Politics of Universalism
Essays Politics

Politics of Universalism

Charles Hughes-Huff

Charles Taylor, White Fragility, and American Nationalism

In the introduction The 1619 Project’s web version, The New York Times once stated that the project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The New York Times’s Bret Stephens, in an October 2020 op-ed, pointed out that the Times had changed the description from the original print and digital version’s introduction without an editorial note by deleting “understanding 1619 as our true founding.”[1] The New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein similarly edited his own introductory essay between the print and online editions, eliding language about the United States’s “true birth date” in favor of simply “the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world.”[2]

In response, Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project’s director, claimed 1619 as the metaphorical, not actual, founding of the US, pointing out that schoolchildren will always know the events of 1776. She wants them to see a broader view, however, with 1619 as a “symbolic founding.”[3] Most importantly, Hannah-Jones wants to emphasize, as she does in her introductory essay, that “our founding ideals of liberty and quality were false when they were written.”[4] In broad and rich detail, she lays out how Black Americans have worked to realize these ideals.

Stephens rejects even the metaphorical nature of Hannah-Jones’s claim: he questions the symbolism of the project. Much of his argument is a critique of what he sees as the project’s flyby, monocausal historiography. But the interesting part of his complaint, as I see it, is this:

Contrary to what the 1619 Project claims, 1776 isn’t just our nation’s ‘official’ founding. It is our symbolic one, too. The metaphor of 1776 is more powerful than that of 1619 because what makes America most itself isn’t four centuries of racist subjugation. It’s 244 years of effort by Americans—sometimes halting, but often heroic—to live up to our greatest ideal. That’s a struggle that has been waged by people of every race and creed. And it’s an ideal that continues to inspire millions of people at home and abroad.[5]

Stephens knows what a symbolic founding is. He likes the one he already had.

Hospitality to Difference

To make sense of this debate about American nationalism and multiculturalism, we would make good recourse to the descriptions of modernity sketched by philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor presents analytical concepts for nationalism and multiculturalism in his essay “The Politics of Recognition” and further analyzes the role of religion in American nationalism in his monumental study A Secular Age.[6]

Taylor approaches multiculturalism by laying out the problem of misrecognition, which is similar to W.E.B Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness.[7] With the collapse of social hierarchy in the modern era, Taylor argues, a person’s social role has come to be defined not only by means of authenticity to the innermost self, itself a modern idea, but also by the way that authentic self is perceived by broader society. As Du Bois noted, for Black Americans, such a dialectic results in twinned self-knowledge, knowing yourself as yourself and knowing yourself as you are perceived by white people. Taylor notes that this double consciousness can harm since society’s positive recognition is constitutive of our sense of self.

From authenticity and the desire for social recognition Taylor derives two types of liberal politics. The first, “politics of universalism,” is best represented in Rousseau and Kant and emphasizes universal human rights and blind justice, recognition of everyone in their humanity.[8] This type of liberalism affords each autonomous citizen equal access to the same schedule of rights in order to pursue their individual authenticity. This ideal has been applied unevenly, and judicial review has rectified such inequity by expanding legal rights and nullifying discriminatory statutes.

Taylor’s second type of liberal politics, the “politics of difference,” arises from communities who wish for equal access to the sphere of equality alongside social recognition as communities that have been denied such rights in the past and as a special community that will continue in perpetuity.[9] For this politics, the authenticity of a specific group or individual requires they be recognized in their distinctness. This type of liberalism is sometimes skeptical of the homogenizing claims of universal and blind justice and is willing to adapt or limit group-blind, equal treatment in order to rectify long-standing injustice and to ensure the survival of minority communities. Here, Taylor is specifically thinking of indigenous Canadians and French-speaking Quebecois who wish to limit certain universal application of rights (for instance: by prohibiting the free choice of English-speaking schools in Quebec) in order to ensure the survival and recognition of their minority community.[10]

Taylor points out that white Europeans in Canada and the United States sometimes view such community-based politics as a kind of transgression against the universalist norm, of going beyond mere blind justice to specific recognition as something particular.[11] But Taylor argues that recognizing minority groups for particular, historically contingent needs can supersede a universal application of rights-based equality so long as certain legal rights (say, habeas corpus) are not suspended:

There is a form of the politics of equal respect, as enshrined in a liberalism of rights, that is inhospitable to difference, because (a) it insists on uniform application of the rules defining these rights, without exception, and (b) it is suspicious of collective goals. Of course, this doesn’t mean that this model seeks to abolish cultural differences. This would be an absurd accusation. But I call it inhospitable to difference because it can’t accommodate what the members of distinct societies really aspire to, which is survival. This is (b) a collective goal, which (a) almost inevitably will call for some variations in the kinds of law we deem permissible from one cultural context to another, as the Quebec case clearly shows. I think this form of liberalism is guilty as charged by the proponents of a politics of difference. Fortunately, however, there are other models of liberal society that take a different line on (a) and (b).[12]

Staying true to a community’s authenticity, and honoring it, will also require the real effort of white Europeans to engage different cultures. Rather than doubling down on racist superior civilization rhetoric or clamoring for an aura of politically righteous approval, they must work toward recognizing others in a way that merges hermeneutical horizons and changes the very conditions of understanding.[13]

Nationalist by Design

In A Secular Age, Taylor addresses a different type of authenticity, one he touches on but does not fully develop in “Politics of Recognition”: nationalism. Nationalism understands nations with a Herderian inner ethos as the grounds for political unity —better for the United States to be a good version of the United States than a bad version of Switzerland.[14] In the U.S., this story of authentic ethos is often tied to origins, ideals, and civic institutions, and mapped on to universal liberalism.

Taylor points out that this type of American nationalism is often given warrant by religious narratives. He calls the United States a Neo-Durkheimian state in in the sense that God is in the very principles of the nation and so also in its ethos and a part of its authenticity:

In “neo-[Durkheimian]” societies, God is present because it is his Design around which society is organized. It is this which we concur on as the identifying common description of our society, what we could call its “political Identity.”[15]

Taylor also points out that this type of authenticity, tied as it is in the US to universal liberalism, clashes with the multicultural plurality he discusses in “Politics of Recognition”:

Many Protestant Americans, and latterly some Catholic ones, have thought that the U.S.A. has a providential mission to spread liberal democracy among the rest of humankind. In this neo-Durkheimian form, religious belonging is central to political identity. But the religious dimension also figures in what we might call the “civilizational” identity, the sense people have of the basic order by which they live, even imperfectly, as good, and (usually) as superior to the ways of life of outsiders . . .[16]

Taylor explicitly links nationalistic Christianity with this sense of cultural superiority and argues that this is still a primary function of a weakened Christianity in a secular age:

The point I want to make about British and later American patriotism, based as it was at first on the sense of fulfilling God’s design, is that national identity was based on a self-ascribed pre-eminence in realizing a certain civilizational superiority.

The sense of God’s presence in the very order of the authentic nation means that any challenge to the nation is deeply felt to be an attack on what is true and good. Such threats are thus scapegoated:

In fact, most of the time, we relate to the order established in our “civilization” the way people have always related to their most fundamental sense of order; we have both a sense of security in believing that it is really in effect in our world; and also a sense of our own superiority and goodness deriving from the confidence that we participate in it and uphold it. Which means that we can react with great insecurity when we see that it can be breached from outside. . . but also that we are even more shaken when we feel that it might be undermined from within, or that we might be betraying it. There it is not only our security which is threatened; it is also our sense of our own integrity and goodness. To see this questioned is profoundly unsettling, threatening ultimately our ability to act. Which is why in earlier times, we see people lashing out at such moments of threat, in scapegoating violence against “the enemy within”, meeting the threat to our security by finessing that to our integrity, deflecting it onto the scapegoats.[17]

Built into the nationalist narrative is the cultural Other, defined as those who do not naturally belong to the God-ordained order. This category is not fixed on one group, but is a pivoting lens denigrating in turn foreign enemies like the Japanese or Muslims and the enemy within like indigenous people, Black Americans, or immigrants. Sometimes the internal enemy is the enemy merely because they demand fully to enter the rights-based order ordained by God, which is taken as threatening.

The recognition minority communities seek is often demanded in the terms of universal liberalism and rejected outright. For example, John Ross drew up a Cherokee constitution with a tripartite division of power and lobbied the US government for Cherokee recognition, who after all fully accepted democratic ideals, only to be deported by Andrew Jackson with some 60,000 Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. Vaunted as an ideal community, Black citizens in the Greenwood District of Tulsa likewise embraced American citizenship and free market principles only to face white Tulsans burning their homes to the ground in 1921. These and many other attempts to become part of American civic society on its own terms were foiled by the majority, sometimes concretely and sometimes, like in segregated and redlined cities, structurally and ubiquitously.

White Fragility and Scapegoating

Taylor notes that “to see [our own integrity and goodness] questioned is so profoundly unsettling, threatening ultimately our ability to act” that “we are even more shaken when we feel that it might be undermined from within, or that we might be betraying it” and that this results in “meeting the threat to our security by finessing that to our integrity, deflecting it onto the scapegoats.” In White Fragility, sociologist Robin DiAngelo describes just such a reaction to discussions about race in the U.S. and calls this reaction “white fragility.”[18] DiAngelo argues that the superiority over other civilizations Taylor mentions is racially inflected and that such superiority is culturally identified with whiteness. DiAngelo shows that white Americans, in their culturally prestigious position, are accustomed to experiencing only one consciousness, an automatic and easy identification with the national ethos. When that consciousness is threatened with the suggestion that we ourselves might be betraying the politics of universalism by being racist, white people “finesse to our integrity and deflect onto scapegoats,” in Taylor’s terms.

The first reaction to suggesting that our culture is ubiquitously racist, in DiAngelo’s account, is an appeal to universal liberalism. “I don’t see color” and “I don’t care if you’re white, black, purple, or polka-dotted” are claims to personal adherence to universal ideals of justice. “My ethnic group faced challenges, too” is an appeal to equality. These appeals are deeply rooted in a sense of right and wrong in a singular consciousness, one in which God (explicitly or tacitly) and American values—especially autonomy and freedom—can be viewed as one story in which every individual might play a part.[19]

The other reaction, scapegoating, in DiAngelo’s view, takes two forms.[20] The first is what Taylor identifies as a negative reaction to multiculturalism, wherein white Americans scapegoat Black Americans. This reaction affirms universal liberalism and the American ethos by blaming minority communities for not fully achieving the authentic national destiny themselves. But for DiAngelo, this more overt racial scapegoating isn’t the only or even most harmful form. The second, which Taylor characterizes as a rush to self-righteous affirmation (so too DiAngelo: “to the degree that [white progressives] think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived”), is more subtly defensive. In this form, the historical fact of white racism is mapped onto a binary good or evil in which racists are brutal, hateful, violent, and usually from the South.[21] Good white Americans have always wanted black Americans to have the same access to universal liberalism, and we are those good white Americans. Any deviation from such integrity is racist, yes, but belongs only to villains who overtly reject the American ideal.[22]

In DiAngelo’s account, this story allows white Americans to hold to the universal form of liberalism against any real engagement with multicultural double-consciousness or recognition of prejudicial thinking. Progressive whites can turn to Blacks and say, “we have banished the racists from the table; come eat with us now.” If Black people still hesitate, we are shaken to the core by the suggestion that we ourselves could be a part of the problem.

“I Am Your Law and Order President”

To show how nationalism is evoked as a type of authenticity involving cultural superiority, religious warrant, and civilizational superiority (or, in DiAngelo’s terms, white supremacy), I’d like to marry Taylor’s analysis with DiAngelo’s to discuss two recent moments of political symbolism uniting Christianity, nationalism, and race.

The first comes from President Trump in the midst of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In his address to the nation on June 1, 2020, Trump said “I am your law and order President’’ before declaring that America would triumph over violent protestors: “America always wins.”[23] Trump encouraged governors to activate the National Guard in their states; should they refuse, Trump threatened to send in the military. The speech was delivered in the Rose Garden, a site that suggests solemnity and presidential power. After the address, Trump abruptly left and crossed the street to St. John’s Church, where he held up a Bible in a rhetorical gesture. To make possible this journey from the seat of American executive power to a religious institution, law enforcement tear gassed and scattered the protesters in LaFayette Square.

This is a straightforward instance of Taylor’s Neo-Durkheimian nationalism. Trump cast Black Lives Matter protesters as the enemy to authentic America. It is not merely law and order in America, but America itself that would “win” against “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa”—people who commit “domestic terrorism.” Protestors were physically attacked, as, spatially, Trump moved from the center of American power, where he declared he would control the streets, to an adjacent place of religious symbolism where he stood, Bible in hand, as emblem of God’s divine order. In this moment, a politician used nationalistic language and political symbolism to achieve a political end, justified with a religious warrant. Trump’s particular vision of law and order is the ethos of America ordained in its principles by God.

On Eagle’s Wings

A second example is President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. Biden’s speech began with a simple statement: “I sought this office to restore the soul of America.”[24] He went on to say that in electing Kamala Harris as the first Black person, first person of Asian descent, and first woman to the Vice Presidency, “once again, America has bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.” After promising to battle against a variety of ills, including systemic racism, Biden said, “the American story is about the slow, yet steady widening of opportunity” before moving into “inflection points,” “where we’ve made hard decisions about who we are and what we want to be.” These moments of authenticity are specific: Biden pointed to Lincoln’s saving the Union, FDR’s New Deal, JFK’s new frontier, and Obama’s “Yes We Can.” Notably absent from this list are moments wherein rights were juridically or legislatively extended to people formally excluded (n.b., Lincoln’s “saving the Union” not “freeing slaves”).

Biden characterized our own inflection point in terms of universal access to equality, Taylor’s universal type liberalism, which Biden defined in terms of the authentic soul of the nation, a matter of the “angels of our better nature” versus “our darkest impulses.” From the nation’s soul to collective impulses he moved to individual authenticity: “possibilities” and “dreams” should be extended equally to all. When America lives up to her best self in these ways, she is a “beacon for the globe,” a nod to American exceptionalism and civilizational superiority.

This is nationalistic discourse appealing to universal, authentic expression of individualism as the restoration of America’s soul or essential ethos. Biden gave this discourse religious warrant at the speech’s end by reciting his deceased son Beau’s favorite hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings.” This hymn refers to God carrying Israel out of Egypt on an eagle’s wings (Exod 19:4), thus making the Israel/America connection often used in Evangelical American rhetoric. The extent to which the song’s eagle is mapped onto the American national bird is best left to the reader. More important is the fact that, since this is a Catholic popular hymn, this was perhaps the most overt instance of Catholic culture ever to feature in a presidential speech. Biden’s Catholicism is used to warrant the civilized order of the national ethos.

Biden’s speech has no real scapegoat. He critiques demonization, but he is careful to emphasize the universality of his vision, specifically including his political opponents in it. His promise to restore America’s soul, however, stands in counterpoint to President Trump’s pledge to make America great again, and is echoed with nationalistic panache in his later tweet: “America is back.”[25] Biden stops short of scapegoating right-wing Americans as racists, but still claims the moral high ground for himself and associated (mostly white) liberal righteous actors in the story of America’s truest ethos. Both speakers appeal to American authenticity, warranted by God, as the grounds for their political projects.

From a perspective like DiAngelo’s, Biden’s speech, while careful to valorize Vice President-elect Harris’s symbolic victory and to explicitly inveigh against systemic racism, still relies on an idealistic narrative of America wherein America is most truly America when America is equal for all. This is a narrative most easily accepted by white Americans. Biden stands at the center and earnestly wishes all to join him there, as when he tells Vice President-elect Harris that she and her husband are “honorary Bidens now.” The speech offers Black Americans and many others recognition while still appealing to authentic American freedoms equally available to each individual for the pursuit of possibilities and dreams, thus validating the politics of universalism as the basic ethos of the nation.

The American Ideal

Biden’s speech concurs with Stephens’s rejoinder to Hannah-Jones: “It’s 244 years of effort by Americans—sometimes halting, but often heroic—to live up to our greatest ideal.” Both are reassertions of universal liberalism. Hannah-Jones is a threat to this nationalist narrative because she insists on an irresolvable failure of integrity at the heart of the national story. She says instead that what is most authentically American is Black achievement of identity-narrated, God-warranted, cynically unrealized ideals. Hannah-Jones puts forward a different origin story, one which writes the story of Black Americans into the ethos of the nation in a way that contextualizes its founding ideals not as God-ordained, but as contingent, human, and even cynical. Hannah-Jones gives weight to the ways in which Black Americans overcame their scapegoat role and made those ideals reality: “no one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it. And to this day, black Americans, more than any other group, embrace the democratic ideals of a common good.”[26] She demands, in other words, that the story of Black Americans be recognized every time the national ethos is evoked. But Hannah-Jones does not, in my view, merely advance a politics of community. She argues for a new understanding of the politics of universalism—a different origin story for cherished principles.[27]

  1. Bret Stephens, “The 1619 Chronicles,” The New York Times, October 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/09/opinion/nyt-1619-project-criticisms.html ↩︎

  2. Jake Silverstein, “Why We Published the 1619 Project,” The New York Times Magazine, December 20, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/20/magazine/1619-intro.html ↩︎

  3. https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1309138800245985280?s=20. For editorial responses to Bret Stephens piece, see Jake Silverstein, “On Recent Criticism of The 1619 Project,” The New York Times, October 16, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/16/magazine/criticism-1619-project.html; ↩︎

  4. Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy's Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True,” The New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html ↩︎

  5. Stephens, “The 1619 Chronicles.” ↩︎

  6. Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, (A. Gutmann (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press), 25–73. ↩︎

  7. Taylor talks about the phenomenon broadly with respect to gender and race and mentions its theorization but does not interact in-depth with any particular theorists. Du Bois talks about double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903; New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003), 29-10, 143. For a recent treatment, see Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: Random House, 2019), 24–34. ↩︎

  8. Ibid., 37. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., 38. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 52–56. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 56–60. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 60. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., 67, 73. ↩︎

  14. Ibid., 31. ↩︎

  15. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 455. ↩︎

  16. Idem. ↩︎

  17. Idem. ↩︎

  18. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018). DiAngelo’s sociological basis for her treatment of whiteness is Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice, which I take as a form of interpretive/hermeneutic sociology and therefore generally compatible with Taylor’s approach. See White Fragility 101–103. ↩︎

  19. Ibid., 39–50. ↩︎

  20. DiAngelo talks about binaries rather than scapegoats, but the points are quite similar. ↩︎

  21. Ibid., 5. ↩︎

  22. Ibid., 71–88. ↩︎

  23. Donald J. Trump, “Statement by the President,” June 1, 2020. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-by-the-president-39/. ↩︎

  24. Matt Stevens, “Read Joe Biden’s President-Elect Acceptance Speech: Full Transcript,” The New York Times, November 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/article/biden-speech-transcript.html ↩︎

  25. https://twitter.com/joebiden/status/1331307848647761925 ↩︎

  26. Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy's Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written.” ↩︎

  27. For other key examples of black Americans who strongly embraced the politics of universalism, albeit in a way different than the 1619 Project, see Liam Kofi Bright, “Du Bois’ Democratic Defence of the Value Free Ideal,” Synthese 195 (2018): 2227–2245; ibid., "Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s The Red Record" in Neglected Classics of Philosophy - Vol. II (Eric Schliesser (ed), forthcoming). ↩︎

Featured image: Photo by Mark Rabe on Unsplash

Charles Hughes Huff is an Assistant Professor at St. Bernard’s STM in Rochester, NY. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.