One of the interesting events on my trip to Greece took place sitting in a coffee shop. This activity seems to be the national sport of the Greeks. These coffee shops are not at all like American ones; not just because they are mostly outdoor seating which is an accident of climate, but because while you go to a place like Starbucks to grab coffee on the way to work, or go to places like the local coffee shop my wife and I like to go to wherein most inhabitants come to buy tasty coffee and write papers and do schoolwork; Greek coffee shops are about talking. Everyone is sitting around talking.
So, my wife and I discussed national character with two of her Greek friends. Among the subtopics of this wide ranging several hour conversation was: Whether the accretions of culture you are exposed to from the country you are born in is accidental to your personality or essential, What is the key element that makes a nation unique, and of course, Whether America is really exceptional with some sort of claim on being the greatest country in the world. While all the opposing arguments I encountered were not new to me, what was new was discussing them with someone who actually believed them.
Since there were Greeks and an American and a half 🙂 at the table, for the purpose of argument we decided to try and discuss what makes Greeks, Greek, and Americans, American and see if that could help show us what parts of these things were essential to one’s person or accidental. Interestingly enough, this is a very difficult issue, and the core of the issue comes down to, can you say anything different about what makes one person Greek and what makes another Turkish. The first answer to what makes Greeks Greek was the answer that has always been given from tribal societies to the Third Reich: Greeks are Greek (and therefore unique and special) because they were born to Greeks, they are ethnically, genetically Greek. This of course fails, because Turks, French, Italians, Spaniards, Arabs, nearly every nation and tribe in the world will give the same answer varied for their own ethnicity. There is actually nothing particularly special about being Greek, except for the fact that there are fewer of them than the Han Chinese and so it is a more ‘exclusive club’. So we moved on to culture, to religion, to language, all but religion being accidental to a person.
On the other side though, and the ultimate proof of at least the uniqueness of America is what I think makes Americans, American. America is a series of ideas, and anyone who believes some to most of them is American. Being American cannot be founded on race, we have a pretty fair sampling of them all. For instance, I am (probably) descended from Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, Scots or Welsh, etc. My children, should the Good Lord give me any, will be half Greek. Being American also is largely independent of culture, we have bits and pieces of culture from everyone who has come here. However being American does mean something. There is something different between Americans and Frenchmen and Turks and Arabs and Chinese. And that can be found in ideas.
This is what makes America a unique country, it is a country not founded upon race, not divided upon culture, and only mostly connected by language. Honestly, if 200 years from now, all Americans spoke Chinese or Spanish, but believed in, and fought with votes (and guns if need be) for the same ideas, they would be just as American as I am, and even just as American as George Washington was.
It takes some gall to feel entitled to list the ideas that make the soul of America. Yet, fortunately I only draw on the thoughts expressed by others from our founding, and so I plough on. First, America was founded by Christian people fleeing the persecution of state churches who claimed (and believed) that their people were the new chosen people of God. And so the American government was based on the assumption that every individual is in a personal relationship with God. Hence, there are many rights that the individual has that neither government, other people, or anything else can take away. These are the unalienable rights of the Declaration. I would say that this is the central idea of America. The others include ideas like the idea that people should control their government, that if people do not like what their government does, they have the right to replace it, and that people have every right to pursue their own interests and happiness as long as it does not come at the expense of other people. These ideas engender the desire to feel and be free, to indulge in liberty and to chase one’s dream.
So, I argued that being Greek is not necessarily part of a person’s essence because it (as defined by the Greek Friends) consists of a large collection of accidents, like language, genetics, and cultural upbringing. However, being American can be part of a person’s essence because it is at its core a set of ideas and a worldview, which, though it can change, is part of a person’s essence.
For a fantastic discussion of culture and this topic (and how these ideas confront modernity) read the ill titled, yet excellent How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)by one of my favorite commentators David P. Goldman (pen name Spengler).
Other things I will likely write about that came from this conversation are: Who has a better claim on being descended from ancient Athenian democracy, the ridiculous notion that America is too young to talk about these ideas and probably other things as I think of them. Also, I promise there will be a sonnet before tomorrow night; I refuse to lose to Thalia!