This is a shortened version of a longer article, which is available here: Misunderstanding America’s 4th July – Is Europe copying only the Mistakes?
It is a melancholy thing to see a historical drama being imitated and replayed blindly. The more melancholy, when it is happening to a friendly country. It would be doubly saddening to see an attempt at replaying America’s triumphs and tragedies in England, where they can be repeated only on the side of the tragedies. At the centre of the American drama is national identity. The links to Brexit are obvious.
We begin with the profound mistake of dating America to 4 July 1776. America as a society dates to colonial Jamestown and to Renaissance and medieval England. Even on a more superficial level, America dates as an emerging polity to the Albany Congress of 1754. It dates as a separate political entity to the 2nd of July 1776.
When we Americans wish to be honest and find the actual roots and trunk of our society, we take it back not just 200 years, not just 400 years, but 1400 years. We take it back deep into the old world, not just the modern one but the medieval.
When we honestly recount the sources of our freedom, we go back to the Renaissance and Reformation and Enlightenment. Nor does the traditional exposition of our history stop there. We trace our freedom back to the long growth of the Parliament in London, to the Magna Carta, to King Alfred and the evolution of the Common Law which remains the cornerstone of our law; not stopping even there but acknowledging the roots in Roman law and Greek democracy, and in the ancient Mediterranean world going back further millennia.
The truncation of American history and philosophy to a simplistic starting point, 4 July, leaves America with a truncated identity and a fragility at the core of its seemingly strong ego. It is weakened in its capacity to manage the proper task of the ego: to arbitrate prudently among the competing claims of its many legitimate interests and norms. It is vulnerable to simplistic demands for self-deconstruction.
Of the four founding documents of the United States — the July 2 resolution, the July 4 declaration, and the two constitutions — the Declaration had by far the best public relations. That was not surprising: It was written as a piece of public relations, a call to war and an appeal for European support. It was announced with bells. It was quickly sealed in blood, the most powerful sanctification a document can received.
It is for these reasons — reasons unrelated to intentions of the Founders — that the Declaration came to be viewed as the founding document of America. In historical reality, the July 2 resolution would have the better claim to that title, as some of the Founders observed, not unaware of the danger to the national spirit from the oversimplification; so would the Constitution of 1787. The Declaration would then stand as a statement to justify the July 2 resolution; a vigorous statement, but an incomplete one, focused one-sidedly on justifying the separation not the union.
The costs of this focus on the Declaration have been severe. When Separation has been equated with Freedom, Union has been left to be seen at best as a pragmatic compromise, at worst as a sacrifice of Freedom for the sake of convenience. Its conflation of freedom with separation, this negligence of the freedoms provided by union, this reduction of the union to either a convenience or a betrayal: this is what made it possible for the southern States to secede in 1861 in the name of Freedom – even as they thereby upheld slavery — and somehow keep a straight face through it all.
This conflation is what explains the vast national psychological mistake of isolationism, which kept America on the sidelines of European power struggles, sitting out World Wars I and II until they were nearly lost. It nearly cost America as well as Europe its actual freedoms, yet it flowed logically from the prioritization of Independence above all else. Freedom, when equated with Independence, became mixed up with total separation from all things European.
The doctrine of isolationism was deepened by creating a mythological version of the “Pilgrim founding”. America was described as having been created by pure people of faith struggling to get away from corrupt Europe, with the Freedom flowing from their purity, faith, and separation from all that was European and corrupt. Buried beneath this myth is the fact that the first settlement was Virginia, not Puritan Massachusetts, and that most of the settlers in all of the colonies came with three very unpuritanical thoughts: personal profit, adventure, and developing America as an extension of England and its power, not as an opposition to it. The opposition of the American colonists was to Spain, not to London. England was already, alongside Holland, the freest power in Europe, possibly in the entire world. The vast bulk of colonists wanted to extend it, not purify it; to shoot on its side, not against its own side. The myth of a Puritan origin of freedom led Americans to put out of mind most of the time how they inherited most of their free institutions and ideas from England and Europe, even though knowing this quite well in the back of their minds.
America’s so-called “isolationism” was, significantly, never an actual isolationism, but a neutral universalism. It was a refusal to take America’s natural and necessary side in the main axis of global political conflict. This was done at best to get a temporary respite while America was still weak, at worst to feel noble, pure, and indiscriminately global in all cases. The latter meant in practice discriminating against any support for their country’s concrete interests and friends, and running an invidious, strategically selective argumentative interference against those friends, and against taking seriously the facts of shared adversaries in the world wars. This strategic orientation against coalescence with European allies was the actual meaning of what has gained the name of “isolationism”. The word can be pilloried for its misleading aspect, but it has legitimate origins in the phrase “splendid isolation”; I would welcome a more precise word, but what matters is not to change the word but to understand its meaning accurately.
In this concrete meaning, Brexit is indeed isolationist. There is nothing original when Brexit’s actual separatism, its “isolationism” in the sense of rejecting the choice of Britain’s most critical concrete connection, bespeaks a self-deceiving language of “global Britain”. Brexit and Global Britain repeat almost to a word the isolationist doctrine that Americans derived from their celebrations of separation as freedom, defining America as a country of trade with all and political entanglements with none. This explains the copying of the 4 July celebration as if that date were the source of their freedom and the founding of their country.
Nor is Britain the first to copy America’s mistakes of soaring rhetoric without any chance of copying any of America’s soaring prospects and achievements in the process. Rhodesia copied the Declaration’s language for its own Declaration of Independence, as earlier did North Vietnam. Somehow it did not bring that new birth in freedom that it was imagined to portend.
The psychological side of Brexit is determinant: to feel free by renouncing at all costs an unavoidable and natural connection. It leads to the same obsession with proving its independent identity while never being able to fully satisfy it. It has the same dynamic as America’s isolationist one, born of the determination to feel absolutely free from America’s natural connections with Britain and Europe. This is no small part of what led the Declaration itself to be misread in America. Independence was advocated in the Declaration as a regrettable necessity, but that caveat was forgotten. Independence became a supreme value in itself. It proved an obsessive identity, one that had to be proven over and over, but could never be realized in a satisfied manner, as even in the best of days it ignored many underlying realities. In its name every reckless act could be advocated, and too often was committed.
Nor is it Britain alone that is copying America’s mistakes derived from the glorification of July 4. So is Europe on a larger scale.
The need for independent identity, defined not objectively but as identity separate from and implicitly against Europe’s most natural and necessary connection, has become a part of Europeanist thinking also, although by no means the only part. It was one of the original Federal Unionists and, in his time, an important political theorist, Sir George Catlin, who observed that the recurrent invocation of the need for Europe to demonstrate an independent “identity” from America had a Freudian aspect of killing the father figure. As a psychological compulsion, it presses Europeans repeatedly to disavow and run argumentative interference against their own actual and natural side in the main lines of global politics, as a way of differentiating themselves from America.
This is quite different from the spirit of former a common European power for its own sake and standing objectively for Europe’s interests. It has less in common with an honest neutrality of judgment than with an ideological neutralism, a posture that leans over backward to avoid what would otherwise in most cases be its natural judgments. Neutralism feels constrained to direct its main rhetoric and emphasis against its own shared side in order to maintain a sense of being free and independent of it. We saw this in America’s disastrous isolationism, trying to sit out the world wars until it was nearly too late. We see this today when America has, belatedly, taken up the points that Europeans had for years been telling it to attend to vis-à-vis China; and Europeans respond overwhelmingly, on the level of its leading media and leading politicians, with a language of staying out of the quarrel America and China or mediating neutrally and in reality too often to China’s side. Eurobarometer has shown an alarming strong public sentiment for having, as its reason for supporting Europe, that of being strong enough to stay neutral between America and potential adversaries such as specifically Russia and China. We are back to concrete isolationism and denial of core self-interest in the name of a rhetorical universalism.
A false identity can be a dangerous thing. The separation = freedom identity proved an Achilles heel for America, inspiring “libertarian” secessions in 1860, and isolationism “to save our freedom” in the 1930s. It came out of these disasters in the end, but only after running existential risks and paying a terrible price for its misdirected rhetoric.
The separatist identity is proving an Achilles heel for Britain too. It is already leading many in England to accept and spur on the break-up of the United Kingdom. This would be a sorry kind of national greatness to gain after losing its actual greatness in the larger world.
It is saddening to see it becoming an Achilles heel also for Europe. Decades ago De Gaulle turned Europe away from its actual identity as a Western power and its actual practical Euro-Atlantic path under Monnet of uniting itself by using the support of America as a decisive factor in tilting the scales against its nationalists. He led it instead toward a siren song: that Europeans must unite behind his calls for a common identity against America and the Anglo-Saxon powers. It was a posture doomed to failure; in practice it divided Europeans instead of uniting them. Many Europeanists nevertheless belatedly latched onto it as a way of regaining some sense of united purpose after De Gaulle had taken the wind out of their actual sails. Behind this approach lies the theory not only of our often enthusiastic and sometimes wise friends in Pavia, but of Carl Schmitt, a great if monstrous theorist, that identity is defined against an enemy not for self. Schmitt explained, in the counterrevolutionary fashion of the Germany of Spengler and Heidegger, that a regenerate state must affirm its identity and existence — its political reality, its existential Being — by demonstrating a capacity to define enemies at will for people to unite against, instead of the degenerate state that recognizes only actual enemies. The latter “degenerate” states, in practice, have the benefit of pointing to not much more than actual enemies against which the society really could unite; the latter “existential” approach defines enemies against which society cannot unite very easily or very long. It is an approach that ends in ruin, as it did for Schmitt’s Germany.
We saw this again when Mr. Macron, following in De Gaulle’s footsteps, called for forming a common European army for protection against enemies such as Russia, China, and America. Instead of uniting Europeans against America, it led other European leaders to unite against Macron, chiding him for this. Still other Europeans, in tandem with many Americans in the opposition, got offended about criticisms of his words and denied that he ever said them, despite their being plainly present on the public record.
This shows us a psychological pattern across the Atlantic eerily similar to the one we described earlier in reverse: when American revolutionaries united with British radical oppositionists and repeated all their slogans, true, false, and paranoid, as if they were guaranteed truth by the mere fact of being opposed to the center of power.
The explanation for this is, structurally and psychologically, the same. European governments find themselves today in the same position as American intellectuals vis-a-vis the American government: much weaker than it, feeling intellectually superior to it, feeling insufficiently valued and listened to by it, prone to vent this feeling by deriding it as brute and dumb. At the same time, most European leaders stand back from this posture, and try to maneuver to maintain Europe’s natural and necessary trans-Atlantic alignment even while often making rhetorical alliances with the anti-American side. That adds up to four parties: the American government, the American intelligentsia, European anti-Americans, and European officials who may feel similar psychological impulses but maneuver to remain basically Atlanticist nonetheless.
Europeanists often describe the impulse of differentiation as a result of immaturity and explain that Europe will grow out of it when it becomes a common power equal to America. It is an important point, and one that would be valid if acted upon responsibly in the here and now. We are all responsibility for our sobriety in the here and now. The arrival at an equal level of European power is an outcome nowhere in sight; it cannot be expected for decades to come even on the best scenario for development of European integration. In its absence as a realistic basis for maturity, what is too often advocated in Europe is instead a consolidation of the same immature impulse into an ingrained ersatz European identity, in the very name of preparing the way for someday being equal and mature. This is not encouraging. Europe can do better.
Europe is too good and great a thing to be put at risk for a false identity. So is America. So is the UK. These Unions are our greatest accomplishments. Yet at risk they all have been, unnecessarily, from false concepts of who we are and whence has come our freedom.
The false identity is ingrained deeply in America; it is here to stay. Fortunately America has had a lot of good fortune also. It started with a vast continent at its feet, an advantage that Brexiting Britain cannot hope for. There were always leading Americans, starting with Washington and Hamilton, who knew how to avoid spinning out the national myth too far at the expense of reality. They and their successors usually managed to bring America back from the brink. Still, a terrible price was paid when they were not able.
Britain and Europe also have their wise persons. They are better than the myths of identity and ideology in which they have been acquiescing. Perhaps they, like Washington and Hamilton, will win the necessary struggles against delusion. Perhaps they will engineer the needed turns in the dialectic of their collective myths, in order to keep them from sucking their societies into the worst dangers in front of them.
For now, however, the risks are growing. The naïve imitation of the 4th of July across the Atlantic is a measure of this.