The Idea of America

Review: ‘Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity,’ by James Robbins

United States, Independence Day, American Exceptionalism
July 4, 2013

Beneath the July 4 ritual of barbecues, parades, and fireworks is an implicit assumption of a shared American identity.

We eat the same things, clap at the same drummers wearing tricorn hats as they march by, and watch the same rockets’ red glare on the same day. Thus we subscribe to a common identity, the logic goes.

James Robbins wonders if we take this identity for granted in his new book, Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity.

"The U.S. government describes me as ‘white non-Hispanic,’ along with two-thirds of the population," he writes. "It is a strange non-hyphenated identity, like non-dairy creamer — we know what it isn’t, but what exactly is it?"

For Robbins, the American identity comprises a core set of values, inclinations and aspirations.

Americans are self-reliant and practical like inventor and diplomat Benjamin Franklin, whom historian H.W. Brands dubbed "the first American."

They have a general preference for self-rule, and their restless innovation echoes the conviction of pioneers crossing the Appalachian Mountains that the "frontier is the future."

However, this American predilection for freedom and opportunity is under attack, Robbins asserts, even if we do not realize it.

"American identity is fighting a two-front war, against globalists seeking to dilute it, and multiculturalists trying to carve it up," he says.

A scan of headlines from the last few years reveals the cultural battle lines.

President Barack Obama has twice declared Americans "citizens of the world" in speeches in Berlin, most recently last month.

The characterization reflects a disconnect between the globalist push for international agreements and the American tradition of relying on family, neighborhood, and local governance.

On the multicultural front, Americans are routinely discouraged from displaying their patriotism too overtly.

Five Californian high school students were sent home in 2010 because school administrators viewed their American flag shirts and bandanas as "incendiary" to Mexican-American students on Cinco de Mayo.

The reluctance to teach an inclusive message about American values at the risk of offending a particular group persists despite European leaders’ repeated claims that the multicultural project has "failed" overseas, Robbins writes.

The rise of multiculturalism also appears to be the proverbial elephant in the room in the current U.S. immigration debate. Businesses are quick to tout the economic benefits of welcoming millions more low-skilled immigrants for cheap labor, but policymakers neglect to address the assimilation struggles and declining social mobility of later generations of immigrants already here.

Robbins does not advocate a nativist exclusion of immigrants. Those who embrace American ideals such as communal and democratic participation deserve to be part of the country’s experiment "whether they are from a family that has been in the United States for two months or two hundred years," he says.

Robbins’ flaw is that he does not focus enough on the need to restore vibrant communities that have been drifting apart due to waning participation in religious and civic associations.

Edmund Burke, the 18th century member of Parliament who Robbins notes was an admirer of the "fierce spirit of liberty" in the English colonies and a proponent of reconciliation with them, hints at such a blueprint for renewal in his classic work, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

"To love the little platoon we belong to in society," Burke suggests, "is the first principle … of public affections."

"It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind."

Robbins does point to a sign of hope in the 2000 census results. More than 20 million people declared "American" as their sole ancestry rather than "German" or "African American," for example, a 63 percent increase and the largest growth of any group during the 1990s.

The trend supports his belief that the American identity is not a race, ethnicity, or social construct: it is an idea. And that idea is worth preserving.