Friday, June 5, 2009

U.S. National Interest: Toward a Common Identity

The concept of national interest presupposes a common identity within a political community. Common identity is the “social cement” that binds people together. It answers the basic questions: How do I define “self”? How do I fit in? How is this society different than others? Who is the enemy and who is our friend? What are “good” goals? How do we achieve goals? In other words, common identity is the focal point for all civil interactions. Edward Shills defines common identity as the “central zone” of society. He explains that this central zone:

is a phenomenon of the realm of values and beliefs. It is the center of the order of symbols, of values and beliefs, which govern society. It is the center because it is the ultimate and irreducible.... The central zone partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every society has an “official” religion, even when that society or its exponents are interpreters conceive of it, more or less correctly, as a secular, pluralistic, and tolerant society. (Charles F. Andrain, Political Life and Social Change, Belmont: Duxbury Press, 1975, p. 55)

To understand the Untied States’ national identity, we need to look closer at the “ultimate, irreducible official religion” of this country. Rarely, even in a homogeneous society, can one pinpoint a single identity. The problem is even more complex with the Untied States due to the pluralistic and complex nature of its civil society. Yet every society, including the United States, must make assumptions, either purposely or subconsciously through their actions, about what is reality, what is “good,” ad how (if possible) is “the good” achieved. Answers to these concerns are provided by shared values, norms, and expressive symbols. Each of these ideas exist on separate planes of understanding and together provide the superstructure of the common identity that defines society.

Shared values characterize the irreducible metaphysical assumptions of society and set the course for norms and symbols. These are highly general concepts of the desirable and set the criteria for deciding courses of action. Society may never fully realize these values in actual situations due to their abstract nature and the complex linkages that connect them to specific application. Values are also complex in themselves as they stem from four separate sources: 1) primordial values (first order attachments—biological family), 2) sacred values (religious, ideological), 3) personal values (common attachments that are not biological), and 4) civil values (political, civil society).

Values set society on a trajectory that directly defines the second level of common identity, norms. These represent more specific statements of the more general values of the first level. They are the generally accepted intellectual attitudes about reality and “the good,” which set general guidelines, rights and obligations indicating how society and its members may realize values. Norms are tightly interwoven into the fabric of society and become part of the culture.

The third level of common identity is described by expressive symbols which are the manifestation, in specific form, of values and norms and convey the meaning of these more abstract concepts to civil society. These symbols are instruments, not answers, in connecting desirable values, mobilizing society and resources toward a specific goal, stimulating group cohesion and serving as a societal memory bank with which to weigh actions. Expressive symbols take form as people, such as George Washington; songs, such as “America the Beautiful;” symbols, such s “Old Glory;” holidays, such as Veteran’s Day;” and the written word, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America; to name a few.

To fully comprehend the American national interest than, we need to look closer at these three levels of the American common identity. I will investigate these issues in my next blog post.

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