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Why America

Letter to an American Agonist

“What the United States shares with Athens is not the pretense of democracy, or any other feature of the content of her tradition but, rather, her citizens’ uncommon commitment to contesting it.”

A few summers ago, I remember reading about the life of Nubar Ozanyan (nom de guerre), a compatriot and a professional communist incendiary who had been killed during the Battle of Raqqa while fighting for Rojava against the Islamic State. Not at all a bad way to go. He had also sojourned at the First Palestinian Intifada, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Armenian reclamation of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990’s. With some notable differences, a person dear to me has a similar curriculum vitae: I recently heard news of his return, in the ebb of his life, to a familiar front.

The most infatuating American feature is a permanent, generalized restlessness.

These days, I am not alone among diasporan Armenians having felt the gravitational tug of the old country at war and the shame of not quite having the courage to speed towards it. You have felt this same twinge if you have ever run away from any fight. Conflict—material, metaphorical, internal, interpersonal—is vitality; to evade it is counter-human. If asked to describe their lives monolectically, both Nubar Ozanyan and my intimate would choose the Armenian word bāykar, or struggle. Its true synonym is the Greek agon—intensely active, unlike the supine English derivative “agony.” From sports and war to theatre and politics, this trait was omnipresent in the classical world. Nietzsche evokes its spirit in modernity, but a great agon had already begun less than a century before his birth.

The most infatuating American feature is a permanent, generalized restlessness. I could not have known this in late 2012 when I tottered to the United States (overconfident after two rather uneventful years in the Cypriot military). Plenty of important ideological contests blazed in the convivial Midwestern community I joined then and, when they did not, one did one’s best to start them. The atmosphere was flammable, I happily found later, in the Mountain West and on the East Coast too. The past half-decade in this country may have just happened to feel particularly tense, but the evidence suggests that conflict is as American as the Montana sky. And we are better off for it.

Part of the green line in the author's hometown of Nicosia, which divides the Republic of Cyprus from Turkish-occupied Cyprus.

War punctuates U.S. history every generation since 1775 with almost ceremonious regularity, but notice the American agon during the healthy disquiet of relative peace. Imagine Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or John Adams or Abigail Adams, in need of motivation to remain steadfast, being guided to the underworld by an oracle—like Aeneas in the Roman epic—to be shown their heirs. The procession of characters might begin with unionist John Quincy Adams walking alongside abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and Seneca Falls suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They might eventually be followed by shadows of Franklin Delano (or Eleanor) Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, John Lewis, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Through each of these individual glimpses of the grand continuum of American life, one can trace an evolving battle for liberalism and within it—with natural rights, individual liberty, and federalism in occasional dissonance. The Aeneid is, of course, a work of beautiful Augustan propaganda. Its chthonic highlight-reel ends with Rome’s first emperor rather than, say, Caligula, whom Virgil could not have foreseen. (Of those he could, the poet omits the likes of Tarquin and Sulla, respectively monarch and dictator, whose reigns were less than estimable.) American progress so far, albeit uneven, has been towards the incremental attainment of original liberal aspirations. Detours from this path we would never even register as such unless our reference point was the American liberal founding. The revolutionary war ended in 1783. But the revolution itself—the struggle to build a broadly Lockean republic—did not and should not.

Aflare today are the same embers of political controversy that have been glowing soundlessly and unfailingly in that 18th century polaris. Observe how the civil rights movement expanded until 1954 and since; recall the conflict between privacy and security after 2001 and as it reignited in 2013 or this spring; or try to forget for a moment, if one can, the interminable sputters of the freedom of expression. This flame has been burning in the New World at least since 1735 when John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was tried and acquitted for libeling state authority.

It was no less consuming when John Adams introduced the Alien and Sedition Acts and when Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those convicted under them. It was no less fervid when Franklin Roosevelt created the candidly named Office of Censorship in 1941; when the Supreme Court in 1963 sided with black protestors who had been charged with angering the white public; or when in 1977 it required Illinois courts to consider the appeal of neo-Nazis who had been forbidden to march in the town of Skokie; or when in 2003 it upheld a ban on most instances of cross-burning. And in between there were more sedition and espionage acts by Congress; there were incinerated flags and draft cards; there was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes setting his silly “fire in a crowded theater” and then promptly putting it out, in the same year, with his epiphanic dissent against the conviction of five Russian Jewish immigrants for distributing copies of anti-war leaflets (one of them written in Yiddish).

The Main Hall of Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, where the author spent his first four years in the United States.

Its Madisonian origin notwithstanding, free speech would not be central to American political identity today if its application had not been historically and regularly flanked, embattled, and besieged. Without the exercise, the First Amendment would have atrophied. This applies similarly to every muscle and sinew of present Americanness. Notice that even the recent arguments for abolishing the constitution testify how explicit and current and animate the American agon remains after a quarter of a millennium. Despite their obvious rhetorical antitalent, constitution-abolitionists, too, are faithfully and traditionally American.

Aristotle, in the few instances he agrees with his schoolmaster, considers internal conflict to be an evil and civil war as the greatest of evils. But a moderate quantity between deficiency and excess he ought to have counted a virtue as all the others. And, like all the others, one is most likely to exercise it as personal habit if the community has already adopted it as custom. Nietzsche finds in one of the pettiest mores of Athens a profound commitment to sustaining social friction:

“If we want to see that feeling revealed in its naïve form, the feeling that the contest is vital, if the well-being of the state is to continue, we should think about the original meaning of ostracism (exile by popular vote of a usually prominent citizen). For why should nobody be the best? Because with that, the contest would dry up and the permanent basis of life in the Hellenic state would be endangered. Later, ostracism is used when there is the obvious danger that one of the great contending politicians and party leaders might feel driven, in the heat of battle, to use harmful and destructive means and to conduct dangerous coups d’états. The original function of this strange institution is, however, not as a safety valve but as a stimulant: the preeminent individual is removed to renew the tournament of forces.”

In ways less artificial and more decentralized, the American tradition has been kept alive by tempered, persistent, intergenerational conflict that includes the refinement of the very foundations of liberal political and moral theory. Although it may be obvious how salubrious conflict in civil society can impel the improvement of the individual, why does Nietzsche assume—and why should we—a similar effect on the collective? Alasdair MacIntyre’s analogy in the third edition of After Virtue puts it plainly:

“When an institution—a university, say, or a farm or a hospital—is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, or averse to challenge, it is always dying or dead.”

The American forum is not the only one with a countable pulse. However, because the country’s founding is recent and deliberate and written (unlike those of more ancient political communities), the American citizen is unusually aware of it and eager to be in the fray. So to speak for instance of the “American experiment” is trite, but one will rarely hear of the national or institutional history of, say, Indonesia or Ethiopia or Cyprus referred to—or conceived by her citizens—as the Indonesian or the Ethiopian or the Cypriot experiment. And while in the United States, at the start of these new 20’s, political ardor soars, it is not unprecedented to read of an election as a brawl for “America’s soul.”

What the United States shares with Athens is not the pretense of democracy, or any other feature of the content of her tradition but, rather, her citizens’ uncommon commitment to contesting it. Virtue is in the wrangle. This heightened sense of control over the direction of the country makes Burkean caution necessary to preserve the American liberal legacy against him who is bound to assume that it is tabula rasa: carte blanche “upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.” But it has the chief advantage of being least susceptible to the inertia that is typical of, and fatal to, most national traditions.

In July 2006, I woke up to the black roar of bombers over Beirut as a proxy war, which has since then periodically switched battlefields, briefly recommenced. American civilians were temporarily evacuated to Cyprus that summer.

If American agon is close to the virtuous mean, then complacency, as in my island, is close to its deficit. Major parts of the constitution of the Republic of Cyprus, written in 1960 but unfeasible given the realities of that society since 1974, remain unchallenged by my co-citizens and un-amended by our governments. In 2013, under European direction, the indebted republic subjected all bank deposits over a certain amount to the innocuous “haircut”—read: property seizure, far beyond the liberal pale—with hardly as much as a mewl in response except from those robbed of hefty savings. (Admittedly, the dealings of bloated Cypriot banks and Russian racketeers had grown quite hairy.)

Somehow, several years later, the same government remains in power, one of those banks in business, and the country in a transnational clique which now seeks to modernize a customs union with the occupier of a third of her territory. Running on the fumes of our stores of hard and soft power, we watch Turkish warships coursing the Mediterranean. We, who were for decades too comfortable to care enough for physical insecurity, have recently realized that we are able to neither comfort nor secure ourselves.

If stasis is agonistic deficiency, then sectarianism as in Lebanon and existential war, as in Nagorno-Karabakh this month and last, are its excesses. In consociational Lebanon (the state that succeeded the civil war in which my mother spent her unchildlike childhood), formal factions have extinguished the very notion of a political community. In July 2006, I woke up to the black roar of bombers over Beirut as a proxy war, which has since then periodically switched battlefields, briefly recommenced. American civilians were temporarily evacuated to Cyprus that summer. This autumn, most of the population of irrefutably Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh was evacuated to escape a belligerent for whom soldier-civilian distinctions were even more foreign than the lands to which it laid claim. Communities may become antifragile through these sorts of conflicts, but pulling forces internal and external in both cases—the onerous circumstances under which these communities have had to struggle—has dismembered them.

One should write, I have heard it said, as though one is addressing a letter to a dear friend. In this particular one, affinity and apprehension coincide. A civil war united these States; another could very well disunite them. But there is a counterpolar risk, too, more common and more squalid: a society that slowly stagnates because too many of its citizens, bullied by or otherwise alienated from their fellow agonists, grow weary of conflict altogether. Omniscient reactionaries recently emerging from where they were least expected is worrisome, especially because the political left’s seductive and self-renewing quality is the result of that same enshrined agitation that it now channels with increasing perversity.

“The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life,” per Charlie Citrine, one of the most observing American protagonists: “When Trotsky spoke of permanent revolution he really meant permanent interest.”

But the United States has never suffered from a shortage of revolutionaries: She is a culture of revolutionaries in an endless, multidirectional tug-of-war over the same liberal and federalist tenets that inspired her founding, without which we would not recognize aberrations historical or current. Those who presently find themselves bored and without cause, flirting with totalitarianism on the Left and Right, are in fact struggling against struggle. The end, left to them, would be the end of revolution, the end of interest: the end of the permanent agonist.

Vahaken Mouradian is a Cypriot-Armenian essayist based in Washington, D.C. After his military service in the National Guard of Cyprus, he read politics, philosophy, and economics at Lawrence University and international security at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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