David Brook’s essay explores how we have lost our common national narrative. America was imbued with conquest through a faith in Providence, a desire for betterment, gritty community and personal sacrifice, the exploitation of labor and the conquest of lands. Our founding embodied an empowering wisdom which proved to be a solid foundation for American endeavor.
An Empowered Civilization
The American spirit was hopeful and resilient, even dogged. We identified as a chosen civilization and believed that if we could maintain our providential march, we would conquer most of our continent and improve it in the process.
Combined with this robust and assured spirit, our better selves often forgave our enemies their opposition, seeking long-run engagement rather than short-run revenge.
Supporting The Vanquished
The author Elizabeth Brown Pryor in her work Reading the Man, maintains General Winfield Scott initially determined the actions of hard-fought expansionary war should not include brutality on the population by the victorious army. She wrote,
“Scott also invented the idea of the generous victor, a principle that still makes Americans proud. There was no international law of occupation – not even a viable model for such – at the time that Scott conquered Vera Cruz, Puebla, and Mexico City (during America’s Mexican War). He maintained that he was there not to triumph over a people but to win an enduring peace, and seemed instinctively to understand the importance of keeping the population on his side.” Pryor, Reading the Man, p 174.
Redemption from Which Unification Flows
Our finest hours happened when Generals Grant and Sherman accepted the unconditional surrender of Generals Lee’s and Johnson’s defeated Confederate armies and, of course, the Marshal Plan. The Truman Administration achieved the Marshal Plan after our victory in World War II. In all of these cases, a groundwork was set for acceptance through redemption from which unification flowed.
The unification of Americans after the Civil War and the extension of America’s active participation in treaty alliances after WWII were fundamental bases of American power and economic affluence during the Twentieth Century.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
As Brooks notes, our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, embraced redemption and its long-term benefits in his Second Inaugural Address. The speech is short and explains why the war was fought.
He observed, “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
He discussed the causality of slavery to the conflict and then reversing-his-field considered common traits among Americans, North and South. His conclusion is providential, looking with a spirit of amelioration to establish a redemptive future through facilitated healing and good works in pursuit of a “just and lasting peace”.
With Charity for All
In the last paragraph he said,
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” (President Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address,” March, 1865
Redemption And Reckoning
Redemption may well involve a common American spirit now indiscernible, but hopefully latent. We must overcome views of history that have apparently splintered amongst Americans. In my schoolhouse 60 years ago, the image of America was energetic, strong and virtuous. The common narrative was that we were good. As David Brooks observed in his essay, that is different now.
“The narratives that appeal today are predicated on division and disappointment. The multicultural narrative, dominant in every schoolhouse, says that America is divided into different biological groups and the status of each group is defined by the oppression that it has suffered.” (David Brooks, “The Redeemer Nation” New York Times, November 23, 2017
Many Americans, often older, see the country as great and virtuous, though under the spell of disconnected and corrupt governance. Other Americans want reckonings, believing we have oppressed many of our fellow countrymen who deserve justice for the abuse.
Debts and Debtors
Once we believed in the common American narrative grievances should be addressed by acting on the famous prayer at Matthew 6:12 “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Now, I believe, the general sentiment is that only losers forgive or for many Americans, the words in Matthew have no particular actual moral force, they are only utterances some mutter at Sunday church services.
We cannot unify America if we exalt it without engaging its failings (our history is complicated) or conversely condemn it without working towards its redemption.
We need to understand our debts within a context of improvement and we must forgive our debtors and seek to engage them as fellow Americans. But today there seems to be little force or power in this notion. Many of us are comfortable separating into self-assured and sometimes self-righteous identity-tribes, impervious to the spirit of a common national narrative.
Tribal Transactional Times
We live, often tribally, in an intense transactional time. Because 24 hours news is on our television and smart phone, the pressure of the moment is always upon us.
Results are seen as “deals” and the craft of the transaction, irrespective of merits, is exalted. We have no guilt in looking for advantage, or “leverage” to achieve our personal ends irrespective of what harm this may create or the truth of the engagement in its recounting.
Necessary Conditions for National Narrative
If we are to make a common national narrative more compelling, I believe two factors are necessary conditions. First, unity of purpose seems to most often occur in response to a common American challenge such as a war, natural catastrophe, or more affirmatively, a leap forward such as landing a man on the Moon. These challenges wake us up and encourage us to look more towards our common good and our strengths as Americans. We can re-discover what is good about America.
Second, the leadership needs to be wise. It must act upon initially solving the pressing need and then to achieve transformation, acting upon our future. This was the cadence of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
A 2013 article in the Atlantic provides additional insight. In this article, Abraham Lincoln was found as the most unifying American President. The reinforcing fact is the overall rate was 21% when compared with all other presidents, while in the South against which he engaged against the considerable force of the United States military, the rate was 20%.
Based upon this there is hope for American unity with a common narrative. The prerequisites are time and personality. We also should believe resilient actions affirm durable truths. We must expect more than reactive (e.g., “counterpunching”) transactional solutions. Instead we must expect to be blessed with a wisdom that guides us towards providential, durable truths.
Our guide will not be the messiah nor the strong man, but instead a person invested with a trans-tribal wisdom, generally viewed by Americans as acting upon an American purpose effectively and justly and then with accumulated good will, advancing our common spirit, bringing us together.