The Moral Meaning of America
The Moral Meaning of America: An Immigrant’s Perspective
Jason D. Hill
We live in an era of deep resentment, envy, and hatred of our great and noble nation. It has become fashionable within certain circles in the United States of America to malign our republic as an imperialist, racist, and white supremacist country that exploits its racial minorities and keeps them outside the pantheon of the human community and the domain of the ethical.
We live in the age of militant Americaphobia!
We live in an era when the most benevolent and moral country on earth, along with her exceptional people with their amazing optimism, cheerfulness, and can-do forthrightness, are resented as crass, shoddy, xenophobic, and in inevitable decline. Americans as a group of people are good people. But, hatred of the good for being the good, hatred for the best and noblest of virtues that reside within you, has become a fashionable emotion among certain elitist groups who resent America and her people for such virtues. They resent America for the values forged in the crucibles of an unprecedented nation-state that has been a haven and a blessing for the talented, the strong, and the exceptional, but also for the poor, the benighted, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed. We, the continuously aspiring human beings, whether we are Americans, or Americans-in-the-making, hear and respond to the quintessential elegiac American voice. It is an enticing one, at once soothing and inspiring, and it says: I am an open canvas. Write and enact your script on me. Without you and your story and your narrative, the story of America is incomplete. This is America, where you can suffuse the nation’s vast landscape with who you are and partake in a dialogue of national becoming.
By constitutional design, America is a place of universal belonging. It is the prototype of what a benevolent universe looks like because it is the first country, and, a fortiori, a phenomenal social experiment that explicitly rejects lineage and blood as criteria for membership and belonging. It celebrates civic nationalism in place of ethnic or cultural nationalism as the political principle that would forge a common identity among strangers and foreigners from disparate parts of the globe.
What is the fundamental nature of this country and its profound moral meaning? How has my life as a black immigrant been shaped (or not) by the racial politics of the nation I have called home for the past thirty-two years?
As a black man living in America and studying her past very carefully, I came to see that the very concept of race itself was a deep betrayal of the identity of the fundamental moral nature of the United States of America. I know this is a controversial position to hold. But, in the ensuing pages, I shall explain it as carefully as I can, explain what I believe is the true magnificent moral meaning of America, and explain why racial injustice is and has always been a betrayal of it. It is for this reason that I believe with all my heart that we have and will continue to make racial progress in this country, and that, one day, this noble and magnificent country will be a truly great cosmopolitan and color-blind society.
Race has always been endemic to American life from its inception. But, race, I think, was always metaphysically irrelevant to the true spirit of America. Race, like slavery, was a betrayal of the essential moral meaning of America. What I came to realize was that when people came 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 tradition and custom and the 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 has not only provided the cosmopolitan with an existential referent, a home, but America has also 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 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. People are not explicitly encouraged to relinquish their tribal identities; however, they are made aware of the fact that in the public sphere, those identities carry equal weight with any other as far as the face of their public personalities are concerned, as well as their status before the law. Individuals, as such, hold their tribal identities symbolically in the United States. Their moral reasoning may be influenced by their tribal identification, loosely speaking. This prerogative is protected under their freedom to cast their moral lives in tribal affiliation and the attendant conception of the good it may yield. But, whatever the results from this form of moral reasoning, it ought not to yield consequences that contravene the rights of others. Our conception of the good, and even our choices, is constrained by a higher commitment to subordinate the impulse to impose our conception of the good on others. This higher commitment is what informs cosmopolitan justice in the United States. It is a publicly shared ethos created in an overlapping consensus among divergent conceptions of the good.
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.
The revolutionary achievement of America was that it reversed an erroneous idea that had influenced human thinking: the idea that the individual as a human being preceded the state. But the individual, if he is not to live as some type of disembodied abstraction, must have a state in which he can exercise his agency and, concomitantly, that state cannot be a tribal state but an open society in which belonging and citizenship are fixed by nontribal markers and determined, instead, by universal and fundamental values to which all, by virtue of being human, can pledge allegiance.
The birth of a particular political state replete with certain values and fundamental principles are what make it even possible to hold an organic and expressive American identity. The American needs the American state suffused with values of liberty in order to give his declaration any traction in the real world. Since human beings are relational creatures who build their identities in tandem with one another, the cosmopolitan state, though it may have tribal enclaves within it, such as neighborhoods and places of worship and personal association, remains fundamentally cosmopolitan since the loyalties to the communities do not take precedence over loyalty to the universal republic that gives it its moral and political coherence and civic identity.
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, she 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 where she came from are within her powers. The loss of an old identity and the attendant new one she crafts for herself is the gift that the new country confers. The role-identity to which she was born is laid to rest. She stands side by side as a doctor with a white doctor at a local hospital somewhere in Nebraska, or Boston, or New York City. 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. They are the ingredients that allow one the freedom and the privilege to metaphysically earn one’s personal and moral identity. Through the forging of this identity, we make our existence each and every moment that we live in America. Unlike life in tribal societies or in the old Europe, America offers no script for the enactment of a prefabricated, socially constructed identity. In the United States, each individual has to earn his life not only economically but also metaphysically in the sense that nothing is given except the protection of the right to one’s own life and freedom—right or wrong—to create a life in one’s own image and for one’s own good. In the radical freedom that is America, each human being contains a multiplicity of destinies and is, in a socially nonrestrictive way, a compound of several other human beings she or he may meet in the streets, in the boardroom, in the hospital, at art galleries, in classrooms of grade schools or universities, at airports, or in courtrooms.
Because human rational nature had not been properly articulated and embedded within a corresponding political milieu before the advent of the United States, man had always lived as a phase, so to speak, a contingent phenomenon whose almost cyclical life would repeat itself like an animal’s in the absence of philosophy of and for his nature. In the Old World, he had lived by a predetermined script, one that predated his birth and that was overdetermined in that its meaning was crafted by the voices and agency of those who shaped identity and meaning long before his own personal life, choices, and actions could insert personal meaning into the world. It is by the insertion of your life into the world that the veil of obscurity is lifted from your life. And, it is by such means that you can construct and understand your personal meaning.
What it means to be a person will involve rationally mapping out ideal possibilities that are realizable along a continuum of achievement. The living, concrete, and thriving being of America is itself both a theory of the individual who seeks to know its subjects, and a theory that shapes its subjects. It affects its subjects. America not only properly describes the true nature of the individual as an individual—it fashions it. By means of a rational political culture, America has brought you, the individual, home to yourself.
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, and, in so doing, to keep alive the pulsating energy that vitalizes a nation twenty-four hours per day, 365 days per year. Americans’ symbolic attachment to their genetic origins is just that: purely symbolic, one that gives them some sense of differentiation in the compound noun that is “American.” Their identity as Americans, however, supersedes any alleged allegiance they have to the country of their ethnic or national origins. Because they and/or their ancestors chose America, the meaning of the country has transcended whatever semblance of meaning that could be found in an accident. In this respect, every American born in this country, or naturalized, chooses to be an American. They do so through affirming the moral meanings of America, chief among them being the first principles on which the country was founded and the political values that proceeded from those principles, which rationally unites around the values of individualism and the inalienability of axiomatic rights that all are born with.
Ties to the ancestral past are, at most, a nostalgic indulgence, with little traction in existential terms. Very few multigenerational Americans return to their ancestral or ethnic homelands. Although several pay unconscionable lip service to being Greek-Americans or Italian-Americans without having ever visited the country of their ethnic origins and are incapable of speaking the language of the country from which their ancestors came, their socialization spheres are in America and are thoroughly American with few exceptions. The foreigner-turned-American does not give the same weight to origins. He may be haunted by his origins; however, it is elsewhere that he sets his hopes, and that is where his struggles take place. The paradox here is that individuals are not subordinated to society or to other human beings; rather, America strives for a balance between codified public sentiments and convention and unassailable individualism. In disputes between how a person should choose regarding prevailing public sentiments and his or her own individual orientation, the ethos of Americanism is that it allows you to choose your conscience. In this respect, we come to understand why America has never had a mob or members of society who could be termed plebeians. While not all persons are geniuses, each harbors the seeds of his or her own exceptionality by belonging to a general society in which you do not have to yield to the yoke of convention. Originality in action and thought are what have made America and its people exceptional in fundamental terms—from its dominance in politics, entrepreneurship, science and the arts, to its ability to inspire millions around the world to want to become Americans. This does not mean that everyone chooses to be exceptional..
It does mean, however, that a culture that nurtures exceptionalism and does not routinely enshrine mediocrity is one that will inspire people to reach for the best within themselves and share it—to infuse the world with their originality. Heroism and the possibility of ongoing originality are always on the horizon. Mediocrity, like evil, is impotent because it can destroy, but it cannot create anything of value. America has always been a problem-solving country. That is part of her moral meaning. America has been such a country in various ways. That is, one coarsened at times by mediocrity and convention, but one fundamentally possessed of exalted heroism and spiritual greatness. In the era of the American Civil Rights Movement, for example, as it was during the Civil War, the moral meaning of the United States was brought into sharp focus by two rival conceptions of humanity, two models for social living, and two differing testimonies to the application of political principles to the problem of human survival. In both cases, we witnessed social upheaval out of which arose the application of political solutions to solve moral conflicts. The result of protracted struggles framed and couched in a particular moral vernacular lead to a moral, not a political, revolution.
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 two hundred and forty-two 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. They achieve restitution of their moral agency and the acquisition of a political personality. They enter a republic with an exit clause that does not penalize them for exiting its borders, and the restitution of their moral agency means that they can partake in a plethora of experiments in living and create or discover for themselves an endless assortment of conceptions of the good life.
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 peoples 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 why 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 why 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, and that’s the reason why the Dalit from India who has no empowering narrative in his own country can come to find an empowering one, one that he coauthors. Matilda, the despised African maid in her hometown, and the dirty Untouchable in India, come to America and are given a clean slate. They are made to feel clean and worthy of being someone.
America was the first country in the world to make an Untouchable possible—to reverse the accident of his birth from a tragic state of affairs and transform it into a thriving new beginning. Why? Because the new republic was a different kind of political configuration in which the traditions and baggage of customs of the old tribal ways stifled the creative possibilities of modes of becoming, and the emergent selves that lay buried under mounds of dead-weighted and lifeless non-initiating anti-life forces were not allowed to exist in the new country. America was and remains an inspiring command to the Untouchables and Matildas of the Third World to forget, in a sense, where they came from; that is, to refrain from treating their inherited social identities with the invariability of a law of nature. Those social identities were contingencies that had to be modified if one were to have the freedom and confidence to forge one’s way in America and to see everyone else as one’s equal.
Americans don’t care where you come from and who you were, in fundamental terms. They do care who you are becoming and the future horizon over which you will spread your ever-evolving identity. They do observe the ways in which you shape your destiny in accordance with the nation’s receptive individualistic ethos. This is the principal feature of American individualism.
She works for all her people on the most general level because of this all-pervasive commitment to individualism and to the individual as an individual.
But, she also works because America is an assimilationist country. A country that encourages assimilation is not one that is fundamentally predicated on a logic of contagion and contamination. It is not one that seeks to inoculate itself from the sensibilities of foreigners and their alleged strange ways. It is one that believes also in reciprocal assimilation; one that believes that it has much to learn from the stories, mores, and values of its new immigrants. Yes, there have been embarrassing exceptions in America’s history where the Irish and the Chinese and the Mexicans and Italians and others were thought to be contaminants of a pure nation. And, America’s historical treatment of blacks has been a national tragedy and colossal disgrace during various periods in the nation’s moral development. But always a nation living and breathing as a work in progress, the United States has increasingly moved beyond these prejudicial tropes into a more universal and cosmopolitan moment where the despondent and dispossessed and hopeless can find hope. 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.”
No country that in fundamental terms believes in the inherent evil, corruptibility, and contagion of the foreigner would issue such an open invitation to peoples of the world. The spirit of the invitation was broken by the lowest within the worst of those who called themselves Americans. But, the essence of that invitation came in a clarion call for peoples of all types to be reborn into a new type of man or woman: the new American.
A country that projects this attitude towards its immigrants is benevolent, indeed, because, at heart, it believes not only in the inherent adaptability of all peoples, but that such a quality is simply sufficient to unite all men and women into a fraternal commonwealth of unified members, each united not by blood and lineage, but allegiance to the political values and customs that give coherence and cohesiveness to the nation.
And, this is what immigrants for the most part who come here willingly offer. With an ethos of preexisting love and respect for their adopted country, they know that to assimilate is to hand over some part of their continued socialization to their new nation and compatriots. 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.
We as Americans do not constitute a tribe. Our principles are universal ones—always have been and always will be. They seek to attract people who will contribute to the dynamism of a resplendent future, and those same people seek to enhance the God-instilled dignity and moral worth that each person possesses by virtue of being a human being. In the genuflection, we honor those who aspire to personal transformation achieved through conjoining their labor with reason, hard work, and self-reliance; we honor the venturesome and disciplined individual whose formidable will, working in tandem with those of others in the name of mutual respect for the rights and liberties of each other, can emancipate all of us from an oppressive history we might have been born into. This is because ordinary Americans have never fetishized history, nor preached historical determinism. You arrive on her shores and make of your life what you dream and imagine it can and ought to be. I believe that if you fail in that enterprise, the responsibility must lie with you. You must pick yourself up, look America in the face, acknowledge her, and move into her essence. That core is not an enclosing binding fortress, but a boundless frontier. You must walk into the frontier, quietly and calmly with your palms open, facing the universe as you did innocently at sixteen, but with the dedication of a loyal soldier, the perseverance of a martyr, and the heroic commitment of a saint to your cause. You hold the inviolability of your spirit, and the exceptionalism of your country, as a unified sacred catechism to which you pay homage as you take your life step by step and day by day.
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!
Jason D. Hill is Honors is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of several books, including Becoming a Cosmopolitan, and Civil Disobedience and the Politics of Identity: When We Should not Get Along. His forthcoming book, We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People, will be published in July by Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press and is available on Amazon for pre-sale now.