Politics & Media
May 01, 2023, 05:57AM

Battle for the Nation's Soul: Report from the Front

Hot or cold, good, bad or indifferent, a latte is something. A national soul ain't sheet.

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"Battle for the better angels of our nature," by Pieter Bruighel the Elder

The theme of the emerging Biden re-election campaign, and also the media covering it, is "the soul of America." If that's not empty-yet-intense-enough for you, he'll re-formulate it to "the very soul of America itself." The phrase has a 19th-century ring; indeed it has a 19th-century German ring, for reasons we’ll explore. But it was revived in recent years by Jon Meacham, Biden's official historical cliché-generator, in his boldly incoherent yet profoundly indolent book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (2018). (I'm having trouble picturing a battle for angels, better or not, but you may well be better at visualization than I am.)

Biden got particularly re-interested in the soul of America for his September 1, 2022 speech in Philadelphia, in which he portrayed the current situation as, shockingly, a battle for the soul of the nation. It became known as Battle for the Soul of the Nation Speech. In last week's three-minute video announcing his 2024 run, Biden—possibly using Meacham’s words again—remarked that "When I ran for president four years ago, I said, 'We’re in a battle for the soul of America,' and we still are." A striking aphorism, as you must admit.

The Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, and all other MSM editorial boards agree with him, or at least intone the same words in the same order. This isn’t exactly agreement, because to agree with something, there has to be something with which you agree, but here there isn't anything. "Biden is right," said the Post's editorial, "We're still fighting a battle for the soul of America.”

David Brooks tries to clarify the concept. "Joe Biden built his 2020 presidential campaign around the idea that 'we’re in a battle for the soul of America,'" Brooks remarks. "I thought it was a marvelous slogan because it captured the idea that we’re in the middle of a moral struggle over who we are as a nation. I want to dwell on the little word 'soul' in that sentence because I think it illuminates what the 2024 presidential election is all about. What is a soul? Well, religious people have one answer to that question. But Biden is not using the word in a religious sense, but in a secular one. He is saying that people and nations have a moral essence, a soul.”

It sounds good; it goes down easy; it yields a certain pseudo-aspirational charge. People say it all the time. Brooks is all like, don't worry, I'm not talking about woo-woo ghost entity inhabiting the nation's body. I'm talking about "who we are," our shared moral essence. But "who we are" is just as meaningless yet just as dangerous. We don’t share any moral essence; I take this as obvious, every day. "The soul of the nation," sounds profound to people. I'm going to assume that such people have never heard anything that’s really profound.

The idea that "nations" are like individuals with souls and personalities originates in figures like Johann Gottfried von Herder and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel early in the 19th century. According to 19th-century nationalism, nations were historical actors. Nations had psychologies, personalities, values, and (believe it or not) immaterial spiritual essences (“souls”). Herder and Hegel were particularly concerned with the "battle" for the "soul" of the Prussian nation itself, but every nation had its thing. For example, the Prussian soul is very systematic, orderly, clean and militaristic. The Chinese soul is crafty and diabolical. The British soul is mercantile. The American soul is hope itself, and the American soul will conquer the world soon, if it can outwrestle the imperial Japanese soul.

This structure of thought is indefensible in a way that any rational person, even Jon Meacham, should be able to see immediately. Americans don’t all share a personality or a set of values, nor a spiritual essence that excludes the Peruvians. David Brooks appears to think that he and Donald Trump and the latest mass shooter all are chunks, bits, portions or parts of one gigantic non-material entity, or that they all share a "moral essence." Now, I ask you: David, do you really believe something like that? And if you do, don't you think you’re under an obligation to somehow try to grow less confused before you write again?

The idea that there’s a non-material spirit encompassing all Americans and excluding all non-Americans is something I hope no one could possibly believe. But the idea that we all have the same "moral essence," the supposedly secular way that Brooks wants to read soul stuff, is just as ridiculous. We Americans are all kinds of people with all kinds of values.

I wonder if Brooks is just as impressed by the very soul of Zimbabwe, or Hungary itself. Have you really thought this thing through? The soul of the nation and a Starbucks gift card will get you a latte, and I think you should go ahead with the transaction. Hot or cold, good, bad or indifferent, a latte is something. A national soul ain't sheet.

So despite the fact that they all purport to be describing a real entity, the soul of America, none of these people are trying to tell us anything factual, about our shared moral essence or anything else. If they were making factual assertions about the very soul of the nation itself, everything they said would be false, because there’s no entity to which the subject of their sentences refer. Biden is always telling us "who we are as Americans." But as Americans or whatever else, each of us is exactly who we are.

Meacham, Brooks, Biden and The Washington Post are definitely not trying to state facts. These are people who say they’re science-mongers, for example, but "the very soul of the nation itself" isn’t a particularly scientific concept. Or: isolate this soul in a beaker, purify it in a centrifuge, and produce it for me, bubba. The claim that "we share a moral essence as a people" means only, exactly: you should accept my values. But it's a particularly incoherent expression of that, the most mundane of human thoughts.

Does asserting that your values are the values of the national soul that I allegedly share give me reasons to accept those values? Oh for heaven's sake, no. Incoherent fictions at this level of jive-ass banality don't yield any actual reasons to accept anything. It's only about in-group solidarity: these are the words you have to say to belong on our side.

But deploying the 19th-century idea of nations with souls, personalities, and moral essences is just how we got into the world wars and the ethnic cleansings of the 20th century. I don't really blame Biden or the Post for endorsing the underlying intellectual structure of fascism, war, and national purification—they're not intellectuals, after all, and can't really be expected to reflect on the sources and implications of the sentences they say. But perhaps Meacham could do better.

Anyway, if there's a national soul, it's Al Green.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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