Out Now Everywhere: My Book ‘Wires That Bind’

Wires That Bind - Image

I am very happy to announce that my book Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920 is now available worldwide, including at retailers in the US, UK, and Australia.

Find it at Transcript Verlag, Columbia University Press, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and many other places.

Decide: The French Election and the Untenable Position of Abstention

Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.

Slavoj Žižek bemoans in The Independent that the upcoming French run-off election means no choice at all because between Le Pen and Macron, the French people face a choice between right wing nationalism now and its return to the political forefront five years from now.

He recommends abstaining.

No.

Predictions Are Not Certainties

Didier Eribon has a similar argument. They both forget that voting in Le Pen now means Le Pen now. It means an anti-European nationalist French president from a party still suffused by unrepentant fascists wants to have a vote about exciting the EU before the effects of Brexit have truly begun or even been begun to be understood. Eribon and Žižek make no distinction between Le Pen’s openly race-baiting statements that would, even without any legislative changes, directly and direly affect people of color, and Macron’s uncomfortable capitalist centrism.

We have seen the emboldenment of the far right after the British Brexit vote and after America’s election of Donald Trump. When feelings of hatred against the other become normalized by a country’s leaders, there are always consequences. If you try to stay pure above the fray, you’re unlikely to be thanked by the people on whose side you’re ostensibly on, but for whom you won’t incur the inconvenience of a vote for the less reprehensible candidate.

Slavoj Žižek in 2015. Image by Amrei-Marie
Slavoj Žižek in 2015. Image by Amrei-Marie / Wikimedia Commons.
The argument Žižek and Eribon make is that voting for Macron now would mean only prolonging the status quo, and would then most likely mean a president Le Pen in five years. That may be, especially if people really do sigh in relief and stand back from politics after Macron’s election, as Žižek contends will happen. It may be, that’s the point. It also may not. It’s speculation about a future that might happen, adduced as an argument in the here and now.

A Thought Experiment

Here’s a thought experiment: If people really think there’s no choice between Le Pen and Macron, why not be honest about it and flip a coin for the vote? Is anyone seriously considering that? Say you are a left-of-center French voter. Say you flip a coin and it comes out Le Pen. Would you vote for her, as after all it makes no difference because there is no choice? If you wouldn’t, you have your answer what to do.

Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.
Dark Prospects. Storm Clouds over the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Benny Jackson.
If history teaches us anything, it is that contingencies and circumstances matter. Often, outcomes that define the lives of millions for decades or even centuries rested on flukes of weather, communication, or personality. The European idea and its corollary of continental peace are facing opposition now, and whatever you think five years may bring, they may be decisive years. Years in which cooperation between European nations will either falter or be resuscitated. Years in which a hard Brexit could serve as a warning to those who elsewhere would risk the fate of their countries, and of all others in the EU, by attempting to go it alone.

It is beyond hubris to pontificate inaction on the basis of predictions you base in naive forecasting of the past and present. It is also a position drenched in unrecognized privilege. As Eleanor Penny astutely observes in Huck:

Once again, Žižek happily coronates himself as latest champion in an illustrious line of white male accelerationists who glibly gamble on the lives of people of colour for the possibility of their pure revolution, while they kick back in comfort and wait for utopia.

Voters should not abdicate their responsibility as citizens because they do not want to lower themselves to the down-and-dirty depths of realpolitik. Voting blank or not voting means letting others decide. Voting blank is obviously a popular position among the left who have long railed against the neoliberal capitalism that Macron makes a pretty good poster boy for. They understandably do not want to support it. In their view, a blank vote means a vote of protest against both untenable candidates. It is not. It is a vote to absolve oneself while letting someone else make hard decisions about the future of the country.

Decide

If you wash your hands of the election, you may find it easy to pretend you are blame free if something does not go your way later. But that is the petulant child’s way out. There’s a naive idealism about the stance. The belief that you can have all, or most of the things you want from politics with a vote, when in reality it’s almost always a choice of the lesser of two evils.

Thankfully, there are some influential voices on the European left who understand the stakes. Yannis Varoufakis makes the case for the left to vote for Macron with the same passion and conviction with which they should then oppose his policies once he is in office.

If you are a French voter, you should heed his call. Otherwise, be honest and flip a coin.

Video: My Talk at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies

Zukunftserwartungen im Rückblick

Back in November of 2016, I held a talk at my former academic home, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. I’ve only recently come across it in easily shareable form, as a video on Vimeo.

The talk was part of the institute’s annual “Institutstag” which showcases the research produced there. The video is in German. If you understand that language, you can watch it here:

Art Is Worth Fighting For

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640 ), The Fall of Phaeton, c. 1604/1605, probably reworked c. 1606/1608, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art.

Science, we march for. The humanities, however, have not fared well lately. That is, the way we talk about the humanities has not been much in the way of appreciative. Call it utilitarian, or neoliberal, or just the way the world works these days. We do not value sitting down to philosophize. We do not value art for art’s sake, finding it somehow frilly and extra, not central and worthy of celebration. We therefore do not value the people who study art, who look at it in detail, and try to explain what it means and what it can do.

I’ll back up a stretch. This is not a typical post. It is not about historic events and how they relate to today’s world. It’s not about events in the present that have ties in events in the past. Well, it is in the sense that everything is, because everything does in fact have a history. This post does not wear that association on its sleeves, though. Here are, instead, a few thoughts about art.

Edward Hopper, Haskell's House, American, 1882 - 1967, 1924, watercolor over graphite on paperboard, Gift of Herbert A. Goldstone. National Gallery of Art.
Edward Hopper, Haskell’s House, 1924. National Gallery of Art.

There appears to be a notion floating about the thoughtsphere in Western societies that art is somehow something we can do without. That art is somehow not valuabe and not hard work. Let’s leave aside for the minute that out fetishization of “hard work” for its own sake is a decidedly fraught concept. There is necessary work and there is hard work, and they are not automatically commensurate. There is no logical reason why necessary work must always be hard. Dedication matters. Getting it right matters, whatever your definition of right is. But if that comes easily it is not less valuable. The fetishization of hard work also perpetuates a nobility of plight: it’s character-building to struggle to make ends meet. This is valued. Why it is valued at the same time that so many of those who have the most never have to do it is not explained.

But I digress. Art. Art matters.

Recently, I have been moving my life into and out of boxes. There are many tedious tasks to be performed when you are on either side of a move. Sometimes you just sit and sort things. When I have to do this I often sit in front of a playing radio or television. I have used these times to watch a few documentaries lately. If your interest – or even degree – is in American Studies and cultural history as is mine, many of these documentaries turn out to be documentaries about art, and about the people who make, like, and appropriate art.

There are documentaries about those who make food and drink and put craft and thought and love into it. It gives them meaning and it gives us things that enrich life. There are movies about the devotees of this movie or that series, of comic books and video games. All this is culture. All this is art. All of these things are the things that make life worthwhile for a huge number of people. On some level, art and culture are at the basis of everything humans do. The mistake, all too often, is again to separate the necessary from the hard, though the knife cuts differently here: we have trouble telling what is necessary for survival and what is not. Survival even just a nudge above the basic needs pyramid is bound to mental health, and mental health needs relationships and things to live for. It needs art to inspire. It always, anywhere, needs art.

At the Water's Edge – Piegan. Edward Curtis. Library of Congress.
Edward Curtis, At the Water’s Edge – Piegan. Library of Congress.

Art is human. Nothing is more human than art.

A quotation about this has been making the rounds, attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Asked to cut arts funding to aid the war effort in World War II, the meme goes, Churchill supposedly responded: “Then, what are we fighting for?” This, as most any quotation that appears to good to be true, is not true.

There is, however, a passage Churchill actually wrote which may have given rise to the myth. It was both more stilted and less quotable, but the sentiment remains: ”Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” (And yes, ill fares the mid-twentieth-century writing that casually employs the word “race” in a non-critical manner). Churchill wrote this in 1938, so he wasn’t yet fighting any wars. His words should matter at any time. Ill we fare, all of us, indeed, if art is derided and made fun of. This is not the controversial bit.

Art Supplies.
Art Supplies. Image by Khara Woods.

What is controversial is that societies should make room for art that many people don’t care for or don’t understand. What is controversial is that governments should collect and distribute money in the service of the arts. It’s fine to argue whether you like this artist or that painting, the installation over there, that photo or that movie. That’s a level of discourse we should be engaging in. What we shouldn’t question is the existence of art for art’s sake as useless. In fact, the whole phrase may be a misnomer. If there is no art for art’s sake, there is no one who can build on it with other art. There is no one who can question its motives and its quality, and its execution.

Those who attack one of the most human, most fundamental efforts as something that does not improve the bottom line are sadly ascendant, and they are very unfortunately not able to see the whole of the picture: that if you think of a society worth living in and worth fighting for, you always, always think of a society in which a culture is venerated and upheld. There is no culture without art.

Those, then, who study the products of these cultures, the accidental and purposeful works of art they create, have something incredibly valuable to contribute to that society. They keep alive the old and they support the new in art. They tell us who we were and who we might be and may become. They, in a fundamental sense, are us.

And we are something worth fighting for.

The Center Must Hold for a Peaceful Europe

Europe's Ties. Photo by Andras Barta.

It is not an exaggeration to say that with the upcoming French presidential election, the future of Europe hangs in the balance. To wit, Europe, not simply, not “just” the European Union, hated neoliberal juggernaut to some and hated overreaching government without legitimacy or legitimation to others. It is not an exaggeration to say that peace hangs in the balance.

Marine Le Pen and the Le Penites the world over seek to return us to protectionism, high nationalism, and generally a much rougher world scene under the banner of base appeals to pride and pages from the playbook of populism. This is not uncharted territory. This is the playing field of nineteenth and twentieth century European history until the founding of what was to become the European Union. I am not being coy. I am not being dramatic. The simple truth is that Europe, the continent to bring forth two world wars, the only world wars, within the space of a generation, has for the most part known unprecedented and luxurious peace for over seven decades.

The difference is the EU. It’s a maddeningly stubborn thing, a creature sui generis without precedent and without comparison. It is of itself and it’s far from perfect, but perfect is not a real world expectation. Not for a construct that affects more than 500 million people. But it is the thing that today and tomorrow guarantees peace amongst the many small nations and small interests of a famously war-torn mass of land.

France in Europe.
France in Europe. Image by Pixabay/FotoshopTofs, CC0.

The French left and center-right have done their damnedest to make this election easy for Le Pen, the candidate of tempered fascist rhetoric. Though there is trouble brewing, again, for the right-wing candidate, her chances are real, and the potential consequences of a Le Pen presidency are most dire. So this is not the time for fights among those in the center and on the left. The simple call to arms is this: the center must hold. The center must hold. If it does not, the star-crossed galaxies of perceived national interest and us-against-themism will  spiral ever farther apart.

What starts as a Brexit-like protest against regulation and against big money and against the ever-scary other that one thinks has taken up too much room in our midst knows only one trajectory: toward the tiny, the petty, the spiteful. That way, and may I be forgiven the broad strokes necessary here, history has demonstrated, lies conflict, lies chaos and suffering, death. What peace, you may say, are we defending? A peace in which so many still do not have a voice, and in which unfairness persists on all too many levels? This is a pertinent question, but a question that can only be asked at a time of relative comfort. With peace, we may not have everything. Without peace, we have so much less.

The French election, and its upcoming counterpart in Germany, will decide the fate of the European Union. They will mean the difference between continued peace and resurgent war. Not today, perhaps, not in the next year, or two, or even longer. Eventually, however, if the EU withers, so withers an understanding of what is possible and impossible between the nations that comprise it, and that can be only for ill. Eventually, these nations well may return to the ultranationalist templates, to patterns of force and friction that for thousands of years reigned supreme. If that is the case, we will record these seventy-odd years as a fluke, a naively happy reprieve from the inevitable darkness. As a historian and as a citizen, this is not a story I am eager to one day write.

In terms of real choices, it’s true, the alternative candidates may not be to your liking, in this election or really any election. But for the sake of hundreds of millions, there are enemy’s enemies to be befriended, temporarily, to not run the ship aground. If your job is to swallow a frog, Mark Twain once philosophized, it’s best to eat it early in the morning. Morning is nearing. As voters and as citizens, wherever we stand, we all have a job to do: to hold the center. The center must hold.

Year Two: ‘Thus, History!’ Had a Birthday

Candles spelling out Happy Birthday

Here’s a meta-post not about history, but about the blog which I use to share some of my thoughts on it. Thus, History!, the place where you are reading these very lines, quietly turned one year old on March 1, 2017. There was no birthday cake.

The blog grew out of a need to share thoughts and comments on historical and current events – and the connections between them – without the delays or restraints that editors or deadlines impose. Academics, like other writers, have a love-hate relationship with deadlines. Science-fiction icon Douglas Adams had this to say about them:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Adams is most certainly not alone in having conflicted feelings about deadlines. Personal blogs have no deadlines. This was the appeal of having one. They respond to only what the author wants, when the author wants it. Initially, I had set myself the task to put together longer-form posts here. One per month, typically toward the middle. A self-imposed deadline. It didn’t last long. The blog did not want to be planned. I am proud of some of these early posts. But they were not all this blog could, or wanted to be.

By the middle of the year, the blog became more and more what it is likely going to continue to be: a place where I can put thoughts that grow out of my research but that often relate to current events. Quite a lot has happened this past year to which I wanted to, needed to respond. There was the shock of Brexit. There was the death of Alvin Toffler, who figures prominently in my current research project. There was the election of Donald Trump.

As a European historian with training in American Studies, these things had an effect on me. I therefore had things to say about them. Sometimes, the needs of the present moment became painfully obvious. A few of the articles I wrote were outdated only hours or days later. Facts had changed around them. History that is farther in the depths of the past tends not to be so short-lived. I am used to writing such history. The blog is a reminder, however, that history is always happening around us, and sometimes at a dizzying clip.

Future generations will be able to contextualize the events of today and relate them to decades ago and decades on. We are, as historians and as humans, always standortgebunden, tied to our own time and place. We do not yet have the wherewithal to be able to say much about very recent events because context in the form of sources and in the form of others’ work on the period will only emerge in the future. Likewise, we cannot know the future that these recent events will help create.

What’s in store for the future of this project is also unknowable. I do have some plans and hopes, however. In general, I want to keep this site like it is. I aim to update it more frequently, perhaps writing shorter pieces. I also want to collaborate with others. I would like to have other historians, social scientists, and others interested in the nexus of the past, the present, and the future write here. But, and that’s an important caveat, only if the material fits. If it is a point of view perhaps not represented on this site but still touching on issues I discuss here. I will not force this. It may or may not happen soon, or at all. Either way, I would like to leave open the possibility.

I am looking forward to another year, and hopefully many more after that. And I am looking forward to being able to look backward at some point, to see what this became. Happy Birthday, ‘Thus, History!’

Photo credit: Annie Spratt (CC0)

Donald Trump Is No Lyndon Johnson

Johnson, McNamara, Rusk in July 1965

John Fund at the National Review recently compared Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump. Citing also this blog, he argued that there were similarities between the two presidents and the dilemmas they posed, or pose, for their parties. While Fund is not wrong in comparing Johnson’s grandiosity and self-centeredness to Trump’s, the two politicians should be considered opposites in both their policy goals and in their views on not only the role of government, but also their takes on the process of governing.

Johnson, underneath all his bluster and bravado, was a consummate political operator, adept at moving the levers of power in favor of the social justice policies he favored. His great strength was a savvy for strategy and for convincing (often through less than aboveboard means) the various players in the various branches of government to act on his behalf, or at least to refrain from acting explicitly against his wishes. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson contributed significantly to keeping the United States on even keel and from slipping into a prolonged panic. He sought to bring together many varied opinions and positions. When he saw no path to reelection after his exacerbation of the Vietnam War had become unpopular, he did not stand for the presidency again.

Lyndon Johnson Signing 1968 Civil Rights Bill
President Lyndon Johnson Signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill. Photo by Warren K. Leffler.

Trump, in contrast, has so far blundered through a month of ad-hoc executive orders and alternate-reality-based pronouncements that have rattled domestic political opponents in both parties and many American voters, as well as foreign governments. The two presidents stand for very different political programs, but this is not their most important difference. Johnson fascinates historians because he was a uniquely contradictory figure, a personality seemingly at odds with himself. This is reflected also in the appreciation many liberal historians harbor for Johnson. To state, as the title of Fund’s article proclaims, that liberals “idolize” LBJ is a foreshortening of their image of the man. There is no view of Johnson’s achievements to be had without reference to his many failings. There is certainly no level of liberal idolization to be seen regarding Johnson akin to the one Ronald Reagan enjoys in conservative quarters.

Unlike Johnson, Trump is all surface: he means what he says and says what he means, but either side of that equation is ultimately disposable. President Trump’s conception of government appears to be that of an aircraft carrier of which he is the captain and that goes where he wants it to go – and on which he can punish for insubordination those who will not assist him. President Johnson’s was closer to that of a pirate ship on which he needed to convince people to row in the same direction when the winds stilled.

Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk in July 1965
President Lyndon Johnson Talking to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right) and Secretary of State Dean Rusk after McNamara’s return from South Vietnam, July 1965. Photo by Warren K. Leffler.

Fund touches on something fundamental when he writes that

…in the 1960s, there was a sense that the legislative process and the wheels of government still had to turn. Back then, the country didn’t tolerate blind obstructionism and attempts to delegitimize the presidency.

The rise of such obstructionism and delegitimization began in the 1990s. This was in no small part due to the tactics employed by Newt Gingrich, later an early Trump supporter, during his tenure as Speaker of the House. Historical analogies are always flawed to some extent. To compare LBJ with Donald Trump, however, is especially fraught with problems because of this shift in how Washington behaves, which occurred between the two presidencies. Because of it, even if Johnson and Trump appear temperamentally similar, any lessons supposedly to be drawn from the Johnson years for how Trump’s supporters or detractors should act must be taken with a pinch of salt at least as huge as the two presidential personalities.

Read Fund’s article here: Trump Is a Lot Like the LBJ Whom Liberals Still Idolize
or my original piece on LBJ here: The Power Conduit: Robert Caro’s LBJ

Life on Mars, 2016

Life on Mars?

We pick our heroines and our heroes and we pick our battles and our places to stand. We may be wrong in these choices sometimes, but if our compass is true then what matters is that we do pick and stand for something, not nothing.

It is December the 27th, 2016. Today I finished watching, for the umpteenth time, the Star Wars trilogy. I watched it in my parents’ home. In the living room, the same room where I first glimpsed the adventures of a few mythical spacefarers and their quest to defeat the clearest representation of evil.

It is the same house and same room in which I first heard David Bowie sing. Sing songs so different from what I was used to. I heard them on the radio, and on cassette tapes on repeat. I never quite appreciated their inventiveness and their sheer exuberant otherness and how they gloried in highly crafted experimentation until much later. No matter. Here is where I first heard them, and it’s important that I remember this now.

This year, many icons died who I first came across while living here, in a shielded and happy place. Today I heard of the death of Carrie Fisher, yet another icon. A writer and image and actress and voice unparalleled in her iconoclasm, who sent postcards from the edge of her own sanity and refused to be cast in any one role, despite the role that made her famous and iconic in the first place. She stayed true to herself and no one else, and would not give convention the time of day.

I miss so much, now that 2016, a true annus horribilis, is winding down, but apparently not slowing down in killing off more icons and giving shelter to the worst instincts of humanity. I miss, I ache, and I sit down to write because that is what I do when I don’t want to face the wall and feel my eyes tear up, and rock back and forth in despair. You may find this overly self-centered or overly emotional. Fine. I do not care.

I have heard many express feelings so similar to my own. Of tiredness, a tiredness so deep and sapping that there are not enough blankets to be pulled over the head. A tiredness and sadness that envelops, but can never be allowed to win. Life is a godawful small affair. But it’s ours. We have been lucky enough to be guided by crazy people, crazy in the wildest and happiest sense. They, in parts uncountable and often unseen, have contributed to who we are.

So, too have many real, flesh and bone people in our lives. To those who are still with us the living, I vow to tell them more often that they matter. There is no need to pin down a capacity in which they do so. To say they matter to me and not be able to say why does not feel like enough, but if I admit it to myself, it’s a lot.

As a rule, I haven’t been doing this nearly often enough. If you read this and I know you, know at least: you matter to me. Perhaps in only the seemingly most tenuous of fashions, but you do matter. To those who do not know me and who I don’t know, I can address only this: there are people you matter to, and who matter to you. Maybe not in overt and screaming ways. Maybe only in short glances and passing smiles and in a word here and there and a touch on the wrist that provides that last tiny smidgen of stability you needed.

That the small things are not enough and grand gestures instead always required is one of the most destructive myths our society perpetuates. In small kindnesses are contained entire worlds. I realize the pathos in these words, and yet, like so many of the role models and artists and dreamers that passed this past, devastating year, I don’t care.

As I try to glimpse through tears the horizon and a future in which so many icons are gone and I can no longer rely on the irrational comfort of faraway persons who do not know me to carry the weight of inspiration, I have to take this load from them and carry it myself. We all who were inspired were through this inspiration given the capacity to carry inspiration. And we all who care must now ourselves be our own source of inspiration and maybe, just a little maybe, we can pass on that crazy, loveable, absurd, and human inspiration to someone else.

As the lights below us fade we have to keep our flames shielded and rescue even the faintest glimmers of happiness and hope. If nothing else, this is what we owe our heroes and our heroines.

And if you find that too sappy and too emotional – I still, emphatically, don’t care.

Against Fear

Candle Burning

What is terror, and who is a terrorist? The question comes up a lot these days. In Germany, the Berlin Christmas market attack was labeled a terrorist act pretty much immediately. The collective “we” of the media is less sure when it comes to the shootings at a Zurich mosque, or the assassination – all still on the same day – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. It hardly mentions terrorism committed in parts of the world that we associate with terror anyway, despite the fact that these have come with far greater loss of life.

Who is labeled a terrorist and who is not, and why, matters. Presently, we are quick to call terrorists those who commit crimes while looking foreign, and those who ally themselves with organizations, loose as they may be, that seek to destroy existing orders. The former has sadly become synonymous with terrorism, while the latter is really what it should be defined as.

This used to be more obvious in the late twentieth century, at least in Europe, when terror was everywhere and the terrorists were to be found among the white citizens of the very nations they were attacking. It is still true now. To connect terror and foreignness automatically is to short-circuit a complicated system of causes and effects to arrive at a naïve and simplistic explanation. In this naïveté, terrorism and the populists who now try to benefit from it to push their own right wing agendas are locked in a mutually beneficial spiral that is the opposite of beneficial to democracies anywhere.

What are we to do in the face of terror? Our approach must always be two-pronged: there can be no stopping terror without trying to understand and then trying to change the conditions that further the radicalization of individuals and groups. There can be no stopping terror without diligent, well-funded, well-organized, and presumably boring policework.

What does not stop terror is the screaming and screeching that passes for political discourse in some corners. They who fan the flames of emotion with the tinder of populism, nationalism, and racism mean only to destabilize the open society that is always and forever the only bulwark against oppression and tyranny.

As individuals we can refuse very visibly to be intimidated. Few things unbalance terror more than a collective nonchalance in the face of its actions. This alone is not enough surely, but it is a big part already. So stand tall. Stand up straight and don’t let fear guide your actions and turn uncertainty into despondency, despondency into hatred.

Democracy is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that contains within itself the constant potential for its own improvement. Is there anything as much worth defending? Life is dangerous, and you’re signed up for that danger automatically by being born. So be watchful, yes. Speak out and act. Against the conditions that mould terrorists, the plots of the terrorists themselves, and against those who would use fear to push an agenda.

That you may not have felt fear every day is a testament to the relative peace many, not all, sadly, but many of us living in democratic states have been able to rely on. This peace has been normal for so long that many, too, have forgotten its very implausibility in the face of nearly all world history. Have forgotten how highly we should value the humdrum tedium of an uneventful everyday.

Be sad sometimes and angry others, and show resolve. To stand, to speak, not shrink away. And most of all, to never sell away so much of your freedom in search of a safety that cannot be had and will choke the very society it supposedly protects that you lose both safety and freedom. For that is the natural end point of a scared world.

Be not afraid. On this night, and any night, be not afraid.

On Patriotism: How to Practice a Constitution

Grundgesetz

Playwright Tony Kushner wrote of “beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart” in the 1990s, referencing the changes palpable at the end of the decade or so of Reagan America. As the world power system of the Cold War gave way to what Francis Fukuyama – perhaps a bit too hastily – termed “the end of history,” many things were in flux.1 A generation later, we are again at such a point in time, especially regarding the recent election in the United States. It is an upset not merely of the American political landscape, but of the balances of alliance and trade that define the world in which all of us live. It is a troubled and troubling time. A time that looks for guidance.

The United States, more than most countries, perhaps more than any other country on earth, is based on an order that is itself based on the guidance of words. Its founding credo, ringing true to some and hollow to others throughout the ages, holds that “all men are created equal.” Every human being has the same rights. This is a North Star. Like the North Star, it sometimes shines brightly and is sometimes covered by dark, dreary clouds. But that it cannot always be seen does not mean that it is not always there.

Its message of equality, though trampled on by the very same people who wrote it, shone through nonetheless. It is what moved abolitionists to tackle slavery, despite the unlikeliness of success. Slavery was, after all, the very economic basis of half the nation. When women fought for the vote, they used the words of one of the nation’s founding documents to make their case for it. There was something potent in the Declaration of Independence’s repeated accusations against King George III: “He” had “refused,” “dissolved,” “forbidden,” “obstructed.” The Declaration of Sentiments which argued for female suffrage in 1848 took the words by their literal meaning. “He” now stood for men in general. The men who had “deprived her,” “taken from her,” “denied her,” stood accused of committing the gravest offense: to have been like a king. To have betrayed the spirit of America’s founding words. In the twentieth century, too, the Civil Rights Movement marched in Selma and marched on Washington and repeated these words, and held accountable those in power to hear these words and finally act accordingly.

We the People
We the People

The founding documents of the U.S. are positively what created the nation. Above mere geographical distance from England and above the creation of a culture of its own, the words contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, born out of a revolution, set America apart from Britain. Indeed in its creation of a wholly new system of government never before tried on such a large scale they set it apart from the world.2 It behooves anyone to know and read these documents, whether they are American or not. In important ways these texts are the beginning of a long winding road to the recognition of human rights as a universal good. In important ways these documents also, for the first time, gave central notions of Enlightenment philosophy the full force of law – albeit only for some.

Germany, in contrast, is a country defined by its past as a negative. No today peaceful and democratic nation got this way without condemnable acts committed on its territory, no country can claim to have always held the white banner of freedom and pretend the stains have never quite washed out. Germany outbid them all by descending into a cruelty so all-consuming that it has served as a byword for unspeakable terror ever since. Let’s not mince words: millions were killed as a result, in the Holocaust and in World War II. Religious and ethnic discrimination dropped swiftly onto a glide path into extermination. Here, too, words mattered. They were words of hatred that many too long denied were potent, words that many too long thought were just words and did not carry with them the power to become acts of evil. But that they did. Words have that power.

When Germany emerged from the rubble of a devastating war it had inflicted on the world and on itself, the framers of a consitution for one of the nations founded on its territory were influenced by the victorious Allied Forces, most of all the United States. They were influenced, too, by the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The framers of the new Western German Basic Law – a name that was supposed to express the transitional nature of the constitution drafted, which was hoped later to apply to Eastern Germany as well – had the lessons from Nazism well in mind.

With the will to create a democracy that would not again fail and fall prey to extremism as had the Weimar Republic a decade and a half earlier, they began the document with nineteen articles given special status. These cannot be changed. As long as the Basic Law is valid, they are valid, too. They include a robust bill of rights and guarantees, contained in nineteen articles of Basic Rights. Most prominently, in article 1, paragraph 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” From this, meant originally as a preamble to specific, guaranteed rights, and since widely interpreted as being the “right to have rights,” every other civil right flows.

Würde des Menschen Inschrift
“Human Dignity Shall Be Inviolable.” (Image by Dontworry, Wikimedia Commons).

As state authority in combination with an ethnic nationalism had become discredited, Germans turned to that constitution to rally around. If there was patriotism to be had in the Post-War Era, it needed to be an altogether different kind of patriotism than the destructive, ethnic kind of the past. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is most closely associated with the term for this kind of patriotism. “Verfassungspatriotismus,” or “constitutional patriotism”.

Habermas took the word and concept from its inventor, Dolf Sternberger, and elaborated on it, rooting it in his own idea of the public sphere.3 In essence, constitutional patriotism calls on people to identify not with the country they live in as a mass of land or the place in which a biologically identifiable “people” live. Instead, patriotism flows from the adherence to and identification with a constitution and, above all, its guiding democratic principles. It connects both to the past – to the writing of the constitutional documents – and to the future, in which their promises can be more completely fulfilled, or in which the principles and freedoms laid out in them will have to be defended.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Image by Wolfram Huke.
Philosopher Jürgen Habermas. (Image by Wolfram Huke, Wikimedia Commons).

To be clear, despite the lofty rhetoric that constitutions use and that satiates discourses of national pride and civil religion, I am not here advocating for an originalism of constitutional interpretation. Instead, I am arguing in favor of what Anna Stilz has called “not a constitution in the fixed sense, defined by appeals to Founding Fathers, a sacred document, or the ancestral heroes of the nation” but “an ongoing constitutional practice that is at the same time a collective practice of self-definition.”4

This brings me to the current day. You start with words, the words of a constitution. But it is not these words alone, the words of flawed people in flawed times, that will help you on your path. It is the practice of your constitution that will. Make this practice your shield, your bow and your arrows. It may not protect you in every moment, but it will let you fight.

When truth itself is under attack from the highest places, buried under a barrage of bullshit and hidden in the tall grass of fake news, as it is in so many places today, look again and again to your constitution. Look at the letter and sense the spirit of its laws. If ever you find anyone in power to infringe upon either, make yourself heard. Act, organize. Raise hell, over and over again. Do not stand down. Get loud and be uncomfortable. It’s what patriots do.


  1. As many “big ideas,” this one, too, is often simplified too much. Fukuyama in fact allowed for a possible end to the end of history, when the capitalist consensus could break down. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man” (New York: Perennial, 2002). 
  2. Gordon Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” (New York: Knopf, 1992) is a go-to book here. This is not to say that Wood’s interpretation doesn’t at times suffer from the fact that it is somewhat too celebratory and “Whiggish”. It is, however, a good starting point. 
  3. Forgive my oversimplification of a long, complicated discussion. Here is not the place for a full elaboration of the notion of constitutional patriotism, which has naturally seen its critics and varying interpretations. Perhaps the best English-language book for further reading is: Jan-Werner Müller, “Constitutional Patriotism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). 
  4. Anna Stilz, “Liberal Loyalty. Freedom, Obligation, and the State” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 168.