When National and Metaphysical Narratives Become Pure Abstractions

“I literally hate my family so much,” a teenager states in one of many celebrated, viral, “anti-racist” videos publicly denouncing her parents and hometown for their reaction to George Floyd’s murder. “I do not wanna live here . . . I hate livin’ around these racist[s].” This politicized teen angst perfectly encapsulates the way Americans think about politics.

The civil unrest roiling the nation drives home just how disconnected our political imagination has become from our homes. By political imagination I mean the framework of meaning and symbolism by which we understand ourselves politically: the way our minds conceive of our political connections, principles, obligations, purposes, and identity. These political imaginations have been severed from and sometimes—as in the video—pitted against the things we typically love for their own sake—our homes.

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Roger Scruton, a great proponent of a home-centered politics, differentiated between a political identity shaped by a “sense of purpose” and one shaped by a sense of “purposelessness.” The purposeless politics is centered on those things that we value for their own sake, which typically constitute the things most immediate to us—our families, friends, churches, associations, and communities. Our attachment to such things is not driven by any overriding moral cause, but by the fact that we feel the importance of them in our daily lives, instinctively grasp their goodness, and seek to preserve them.

At the most basic level, our communal life consists of our participation in these groups and associations. Grounded in such a lived reality, citizens might then conceive of broader political life as an outgrowth of this home life, understanding the value of national and even international commitments because we sense the importance of such commitments to our homes. As Scruton put it, “our existence as citizens, freely participating in the polis, is made possible by our enduring attachments to the things we hold dear.”

But nothing could be farther from the political imagination of America today. At best, political attitudes are shaped by a broad, foggy conception of what America is or by some theoretical ideal—be it equality of conditions, a set of abstract rights, or just personal license—to which we demand the real world conform itself.

Political centralization has played a part in this development. As political power shifted from the local to the national level—sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad—our conception of politics and citizenship naturally became less associated with our communities.

Even more important than political centralization, however, have been social, economic, and technological advancements. Ease of transportation weakens our attachment to place. But even for those who remain rooted, the consumption and discussion of political issues has moved from the local paper and local pub to cable television and social media. Consequently, our conception of politics lost its connection with our home life. We only carry on discussions now through broad, abstract frameworks shorn of any tangible context: grand debates over universal values or ultimate national purposes that cut across the variety of local circumstances.

These broader political imaginations hinge on what Scruton called a “sense of purpose”: devotion to “the idea of America,” the concept of “American greatness,” or the belief in the inevitable expansion of equality and personal freedom from all restraint. To the extent that our immediate communal life has anything to do with these, it is only in our expectation that it conform to these standards developed elsewhere.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a commitment to the nation or political ideals, and both can be necessary to protect and perfect our homes. Without expanding political horizons, our ideas can become so narrowly parochial as to blind us to a full conception of communal goods. But when these national and metaphysical narratives become pure abstractions—claims that we are expected to adopt intellectually, but that we do not intuit in our actual lives—and when they become not just one part but the entirety of our political imagination, they are both destructive and liable to be undermined by other, more corrosive narratives.

One need only read a few lines of Burke to see how such abstract conceptions can be destructive. They encourage us to force the world around us into the Procrustean beds of our ideas. This might mean mistreating racial or ethnic minorities that don’t fit the prescribed definition of a nation, internet-shaming those who refuse to update their beliefs to get on “the right side of history,” or, if one is really zealous enough, guillotining some aristocrats.

But these imaginations are also remarkably weak. By and large, we create these national and idealistic identities by telling stories about who we are as a people and where we came from—stories that, as Robert Nisbet noted in his classic The Quest for Community, are “inescapably selective” in that they must emphasize certain parts of a story and deemphasize others. Consequently, our political imagination becomes susceptible to being undermined by academic fads or theories that show us the inevitable flaws in our understanding. The seemingly complete success of the “1619 Project,” despite its egregious historical distortions, is a striking example.

Nearly all the various and competing political identities of the day—whether cosmopolitan, nationalist, or identitarian in nature—are some form of purposive narrative to which we are expected to subscribe. This shared intellectual commitment then, is supposed to create a political bond among people who have never met and feel no instinctive commonality.

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These narrative-driven American political imaginations encourage us to see our own life, daily experience, and community as irrelevant to politics except to the extent that it serves to reinforce our commitment to broader “truths.” We can see such views at work in the civil unrest roiling the nation since the unjust killing of George Floyd. Consider polling on black attitudes toward local police. Despite overall mixed feelings about police generally, a June poll showed that 72 percent of blacks were very or somewhat satisfied with their local police department, and only 5 percent were very dissatisfied. Yet the narrative that the relationship between African Americans and police is defined by mutual hatred is overwhelmingly powerful. We instinctively ignore the local and personal realities in front of us because our minds conceive of political and social issues as something above and detached from these realities.

Our political imagination can even become a destructive rival to our physical homes. Consider the impulse to riot (and to rationalize riots): By burning down a store in one’s own neighborhood, the rioter opts to signal the correct ideological stance in a way that will garner national or even international attention, rather than to improve life in the small circle in which it is possible to do so.

Consider also the residents of the neighborhood around Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis who, in keeping with their view of “social justice,” made a pact not to call the police about activity surrounding a massive homeless encampment. The encampment has brought in drug dealers, assaults, shootings, and thefts. A man whose car was stolen instinctively called the police, against the neighborhood covenant, but later regretted it: “It was my instinct but I wish it hadn’t been.” One can hear in these words the victory of ideology over the unthinking instinct to protect oneself and one’s home.

We can further see the antipathy toward our homes in the goals the movement pursues, which either rectify abstract “injustices” that don’t actually hurt anyone (like sports teams, statues, or editorials) or provide abstract “solutions” (like defunding police) that are more likely to hurt than help real people in real communities.

Finally, these modern, universalist political imaginations also distort the way we think about our history. We can’t help but make the discussion about public symbols of history—monuments, names, honorifics, etc.—national or even metaphysical in scope: Who or what is worthy of memorializing according to some universal standard? The result is a futile attempt to calculate worth by adding and subtracting good and bad actions, qualities, and historical impact to see who winds up on the right side of the ledger, like the aged Cephalus in Plato’s Republic offering just enough sacrifices in his old age to make up for the misdeeds of his youth.

Historical memorials, however, often have richer meanings, which reflect the sense of “purposelessness” Scruton had in mind. Aside from the simple aesthetics of a place, they often represent the lived history of a community. They physically symbolize the real history of a place and community, and with some exceptional figures like George Washington, they connect it to a broader national or international story. Removing such symbols may not “destroy history” if we see history simply as an intellectual pursuit, but it does destroy the link between our homes and our history. Yale without its name, Virginia scrubbed of Lee, or a Nelsonless Trafalgar Square would be hollowed-out locales, regardless of the ultimate meaning of any of those individuals.

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“The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular.” Dostoevsky famously dissects this sentiment in The Brothers Karamazov. Like the teenager denouncing her family and community, the universalized political imaginations of the 21st century demand that we subject the homes and communities we instinctively value to the exacting justice of abstractly “humane” ideals. Perhaps a healthier politics would take its bearings from our love of home, rather than the other way around.

John G. Grove is associate editor of Law & Liberty.

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