptive half-truth and outright lie. It was a major move forward when America came to include in its self-conception Catholics and Jews. That was barely 70 years ago. It took even longer for the laws themselves to recognize the equality of African-Americans. Those victories are monumental yet fragile, as durable as the culture and ideas that produced them. My great-grandfather received citizenship papers in 1924; his people, the Chippewa (or Ojibwe) have lived here for millennia. His son would marry an Okinawan woman, whose older brother was conscripted by the Japanese empire in WWII, never to return. She hid in caves as a small girl while the US bombed the Okinawan islands. Caught between two empires, she still loves her people. She is an American – one who would have been put into an internment camp if she had been in America instead of hiding from its bombs. Like so many Americans, her citizenship was a choice – of love, marriage, and an idea of what life could be in the land of liberty. America is a choice – a choice to remember and imagine a history that includes all of us in its future.
America has never been simply itself. It is always catching up to its best ideas and running away from its history. The image of America as a white ethno-state is a fantasy, dangerous because it connects to a real part of our history while distorting its truth, potent because it joins a world-wide return to visions of homogenous national unity in the face of ethnic and religious difference. When we are afraid, we close ranks. We like those like us (sociologists call this homophilia – love of the same) because our own image comforts us. So we need an image of ourselves that is more than our bodies and skin color. We need an idea, something that is not defined by its surface.
The battle between the global resurgence of ethnic nationalism and the American idea of a multi-ethnic society is easily mistaken for a direct conflict between ideas. It is not. It is a conflict between one of the greatest powers, untutored human prejudice, which makes all of us natural bigots, and ideas themselves. It is a choice between America as an idea and America as the mirror image of its historic ethnic majority. The ideas used to justify the growing nationalism are ideas in the service of primal psychology, rationalizations of instinct and fear. The idea of America as a multi-ethnic society, defined not by borders but by those who cross them from around the world, is an achievement of centuries of struggle and thought; it is an ideal. It is in terms of our ideals that we can judge the past to be mistaken, to rebuke the present for its failures, and to demand a future that is different and better because it is who we truly are, the self we have not yet achieved.
Large-scale immigration from groups that challenge the ethnic and religious identity of the majority exists in Europe, but does not define it; America has long experience with such immigration – that is why American identity is not ethnic or religious, why a future America in which whites are a minority, though terrifying to some, does not challenge but expresses the American character. True, our history challenges this idea of America, and like any idea it can be contested, but history has always threatened America’s idea of itself.
America’s relationship to Europe, like its relation to ideas, is varied and vexed. To the American imagination Europe represents history, and America might be defined as the flight from history to an idea. The American founding rejects in principle the capacity of sheer blood or land to make a nation. De Tocqueville saw the Northern settlers as remarkable because “they tore themselves away from the sweetness of their native country to obey a purely intellectual need: in exposing themselves to the inevitable miseries of exile, they wanted to make an idea triumph.”
America’s origins lie in religion and reason, in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, both of which centered on evolving ideas of liberty and reason. Eric Nelson has shown in The Hebrew Republic how profoundly the political ideals of the Puritan era derived from the Hebrew Bible, a reminder to our secular selves to be humble before we mock cultures that derive their political ideas from their sacred books: such mockery impugns everyone from Locke and Milton to our own founders.
Although we read history in America, we are often separated from a felt connection to it, history as a living force, a burden and opportunity, but above all something bearing the weight of reality. We can see here the historical paradox of America: America’s very vitality in history is connected with, and may even be caused by, its perpetual re-imagining of itself as free from its past, and often, as a consequence, its present and future, as if America started a new time, one outside of history.
America is the haven of history’s refugees. People come here to flee history and start over. This is part of the idea of America as a new Eden, an outpost of the kingdom of God. This profoundly religious ideal is still with us; it is one reason we are so apocalyptic in our national rhetoric, as if every election were the end of time and the creation of a novus ordo seclorum. We talk this way because it is in our history, a history we forget quickly enough to feel that we are original in our cyclical sense of imminent destruction and rebirth. Tom Paine is as apocalyptic as any Puritan, so this strain of eschatological politics is not unique to the overtly religious stream in American life.
American eschatological extremism, its perpetual sense of imminent implosion, alteration, decline, or rebirth, is not wholly false. Precisely because America is to a great extent an idea, America is always up for debate, and the debates matter. But our apocalyptic vision blinds us to history, to durable realities that are not affected directly or quickly by electoral politics. As a result, debates are misguided, narrowed, and unable to offer resolution or insight.
As we are blind to history, so we are blind to Europe and the wider world. Absent a historical and global perspective, we become the only thing to which we can compare ourselves, and “history” becomes a bizarre series of analogies in which events like the Holocaust or WWII become tropes to organize partisan rhetoric and monstrously unhistorical narratives. Nothing more acutely expresses the cheapness of history for our political culture than the way we ransack the past to prop up our agitated sense of importance. We use history to defeat one of the primary goals of historians – to contextualize the past and see its distinctiveness – by ignoring our own distinctive conditions, the recognition of which is essential to any fruitful historical comparison.
This is understandable, as it is much harder to attend to the structural causes of change, the causes that connect the rise of far-right parties across the world, for example – it is much harder to analyze these calmly and carefully than to vent our rage and fear on a single individual or group. But automation will continue eroding manufacturing jobs regardless of who is in office. The demographic decline of the white majority will persist regardless of our immigration policy. Religion will remain important regardless of how ignorant we choose to remain about it. And the Internet will erode privacy and commodify our personal identities whether we notice or not.
These are only some of the major and distinctive processes that define our era. They, more than any partisan issue, challenge the meaning of our idea of ourselves, our country, and our role in the world.
What we require is thoughtful engagement, the activism of the intellect and not the twitter-feed. Marx was quite wrong, as his own eventual success proved: it is precisely philosophers and their ideas – their thinking – that change the world. Marching may be important, noble, and necessary but the ideas for which we march, their relevance, coherence, and integrity, are what remain after we return home. We march to send stories into the world and to embody ideas that cannot be defaced by time.
The crisis of America is a crisis of identity under threat by time, which is eroding the world many thought was permanent. As our image of ourselves slips away, we grasp at faded pictures of the past and pretend we are future-facing. We lack the language to describe the changes in our way of life, changes endemic to modernity and not unique to America, because our institutions did not evolve to parse what diplomacy in 140 characters might mean or to respond to postmodern identity politics in the mouths of neo-Nazis or Putin apologists.
The unsettling fact is that in the most connected and complex moment in history, we are suffering a crisis of fragmentation, disintegration, and loss of meaning. Precisely when we need history to transcend and contextualize our conflicts we employ it to mobilize the base; when religion remains as important as ever, and becomes one of the defining forces in the contemporary world, a leading newspaper admits it does not understand it, a confession reflecting the wider truth that elite culture has little comprehension of its own historical context.
We have information and processing power on orders of magnitude unimaginable even a generation ago and yet the European project is under threat, America has elected a nationalist, and the far right’s power is growing. Information has exploded, yet education is in crisis. The very conditions that make the university successful – specialized research – threaten to undermine its relevance and credibility. The fragmentation of higher education parallels the balkanization of the global community and the new tribalism the Internet has helped create, with each group closed into its own sphere of interests and information, custom-made to confirm its biases. The common element that binds these fragmenting forces, whether in education or the digital world, is that the forces of universalization and emancipation are being undermined by their own technologies. The greatest technologies of the last two centuries, the research university and the Internet, created the modern knowledge culture and the information revolution. Yet both face major challenges.
The university, ever more sophisticated in its specialization, has raised questions about its relevance and capacity to speak to the broader problems that do no fit neatly into an academic niche. Big questions are left unanswered, and often unasked. Filling the vacuum of meaning are demagogues and hacks, peddling shallow solutions to profound problems. If people can only choose between narrow experts who cannot even explain why their work matters or popular books explaining everything, they choose meaning, and for a good reason: We cannot live well without answers to big questions about humanity, history, and society – it is precisely anxiety about those questions, about our role in the world and the future of our children, that motivate so much of the extremism in politics. The solution to shallow answers to big questions is not to deny the questions but answer them with depth and responsibility, using the disciplines of the university but linking them to each other and the larger questions that unite us all.
Creating access to ideas that are both responsible and relevant is a daunting demand. It means going against the grain of both the current form of the Internet and the university itself to enhance the unique strengths of both.
The Internet has created a platform on which information can be instantly accessed and shared. But the rise of increasingly sophisticated personalization algorithms has revealed a flaw in the idea that the Internet alone can spread knowledge. Personalized searches and targeted advertising undermine peoples’ power to break free from their biases, to escape the echo chambers of their own provincialism. The Internet, offering freedom and knowledge, has created a crisis of privacy and misinformation: fake reporting, marketing masquerading as news media, and the dubious use of personal data by large corporations all threaten the integrity of ideas on the Internet while highlighting the vast difference between information and knowledge.
Indeed, the problem today is that there is too much information. But responding to a crisis of over-information was part of the origins of the research university, as Chad Wellmon has shown in his recent book, Organizing Enlightenment, and distinguishing information from knowledge is a crucial role of scholars. Knowledge is what the research university is designed to create, and since its inception the modern university has revolutionized the world, curating and preserving past insights while forging new frontiers and disseminating knowledge through journals and books. Yet the research university is an elite institution to which few people have access. The insights of scholars are tucked away behind pay-walls or hidden in obscure and expensive books. The university helps take information and create knowledge, but can that knowledge reach a broader public?
America has created the Internet and become the leading inheritor of the research university, and the conditions of both technologies directly affect our capacity to discuss and debate intelligently the fundamental concerns that define our moment. America as a nation has borders; the idea of America, like all ideas, has none. It is strongest when it is in constant conversation with the world, just as scholarship is best when regional and disciplinary biases are corrected by international and interdisciplinary cooperation.
We need a new commons, a site where the very conditions that enable collaboration create public accessibility and social relevance.
At the heart of the new commons lies a renewed vision of humanistic scholarship, a platform that integrates the best insights of academia with lucid discussion of their broader relevance.
Traditional journalism has played a key role in democratizing knowledge but it cannot bridge the gap between scientific insight and public access. Journalists do not have the time or expertise to interpret and explain scholarship.
A digital commons must exist at the margins of both journalism and scholarship if it is to create a new pathway between and beyond their borders. To do this requires integrating the scientific power of the university with the democratizing potential of the Internet. If that seems utopian – building a transnational network of accessible and curated knowledge, bringing the university into the public sphere without sacrificing the power of expertise or tolerating the damaging effects of specialization – that’s because it is.
Like the idea of America, the Republic of Letters has always been utopian. It imagines a borderless world, where knowledge is free and serves the public good. The Internet has been shaped by similarly utopian aspirations, ideas of free information that would overcome human tribalism and ignorance. If these ideas, like America, have not realized their potential, they have changed the world and given us the power to criticize their failures. A digital commons that transcends regional disputes – whether of disciplines or nations – may not resolve any arguments, but it can keep them going in a time when the suppression of debate and ideas represents the greatest threat to global freedom.
Call it pragmatic utopianism, a vision of the good that responds to real problems – ignorance, anti-intellectualism, hyper-specialization, fake news – without renouncing its idealism. As a scholar and editor, I call it home.
Originally published by Marginalia Review of Books under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license as stated here.