16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2007
This book is pithy and clear. Walzer's America is dynamic. The fluidity of the national conscience is grounded in America's most prominent and politically salient feature: we are immigrants. Walzer writes, "the political culture of the country as a whole was English and Protestant, but this culture was never firmly established either in the symbols or the substance of law and policy" (pg. 9). National unity is difficult to achieve and will "probably always be tumultuous" (pg. 12).
Walzer provides a "brief checklist" on how to reassert the "twinned American values of a singular citizenship and a radically pluralist civil society" (pg. 17). This checklist is in six points: (1) remember we are a "society of immigrants" when we discuss our national conscience; (2) "Strengthen our public schools;" (3) Recognize the civic quality "parochial associations;" (4) "maintain the neutrality of the state" because (for example) "the United States cannot be a Christian republic in the way that Iran is an Islamic republic;" (5) "Create a more participatory politics;" (6) Although "silliness" and "nastiness" inevitably accompany democratic politics these features should be marginalized. (For these 6 points see pgs. 17-19).
After that introduction, Walzer presents four essays that I will summarize below:
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN "AMERICAN"?
"If the manyness of America is cultural, its oneness is political, and it may be the case that men and women who are free from non-American cultures will commit themselves more fully to the American political system. Maybe cultural anonymity is the best possible grounding for American politics" (pg. 29). Walzer thinks that the Great Seal of the USA, E pluribus unum "From many, one," is misleading because the uniqueness of America is that we do not know what that one is, we are immigrants, we are "Hyphenated Americans" (e.g. Italian-Americans, African-Americans, etc; see pgs. 36-40). Even today, "America is still a radically unfinished society" (pg. 48). Patriotism is largely unique in America because unlike the "Old World" where loyalty is to the patrie or the fatherland (or motherland), in America loyalty is often evoked by referring to traditions and standards that were developed from our immigrant-histories. Thus Walzer says beautifully, "Americans have no inwardness of their own; they look inward only by looking backward" (pg. 26).
PLURALISM: A POLITCAL PERSPECTIVE
Here, Walzer's discussion of the relationship between the public and private life of an American is more detailed. "Americans are communal in their private affairs, individualist in their politics. Civil society is a collection of groups; the state is an organization of individual citizens" (pg. 67). Again attacking the Great Seal, "Not only From many, one, but also Within one, many" (pg. 62). Within that latter notion, Walzer describes how the function of "ethnic self-assertion" has given rise to healthy pluralism: (1) by "the defense of ethnicity against cultural naturalization;" (2) the "celebration of this or that identity;" (3) to "build and sustain the reborn community" through government's institutional mechanisms (pgs. 62-68).
CIVILITY & CIVIC VIRTUE IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICA
We expect citizens to both be tolerant and understand its virtue. "This is probably as close as we can come to that `friendship' which Aristotle thought should characterize relations among members of the same political community" (pg. 89-90). Aristotle once said that (to paraphrase) where justice is we need friendship and where friendship is we will not need justice (see the Nicomachean Ethics). Walzer knows that Aristotelian friendship is "only possible" for the polis. Friendship does not enlarge when the polis enlarges to the cosmopolis. Instead, a feature of friendship, tolerance, is needed. It becomes, "a crucial form of civility" (pg. 90). "Politics is a school of loyalty, through which we make the republic our moral possession and come to regard it with a kind of reverence. And election day is the republic's most important celebration" (pg. 100).
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS AND THE SHAPE OF CIVIL SOCIETY
Walzer interprets the document of our "civic religion as "The Two Texts" which are the "Constitution itself" and the Bill of Rights coupled with the subsequent amendments "that are now read in terms of rights theory" (pg. 105). These two texts are quite different; they are "dissimilar in style, opposite to one another as political programs, [yet] intimately joined in practice" (pg. 105; my brackets). Walzer focuses this essay largely on how the notion of rights have developed. "In the last several decades...the Constitution's second text [rights theory amendments] has come fully into its own. Instead of a set of restraints on the operation of the state machine, the Bill of Rights is more and more taken to describe the purpose of the machine. Once it was said that the government must not violate individual rights as it goes about its business. Now it is said that the chief business of government is to realize individual rights. Rights these days are less things to have -and therefore ought to have right now" (pgs. 111-112).