Saturday, April 14, 2012

Preaching a New Civic Gospel

The Spring 2012 issue of the journal Democracy features a trilogy of articles calling for a new emphasis on “civic responsibility.” Introducing these articles, the editors observe that”[i] f progressive politics over the past half century is identified with one activity more than any other, we think there is no question that that activity is the pursuit and expansion of rights.” They don’t call for any backing away from the continual expansion of rights, including the progressive creation of new entitlements, many of which are inconsistent with older rights from state interference with individual liberty. Instead, they want to add “civic responsibility” to the agenda of expansion. “Here,” they helpfully explain, “ we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility.”
Of the three articles on “Reclaiming Citizenship,” the one that I found most interesting, for reasons of professional background, was Eric Liu’s piece entitled “Sworn Again Americans.”  Liu (pictured above) advocates a new creed of assimilation and Americanization , not only for our large immigrant population, but for Americans in general. My most recent book, Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) argues that public schooling took its present form in the United States as part of the Progressive movement’s effort to build a highly unified and centralized state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Through schools, social planners sought to propagate a civic creed intended to “Americanize” both immigrants and native-born Americans. While I recognize that a nation is more than just people who share a common territory and government, in the book I express concerns about the top-down nation-building goals of social planners to use an institution of the state to re-shape the population. There may be, I suggest, an element of authoritarianism or even totalitarianism about the idea that the state creates the nation, rather than the reverse.
Mr. Liu advocates a strong, new civic religion in the United States, which should, in his opinion, involve the three core elements of creed, character, and culture. On the creed that he proposes, I agree that Americans should be immersed in the central texts of our government, from Jefferson onwards. But, beyond that, who defines what we should believe? I suggest that members of the American public, based on knowledge of our history and traditions, should decide for themselves. Liu wants the cult directed from Washington, D.C. “[T]here can and should be a federal requirement that the basic texts and ideas of our nation’s civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral of sophistication, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade.” If our nation is polarized at present, how much more polarized will it become when the parties and philosophies that control the government get to oversee the “federal requirement” of a “civic creed” through all of American schools?
If the central state can try to direct what we believe, then it can also try to control who we are. This is the essence of Liu’s call for developing “civic character.” Comparing this activity to the cultivating of a garden (are we plants?), Liu wants more “national service programs” and argues that we should be “trained to organize” so that we will make “the right decision.” He wants us to make decisions that he sees as “right” because we have been trained and organized, like plants growing the way the gardener wants them to grow.
What kind of “civic culture” does Liu want our gardeners to cultivate with their manipulations of culture?  He suggests that we should reinvent and rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance. “That’s why,” he tells us, “recently I helped launch a civic-artistic project called Sworn-Again American. It mashes up aspects of a naturalization ceremony, a multicultural festival, and a revival tent to make a playful public experience in which Americans recommit to the content of their citizenship. What we should celebrate more than diversity is what we do with it.” In this view, “diversity” is no longer a recently invented and debatable concept, but a positive item of faith celebrated by all Americans in “multicultural festivals” and “revival tents.”
After reading Eric Liu’s call for a new civic religion, designed according to his own political ideals, I wondered: Who gets excommunicated?

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