I am generally oblivious to popular culture. This is not a characteristic that has developed with age–unfortunately, I have never been “with it.” (My students came to recognize the blank look that was my response to musical references more recent than Dean Martin.)
This personal history is by way of explaining my confusion over recent references to the popularity of Sea Shanties.
I consulted Dr. Google, and found that Sea Shanties are “unifying, survivalist songs,” designed to transform a large group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat. Their sudden resurgence of popularity has been attributed to the anomie of our time, and the fact that so many people are desperate for connection–evidently, the original goal of the Sea Shanty was to foster community, as sailors worked long hours aboard a ship.
That desire for connection has also manifested itself in current calls for national unity. In the case of the Trumpian “fellow travelers” in the Senate– Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and their ilk–those calls are deeply dishonest and self-serving, but others, including the incoming administration, seem genuinely committed to healing the deep rifts that separate ordinary Americans.
One question, of course, is whether healing and unity can ever be achieved in the absence of accountability. Another is the nature of unity in a radically diverse society. There is ample evidence that people are longing for connection, for community, for belonging–but connection to what? What defines the community we aspire to join?
My entire research focus has been devoted to that question. How do very different people live productively together? What sort of governing arrangements can both function for everyone and still honor/respect individual and group differences?
My conclusion lies in what has been called America’s “civic religion”– allegiance to the overarching values embodied in America’s constituent documents–values that are central to what I call the American Idea. During his inauguration speech, President Biden quoted St. Augustine for much the same sentiment–that a “people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”
In 2004, I wrote a column in which I listed what I saw as the values that define us as Americans–the values that should be the “common objects of our love.” These are the overarching principles that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and that, at least in my view, are absolutely central to what it means to be an American–hyphenated or not.
Here is that list.
Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.
We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.
We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging sacred civic responsibilities.
We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays or Blacks or Muslims or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.
We believe, as Garry Wills once wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”
We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).
We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness rather than legal or cultural dominance.
We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.
We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.
It’s true that America’s aspirational values have never been wholly realized, but pursuing them is what unifies us. They are our Sea Shanties.
Healing and unity will require that Americans committed to those values reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different.