Jonathan Ferguson
The New Understanding: Post-Secular Pluralism and Universalism!

The USA is a Nation of I… (Fill in the Blanks!) A Response to Jan Uhrbach’s Thoughtful ‘Open Letter to Florida Jews.’

Recently, in TOI, Jan Uhrbach wrote An Open Letter to Florida Jews.

There is surely much that is admirable and thought-provoking in the article, whether you agree with the notion of voting for Clinton.

However, I would like to discuss one particular sentence in the letter which is a little worrisome to me.

For me, the greatest threat right now is that America will cease to be a democracy – that we’ll lose the tolerance and diversity that defines us.

I will now proceed by quoting an edited version of some constructive comments I placed below Uhrbach’s article; I will also elaborate further upon these very same insights.

I must make clear, for the sake of transparency that I am speaking as a UK person (non-American, non-Israeli) and also as a non-Jew. However, as someone who wishes all the good in the world upon these two blessed experiments in democratic living, I offer the following meditations and reflections upon what I myself deem to be truly ‘exceptional’ about any truly great nation and constitutional order.


“For me, the greatest threat right now is that America will cease to be a democracy – that we’ll lose the tolerance and diversity that defines us.”

I do not doubt that these two terms often are used to define the USA. However, it is nonetheless worth asking:

At what point in history did tolerance and diversity come to define the USA?

I do not have an answer for this question, but it seems well worth the asking.

For after all, Founding Fathers, both at their best and at their worst, seem to not have placed any (no doubt highly anachronistic) stress on these two very recent ideological trends; although there was certainly support among these early figures for the liberal notions of toleration and pluralism, rather than the postmodernist/post-liberal nostrums of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity.’

But surely abstract, speculative bourgeois ‘diversity’ has nothing to do with the USA?

Fluffy postmodern ‘tolerance’ has nothing to do with the USA, surely?

The USA is not a nation of diversity nor of tolerance, whatever these words may be taken to mean (it is well enough understood that middle class ideology shifts with the wind).

It is a nation of individual liberty, and of nothing else.

Only great and immeasurable, inconceivable evils can follow from forgetting this point.

The USA is not a nation of immigrants, nor is it a nation of natives.

It is a nation of individualists.

In the USA, diversity is not the spice of life.

Liberty is the seasoning of the American constitutional order.

The USA is not founded upon postmodern tolerance; but its brightest and its best have laid great stress upon the value of toleration.

The USA is not at its best when devoted to the Greater Good; it is at its strongest and finest and most courageous when devoted to the Greatness of the Individual Good,

America is not necessarily the greatest of nations, but it is a unique nation; as every nation, indeed, is unique in its own way.

This uniqueness cannot be reduced to metropolitan ideological notions of very recent origin.

I venture to affirm that the USA was founded upon the sobriety, rigor and ethical seriousness of constitutional pluralism, rather than upon the crony-commercialist/cultural-tourist/lifestyle-choice orientation of diversity.

I am no less convinced that the USA was founded not upon postmodern anarchy and upon the dictatorship of tolerance; but upon classical liberal toleration which (as Isaiah Berlin quoted apropos of Herbert Butterfield in his essays on liberty) ‘implies a certain disrespect.’

I do not wish to present myself as quibbling. I realize that words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ are open to contestation; and I dare not presumptuously claim to know precisely what Jan Uhlbach meant by the two words she alluded. But in the current ideological context, it seems expedient to me to zoom out a little, and to emphasize what the USA, at its very best, is not…

And not only what it is.

Ultimately, to be ‘exclusionary’ in one’s vision of a nation is not the unforgivable sin. Every person is exclusionary in their own way, no matter what they say.

A number of 2016 presidental candidates present evidence aplenty!

But this very same Eagletonian paradox, again, is not intended to be in any way derogatory to Uhlbach’s article, which is very much worth taking time to read with the same open heart and watchful mind that a thoughtful reader will bring to any other serious engagement with the current US election controversies.

It has been truly heartening to see the variety of opinions on the US election, as expressed here in TOI and in other outlets.

Diversity is not the greatest strength of any nation; nor can the crushing uniformity of imposed homogeneity be anything other than the corresponding equal and opposite error.

However, an abundant variety of ethically serious commentary is certainly valuable in this most hotly contested of election seasons.

About the Author
Dr Jonathan Thomas Ferguson is an alumnus of the University of Leeds and King's College London. He is interested in interfaith dialogue, international relations, the Apocalypse of Hope and spiritual matters generally.
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