The 2007 Bradley Symposium, entitled “Who Are We Today? American Character and Identity in the Twenty-First Century,” was held on May 3, 2007 at the Four Seasons Hotel, Washington DC, and attended by over 150 people.
- Event summary (PDF format, 4 pages, 45 KB)
Event Background and Commissioned Essays
What is the condition of our national character or identity?
Multiculturalism, postmodernism, intolerant secular relativism, uncontrolled borders, a toxic culture, the rise of radical Islam, the decline in civic understanding and awareness, the growth of “transnational” beliefs and institutions – these powerful trends seem to be tugging at and undermining our peculiar American sense of national character or identity.
Who are we today?
American conservatism has always prided itself on its ability to define and defend our national sense of self. Liberalism, on the other hand, often seems less resistant – sometimes even hospitable – to corrosive contemporary trends.
What can we do to halt or reverse corrosive trends? What in particular can philanthropy contribute to this effort?
Commissioned essays on these questions by Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Manhattan Institute’s John McWhorter, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things served as the basis for discussion at the 2007 Bradley Symposium held on Thursday, May 3, 2007. Ten distinguished panelists joined an audience of approximately 150 invited guests in vigorous discussion.
Program and Panel
Introduction by William Schambra, Hudson Institute
Introduction by Amy Kass, moderator, University of Chicago and Hudson Institute
Panel discussion: Who are we today?
Panel discussion: What can philanthropy do?
Summary of the Discussion
Moderator Amy Kass gave a short description of each of the three commissioned essays to seed the discussion.
1. Wilfred McClay wrote that core liberal qualities make our country what it is: inclusiveness, skepticism, tolerance, openness, free markets, and free expression. Current, progressive trends by which these qualities are exaggerated to a fault can be easily halted or reversed by appealing to tradition, common sense, and stabilizers such as the rule of law, the discipline of work, intact families, and settled mores.
2. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus pointed to our specific constitutional contract – and its underlying covenant – as the core of our American identity. “To say that we are ‘under God’ is to speak of promise, but it is, at least as importantly, to speak of a nation under judgment,” he wrote. In other words, Americans are joined together in believing that we must give account of ourselves, as individuals and as a society, before a transcendent judge.
3. John McWhorter described the attitude of “therapeutic alienation” among Americans as an alarming development of the past thirty years – a “general sense that especially to be an enlightened person or an interesting person, one is to be an alienated person,” as he told the audience during the discussion. This attitude has gained the upper hand in our culture, and any concept of identity not drawn from anger about alienation is seen as illegitimate, McWhorter’s essay describes. He fears that America’s historic identity has been lost.
Part I. Who Are We?
Among the panelists, Yuval Levin opened the discussion by differentiating between the two kinds of conservatism exhibited in the essays, in his view: Authors Bill McClay and Father Neuhaus suggested that who we are today is really not all that different from who’ve we’ve always been, and that the challenge that we confront today is the age-old challenge of American identity. Levin called this view “the conservatism of continuity.”
In contrast with McClay and Neuhaus, Levin went on to say, McWhorter sees the challenge facing America as unprecedented. Levin called this the “conservatism of near despair.” “It says that our time is a great decline from the past, and what we have to do is not sustain but recover, and not continue but resist.”
Several of the panelists made observations in support of McWhorter’s view. John O’Sullivan pointed out that many people in America actively support those fighting against America, so acute is their discomfort with American patriotism. James Q. Wilson described how redistricting actually cements these views in some parts of the country, a particularly worrisome trend. But in contrast, Linda Chavez remarked that some acts of anti-war protest seen as acceptable in the 1960s are simply unacceptable today. “No one is spitting on soldiers,” she noted.
Overall, hopefulness was sustained. The concept of American exceptionalism was brought up by Thernstrom, Wilson, Neuhaus, and Levin to explain both American pride as a land of immigrants and the singular task we face in defining ourselves. Levin summed it up as such: “A healthy American society actually looks different from other healthy societies.” Americans, he pointed out, are encouraged in their distrust of the American government in a way that makes dissent part of what it means to be American. People are encouraged to stand up for their rights as individuals. “It makes it hard for us to compare ourselves in trying to assess the health of our society.”
In light of recent headlines, the comments about American exceptionalism quickly developed into a vigorous discussion about immigration. On the one hand, America defines itself as a nation of immigrants, noted Thernstrom. But on the other, there is a backlash against immigration today even as there is an ongoing debate about whether and how immigrants might be assimilated. Each of these facts was discussed in turn, with no consensus about them on the panel.
The question also arose whether our Congressional leadership truly represents the wishes of the American people, or whether districts are too often redrawn to cement support for particular policies. This happens on both the Right and Left, and is aggravated by the media, Wilson pointed out. That said, there are truly deep divisions in the American electorate, Wilson went on to say. Similarly, Father Neuhaus stated that the Roe v. Wade ruling continues to divide the country; he called on Americans to “more persuasively propose, not in a narrow, partisan way, but rather a powerfully appealing way, the narrative of the covenant,” an “encompassing and empowering narrative” that is greater than partisan differences.
In both the essays and the discussion, America’s response to 9/11 was taken to be indicative of American pride in and confusion about our identity. Douthat and Blankenhorn saw a failure of leadership in allowing American unity to slip away from us at a time when we needed it most.
Ross Douthat suggested that one aspect of the failure to seize America’s 9/11 moment is nervousness about potential religious interpretations and overtones. “The language of evangelicalism still rings almost tinnily in the ears of many Americans and has a sectarian caste that social conservatives can’t escape.”
Douthat also suggested that small-government Republicans are unsure what to do as leaders of government. “Do we ask Americans to sacrifice for a common purpose or do we tell them to go out and go shopping?” he wondered. David Blankenhorn and others took issue with the idea that Americans – as opposed to American leaders – were unclear what to do. Americans wanted to do whatever we could to help, Blankenhorn emphasized and John O’Sullivan underscored.
McWhorter continued to press the panel on whether what everyday Americans were doing was really enough to bolster American identity against the predominantly anti-American culture. (Chavez invited him to visit her in rural Virginia for a different perspective.)
Education was another key topic during the discussion. Are our universities instilling students with the values that gird American society? Does it matter if they are not? Here, Wilson was optimistic. Those students who rebel against their teachers, as students do, will have only one direction to go on the ideological scale, he seemed to suggest: right.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali described in a way that many panelists found useful the fact that American individualism actually strengthens American community. “[T]he institutions and infrastructure that protect individual freedom produce [citizens] who are loyal out of their own free will. Through a [sense of] obligation to that community, they feel the need to be patriotic and the need to defend that community, and perhaps even the need to go and bring it to the world.”
Finally, part of the discussion simply addressed the question: Whom do we ask “Who are we?” and how do we know? How useful is survey research in helping to gauge American identity? The panelists had various views.
Part II. What Can Philanthropy Do?
The panelists had specific answers to the question posed to them for the second half of the morning’s discussion, the question of what philanthropy can do.
John McWhorter: Support efforts at high schools and universities to restore pride in the use of our language.
Linda Chavez: Support efforts to assimilate immigrants and teach English. Blankenhorn agreed, calling for programs at public libraries, for example. Levin called for volunteers to do this work. Ayaan Hirsi Ali noted that immigrants need to work hard to assimilate, and that they may come to resent or feel overly dependent on state-led programs. “Only when the immigrant gets stuck and needs help should help be there and be provided; we shouldn’t start with it.” She also added that American values are different from those brought by many Muslim immigrants, for example, and it’s clear – and we shouldn’t shy away from appealing to immigrants’ sense of reason – that American values are better.
James Wilson: Support the American Council on Trustees and Alumni effort to make alumni and trustees more active in the management of universities. Support David Horowitz in his effort to get campuses to adopt a free speech amendment. Finance films – and to this John O’Sullivan added television series. Finance charter and voucher schools.
Stephan Thernstrom: Support programs like the National Endowment on the Humanities’ “We the People” program, which teaches American history. Fund a school of education that would promote this view of American history and culture. Here, Ross Douthat expressed doubt that creating new institutions would be most productive; why can’t we change existing institutions? he asked.
David Blankenhorn: Fund engagement with the Arab and Muslim world. This point generated some questions from the audience, including one about the dismantling of the United States Information Agency by a former high-level official there. Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out that such funding would work only if Muslim and Arab leaders wanted to engage, too, and in her experience they don’t. “They are seeking every possible strategy to preserve their own power,” she stated. What is required is not engagement but a full frontal assault in an ideological sense, Hirsi Ali added, pointing out the success of the Saudis in advancing Islam through their charities. She decried American nonprofits’ solely material aid to poor Muslim countries.
In the course of the conversation, Father Neuhaus noted the tendency of philanthropic foundations to veer to the left, politically; Wilson seconded this view, and urged a closer look at donor intent and the life-span of foundations, to keep politically conservative-leaning foundations conservative.
As the panel concluded, moderator Amy Kass pointed out that many issues did not come up – for example, the role of the family – and many questions were left on the table. “It’s always a good sign that there are more questions to be asked than time to answer them,” she concluded, and thanked the panel.
The Bradley Symposium is an annual discussion convened by Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center. Information and documents from past Bradley Symposia can be accessed via the Related Past Events module at the bottom of this page. To request further information on these events or the Bradley Center, please contact Hudson Institute at (202) 974-2424 or e-mail Krista.