Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Signifiers


America is at an inflection point.

Nadav Samin

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

“I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,” wrote Walt Whitman in his short poem, “For You O Democracy.” The great bard of the American nineteenth century, whose bicentennial birthday was celebrated last year, provides a charming, motivational rhetoric for our increasingly throwback age, in which factions are thick with distrust and enmity for one another.

America is at an inflection point, uncertain of its course and deafened by high-decibel, low-quality debate that generally only hints at the choices at stake and the real reasons for our malaise. To take only two examples of our present disorientation, consider the terms nationalism and diversity. Once considered benign features of our civic culture, today they have become epithets in the arsenals of partisan polemicists. Nationalism has become for many progressives almost synonymous with white nationalism, with all of its associations with racism, fascism, and extremist alt-right politics. Diversity, meanwhile, has become the catch-all for all things conservatives think liberals are guilty of, whether supporting illegal immigration, downplaying the threat of terrorism, restricting free speech, or rewriting American history into an unremitting chronicle of violence, villainy, and exploitation.

Lexicographers are powerless before this co-opting of words by popular passions. But rather than attempt to rescue them from the partisan clutches of the Twitterati, it might be worth refreshing the discourse with kindred, but less fraught, concepts.

Call the foremost of these cohesion. For what is nationalism, after all, but large-scale, social cohesion? For scholars, nationalism is a technical term that denotes the most significant form of political combination in the modern world. The political scientist Benedict Anderson wondered how it was that individual compatriots could be willing to fight and die for one another, yet were almost certain never to have met in their daily lives. Nationalism’s power is its capacity to abstract and generalize the experience of social solidarity at a mass scale. The power of religion is comparable, but only a small minority of states today are built on a predominantly religious or quasi-religious basis (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel, to name a few), and they too have combined religious ideas with ethno-linguistic and cultural ones to form their distinctive national mythologies. It is the wedding of the nation to the apparatus of a state, the joining of social solidarity to nonsacral, political power, that in many ways defines our post-Enlightenment modernity.

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