Founding Fathers and Ethnosymbols: Re-interpreting the Founding heritage according to Occupy

Intro

The Founding Father legacy is without a doubt the primary source of American nationalism. The American Revolution, George Washington, the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell are symbols which inspire pride and passion within the hearts of American citizens. The narrative of the emancipation of the thirteen united colonies and the subsequent establishment of the first modern republic is indeed the beating heart of American nationalistic sentiment.

An interesting field of study is the way in which these national symbols are re-interpreted politically. Although they may all point towards an idea of “Americanness” they are used to convey different messages by different social actors. In the past year, we have witnessed how the Tea Party has employed them, accusing Obama’s administration of straying off the sacred path set by our Founding principles; namely small government, individual freedom and free trade. And yet, very recently, even the Occupy movement has begun re-articulating the Founding legacy in progressive terms, invoking a new American Revolution to emancipate the nation from the stranglehold that corporations and financial institutions impose on the democratic process.

This re-articulation of Founding Father symbols is an act of liberation from the conservative interpretation they have traditionally been imbued with. It distances them from the domain of the political right. Moreover, it breaks the ideological chains which confine the Founding heritage to a narrow set of conservative, individualistic and capitalism-justifying principles, thereby allowing us to fully appreciate the emancipatory potential found within its political discourse.

Theories of Nationalism

Within the study of nationalism, national symbols are referred to as ethnosymbols: myths, customs, traditions, and memories which pertain to dominant ethnic groups. According to the ethnosymbolist school of thought, modern nations emerge out of the cultural traits and traditions of dominant ethnic cores[1]. In the case of the US, these would be the cultural values highlighted for example by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” belonging to the descendants of the Plymouth Rock pilgrims. Contrarily, the school of thought referred to as modernism asserts that ethnosymbols are not necessarily genuine products of a homogeneous ethnic core but are rather symbols which elites manipulate -or deliberately “invent”- for the purposes of nation-building[2].

However, a third school of thought attempts to reconcile these two opposite approaches. The ideas of theorists such as Oliver Zimmer and Eric Kaufmann reject the notion that ethnosymbols are mere constructs. Nonetheless, they believe that they may be re-interpreted in different ways depending on who is articulating them. Zimmer suggests that social actors may access a “stock” of deposited symbolic resources (national myths, memories, traditions) and employ them to advance their own particular idea of the nation’s culture, politics or society[3]. Similarly, Kaufmann asserts that different social actors view symbolic resources through different “ideological lenses”: what looks like a symbol signifying conservative values for some, might stand for progressive values for others[4].

This third approach allows us to recognize that the Founding Father symbols do not point towards a single set of values, traditions or political ideas, but that they may be employed to grant historical legitimacy to alternative ideological dispositions and demands.

Re-Articulating the Founding

A brief look at the rhetoric employed by Tea Party movement websites reveals a particular understanding of the values attributed to the Founding Father legacy. For them, the Founders believed primarily in individual liberty, limited government and free markets, and abhorred ideas regarding the common good, collectivity or redistribution.

“The Tea Party Patriots’ mission is to restore America’s founding principles of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”[5]

“The Tea Party Patriots stand with our founders, as heirs to the republic, to claim our rights and duties which preserve their legacy and our own. We hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.”[6]

Such statements re-interpret the Founding legacy as being based primarily on the tenets of possessive individualism and laissez fair capitalism. Moreover, the Tea Party claims this heritage for itself:

“From our founding, the Tea Party is the voice of the true owners of the United States, WE THE PEOPLE.” [7]

Of course, this interpretation is historically inaccurate. The research of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock has revealed that the Founding Fathers were not cut-throat capitalists but rather civic republicans. In fact, they were concerned with the common good, the primacy of the collective over the individual and nurtured a profound distrust of private interests[8].

More recently however, we are witnessing the use of Founding Father symbols by the Occupy movements as well. The most visible example is the Declaration of Occupation drafted Sept. 29 at the New York City General Assembly[9]. The vocabulary used to express OWS grievances is deliberately similar to that in the Declaration of Independence. “Let these facts be known” (“let Facts be submitted to a candid world” in the DoI) followed by a list of grievances, basically replaces George III with the 1% as the source of injustice and inequality.

A similar example is the re-interpretation of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. For the Tea Party movement it is a paradigmatic example of resistance against government taxation. For many in OWS it represents the first act of resistance against a transnational corporation: the East India Company. In a brilliant essay published on the Occupied Wall Street Journal, Rebecca Manski writes:

“The biggest act of sabotage against a multinational corporation in American history began with a gathering at the Liberty Tree. That act was the Boston Tea Party.”[10]

Similarly, a disgruntled citizen venting his grievances on wearethe99percent.tumbler.com states:

“That is not the America our Founding Fathers built. People forget that the original Tea Party was against a corporation and its influence on our government. Our Founding Fathers feared just what is happening today. I AM THE 99% AND I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!”[11]

Occupy History!

The model presented by Zimmer and Kaufmann suggests that national symbols are never totally pre-determined and that they may be invested with different meanings and used for alternative purposes. This “liberates” such symbols from the traditionally conservative interpretation they have long been invested with. Once they are available for use, we may fully recognize the emancipatory potential found within them and the radical dimension of their politics.

The American Founding Fathers ignited a democratic revolution which turned the feudal and aristocratic world on its head. They fought a democratic revolution for political participation, liberty, equality, free constitutions and bills of rights. Of course, they owned slaves and most of them were wealthy aristocrats. They were not free of faults, vices or contradictions. And yet, this does not mean that their radical political discourses should be absorbed within the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism -which has neutered their radical character and used them as symbols to grant itself historical legitimacy.

The re-articulation of these symbols demonstrates one of the greatest strengths of the Occupy movement: the ability to reclaim the social, political, cultural and economic discourses from fields of thought which were previously saturated with neoliberal ideology. The reclaiming of history sends out a clear message: our Founding Fathers were not devoted to unfettered markets and laissez fair capitalism. Far from it. Our founding fathers provided the foundations for the democratic revolution which We the People, as their heirs, are still fighting today.

Bibliography

  • Smith, A. 1994 “The Origin of Nations” in Nationalism ed Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Hobsbawm, E. 1994 “The Nation as Invented Tradition” in Nationalism ed Hutchinson, J. & Smith, A. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Zimmer, O. 2003. ‘Boundary mechanisms and symbolic resources: towards a process- oriented approach to national identity’, Nations and nationalism, Apr 2003, Vol.9, No.2, pp.173-193
  • Kaufmann, E. 2008 “The Lenses of Nationhood: an optical model of identity”, Nations and Nationalism, Volume 14, Number 3, July 2008 , pp. 449-477(29)


2 Comments

Filed under Nationalism, Occupy Wall Street, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

2 responses to “Founding Fathers and Ethnosymbols: Re-interpreting the Founding heritage according to Occupy

  1. A fascinating exposition which shows how symbols like the writings of the Founders or the Constitution can be viewed in different ways by different sets of actors. What is also important here is that both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street groups are reinforcing the norm of the nation as they contest its meaning. But this also reveals that the content and meaning of American national identity is not fixed, but varies by individual, depending on their ideology, ethnicity, class and region. Such lenses also indicate that American nationalism is not inevitably about small government any more than Islam need be illiberal. Rather, there is ample room for contesting interpretations of the tradition.

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