Democracy Symposium: Cantamos los Estados Unidos

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Democracy. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

We watch a substantial amount of Univisión (and Telemundo) in our house. It started some years ago when I realized that they provided another option for watching the big international soccer competitions—i.e. the European Cup, the Copa América, and World Cup. It only expanded as I got hooked on the commentary. If your Spanish is up to the task, Pablo Ramírez and Jesús Bracamontes are far, far better than any of the English-language analysts available to soccer fans watching stateside (N.B. It’s not even close—try to imagine Taylor Twellman this excited about a goal. You can’t.). By the time the London Olympics started, I was hooked for other sports as well.

During the 2010 World Cup, Univisión developed a sorting theme for their viewers: as the tournament wore on, they classified teams as “uno de los nuestros” (“one of ours”) or not. This took a number of forms during the coverage. Game commentators introduced the match as a faceoff between competing members of “our” community or as a tilt between “us” and some alien “them.” During coverage breaks, they’d kick viewers back to Univisión central where people dressed in the national uniforms of all of “our” countries would make predictions for upcoming games and dance—led by women in matching bikinis.

You’re probably thinking that you could name most of the teams that Univisión included in their privileged community—and you’d probably be (mostly) right. Most of “los nuestros” were the countries of Latin America, but the United States also made the cut. That’s right—we got a dancing woman in a bikini as well. We also got preferential treatment from the commentators. Fans supporting various Latin American countries were urged to support us when we faced off against “others” like England, Slovenia, and Algeria.

This was presented without any question. Indeed, the only debate seemed to be over whether or not Spain counted as one of “los nuestros.” Several Univisión commentators accepted them without question, but at least one recalled past racism that he faced as a Latin American player in Spain decades earlier.

And…*ahem.* Throat-clearing done. All of this lengthy prelude gets me back to the Olympics, and to the point I’m trying to make.

The coolest thing about the above example, I think, is how it reveals the true American Dream to be something other than simple class mobility. Ours is a country that’s admired not only as a land of economic opportunity, but also as a nation where pluralism has pride of place. At its best, America is a country that celebrates difference (of all sorts) as part of the national identity binding us together. In other words, our national core is a bridge from the parochial to the cosmopolitan. To be American is to partake in a particular tradition, but it is not a fixed or static stream. Ours is as fluid and changing as it is inclusive. Whatever else we are, we Americans are all voices in “the varied carols” that Whitman heard when he heard America singing.

The Olympics drive that home as beautifully and poignantly as anything else. We’ve heard plenty about how American gymnasts Danell Leyva and John Orozco represent a new and encouraging diversity in their sport, but they’re hardly the only stories (Cf. runner Leo Manzano, one-time undocumented immigrant from Mexico). The United States’ national soccer teams exemplify the diversity that makes us great. In the last few years we’ve called up players of Latin, Asian, African, and European American backgrounds—on and off the pitch, Brian Ching and Oguchi Onyewu are as American as Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. The women’s team offers similar stories. Sure, this happens elsewhere too—Cf. Brazilian-born Croatian striker Eduardo—but in the USA it’s a pattern, not just an occasional opportunistic exception.

Univisión’s comfortable inclusion of the United States in the crowd of “los nuestros” is a testament to the health of this part of our tradition. They take it for granted that the country’s Spanish-speaking community sees itself as part of the broader American community.

And yes, to some degree this is nothing more than a reiteration of old, obvious things. “Unity in Diversity” isn’t a new idea—it’s as trite and clichéd as, well, House of Blues kitsch. But it bears repeating in an era when ugly, intolerant, and historically inaccurate tropes about America’s Anglo-Saxon (read “whites of a certain sort”) heritage have been newly resurrected.

There are much more interesting questions lurking behind the (usually unprofitable) “are we/aren’t we a Christian or Protestant or WASP or plural nation?” debates: Just how much common ground does a liberal democracy need? Is there a point where a country becomes so diverse as to be unrecognizable as a distinct entity? In other words, can our cosmopolitanism eventually swallow up the things that make us American? And above all—have we already reached that tipping point?[1]

Here’s a provisional answer: liberalism and democracy are at least partly in tension. Technically speaking, liberalism is the doctrine that takes individuals and their rights to be the fundamental variables at issue in political life. A host of familiar theories stem from this—most famously the social contract and many defenses of free markets. Democracy, meanwhile, is the system of governance which takes equal political participation and majority rule as the means for settling disputes and setting policy.

(Yes, these definitions are problematic and contested and incomplete. It’s a blog post, not a discussion seminar. Approximate building blocks will have to do.)

You see, individual rights define zones of behavior where public tolerance rules. If you’ve a right to religious conscience, your choice of how and where to worship will be largely left alone. This is—fortunately—a familiar mechanism, since Americans have progressively expanded public tolerance to include women, humans of all races, and so on and so forth.

The problem: that expansion of tolerance has always had universalist pretensions. The original liberals were deeply suspicious of circumscribed traditions, since those often provided a guise for coercion and intolerance. For example, your charming local tradition of burning religious heretics (or those who don’t recognize your Savior as their own) at the stake violates their rights to a number of things. Your clergy’s tradition of exercising land-use privileges prevents many thousands of humans from owning any property. Your tradition of using your daughters as economic and political bargaining chips prevents them from enjoying the freedom of choosing love and a life of their own design. Traditions hide privilege—and they can be hidden nigh on anywhere.

Most of us would agree that those were laudable expansions of inclusiveness, but at some point liberalism’s corrosiveness reaches a tipping point where traditions continue to be eroded regardless of their relationship to privilege. Instead, they’re criticized and eliminated because they are awkward—all the more so now that they’re isolated from the erstwhile frameworks within which they developed. Liberalism destroys these things, sometimes in the name of markets, or Reason, or the universal fellowship of all humans. Soon we are blithely certain that a free, secular market will break out everywhere at the end of history—and that this is imminent.

And I’m playing fast and loose and skipping tons of chapters in the narrative here, but suffice it to say that at some further point in this process it becomes clear that national boundaries are just one further stumbling block on the path towards full freedom from tradition. At some point it occurs to us that national allegiances are outmoded and inadequate to our burgeoning cosmopolitanism. If you live on either American coast, you know a lot of people who think this way.

That gets us to the problem: democratic decision-making relies upon sharing enough to form majorities. It usually requires public debate over decisions (though I suppose it’s theoretically possible to have democracy without deliberation). As I’ve written recently, meaningful deliberation requires sharing some common, substantive convictions with our opponents. Humans who share nothing are alien to each other, while humans who share everything have nothing to discuss. Without a common political, cultural, and/or moral tradition, we’re left with a very thin political life. Limiting though it may be, tradition is the stuff that politics is made of.

In sum: liberalism eats away at the ties that bind us together—and that’s often an unquestionably good thing. It fuels the pluralist tolerance that allows American Latinos to see the United States as one of “los nuestros.” Democracy depends upon a thick, shared background that can be interpreted and discussed before political actions are taken. Obviously democratic majorities have frequently been marshaled in service of astonishing violence and striking cruelty. There is nothing inherently good about traditions or deliberation—but it’s difficult to sustain anything like a meaningful democracy without either. The point I’m after is about the processes involved, not necessarily the ends that have periodically been reached.

So liberal democracies may have an unstable core. On its own, that’s no reason to be alarmed—though we might take it as a salutary reminder that they are not as inevitable or end-of-history-type stable as we sometimes pretend. We also might bridge that tension by means of a further distinction (and one that many preceding liberal democrats have noted). Not all pluralism is created equal—nor is all cosmopolitanism. Though expanded public tolerance threatens to spill into public nihilism, there’s nothing guaranteeing that it will do so.

If liberal democracy has a future, it will rest upon prudentially tacking back and forth along that boundary line. It will always be pulled towards erosion of particular and traditional limits, and this will sometimes be precisely what is most needed. Sometimes it will not. The American genius in this regard has almost always come down to pacing. When old prerogatives fall, we’ve often had the good sense to incorporate the new cosmopolitanism into our own past. We’ve re-written and reinterpreted core American documents to explain how we’ve always meant to include this, that, or the other new group all along. We’ve gradually included more cosmopolitanism into our own parochial tradition. Of course, this organic incorporation is only possible if we take things slow.

Looking for the next big expansion of tolerance? Let’s include more soccer on our televisions and in our culture writ large—but only if Ramírez and Bracamontes get the commentary gig.

(Photo: Univisión)

Conor P. Williams borrowed a lot of this argument from Michael Oakeshott. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Feed his fragile ego by following on FacebookTwitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.com. His email address is punditconor@gmail.com.


[1] Here’s some red meat for the comments section: I suspect that something like that final question is what’s driving a lot of the “take our country back” pushes on the American Right. A certain segment of the population (Cf. this poll) can’t help see President Obama as a member of “the other,” the “not-American.” There’s almost no limit to the ways that conservatives have written him out of the American community. He has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. He “pals around with terrorists.” He attended a radical madrassa overseas. He is cosmopolitan and socialist and Europhilic and so on and so forth. Even when they deign to grant him membership in our national tradition, they dismiss him as a master of Chicago-style corruption. Almost every president to date has inspired sustained loathing on the part of his most committed opponents (Cf. Lincoln), but no other has had his patriotism so frequently doubted or the adequacy of his American-ness so often called into question.

 

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54 thoughts on “Democracy Symposium: Cantamos los Estados Unidos

  1. The difference between the traditions that are indispensable for common ground and those that can be thrown off in the name of freedom in my experience generally comes down to whether one’s own freedom is the freedom being restrained by the tradition.

    More importantly, I think this analysis buys a little too much into pluralism’s PR. It isn’t universal, and it’s not the absence of tradition, it is a tradition unto itself, and therein lies it’s strength. The civic commitment to allowing as many different ways of life and modes of flourishing to fully participate in civic, cultural, and commercial life can do all the heavy lifting in producing democratic consensus. Our choice is not between parohiLism that binds and universalism that dissolves, but between one tradition that needlessly robs minorities of the ability to live their lives as they see fit and one that allows the widest latitude for individual freedom.

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  2. “Ours is a country that’s admired not only as a land of economic opportunity, but also as a nation where pluralism has pride of place. At its best, America is a country that celebrates difference (of all sorts) as part of the national identity binding us together. In other words, our national core is a bridge from the parochial to the cosmopolitan. To be American is to partake in a particular tradition, but it is not a fixed or static stream. Ours is as fluid and changing as it is inclusive. Whatever else we are, we Americans are all voices in “the varied carols” that Whitman heard when he heard America singing.”

    While I appreciate the sentiment expressed here, it is hard to accept as a widespread truth when many of us greeted our first African-American President with accusations of not actually being American.

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  3. This has a TON I did not realize about Univision and soccer coverage. Never would’ve thought it’d be like that. Well, except for the fine women, which I know about from years of occasionally flipping to the channel* just to see them dating back to when I first started thinking like that…

    On a more serious note though, the ethnic pride/solidarity part can easily backfire into something way more harmful than cheering. Lots of blood has been spilled over such already throughout history, and I can’t help but at least flinch at the concept, even though I’ve come to see it as both inevitable and in some hands an adaptive social defense mechanism (to translate that: when others use their ethnicity as excuse to run you over, many come to respond with such ethnic pride out of reaction as opposed to more individualized reply). It’s understandable why this attitude exists, but I question whether its balance of social utility can ever decisively remain positive.

    (* – Sometimes even now I have friends who’ll send me links to YouTube clips of Spanish-language TV w/ attractive Latinas. Even weather reports.)

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  4. As long as “multiculturalism” sticks with holidays, food and football, viva la difference. otherwise, it’s poisonous to a polity, as our friends the Dutch have learned the hard way.

    Multiculturalism has failed: Verhagen

    Tuesday 15 February 2011
    http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2011/02/multiculturalism_has_failed_ve.php

    Christian Democrat leader Maxime Verhagen on Monday said the multicultural society has failed. He was speaking during the recording of tv show Nova College Tour, reports the Algemeen Dagblad.

    Verhagen told the programme the Dutch no longer feel at home in their own country and immigrants are not entirely happy here either.

    The minister wants the Dutch to be prouder of their country like people in the US where they first say they are American and then where they originally come from, says the paper.

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    • I wish the people who complained about “multiculturalism” would be at least slightly specific about what it is, whether or not it is being implemented and to what degree, and what its effects are. In Europe, multiculturalism mostly seems to mean “allowing Muslims and other brown people to move to Europe.”

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      • “The minister wants the Dutch to be prouder of their country like people in the US where they first say they are American and then where they originally come from, says the paper.”

        E pluribus unum, baby.

        As for Europe’s problems, the problems of culture are not racial, hence cannot be nuked with the charge of “racism,” The “brown people” riff. Not any longer, anyway.

        “Democracy” is a means, not an end. Palestinians suffer because their culture sucks, not their form of government. Egypt will be Egypt regardless of what kind of government they come up with, although sharia could make it a lot tougher on, well, you know who.

        Steyn on liberals and democracy, if not “kliberal democracy”:

        In the “most tolerant nation in Europe,” there’s still plenty of tolerance. What won’t the Dutch tolerate? In 2006, the justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, suggested there would be nothing wrong with sharia if a majority of Dutch people voted in favor of it — as, indeed, they’re doing very enthusiastically in Egypt and other polities blessed by the Arab Spring. Mr. Donner’s previous response to “Islamic radicalism” was (as the author recalls in the pages ahead) to propose a new blasphemy law for the Netherlands.

        But a few weeks back Mijnheer Donner started singing a different tune. No more Sharia and Islamic blasphemy laws. Instead, “the Dutch Interior Minister is sounding an awful lot like Geert Wilders”:

        The Dutch government says it will abandon the long-standing model of multiculturalism that has encouraged Muslim immigrants to create a parallel society within the Netherlands.

        A new integration bill (covering letter and 15-page action plan), which Dutch Interior Minister Piet Hein Donner presented to parliament on June 16, reads: “The government shares the social dissatisfaction over the multicultural society model and plans to shift priority to the values of the Dutch people. In the new integration system, the values of the Dutch society play a central role. With this change, the government steps away from the model of a multicultural society…”

        The government will also stop offering special subsidies for Muslim immigrants because, according to Donner, “it is not the government’s job to integrate immigrants.” The government will introduce new legislation that outlaws forced marriages and will also impose tougher measures against Muslim immigrants who lower their chances of employment by the way they dress. More specifically, the government will impose a ban on face-covering Islamic burqas as of January 1, 2013.

        If necessary, the government will introduce extra measures to allow the removal of residence permits from immigrants who fail their integration course…

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    • Whenever appeals are made by people slamming “multiculturalism” to melting into a common culture, the next comment should be “how much?”.

      There is a point where the complaint reaches absurdity: “You, immigrant! Why are you not just like me yet!?”.

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      • My (first generation German immigrant, elderly) relative once complained loudly about a pair of people speaking Spanish in the mall.

        She complained in German, to her sister — also a first generation immigrant.

        Obviously those kids speaking Spanish knew no English, and were up to no good.

        Slamming multiculturalism is nothing new. It just used to be flat out “hating whatever the immigrant of the decade” was. The Irish had their turn as whipping boys, the Germans did as well. Mexicans are getting it now.

        It’s frankly the refuge of whiny old farts, in spirit if not in flesh, who hate when anything changes — even if it’s adding a strange foreign food to the menu at their local resteraunt.

        “Damn you, Multiculuralism!” they cry “Now they’re serving breakfast tacos with my kolaches and donuts!”

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  5. Heh. You’re completely missing the meaning of “uno de los nuestros”. In street Spanish, it means a gangster, specifically it’s a reference to the movie Goodfellas.

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    • It did work. I don’t have anything substantive to add. A great take on the tensions within liberalism. I remember some very leftist grad students arguing that liberalism required an “other” to define its standard human, to whom liberalism applied. I.e. originally, the standard was white Euro males. I never actually understood the argument, but it always seemed to me that to whatever extent it was true, liberalism inherent undermined it’s own alleged need by stating a universal equality, by which successively each group of “others” could readily demonstrate their common humanity, hat they weren’t really others at all.

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  6. This is the sort of topic, while modestly interesting, is absolutely worthless for those who haven’t read a significant amount of Steve Sailer’s work.

    Eg, here: isteve.blogspot.com/2012/08/why-dont-relatively-smart-sophisticated.html

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    • Geez, even when he approaches a reasonable comment (in this case, that the sample used in the article he refers to isn’t representative) he can’t resist an outright racist implication from it (that Hispanics don’t watch shows like Modern Family because they’re too dumb to get it)…

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      • That’s just epistemic closure. Libs (and left-libertarians) never need to worry about whether this or that is racist, they should just do their best and learn something. In this case, it’s not so much that the various spokespeople weren’t representative of Mexicans or Hispanic-Americans in general, it’s the specific way they are not representative and how that affects the media representation of Hispanics as a whole.

        I don’t care too much about any particular item of the OP but the inductive leaps in it are really really weak. Among other things, if you’re really willing to look there’s fairly obvious things to be said about the cultural resonance of soccer as it relates to the US, Latin America, and Europe. And among others, Steve Sailer has written them. But if you’re just going to be ignorant of the whole thing, what’s the point?

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        • Okay, disclaimer: first impressions, and all that. That said, dude… that guy is a quack.

          http://www.isteve.com/lesvsgay.htm

          That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read in my life. “Well, apparently, we’d be best off not thinking too much about this fact. Better yet, we should avoid even noticing any of these curious details. ”

          Better yet, you should build an actual data set from which to start your hypothesis building phase.

          The closing line is the topper.

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            • I think Mr. Sailer probably knows within epsilon of zero gay people. His entire list of observations (in a post that is supposedly about stereotypes) looks like performance art of what an actual gay person would write up as a caricature of a conservative person’s observations about gay people.

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              • I don’t know about that one way or the other. I don’t know why you supposed that you do, it seem to me to be a spectacularly evidence-free conclusion.

                In any event, it’s not really relevant to Steve Sailer’s cultural sophistication regarding Hispanics in America, or soccer in America, both of which are very sharp and make the OP seem completely superficial.

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        • The way they weren’t representative was being activists and professionals, which most aren’t. That much is obvious. But this shit:

          …due to white racists who fail to perceive how sophisticated the burgeoning Latino audience is, Hispanics viewers just stick with watching Sabado Gigante, where they are sure to see a fat mestizo guy with a droopy Pancho Villa mustache and a giant sombrero leer at some dyed blonde spicy senorita and fall down.

          …and the crack about “throw in some explosions” as if Hispanics are uniquely attracted to mindless entertainment, that is racist. When you take something you don’t like that is actually applicable across ethnic groups (the popularity of dumb shit — “Jersey Shore” is still running, btw) and act like it is just Those People, that’s not some kind of brave truth-telling about ethnicity and culture, it’s just taking an assumption that Those People are inferior and giving it a pseudo-academic gloss.

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  7. Conor, this post cooks with gas. You may well have just won the symposium.

    To the extent that there is a tension between the norms of liberalism and the norms of democracy, doesn’t the idea of a culture that melds and assimilates a variety of traditions over time (tritely expressed as “the melting pot”) mediate between those and provide something of a middle path?

    And on a somewhat more superficial level, is it fair to say that Univision defines “los Nuestros” roughly congruently with “los Americanos“? America, after all, is two continents large. Are Canadians and Phillipinos included in “los Nuestros“?

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    • Thanks a lot!

      1) I think that the slow acculturation model is absolutely the right one. The trouble is in the shades of gray—when do we, as a polity, insist on melding and when can we tolerate less assimilation? Is it necessary that all naturalizing citizens speak English? Do we need all school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? (I really want to come up with a wittier example, but I’m short on time and sleep. Apologies!)

      2) I’ve never heard Univisión make the call on those examples, so this is pure speculation: I’d guess that they’d be sympathetic to Canada in matches against teams from beyond the Americas, but wouldn’t include them in “los nuestros.” The Philippines might be more likely to make the cut on linguistic grounds.

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      • Acc to Pew, this pan-Hispanic feeling is about 25%*. I don’t like it any more than I’d like a pan-Caucasoid thing.

        OTOH, I confess a great affection for the Anglosphere. Australia vs. France? That’s a duh.

        So if it’s race, later for that. Language & culture? OK.

        *http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/04/04/when-labels-dont-fit-hispanics-and-their-views-of-identity/

        But ever cheering for the Azzurri over the Red, White & Blue? Deport ’em immediately, sez I.

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        • Watch yourself, there, TVD. You never know who might manifest offense to such gentle teasing.

          Now, in the XXX Olympiad, the Azzuri and their female counterparts both failed to qualify (as did the USMNT, disappointingly) so there is no chance of a conflict of interest. But in 2014, it’ll be a different story.

          We’ll revisit the issue then.

          Until then, the U.S. women play Japan for the Gold today. And when the men from Brazil play the men from Mexico, I’ll be rooting for the underdog Mexican team, how about you? Either way, los Nuestros traerán casa el oro y la plata.

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  8. This post has me rethinking what my contribution to the symposium will be. If I can find the words. That’s a good thing, btw.

    The conflict between liberalism, democracy, and national identity is one of the biggest struggles going forward. The desire of some to move away from nationality actually has a rather dark underbelly. Those (at least within the US) most likely to preach the need for one-worldism are those who do not actually need nationality. They have the luxury to say that we should not treat our own citizenry different than those from abroad because they don’t need citizenship to maintain their status. Beneath the thin cloak of egalitarianism is in fact a great sorting. American meritocracy, writ global, and not in the good way.

    Mexican-Americans need us to look at them differently than we do Mexicans. Rochester needs greater association with New York City than has London. Fresno needs greater association with Silicon Valley than has Singapore. The result of doing away with these things is these people leaving those people behind. That’s problematic.

    As far as the American identity is concerned, I think you mostly get it right. I can’t point to a specific disagreement, other than the sense that we might disagree on the precise balance of push and pull.

    I have mixed feelings about our inclusion in Los Nuestros. My initial response is a quite warm one, though I also recognize that the Hispanic wave of immigration does – compared to previous generations of immigration – represent a newer and specific set of challenges both on the push and the pull. I believe it will all work out in the end, ironically in part because of the free, secular market upon which the US culture is so irresistably seductive. Who would want to be here and not be able to partake due in the carnival due to, say, a language barrier? But some sort of Americanism (as in United States of) is required to seal the deal.

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