Moorpark, CA. The first time is not always the best, but it is often the most revealing. The first time I saw Casablanca I brought a borrowed memory of seeing it. “Here’s looking at you, kid” fell on my ears with warm and comforting familiarity, but the movie startled me with lines that I’ve not since forgotten. Rick, in the throes of passionate new love, asks Ilsa, “Who are you really? And what were you before?” Struck immediately by the many layers of these simple questions, I’ve never really stopped asking them.
Rick knew precious little about his lover. He loved her before he knew her “really,” but he loved her nonetheless. There was more to Ilsa than Rick could see immediately and there was, potentially, a great journey (perhaps a disillusioning journey) in the discovery of the real woman. Interestingly, Rick moved from a subject “who” to an object “what.” Make what you will of this transition from the subject immediately present, to the distant object of the past, but clearly Rick was interested in the past only as a means to understand his beloved Ilsa.
The questions are much more interesting when we apply them to Rick’s life. Who is Rick, really? What was he before? We first meet Rick the cynical businessman—an exaggerated version of a species: American capitalist. He has no heart, no compassion, no romance. “You are a very cynical person,” Rick is told by the amoral and cowardly Ugarte. This cynical American businessman is also very successful, with business competitors trying to buy the most popular bar in Casablanca, revealingly named “Rick’s Café Americain”—“everybody comes to Rick’s.” Cold and cynical, Rick is still loved by women who should know better than to get involved with such a man.
Is this the real Rick? He tries to make people think so. Emotionless, he constantly emphasizes his splendid isolation from feelings, politics, ideas. Unwilling to declare allegiance to anything but himself, he isn’t an American, he is a “drunkard”(“that makes Rick a citizen of the world.”). He has no interest in politics—the problems of the world are not in his department. We learn from the beginning, however, that Rick is fooling himself mainly. Those who know anything of his past know that, in the words of Captain Renault, “under that cynical shell you’re at heart a sentimentalist.” Spurned by a woman, Rick was hiding from himself, trying to hate the woman he loved and reject his own past, which he had lived in devotion to the cause of liberty (we learn about his assistance to those fighting tyranny in Spain and Ethiopia). When the love of his life enters Rick’s Café Americain and reenters Rick’s tortured life she does so as the wife of a courageous, charismatic, and famous freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo. Face to face again with Ilsa, Rick struggles to remain faithful to his newly crafted cynical identity, struggling to hate the woman he loves.
Ilsa’s past, and the obligations of her past, forced her to abandon Rick. Discovering that her husband was still alive but seriously ill, Ilsa’s commitment to a husband and his noble cause required that she leave Rick. To protect Rick, Ilsa kept her reasons for abandoning him secret, even though her heart remained with her lover. Feeling the pain of their reunion in Casablanca, Rick could accept death (inviting Ilsa to shoot him at one point—“you’d be doing me a favor.”) but his pain never turned his love to hate. Reunited, their love inescapable, Rick and Ilsa could have abandoned their moral commitments and lived out the rest of their lives in romantic bliss. But a deeper Rick had also reemerged—the real Rick who believed deeply in freedom. Learning the truth about Ilsa’s past set Rick free—free to abandon a false cynicism and embrace the noble cause that was greater than “the problems of three little people…in this crazy world.”
In 1942, the year Casablanca was released, Rick personified well a deeply held belief about American identity, an image that many Americans had of themselves and their nation. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this movie helped explain to Americans how and why they ought to participate in a dangerous world. Following the nation’s first venture into idealistic imperialism, World War I, claims abounded about the insidious role of powerful business interests in involving the United States in a European conflict—fears that American idealism was in rhetorical service of the most crass business interests. The two decades that separated history’s two bloodiest events—the two world wars–witnessed a nation largely devoted to returning to the “business” of America, an America that lived in the imagination of its citizens in a sort of benign separation from the rest of the world. In World War II Americans learned with Rick that “isolationism is no longer a practical policy.” But much more profoundly, Americans discovered a role to play in the world that fit their most highfalutin ideals: that all humans deserve freedom, that self-determination and self-rule (i.e., democracy) is the only morally defensible government, and that certain rights are human and therefore universal. Moreover they came to believe that these universal truths were first encoded into a political regime by the United States. Being the first placed a peculiar burden on America.
Rick was a product of a certain historical confluence, a confluence that influences the American sense of purpose to this day. America was not only the nation to inaugurate the new order of the ages, grounded on universal claims about human nature and rights (Declaration of Independence), but now the most powerful nation on earth, capable of fulfilling its mission to history by defending, across the globe, the ideals not of America but of humankind. America may err and falter, its motives might be mixed, but in the long run such a combination of truth and power produces a compelling and dangerously deceptive humility—for we are servants of some larger (perhaps even divine) purpose and our goals are in the best interest of the world, of humankind. We seek, as Woodrow Wilson noted in World War I, no land, no concessions, no spoils of victory, just the fruit that comes from an increasingly free world.
This narrative of America does not belong to either the left or the right, to Democrats or Republicans. They all have found in this story their own ideals and the justifications for their policies. Within their ranks have been those who have challenged this story, sometimes radically, but most often by suggesting a more complicated history and national identity (along with warnings that even truths can be dangerous when stripped of their complexity). The heated debates of the past sixty years or more have always included claims to who we are and what we were before—often with political and ideological opponents drafting for their side the same documents, the same historical figures, the same seminal historical events. In the best of times, Americans hear and tell many subtly different stories, a substantial array of interpretations. They inhabit a richly textured narrative structure that allows individuals to find within a broadly recognized consensus their own place in this story and that allows them to participate authentically in the various institutions and events that make up public life. In the worst of times Americans seem caught between two opposing and often cartoonish narratives and, lacking the more diverse array of options, must vote in favor of one, learn history in favor of one, use the charged language in support of one. In this sense, we live in the worst of times.
Rick’s story emerged during history’s greatest world conflict and in this context expressed and fostered an American identity that drew from a rich stock of American images and ideals. It was a useful identity and, I think, an authentic one. More than that, I think Rick still personifies an enduring expression of America in the world. But Rick isn’t the only possible or authentic American self, for we have a rich, multi-vocal history that incessantly confronts a changing environment, highlighting bits of the past and throwing those “objects” of our identity open for fresh and often competing interpretations. The “what” we were before is always shaping the “who” we are, but necessarily through a confrontation with ever new circumstances.
Our present circumstances—end of the cold war, war against terrorism, globalization, rise of a certain species of capitalism, growing cultural alienation with Europe, ever more heated debates about acceptable forms of individual liberty, high-profile claims to a cultural divide—require a subtle and complex appropriation of our past. Equally important, we need to find a way to transcend the rhetorical dualism that presently shapes our public discourse—red state v blue state; conservative v. liberal. While it is almost certainly the case that Americans are not polarized over the public issues of our day (as is presumed by most political commentators), the public discourse available to us creates confrontations, leaving us with a language that fosters almost comically simplistic ideologies. As a result, the expressions of the American self from which most of us have to choose are reductive and inauthentic—stick figures that create contempt and, sometimes, self-loathing.
II. Whose Myth?
The United States is not a folk. Bloodlines have no meaningful connection to our real or imagined history. Our origins aren’t lost in some pre-literate age populated with mythical heroes and barely remembered battles. We have a creation story, a national beginning rich with statements about purpose and design, full of expressions about why the founders created this new nation. So self-conscious about their purposes or justifications were these men that they declared, to a listening world, their reasons for rebellion as well as the moral justifications for their republic, and, by extension, they defined the universal principles of regime legitimacy. For all the blood, toil, and sacrifice of the American Revolution, in some important respects, this nation was written into existence. Its complex pattern of myths issue from these words, or are tangled up in these words, expressed with beautiful ambiguity in this great historical moment.
Americans are people of the text. With a canon that enjoys surprising, even amazing, consensus, Americans struggle to define their collective identity with continuous references to canonical texts. Americans fight endlessly over interpretations, over historical context, over original intent, over the real meanings of those authoritative texts. We are, I think, a fortunate people in two respects. First, because almost all Americans accept the canon, our struggles over meaning prevent us from taking seriously any challenge to the legitimacy of the republic. Second, the rich and tension-filled nature of the American canon allows us to rethink who we are in flexible ways, incorporating evolving traditions and patterns into new circumstances. In short, we are a nation with a history that supports continuous conversation about who we are. Each new generation gets to participate in the great conversation of the republic.
The American canon is incomplete. The Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Hayne-Webster debates, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech—these documents currently form part of the Bible out of which people craft the many myths that define and redefine America. Many competing texts, nearly forgotten, can reemerge as part of our patrimony, making it possible for our neglected past to alter our future. The conversation continues today and we might reasonably expect new texts to the American Bible. If so, these new documents will almost assuredly do what all of the influential post-Revolution documents do—draw from the rich resources of the American founding to highlight the kind of people we “really” are, to emphasize a long established ideal that is unrealized or threatened. Any additions to the American canon will fit into the complex narrative of American history and identity but will also contribute to defining some part of the American self in a way that responds to new or newly critical circumstances. Any useful claim to who “we are really” must rest on a persuasive articulation of “what we were before.”
But if America supports many myths, which myth is true? By myth I mean a narrative that explains the essence of the nation, a collection of stories, exemplary characters, sacred texts, and interpretations that give a meaningful unity to an otherwise heterogeneous people. Myths are necessary creations, helping make sense of our participation in a nation, fostering the necessary affection for one’s country, and tutoring those who inhabit the myth on how to be citizens. For one citizen, inhabiting a fairly prevalent myth, the United States is a secular nation dedicated to the liberation of each individual to think freely, to act according to her own desires, and to foster a decent equality. For another citizen, inhabiting yet another American myth, America is a Christian nation, dedicated to defending basic freedoms while supporting a complex and delicate social order that provides the necessary moral and character formation for realizing the goods of a free society. Whose myth do we choose?
There are many false myths–stories not rooted in historical experience. It does not follow, however, that because there are false myths that there is a single true myth. Indeed, the hardening of myth about “what America stands for” into an ideology is a much greater danger to the American republic than false myths. Ideologies are narrow and programmatic. Ideologues speak in slogans, seek uniformity, and are incapable of engaging in meaningful conversation. The good news is that Americans have inherited a very rich patrimony, a heritage too complex and flexible to be held hostage for long by the ideologues. The bad news is that our current public discourse is dominated by ideologues, their slogans, and the narrow universalism of all ideologies. We don’t have to accept either the impoverished public discourse of our time or the narrow options available by that discourse. We need not be trapped by the dualism of red and blue state, of liberal and conservative, of pro-life and pro-choice, of secular or Christian nation. We can re-energize the American conversation, asking basic questions: Who are we, really? What were we before?
III. Politics as Conversation
It matters how we ask these questions. We can ask them with the aim of constructing a final, comprehensive, and question-ending dogma. This is the ideologue’s approach, except that the question asked is really not asked and the inquiry undertaken is not really inquiry. The ideologue begins with the dogma and searches for confirming evidence. The ideologue is interested in propaganda rather than conversation. The great virtue of an ideologue is that, having settled the hardest political questions, he is armed for action. An ideologue is prepared to change things, to adjust the world as he finds it to the world as he imagines it should be. While all participants in a democracy are ready to acknowledge the importance of being able to act, to make changes, to get things done, the ideologue is hampered by being unable to understand the views of those with whom he disagrees. He is unwilling to compromise and is therefore unfit for democracy.
If we take the questions seriously, feel bound to follow evidence, and recognize the complex and developing nature of the subject, we can expect meaningful but non-dogmatic answers. By taking the questions seriously I mean nothing more substantial than beginning the inquiry without the support of certainty. But there is a basic claim that I think is corollary to this openness to inquiry, and more important. In its most extreme form we might call this a dogmatic anti-dogmatism. At its worst, this attitude toward inquiry can be purposeless, turned into a species of sophistry that is unable to form beliefs substantial enough to provoke action or that expresses itself with a debilitating irony. At its best, however, this attitude produces beliefs that inspire deep passion but without an accompanying ideological hubris. At its best, this attitude produces people who hold beliefs dear about American values and American heritage while being able to understand well the beliefs of those who disagree.
Conversation is the antidote to ideology and an art most central to a healthy democracy. Alexander Hamilton asked a defining question of the American founding, and for each generation hence: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and choice.” (Federalist #1, italics added.) If we are to reflect and choose, if we are to deliberate about both means and purposes, then the art of conversation is one of the great and necessary gifts to hand to each new generation. It is, indeed, an art and since it is an art rather than a natural attribute, it must be taught. The art of political conversation requires that people understand that at some level they bear a responsibility to participate in collective decisions. Historically, most societies have neither accepted nor encouraged this responsibility among their members. America would be different, in the van of a new order of ages characterized by self-rule. But to participate is also to hear, to learn, to alter, to compromise—to think together about what we should do. This deliberation, this reflection and choice, is impossible unless the process has no determined conclusions, no ineluctable destiny.
Conversations are like democracies—they are open to possibilities rather than predetermined by some abstract end or conclusion. People bring to conversations their beliefs and dispositions, inherited assumptions, as well as questions and doubts. Unlike arguments or debates, conversations rarely focus on abstract principles, tending instead toward particular examples, existing things, and personal experiences. Conversations are often about sharing things and therefore they serve to connect people together in a web of different but shared experiences. They are not about agreement as much as understanding, but in political contexts, where conversations are part of a deliberative process, they often produce consensus without agreement. In so doing, conversations reaffirm the legitimacy of the enterprise for those whose views did not triumph–political conversations require not only an openness of spirit but a diversity of views. Shared beliefs about this process, and the spirit that animates it, are indispensable to healthy self-rule.
Our contemporary debates over some combination of reform, recovery, and preservation, concern our near future—and it is the near future that most of us hope to live up to who we are really. But there is no authentic national self except that it has a real and understandable history.