Learning from America
'We Are One': Barack Obama delivering his pre-inaugural speech, Lincoln Memorial, 18 January 2009. Image: USAF
Yahya Hendi's office conjures up every romantic stereotype of life in the academy. The furniture, the windows, the doors all give the impression of belonging to an era when quality and style were unified, when everything lasted and aged gracefully, and they made things like they used to. The carpet is thick, durable and definitely expensive. This, surely, is what the inside of an ivory tower should look like: a space that makes the cacophony of the world recede into irrelevance and renders the trappings of modernity crass and disposable.
Almost the only clue that we're not in Europe is the pin that adorns the lapel of Hendi's suit jacket. There, nearly always, you will find the American flag. "I know some people don't like it," he tells me. "But I'm sending a message."
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Hendi is the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Despite the sober surrounds, he fizzes with energy and urgency. Certainly Hendi has his academic commitments - he teaches a class on inter-religious relations - but within him dwells the spirit of an activist. Which is why he's sending messages. And frankly, he has had a lot of them to send in recent years, for if there is anything American Muslims have not lacked since September 11, it has been the scrutiny of an audience.
It is tempting to dismiss Hendi's embrace of Old Glory as an exercise in placating the suspicious majority. Indeed, he would be far from the first Muslim leader to embrace patriotic imagery for these purposes: remember that photo of Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali waving his Australian flag? But Hendi's message is being sent in the opposite direction. He wants to see Muslims improve themselves and take their full place in American society. What's more, he has an unshakeable faith in their capacity to do so without having to surrender their Islamic identity. For Hendi, the difficulties of reconciling American and Muslim identities are over.
"In a few years, there will be a Muslim governor," he says matter-of-factly. For an instant, I assume he's kidding. This is, after all, the land of September 11. The Pentagon is just across the river from us. It's the land of the Patriot Act and Shock and Awe. It's the nation that gave us Guantánamo Bay and Fox News. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been running high for decades. And he's telling me a Muslim will somehow win sufficient votes to run a state. I try to imagine a Muslim state premier in Australia: the mere thought feels resoundingly fictional. Is he completely blind to the structural impediments?
But Hendi can give reasons for his straight-faced optimism. He predicted the recent emergence of two Muslim congressmen, and the Republicans and the Democrats have each approached him to run for mayor in his hometown. This, he says, is not to be considered remarkable, but rather the inevitable result when talent meets community involvement in the United States. He mentions Rashad Hussain, recently appointed by President Barack Obama as one of his senior legal advisors. Unsurprisingly, Hussain is a Yale Law School graduate and former editor of the Yale Law Journal. He also holds two masters degrees from Harvard.
In itself, such success is neither unknown nor remarkable to Muslims in Australia, where it is customary to cite the late ‘Crazy' John Ilhan as an example. But Ilhan's first name was actually Mustafa, which immediately raises the question: is it necessary to hide, or even shed, a minority identity in order to achieve mainstream success here? No such question lingers in the case of Rashad Hussain. Not only is one of Hussain's masters degrees in Arabic and Islamic Studies but, as Hendi informs me, "he's a hafiz" (that is, he has memorised the entire Koran in Arabic). So is his wife. It's difficult to imagine a clearer retention of Islamic identity. And there it is, floating around the White House.
Who among us is unfamiliar with the feverish spectacle of American patriotism: the flags, the tears, the incessant cheering? And yet we often overlook one of its most instructive features: its striking resilience among those who, by any rational assessment, have every reason to feel marginalised and alienated. Instead of Hendi in his Washington sanctuary, I might equally have begun with an African-American activist in the run-down Miami neighbourhood of Overtown, or with a Hispanic activist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each emerges from a community with plenty of legitimate grievances about their American experience, not least regarding racism and discrimination. Each is engaged in struggles that at times seem little more than hopeless. And yet each exudes a sense of self-sufficient optimism and evinces a strong faith in the idea of their nation. That self-congratulatory refrain, "This is America," passes the lips of even the country's most powerless.
This is the genius of American patriotism: it manages to be inclusive. The same cannot easily be said of Australian patriotism, and certainly cannot be said of the European version, which is so often expressed in moral panics about the supposed disloyalty of migrants. What accounts for the difference? At first blush, the answer is as simple as it is patriotically appealing: that the patriotism of minorities simply mirrors the patriotism of the majority. That is, patriotism is a result of social pressure. If we only demand it stridently enough, our minorities will learn to love us. Or, to put it more acerbically, multiculturalism is a death wish. Such has been the diagnosis of a thousand culture warriors in recent years. Europe's flirtation with multiculturalism has killed its sense of self and allowed its recalcitrant minorities to disappear into a fog of cultural relativism and escape any sense of loyalty to the nation. Europe's multiculturalism is even said to have fostered subcultures hostile to it.
It is, as Mark Steyn would have it, "America alone" that can escape this death spiral of national disunity, owing to its cultural certainty and exacting standards of patriotism.
But for all the self-satisfaction such an analysis allows, it offers little in the way of sense. Certainly, America has an exceptionally clear sense of itself. Its government and its people give voice to their sense of national identity with unique regularity and precision. But France, too, has a clear self-identity: few countries are as overtly hostile to multiculturalism or make greater demands on migrants to assimilate. And yet, in 2005, when riots broke out in Paris between youths of North African extraction and local police, it became apparent that all those monocultural demands had produced little in the way of deeply held French patriotism. The rioters had parents, even grandparents, born in France. And they could scarcely have felt less French.
No, there is something different operating in America, something more subtle, complex and ingenious than the brutish social politics of monoculturalism. Something that is not ultimately about multiculturalism or migration, but about a more comprehensive phenomenon: national identity. There is something in the way America thinks and talks about itself that enables widespread national loyalty and astonishing diversity to coexist. Even its rioters rarely shun their American identity; instead, they assert their place in the nation.
To some extent, this difference is historical in origin. The nation states that now span Europe are long-term products of the Peace of Westphalia, seventeenth-century treaties that gave birth to the idea of state sovereignty and helped solidify the borders of constantly warring empires. Without Westphalia, an extended peace would have been impossible: indeed, it brought to an end both the 30 Years and 80 Years wars.
But it also eventually gave birth to a powerful and enduring myth which took shape during the nineteenth century: that each European nation state housed a homogenous population essentially different from those of its neighbours. Those within the newly defined borders were deemed to share a common history, culture, language and religion, not to mention race. Germans were characterised by a certain German-ness that was distinct from the Frenchness or the Britishness to be found in other countries. In this way, the borders of the nation state came to be regarded not as pragmatic political constructions but as very nearly organic, like something God may have created on the Seventh Day.
Of course, this was largely a fiction made true only by force, as many a Scot or Gael could tell you. Several struggles lingered well into the twentieth century: think of Franco's attempts to create by force a unified Spain and impose a single standardised language. (It is no surprise that Spain and Northern Ireland have been the most enduring theatres for separatist violence in Western Europe.)
Similar projects of artificial unification exist in the histories of most European nations. Even the French cannot realistically lay claim to an organic homogeneity. Today's Frenchness, too, was a political creation; a fact implicitly acknowledged in 2001 when Jack Lang, then France's education minister, admitted that the French government had been repressing regional languages since Napoleonic times.
All this had a profound impact on the formation of European national identities, which essentially became ethnic identities. That is, to identify as German was to be Germanic. It was not simply to make a bare statement about the destination of one's taxes, it was also a statement of ethnic identity. Minorities persisted but, by and large, national, linguistic and ethno-religious identities were seen to be fused.
This kind of self-image was clearly useful in the forging of a post-French Revolution Europe, but it faces a mighty challenge in an era of high immigration. Can a North African migrant ever be French, or a Turkish migrant German? Only if the foundations of these national identities can evolve beyond their ethno-religious confines.
Now note the contrast. America, like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, is part of the New World. These countries are creatures of settlement (or conquest) and migration. This creates a fundamentally different dynamic, for it is immediately apparent that there is nothing organic about these nations. The vanquished indigenous aside, everyone is a migrant to some degree, which necessarily fosters a more fluid, open notion of national identity: one that is not so firmly anchored in ethnicity. It is therefore no coincidence that these nations have tended to cope better with migration: it comes more naturally to them.
Yet this does not explain why the United States should be any different to Australia. For that we must examine America's socio-political DNA. So allow me to agree with Mark Steyn on this much: that the world, Australia included, has much to learn from the way American does national identity. And it's a lesson that must begin with the unique flavour of American political culture.
At the centre of the National Mall in Washington, DC, stands the Washington Monument: a striking obelisk, encircled by 50 American flags, that celebrates the Union's first president, George Washington. Obelisks are inherently monumental and, consistent with American sensibilities, this is the world's tallest. Obelisks are also thoroughly symbolic structures. Originating in ancient Egypt, they denoted that civilisation's most powerful deity, the sun god Amon Re. Washington's obelisk aspires to a similarly divine symbolism. A New York Times article from 1879 explains the Monument's design was "intended to embody, as its primary fecundating idea, the perfectibility of self-government and free institutions as a heaven-descended germ of infinite progress." Scarcely a modest allegory.
It was not the first structure intended to honour the nation's father. An earlier attempt resides a few hundred metres from the Monument in the National Museum of American History: a 12-tonne, 10-foot-high marble statue of a seated George Washington, dressed in a Roman toga and bearing a small sword. This is Washington rendered as Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods. The statue ultimately drew the ire of too many congressmen and was removed from Capitol Hill, in 1908, for breaching the bounds of modesty - not through its deification of Washington, but because the toga left Washington half naked.
More fully clothed, but barely less magisterial, is the statue of America's sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, at the Mall's west end. There is a lot of drama in the Lincoln Memorial. The great emancipator looks sternly back towards the Capitol Building from his throne-like seat. His commanding posture complements the surrounding structure, an austere limestone-and-marble building in the manner of a Greek Doric temple, with 36 enormous columns representing the 36 states in Lincoln's Union. The date of each state's admission to the United States is inscribed above in Roman numerals. The Roman motif continues in the nearby Jefferson Memorial, a circular, domed structure based on Rome's Pantheon.
Of course, none of this is accidental. The Greco-Roman religious aesthetic dominates the US capital's political architecture because it expresses the complexion of the American political psyche. Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is a natural symbolic reference point. But these memorials and monuments are not merely reflections on history. They are built like temples because they are intended as places of worship.
Such is the religious nature of American politics. And let me be clear: I do not refer to the role that religion, especially evangelical Christianity, plays in American politics. That role is often overstated and, in any event, is an entirely different matter. American politics must be understood as a religion in its own right, separate and distinct from the various religions that exist in the hearts of American people.
Is it an overstatement to say American politics is a religion? Aside from the temples of American political life, other religious elements can be easily discerned. With temples come rituals, such as presidential inaugurations of unfathomable scale. American politics also has its prophets and, by extension, its scripture. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are the most important figures in this regard. More than past presidents, they are unique representatives of the American political creed and imbued with an immortal quality. Their legacies are unimpeachable and their words sacred.
I am far from the first to make observations of this kind. Perhaps the most famous work on the subject was written by the American sociologist Robert Bellah. In an article published in 1967, he characterised America's "civil religion" thus: George Washington is America's Moses, who led his persecuted people into the Promised Land and defeated the oppressive forces of the dominant empire; Lincoln is the symbolic counterpart of Jesus, who emphasised the importance of conciliation between foes, embodied the virtue of sacrifice for a greater cause, and was killed for his efforts.
Few have preached this civil religion as well as Barack Obama. Here he is speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial two days before his inauguration:
... in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith - a faith that anything is possible in America. Rising before us stands a memorial to a man [Washington] who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire, all for the sake of an idea ...
Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character's content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man [Lincoln] who in so many ways made this day possible.
Indeed, it is only by understanding Lincoln's status as a political prophet that we can make sense of much of Obama's behaviour, with its powerful symbolic overtones. From the announcement of his presidential candidacy, Obama has expressed a vision of America founded on the gospel of Lincoln. His candidacy was launched on the weekend of Lincoln's birthday with a speech on the steps of the old state capitol in Illinois: the same steps on which Lincoln had delivered a key part of America's scripture, his famous 1858 ‘House Divided' speech: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free ..."
It is not Lincoln's legacy of freeing the slaves that Obama most wishes to revivify, though. It is Lincoln's gospel of national unity, which led him constantly to remind Americans engaged in a bloody civil war that they were nevertheless brothers, "a team of rivals". As Obama struggles to forge a new bipartisan political era amid colossal economic and political challenges, Lincoln remains his fundamental reference point. In his victory speech, last November, he declared:
As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours: "We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President, too.
Obama travelled to his inauguration by train from Pennsylvania, in a deliberate recreation of the final leg of the Lincoln's trip to his first inauguration, in 1861. As he commenced the journey, Obama called on Americans to leave behind ideological warfare and racial bigotry and appealed to their "better angels" - an expression borrowed from Lincoln. The train left Pennsylvania on the weekend before the Inauguration, days branded with the theme "A New Birth of Freedom," a phrase taken from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
At his inauguration, Obama chose to be sworn in on the same Bible Lincoln had used for the purpose. The Inaugural lunch that followed comprised Lincoln's favourite dishes, such as herb-roasted pheasant, and the food was served on replicas of the china First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln had selected for the White House. Obama was on a pilgrimage.
Australia's political culture would never allow this. Edmund Barton is no George Washington, and no prime minister elicits anything near the reverence that Lincoln does in the US. Menzies may be the Liberal Party's touchstone, but no Labor prime minister would dream of embracing him as his ideal leader. Lincoln was a Republican, yet that has not detained Obama from invoking him over and over again. Lincoln's prophetic aura allows him to transcend party politics. Australia has no political prophets because no civil religion exists here strong enough to accommodate one.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that America's civil religion consists merely of symbols and reverence of historical figures. It has its God - referred to frequently on banknotes and coins, and in pledges, presidential speeches and the nation's founding scriptures - though, as Bellah observes, it is a God devoid of anything that would identify Him as a specifically Christian deity. Still, this god is important in the American political story. Although not imagined to intervene in affairs directly, He represents a power higher than government. "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God," President Kennedy said. The "certain inalienable rights" contained in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence "are endowed by their Creator". As such, the state has no discretion to remove them without transgressing. This goes some way towards explaining the strength of America's rights-based political culture. Rights are not considered a product of political will but as something more natural and basic, something True. Indeed, for Jefferson, liberty could only be secured through "a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God".
Similarly, America has its creed, but one that corresponds to no particular religious tradition. In fact, it is hardly concerned with personal belief at all. It is instead a civil creed constructed on the central political idea of individual liberty. And given America's history, it could hardly be otherwise. The country was settled by people fleeing religious persecution in Europe; it was thus almost inevitable that freedom, especially of religion, would become the new nation's touchstone. A people who had struggled to attain religious freedom could not easily found a nation on principles that denied that right to others. So, on the basis that "God hath created the mind free," Jefferson held that none would "suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief".
The natural outcome of that - and this is the crux of the issue at hand - was a national myth based not on shared religion, ethnicity or culture, but on the shared enjoyment of liberty. Of course, this liberty was not always shared by all. Even after the abolition of slavery, the nation's black citizens continued to be effectively denied the vote - until as late as the mid 1960s. Nonetheless, it is instructive that during the Civil War even the slave-owning South sought to defend its practices by resort to the language of rights and freedom: the right of states to self-determination and the freedom of people to own slaves.
The concept of liberty can explain just about every American quirk. That America is a unique land of opportunity is a belief that can survive in the face of obvious contradiction - the entrenched disadvantage of many communities, for example - because it stems from the creed that American people are free to pursue their dreams. For this reason, American society is generally less envious of its tall poppies than we are in Australia. Perhaps it is our egalitarian self-image that makes us suspicious of the successful, especially the rich. For America, the successful entrepreneur is a self-affirming symbol of the idea that anything is possible in the land of the free. This is why the election of the first black president is such a potent symbol, not only for black America but for the entire American story. Yes we can. It's not just a cute bumper sticker; it's an invocation of the nation's civil religion.
American patriotism does not celebrate a country that exists or has ever existed. It is a celebration of the idea of America: of possibility, what Barack Obama calls "America's promise". Where we may look upon America as the country of slavery and racial segregation, Americans see a country that overcame these things. Theirs is a sense of self that is forward-looking, oriented towards constant improvement. Recall the New York Times' description of the Washington Monument's symbolism: "a heaven-descended germ of infinite progress". "We shall overcome," asserted President Lyndon Johnson as he nudged America towards racial voting equality. When Obama spoke of "change", he was tapping into an American tradition. The project of freedom is a constant one, an "unending search," in Johnson's phrase. George Washington called America an "experiment". American patriotism is about the hope embodied in that experiment.
This is a concept alien to those whose sense of patriotism has an older, more European flavour. The message of Australia's staunchest patriots is that ours is a great country with a great history and no need for change. It is a message that replicates the European sense of national self, one bound in a fixed history. The history wars were so intense in Australia for the very reason that our sense of national pride is not forward-looking. To suggest that we had committed a large-scale domestic atrocity was, for many, to question our worth as a nation; it was an expression of self-loathing. Though America has its history wars, it is capable of admitting to past atrocities because it can incorporate them in its story of continuous progress.
Indeed, perhaps America has little choice but to maintain a strong civil religiosity. It is a nation of such staggering diversity - far more so than Australia - that without this political narrative, there would be little to unify it. To put it crudely, the Civil War may have ended long ago, but the very real social and cultural differences that drove it have never disappeared; in fact, they may have increased. America truly is a collection of united states, nearly every one of which maintains a distinct, passionate local identity, and many of which have little in common with each other - including their laws. It is best seen not as a single country but as a group of four or five countries gathered under a federal system. The north, the south, the mid-west, the west and the Pacific-west are each noticeably distinct, to say nothing of Hawaii or Alaska. To travel, as I recently did, from Miami to Tulsa is to experience culture shock. About 60% of Miami's inhabitants count Spanish as their first language and you can easily go for hours without hearing English. I had extraordinary difficulty getting my order taken at a Pizza Hut because I was ordering in English. Miami lives up to its occasional nickname of ‘North Latin America'. Tulsa, by contrast, offers confirmation of every small-town-America stereotype. It is where a Wal-Mart employee told me that he thought Australia was Europe's most unique country. Beyond the ever-present flags and cable televisions, it was difficult to tell that the two cities were part of the same country.
This is the secret to America's unique brand of national identity: it coheres principally around not a social culture but a political one. The values America so frequently celebrates are not cultural but civic: individual freedom, freedom of conscience, limited government. Personal and cultural values are rarely articulated in a national way. To do so would be to undermine the individual's freedom to determine his or her own values, free from government interference.
In Australia, by contrast, national identity primarily means cultural identity. Since the London bombings of 2005, if not before, Australia has been engaged in a debate about multiculturalism largely imported from Britain and defined in terms of ‘values' and ‘integration'. The anti-multicultural commentary that filled our newspapers parroted that of pundits such as Melanie Phillips of Britain's Daily Mail. The message was clear: Australian (or British, or French or Danish) values are under threat from migrants who refuse to accept the dominant culture; majority values must be protected by the insistence that they are embraced by minorities.
In Australia, we were urged to remember that ours is a nation built essentially on the Judeo-Christian tradition, that ours is a culture derived essentially from Britain, and that we are an English-speaking nation. For John Howard, integration meant "learning as rapidly as you can the English language". Learning English is a good idea, of course, if only for pragmatic reasons. It is something altogether different, however, for the prime minister to make it a hallmark of Australian-ness. Miami, according to this logic, is not a symbol of glamour and success, but an abomination of national fracture.
Such a discourse exists in America, but the point is that it is much more difficult to sustain. Probably America's most intense values debate in recent years has surrounded the question of whether or not it is a nation that employs torture. That is to say, it concerns weighty political principles to which the government is held accountable, rather than particular cultural values which are used to interrogate its citizens. To some degree, the debate about multiculturalism runs out of steam in America because a diversity of cultures, religions, languages and values is already embedded in its civil creed. That does not imply a pro-multiculturalist orthodoxy. It is beyond that: a place where multiculturalism as a doctrine comes close to being redundant.
America has not been without culture wars. It has always had those who insist it is an exclusively Christian country, and it is home to many people with visceral anti-immigrant views. Even as a black man sits in the White House, it remains a country with some profoundly racist pockets. Neither America's civil religion nor its political culture promises the extinguishment of bigotry. In fact, the emphasis on freedom of speech and conscience may mean the country is destined always to have such attitudes in its midst. The US inevitably plays host to a staggering breadth of value systems - from the most cosmopolitan to the most irascible and prejudiced. It is a nation of opposites.
Yet this is precisely what makes the resilience of America's national identity so extraordinary: even diametrically opposed social groupings can share a patriotic sentiment and find ways of buying into the American Dream. The key lesson of America comes not from any absence of social prejudice, but from the fact that the existence of such prejudice is incapable of eroding the sense of belonging felt by so many of those who bear its brunt.
The demands America makes of its minorities are less trenchant than those preferred by anti-multiculturalists. Its demands are civic demands. If Australia has lately had a message for its migrants, it has been, "Fit in". America's message is, "Participate". The two are worlds apart. The latter expresses a national identity that is dynamic and open, and that offers citizens a belief in their own freedom of conscience and the opportunity to contribute something new. The former expresses a national identity that is comparatively fixed, that makes its demands without inviting input and that, as a consequence, inspires little fidelity.
It is folly to suggest Australia should aspire to become another America. We can do without their levels of inequality and violence. We do not need to turn our politics into a religion. Nor do we need to believe that our nation exists to do God's work, or that it alone incarnates the ideal of human freedom. Such attitudes nurture a potentially destructive hubris. But it is not necessary to imitate America in every aspect in order to benefit from its lessons on national identity; to learn that for a national identity to find a place in the hearts of a diverse population - and remain coherent in an era of rapid migration and globalisation - it is best constructed on civic ideals and an ethos of participation. The point is that there is nothing necessary about the narrow way we presently conceive of our national identity. We do not have the burden of history to overcome that Europe does. To the extent that we seek inspiration from the European model, we do so as a choice. Given Europe's current crises of identity in the face of diversity, it is a strange choice we make.