Features June 2004
Institutionalizing our demise: America vs. multiculturalism
Tenth in the series “Lengthened Shadows.”
Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.
—J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,
Letters from an American Farmer, 1782
There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts “native” before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen.
—Theodore Roosevelt, 1915
The delicate task that faces our civilization today is not to reform the secular, rationalist orthodoxy, which has passed beyond the point of redemption. Rather, it is to breathe new life into the older, now largely comatose, religious orthodoxies—while resisting the counterculture as best we can, adapting to it and reshaping it where we cannot simply resist.
—Irving Kristol, “Countercultures,” 1994
On a recent trip to Maryland, I stopped at Baltimore Harbor with my wife and five-year-old son to see Fort McHenry. This was the site, in September 1814, of the Battle of Baltimore, a decisive episode in the War of 1812. The late April afternoon was glorious: the sky an infinite azure punctuated by a flotilla of stately white clouds.
Our first stop was a modern outbuilding adjacent to the eighteenth-century fort. We crowded into a small theater with about thirty fourth-graders and their teachers to watch a short film. We learned about the origins of the war, about how the British took and burned Washington, about how at last a thousand U.S. troops under George Armistead at Fort McHenry successfully defended their bastion against the British naval onslaught, saving Baltimore and turning the tide of the war.
It was (as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo) a “damn near thing.” The British ships, anchored out of range of Armistead’s cannons, pounded the fort with mortar and Congreve rocket fire over the course of twenty-five hours. Sitting on a truce ship behind the British fleet was a young American lawyer and amateur poet named Francis Scott Key. He watched as the battle raged, dappling the night sky with noisy coruscations.
Sometime before sunrise, the bombardment suddenly stopped. Key was uncertain of the battle’s outcome until dawn broke and he saw the American flag fluttering above Fort McHenry. (When he had taken command, Armistead asked for an extra large flag so that “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.”) There would be no surrender. The Brits abandoned their plans to invade Baltimore. The war would soon be over. As soon as he caught sight of Old Glory, Francis Scott Key began scribbling what would become “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter. He finished it in a hotel in Baltimore a day or two later. The poem was an instant hit and was soon set to “The Anacreontic Song,” an eighteenth-century English drinking tune. It became the official national anthem in 1931.
The film ended and strains of the song began floating out from the loudspeakers—softly at first, then louder and louder. Everyone in the room scrambled to his feet.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The schoolchildren stood reverently, each with his right hand over his heart. A floor-length curtain wheeled back, flooding the room with light. There was Fort McHenry. And there, rising above it, was the American flag, waving gently in the breeze. With the possible exception of our son, who was busy attacking The Enemy with his toy F14, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Of course, that calculated piece of theater was in part an exercise in sentimentality, a deliberate effort to manipulate our emotions. Is that a bad thing? Wallace Stevens may have been right that, in general, “sentimentality is a failure of feeling.” Nevertheless, there is a place for a bit of affirmative sentimentality in the moral economy of our society. Among other things, it provides emotional glue for our shared identity as Americans. These days, perhaps more than ever before, that identity needs glue. The essays in this book have traversed many American institutions, from music, the visual arts, and poetry to religion, law, and the military. But as we contemplate the prospects for America and its institutions in the twenty-first century, it is not only particular cultural and social institutions that deserve scrutiny. What we might call the institution of American identity—of who we are as a people—also requires our attention.
It is often said that the terrorist attacks of September 11 precipitated a new resolve throughout the nation. There is some truth to that. Certainly, the extraordinary bravery of the firefighters and other rescue personnel in New York and Washington, D.C., provided an invigorating spectacle—as did Todd “Let’s roll” Beamer and his fellow passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. Having learned from their cell phones what had happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Beamer and his fellows rushed and overpowered the terrorists who had hijacked their plane. As a result, the plane crashed on a remote Pennsylvania farm instead of on Pennsylvania Avenue. Who knows how many lives their sacrifice saved?
The widespread sense of condign outrage—of horror leavened by anger and elevated by resolve—testified to a renewed sense of national purpose and identity after 9/11. Attacked, many Americans suddenly (if temporarily) rediscovered the virtue of patriotism. At the beginning of his remarkable book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington recalls a certain block on Charles Street in Boston. At one time, American flags flew in front of a U.S. Post Office and a liquor store. Then the Post Office stopped displaying the flag, so on September 11, 2001, the flag was flying only in front of the liquor store. Within two weeks, seventeen American flags decorated that block of Charles Street, in addition to a huge flag suspended over the street close by. “With their country under attack,” Huntington notes, “Charles Street denizens rediscovered their nation and identified themselves with it.”
Was that rediscovery anything more than a momentary passion? Huntington reports that within a few months, the flags on Charles Street began to disappear. By the time the first anniversary rolled around in September 2002, only four were left flying. True, that is four times more than were there on September 10, 2001, but it is less than a quarter of the number that populated Charles Street at the end of September 2001.
There are similar anecdotes from around the country—an access of flag-waving followed by a relapse into indifference. Does it mean that the sudden upsurge of patriotism in the weeks following 9/11 was only, as it were, skin deep? Or perhaps it merely testifies to the fact that a sense of permanent emergency is difficult to maintain, especially in the absence of fresh attacks. Is our sense of ourselves as Americans patent only when challenged? “Does it,” Huntington asks, “take an Osama bin Laden … to make us realize that we are Americans? If we do not experience recurring destructive attacks, will we return to the fragmentation and eroded Americanism before September 11?”
One hopes that the answer is No. The behavior of those schoolchildren at Fort McHenry—behavior that was, I am happy to report, quietly encouraged by their teachers—suggests that the answer cannot simply be No. But I fear that for every schoolchild standing at attention for the National Anthem, there is a teacher or lawyer or judge or politician or ACLU employee militating against the hegemony of the dominant culture, the insupportable intrusion of white, Christian, “Eurocentric” values into the curriculum, the school pageant, the town green, etc., etc. The demonstration of national character and resolve following September 11 was extraordinary. It did not, however, purchase immunity from the virus of cultural dissolution. The usually perceptive commentator Max Boot, writing about the issue of gay marriage, remarked in passing that “no one who saw the response to 9/11 can think we are soft or decadent” or that “America is in cultural decline.” Alas, the display of national heroism and resolve following 9/11 has had little if any effect on the forces behind the fragmentation and “eroded Americanism” to which Huntington refers.
Those forces are not isolated phenomena; they are not even confined to America. They are part of a global crisis in national identity, coefficients of the sudden collapse of self-confidence in the West—a collapse that shows itself in everything from swiftly falling birthrates in “old Europe” to the attack on the whole idea of the sovereign nation state. It is hard to avoid thinking that a people that has lost the will to reproduce or govern itself is a people on the road to destruction.
Only a few years ago we were invited to contemplate the pleasant spectacle of the “end of history” and the establishment of Western-style liberal democracy, attended by the handmaidens of prosperity and rising standards of health care and education, the world over. Things look rather different now as a variety of centrifugal forces threatens to undermine the sources of national identity and, with it, the sources of national strength and the security which that strength underwrites.
The threat shows itself in many ways, from culpable complacency to the corrosive imperatives of “multiculturalism” and political correctness. (I use scare quotes because what generally travels under the name of “multiculturalism” is really a form of mono-cultural animus directed against the dominant culture.) In essence, as Huntington notes, multiculturalism is “anti-European civilization. ... It is basically an anti-Western ideology.” The multiculturalists claim to be fostering a progressive cultural cosmopolitanism distinguished by superior sensitivity to the downtrodden and dispossessed. In fact, they encourage an orgy of self-flagellating liberal guilt as impotent as it is insatiable. The “sensitivity” of the multiculturalist is an index not of moral refinement but of moral vacuousness. As the French essayist Pascal Bruckner observed, “An overblown conscience is an empty conscience.”
Compassion ceases if there is nothing but compassion, and revulsion turns to insensitivity. Our “soft pity,” as Stefan Zweig calls it, is stimulated, because guilt is a convenient substitute for action where action is impossible. Without the power to do anything, sensitivity becomes our main aim. The aim is not so much to do anything, as to be judged. Salvation lies in the verdict that declares us to be wrong.
Multiculturalism is a moral intoxicant; its thrill centers around the emotion of superior virtue; its hangover subsists on a diet of nescience and blighted “good intentions.”
Wherever the imperatives of multiculturalism have touched the curriculum, they have left broad swaths of anti-Western attitudinizing competing for attention with quite astonishing historical blindness. Courses on minorities, women’s issues, the Third World proliferate; the teaching of mainstream history slides into oblivion. “The mood,” Arthur Schlesinger wrote in The Disuniting of America (1992), his excellent book on the depredations of multiculturalism, “is one of divesting Americans of the sinful European inheritance and seeking redemptive infusions from non-Western cultures.”
A profound ignorance of the milestones of American culture is one predictable result of this mood. The statistics have become proverbial. Huntington quotes one poll from the 1990s showing that while 90 percent of Ivy League students could identify Rosa Parks, only 25 percent could identify the author of the words “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” (Yes, it’s the Gettysburg Address.) In a 1999 survey, 40 percent of seniors at fifty-five top colleges could not say within half a century when the Civil War was fought. Another study found that more high school students knew who Harriet Tubman was than knew that Washington commanded the American army in the revolution or that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Doubtless you have your own favorite horror story.
But multiculturalism is not only an academic phenomenon. The attitudes it fosters have profound social as well as intellectual consequences. One consequence has been a sharp rise in the phenomenon of immigration without—or with only partial—assimilation: a dangerous demographic trend that threatens American identity in the most basic way.
These various agents of dissolution are also elements in a wider culture war: the contest to define how we live and what counts as the good in the good life. Anti-Americanism occupies such a prominent place on the agenda of the culture wars precisely because the traditional values of American identity—articulated by the Founders and grounded in a commitment to individual liberty and public virtue—are deeply at odds with the radical, de-civilizing tenets of the “multiculturalist” enterprise.
To get a sense of what has happened to the institution of American identity, compare Robert Frost’s performance at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 with Maya Angelou’s performance thirty-two years later. As Huntington reminds us, Frost spoke of the “heroic deeds” of America’s founding, an event, he said, that with “God’s approval” ushered in “a new order of the ages.” By contrast, Maya Angelou never mentioned the words “America” or “American.” Instead, she identified twenty-seven ethnic or religious groups that had suffered repression because of America’s “armed struggles for profit,” “cynicism,” and “brutishness.”
Repellent though Maya Angelou’s performance was, it did seem the appropriate rhetorical embroidery to welcome Bill Clinton, a president infatuated with the blandishments of multiculturalism and who sought a third “great revolution” to emancipate America from the legacy of European civilization and its Anglo-Protestant values. It has to be acknowledged that considerable progress toward that goal was made during his administration.
A favorite weapon in the armory of multiculturalism is the lowly hyphen. When we speak of an African-American or Mexican-American or Asian-American these days, the aim is not descriptive but deconstructive. There is a polemical edge to it, a provocation. The hyphen does not mean “American, but hailing at some point in the past from someplace else.” It means “only provisionally American: my allegiance is divided at best.” (I believe something similar can be said about the feminist fad for hyphenating the bride’s maiden name with her husband’s surname. It is a gesture of independence that is also a declaration of divided loyalty.) It is curious to what extent the passion for hyphenation is fostered more by the liberal elite than the populations it is supposedly meant to serve. How does it serve them? Presumably by enhancing their sense of “self-esteem.” Frederick Douglass saw through this charade some one hundred and fifty years ago. “No one idea,” he wrote, “has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward colored people of this country than that which makes Africa, not America, their home.”
The indispensable Ward Connerly would agree. Connerly has campaigned vigorously against affirmative action in California. This of course has made him a pariah among the politically correct elite. It has also resulted in some humorous exchanges, such as this telephone interview with a reporter from The New York Times in 1997.
REPORTER: What are you?
CONNERLY: I am an American.
REPORTER: No, no, no! What areyou?
CONNERLY: Yes, yes, yes! I am an American.
REPORTER: That is not what I mean. I was told that you are African American. Are you ashamed to be African American?
CONNERLY: No, I am just proud to be an American.
Connerly went on to explain that his ancestry included Africans, French, Irish, and American Indians. It was too much for the poor reporter from our Paper of Record: “What does that make you?” he asked in uncomprehending exasperation. I suspect he was not edified by Connerly’s cheerful response: “That makes me all-American.”
The multicultural passion for hyphenation is not simply a fondness for syntactical novelty. It also bespeaks a commitment to the centrifugal force of anti-American tribalism. The division marked by the hyphen in African-American (say) denotes a political stand. It goes hand-in-hand with other items on the index of liberal desiderata—the redistributive impulse behind efforts at “affirmative action,” for example. Affirmative action was undertaken in the name of equality. But, as always seems to happen, it soon fell prey to the Orwellian logic from which the principle that “All animals are equal” gives birth to the transformative codicil: “but some animals are more equal than others.”
Affirmative action is Orwellian in a linguistic sense, too, since what announces itself as an initiative to promote equality winds up enforcing discrimination precisely on the grounds that it was meant to overcome. Thus we are treated to the delicious, if alarming, contradiction of college applications that declare their commitment to evaluate candidates “without regard to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or national origin” on page 1 and then helpfully inform you on page 2 that it is to your advantage to mention if you belong to any of the following designated victim groups. Among other things, a commitment to multiculturalism seems to dull one’s sense of contradiction.
The whole history of affirmative action is instinct with that irony. The original effort to redress legitimate grievances—grievances embodied, for instance, in the discriminatory practices of Jim Crow—have mutated into new forms of discrimination. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee because blacks were openly barred from war factory jobs. But what began as a Presidential Executive Order in 1961 directing government contractors to take “affirmative action” to assure that people be hired “without regard” for sex, race, creed, color, etc., has resulted in the creation of vast bureaucracies dedicated to discovering, hiring, and advancing people chiefly on the basis of those qualities. White is black, freedom is slavery, “without regard” comes to mean “with regard for nothing else.”
Had he lived to see the evolution of affirmative action, Tocqueville would have put such developments down as examples of how in democratic societies the passion for equality tends to trump the passion for liberty. The fact that the effort to enforce equality often results in egregious inequalities he would have understood to be part of the “tutelary despotism” that “extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd.”
Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity. As such, they oppose the traditional understanding of what it means to be an American—an understanding hinted at in 1782 by the French-born American farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his famous image of America as a country in which “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” This crucible of American identity, this “melting pot,” has two aspects. The negative aspect involves disassociating oneself from the cultural imperatives of one’s country of origin. One sheds a previous identity before assuming a new one. One might preserve certain local habits and tastes, but they are essentially window-dressing. In essence one has left the past behind in order to become an American citizen.
The positive aspect of advancing the melting pot involves embracing the substance of American culture. The 1795 code for citizenship lays out some of the formal requirements.
I do solemnly swear (1) to support the Constitution of the United States; (2) to renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen; (3) to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; (4) to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and (5) (A) to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law, or (B) to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law …
For over two hundred years, this oath had been required of those wishing to become citizens. In 2003, Huntington tells us, federal bureaucrats launched a campaign to rewrite and weaken it.
I shall say more about what constitutes the substance of American identity in a moment. For now, I want to underscore the fact that this project of Americanization has been an abiding concern since the time of the Founders. “We must see our people more Americanized,” John Jay declared in the 1780s. Jefferson concurred. Teddy Roosevelt repeatedly championed the idea that American culture, the “crucible in which all the new types are melted into one,” was “shaped from 1776 to 1789, and our nationality was definitely fixed in all its essentials by the men of Washington’s day.”
It is often said that America is a nation of immigrants. In fact, as Huntington points out, America is a country that was initially a country of settlers. Settlers precede immigrants and make their immigration possible. The culture of those mostly English-speaking, predominantly Anglo-Protestant settlers defined American culture. Their efforts came to fruition with the generation of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. The Founders are so denominated because they founded, they inaugurated a state. Immigrants were those who came later, who came from elsewhere, and who became American by embracing the Anglophone culture of the original settlers. The English language, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, the industriousness and piety that flowed from the Protestant work ethic—these were central elements in the culture disseminated by the Founders. And these were among the qualities embraced by immigrants when they became Americans. “Throughout American history,” Huntington notes, “people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefitted them and the country.”
Justice Louis Brandeis outlined the pattern in 1919. Americanization, he said, means that the immigrant “adopts the clothes, the manners, and the customs generally prevailing here … substitutes for his mother tongue the English language” and comes “into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate[s] with us for their attainment.” Until the 1960s, the Brandeis model mostly prevailed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups, understanding that assimilation was the best ticket to stability and social and economic success, eagerly aided in the task of integrating their charges into American society.
The story is very different today. In America, there is a dangerous new tide of immigration from Asia, a variety of Muslim countries, and Latin America, especially from Mexico. The tide is new not only chronologically but also in substance. First, there is the sheer matter of numbers. More than 2,200,000 legal immigrants came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s alone. The number of illegal Mexican immigrants is staggering. So is their birth rate. Altogether there are more than 8 million Mexicans in the U.S. Some parts of the Southwest are well on their way to becoming what Victor Davis Hanson calls “Mexifornia,” “the strange society that is emerging as the result of a demographic and cultural revolution like no other in our times.” A professor of Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico gleefully predicts that by 2080 parts of the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico will join to form a new country, “La Republica del Norte.”
The problem is not only one of numbers, though. Earlier immigrants made—and were helped and goaded by the ambient culture to make—concerted efforts to assimilate. Important pockets of these new immigrants are not assimilating, not learning English, not becoming or thinking of themselves primarily as Americans. The effect of these developments on American identity is disastrous and potentially irreversible.
Such developments are abetted by the left-wing political and educational elites of this country, whose dominant theme is the perfidy of traditional American values. Hence the passion for multiculturalism and the ideal of ethnic hyphenation that goes with it. This has done immense damage in schools and colleges as well as in the population at large. By removing the obligation to master English, multiculturalism condemns whole sub-populations to the status of permanent second-class citizens. By removing the obligation to adopt American values, it fosters what the German novelist Hermann Broch once called a “value vacuum,” a sense of existential emptiness that breeds anomie and the pathologies of nihilism.
As if in revenge for this injustice, however, multiculturalism also weakens the social bonds of the community at large. The price of imperfect assimilation is imperfect loyalty. Take the movement for bilingualism. Whatever it intended in theory, in practice it means not mastering English. It has notoriously left its supposed beneficiaries essentially monolingual, often semi- lingual. The only bi involved is a passion for bifurcation, which is fed by the accumulated resentments instilled by the anti-American multicultural orthodoxy. Every time you call directory assistance or some large corporation and are told “Press One for English” and “Para español oprime el numero dos” it is another small setback for American identity.
Meanwhile, many prominent academics and even businessmen come bearing the gospel of what John Fonte has dubbed “transnational progressivism”—an anti-patriotic stew of politically correct ideas and attitudes distinguished partly by its penchant for vague but virtuous-sounding abstractions, partly by its moral smugness. It is a familiar litany. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns that “patriotic pride” is “morally dangerous” while Princeton’s Amy Gutmann reveals that she finds it “repugnant” for American students to learn that they are “above all, citizens of the United States” instead of partisans of her preferred abstraction, “democratic humanism.” New York University’s Richard Sennett denounces “the evil of a shared national identity” and concludes that the erosion of national sovereignty is “basically a positive thing.” Cecilia O’Leary of American University identifies American patriotism as a right-wing, militaristic, male, white, Anglo, and repressive force, while Peter Spiro of Hofstra University says it “is increasingly difficult to use the word ‘we’ in the context of international affairs.”
Of course, whenever the word “patriotism” comes up in left-wing circles, there is sure to be some allusion to Samuel Johnson’s observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” Right on cue, George Lipsitz of the University of California sniffs that “in recent years refuge in patriotism has been the first resort of scoundrels of all sorts.” Naturally, Dr. Johnson’s explanation to Boswell that he did not mean to disparage “a real and generous love of our country” but only that “pretended patriotism” that is a “cloak for self-interest” is left out of account.
The bottom line is that the traditional ideal of a distinctive American identity, forged out of many elements but unified around a core of beliefs, attitudes, and commitments is now up for grabs. One academic epitomized the established attitude among our left-liberal elites when she expressed the hope that the United States would “never again be culturally ‘united,’ if united means ‘unified’ in beliefs and practices.” Nor is this merely an academic crotchet. Many politicians—and, as Robert Bork shows earlier in this volume, many courts—have colluded in spreading the multicultural gospel. The nation’s motto—E pluribus unum—was chosen by Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams to express the ideal of faction- and heritage-transcending unity. America forged one people out of many peoples. Vice President Al Gore interpreted the tag to mean “Within one, many.” This might have been inadvertence. It might have been simple ignorance. It might have been deliberate ideological provocation. Which is worst?
The combined effect of the multicultural enterprise has been to undermine the foundation of American national identity. Huntington speaks dramatically but not inaptly of “Deconstructing America.” What he has in mind are not the linguistic tergiversations of a Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault but the efforts—politically if not always intellectually allied efforts—to disestablish the dominant culture by fostering a variety of subversive attitudes, pieces of legislation, and judicial interventions. “The deconstructionists,” Huntington writes,
promoted programs to enhance that status and influence of subnational racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. They encouraged immigrants to maintain their birth-country cultures, granted them legal privileges denied to native-born Americans, and denounced the idea of Americanization as un-American. They pushed the rewriting of history syllabi and textbooks so as to refer to the “peoples” of the United States in place of the single people of the Constitution. They urged supplementing or substituting for national history the history of subnational groups. They downgraded the centrality of English in American life and pushed bilingual education and linguistic diversity. They advocated legal recognition of group rights and racial preferences over the individual rights central to the American Creed. They justified their actions by theories of multiculturalism and the idea that diversity rather than unity or community should be America’s overriding value. The combined effect of these efforts was to promote the deconstruction of the American identity that had been gradually created over three centuries.
Taken together, Huntington concludes, “these efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”
The various movements to deconstruct American identity and replace it with a multicultural “rainbow” or supra-national bureaucracy have made astonishing inroads in the last few decades and especially in the last several years. And, as Huntington reminds us, the attack on American identity has counterparts elsewhere in the West wherever the doctrine of multiculturalism has trumped the cause of national identity. The European Union—whose unelected leaders are as dedicated to multicultural shibboleths as they are to rule by top-down, anti-democratic bureaucracy—is a case in point. But the United States, the most powerful national state, is also the most attractive target for deconstruction.
It is a curious development that Huntington traces. In many respects, it corroborates James Burnham’s observation, in Suicide of the West (1964), that “liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.” For what we have witnessed with the triumph of multiculturalism is a kind of hypertrophy or perversion of liberalism, as its core doctrines are pursued to the point of caricature. As the Australian philosopher David Stove pointed out, we in the West “set ourselves to achieve a society which would be maximally-tolerant. But that resolve not only gives maximum scope to the activities of those who have set themselves to achieve the maximally-intolerant society. It also, and more importantly, paralyzes our powers of resistance to them.” “Freedom,” “diversity,” “equality,” “tolerance,” even “democracy”—how many definitive liberal virtues have been redacted into their opposites by the imperatives of political correctness? If a commitment to “diversity” mandates bilingual education, then we must institute bilingual education, even if it results in the cultural disenfranchisement of those it was meant to benefit. The passion for equality demands “affirmative action,” even though the process of affirmative action depends upon treating people unequally. The French philosopher Jean-François Revel put it well when he observed, in 1970, that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it.”
If there is a bright spot in the portrait that Huntington paints, it revolves around the fact that the centrifugal forces of multiculturalism are espoused chiefly by the intellectual and bureaucratic elite, not ordinary people. Of course, one might ask how the beliefs of ordinary people can prevail against the combined forces of the courts, the educational establishment, the “mainstream” media, and much popular culture? It is hard to say—at least, it is hard to say anything cheerful. But Huntington does provide several rays of hope. There are many movements to “take back America,” to resuscitate the core values that, traditionally, have defined us as Americans. Indeed, Huntington’s book may be regarded as a manifesto on behalf of that battle. The homeschooling movement is one example. Only a few years ago, it was a fringe phenomenon, allied almost exclusively to certain conservative evangelical sects. Today, homeschoolers come from every religious and social background. In 1990–1991, 76,000 children were home-schooled. The estimate for 2004 is about 2 million. That explosion is not only evidence of disenchantment with the intellectual failure of public schools: much more it betokens disenchantment with the moral tenor of public education.
We stand at a crossroads. The future of America hangs in the balance. Huntington outlines several possible courses that the country might take, from the loss of our core culture to an attempt to revive the “discarded and discredited racial and ethnic concepts” that, in part, defined pre-mid-twentieth century America.
Huntington argues for another alternative. If we are to preserve our identity as a nation we need to preserve the core values that defined that identity. This is a point that the political philosopher Patrick, Lord Devlin made in his book The Enforcement of Morals (1965):
[S]ociety means a community of ideas; without shared ideas on politics, morals, and ethics no society can exist. Each one of us has ideas about what is good and what is evil; they cannot be kept private from the society in which we live. If men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental agreement about good and evil they will fail; if having based it upon a common set of core values, they surrender those values, it will disintegrate. For society is not something that can be kept together physically; it is held by the invisible but fragile bonds of common beliefs and values. … A common morality is part of the bondage of a good society, and that bondage is part of the price of society which mankind must pay.
What are those beliefs and values? They embrace several things, including religion. You wouldn’t know it from watching CNN or reading The New York Times, but there is a huge religious revival taking place now, affecting just about every part of the globe except Western Europe, which slouches towards godlessness almost as fast as it slouches towards bankruptcy and demographic collapse. (Neither Spain nor Italy are producing enough children to replace their existing populations, while the Muslim birthrate in France continues to soar).
Things look different in America. For if America is a vigorously secular country—which it certainly is—it is also a deeply religious one. It always has been. Tocqueville was simply minuting the reality he saw around him when he noted that “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.” As G. K. Chesterton put it a century after Tocqueville, America is “a nation with the soul of a church.” Even today, America is a country where an astonishing 92 percent of the population says it believes in God and 80 to 85 percent of the population identifies itself as Christian. Hence Huntington’s call for a return to America’s core values is also a call to embrace the religious principles upon which the country was founded, “a recommitment to America as a deeply religious and primarily Christian country, encompassing several religious minorities adhering to Anglo-Protestant values, speaking English, maintaining its cultural heritage, and committed to the principles” of political liberty as articulated by the Founders.
Naturally, Huntington has been sharply criticized for prescribing a return to “Anglo-Protestant values” as an antidote for faltering American identity. For example, Michiko Kakutani, reviewing Who Are We? for The New York Times, dismissed it as a “portentous,” “crotchety,” “highly polemical book” that merely “recycl[ed] arguments from earlier thinkers” while imparting to them a “bellicose new spin.” Oh dear. Kakutani was particularly exercised by Huntington’s criticism of multiculturalism and his advocacy of Anglo-Protestant values. But she misses something important. For Huntington is careful to stress that what he offers is an “argument for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people.” That is, he argues not on behalf of a particular ethnic group but on behalf of a culture and set of values that “for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions and that have been the source of their liberty, unity, power, prosperity, and moral leadership.”
American identity was originally founded on four things: ethnicity, race, ideology, and culture. By the mid-twentieth century, ethnicity and race had sharply receded in importance. Indeed, one of America’s greatest achievements is having eliminated the racial and ethnic components that historically were central to its identity. Ideology—the package of Enlightened liberal values championed by the Founders—are crucial but too thin for the task of forging or preserving national identity by themselves. (“A nation defined only by political ideology,” Huntington notes, “is a fragile nation.”) Which is why Huntington, like virtually all of the Founders, explicitly grounded American identity in religion.
Opponents of religion in the public square never tire of reminding us that there is no mention of God in the Constitution. This is true. Neither is the word “virtue” mentioned. But both are presupposed. For the American Founders, as the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb points out, virtue, grounded in religion, was presumed “to be rooted in the very nature of man and as such … reflected in the moeurs of the people and in the traditions and informal institutions of society.” It is also worth mentioning that if the Constitution is silent on religion, the Declaration of Independence is voluble, speaking of “nature’s God,” the “Creator,” “the supreme judge of the world,” and “divine Providence.”
We are often told that the Founders were, almost to a man, Deists listing toward atheism. Michael Novak has done much to disabuse us of that idea. Himmelfarb carries his work further in her book The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2004). She shows how a distinctively American form of Enlightenment, deeply informed by the British Enlightenment and differing sharply from the anti-clerical rationalism of the French variety, nourished the Founders’ understanding of politics and what constitutes the good life for man. It was a form of Enlightenment that, Himmelfarb observes, regarded religion as an indispensable ally of reason, not an enemy of reason. In America, Tocqueville observed, unlike in France, the “spirit of religion” and “the spirit of freedom” support rather than oppose each other. “Religion,” he wrote,
sees in civil freedom a noble exercise of the faculties of man; in the political world, a field left by the Creator to the efforts of intelligence. ... Freedom sees in religion the companion of its struggles and its triumphs, … the divine source of its rights. It considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws.
Today, we are encouraged to interpret “freedom of religion” to mean “freedom from religion”—unless, of course, the religion in question is suitably exotic. (One recalls Chesterton’s observation that “Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.”) The ACLU is tortured by the thought of school children uttering the phrase “under God”; in June 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the phrase violated the principle of the separation of church and state. Yet Florida (among other states) allows Muslim women to pose for their driver’s license photographs with their faces veiled. The Founders would have been astounded—not to say alarmed—at this selective exclusion of religion from public life. They would have been even more astounded that it has been carried forward under the aegis of the First Amendment, perhaps the most wilfully misinterpreted text in America legal history.
Notwithstanding the ACLU and their allies, Himmelfarb is surely right that “The separation of church and state, however interpreted, did not signify the separation of church and society.” Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, summed up the common attitude of the Founders toward religion when he insisted that “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object of all republican governments.” George Washington concurred: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”
Even Benjamin Franklin, one of the least religious of the Founders, wanted some mention of God in the Constitution and, according to Himmelfarb, proposed that the proceedings of the Consitutional Convention begin with a daily prayer. Militant secularists will quote Jefferson’s brusque dismissal of religion in Notes on the State of Virginia: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But they somehow never get around to quoting the passage that occurs a few pages later: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are the gift of God?” As president, Himmelfarb notes, Jefferson was even more respectful of religion, and specifically Christianity, as the foundation of liberty and public virtue. On his way to church one Sunday, Jefferson was met by a friend.
“You going to church Mr. J. You do not believe a word in it.”
“Sir [Jefferson replied], no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.”
It is sometimes objected that, whatever lip-service the Founders gave to Christianity, their conception of religion was (the word “merely” implicitly supplied) pragmatic or utilitarian. Well, there was no doubt that the Founders thought religion was pragmatic, that is, socially useful, i.e., not merely a private affair with God. But why the implicit “merely”? As Himmelfarb argues, “this view of religion is not unworthy.”
To look upon religion as the ultimate source of morality, and hence of a good society and a sound policy, is not demeaning to religion. On the contrary, it pays religion—and God—the great tribute of being essential to the welfare of mankind. And it does credit to man as well, who is deemed capable of subordinating his lower nature to his higher, of venerating and giving obeisance to something above himself.
No nation lasts forever. An external enemy may eventually overrun and subdue it; internal forces of dissolution and decadence may someday undermine it, leaving it prey to more vigorous competitors. Sooner or later it succumbs. The United States is the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. Its astonishing military might, economic productivity, and political vigor are unprecedented. But someday, as Huntington reminds us, it too will fade or perish as Athens, Rome, and other great civilizations have faded or perished. Is the end, or the beginning of the end, at hand? No one’s crystal ball is sufficiently clairvoyant to allow us to say. For decades —no, longer—we have been getting bulletins about the decline of the West, the rise and (especially) the fall of great powers, etc., etc.
So far, the West—or at least the United States—has disappointed its self-appointed undertakers. How do we stand now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century? It is worth remembering that besieged nations do not always succumb to the forces, external or internal, that threaten them. Sometimes, they muster the resolve to fight back successfully, to renew themselves. Today, America faces a new external enemy in the form of militant Islam and global terrorism. That minatory force, though murderous, will fail in proportion to our resolve to defeat it. Do we still possess that resolve? Inseparable from resolve is self-confidence, faith in the essential nobility of one’s regime and one’s way of life. To what extent do we still possess, still practice that faith?
America also faces numerous internal threats, from the rise of immigration without assimilation to the dissolute forces of cultural decadence and radical multiculturalism. The forces of multiculturalism preach the dogma of bureaucratic cosmopolitanism. They encourage us to shed what is distinctively American in order to accommodate the quivering sensitivities of “humanity”—that imperious abstraction whose exigent mandates are updated regularly by such bodies as the United Nations, the World Court, and their allies in the professoriate and the liberal media. Huntington is right that “America cannot become the world and still be America.” We face a choice between a multicultural future and an American future. Which will it be?
In Washington’s Crossing (2004), his marvelous book on George Washington’s leadership in the Revolutionary War, David Hackett Fischer argues that America won the war against a much larger, better trained, and better equipped army partly because of the “moral strength of a just cause” and partly because of “religion”: “Americans,” he notes, “were a deeply spiritual people, with an abiding faith that sustained them in adversity.” Americans are still a deeply spiritual people, though many of our intellectual, cultural, and political leaders would have us forget that fact. In 1973, the commentator Irving Kristol observed that
for well over a hundred and fifty years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable. These critics were never, in their lifetime, either popular or persuasive. The educated classes of liberal-bourgeois society simply could not bring themselves to believe that religion was that important to a polity. They could live with religion or morality as a purely private affair, and they could not see why everyone else—after a proper secular education, of course—could not do likewise.
As the twenty-first century begins, we have a glorious opportunity—perhaps it is the last such opportunity—to start replenishing some of the moral capital we have been so profligate with in recent decades. Some sages assure us that our fate is sealed, that inevitable forces have scripted the (unhappy) denouement of American civilization. I do not believe them. Those children I saw at Fort McHenry are—potentially—insurance against that gloomy prognostication. They, and thousands like them, are potent weapons against the dissolutions that threaten us. Will we have the wit to use those weapons effectively? Samuel Huntington urges us to foster “those qualities that have defined America since its founding,” above all the Anglo-Protestant values that wed liberty to order. Many in the liberal, multicultural establishment have rejected Huntington’s vision of American unity as nativist or worse. I believe that his critics are wrong. Benjamin Franklin got to the nub of the matter when, more than two hundred years ago, he observed that “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
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I. Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity by Samuel P. Huntington; Simon and Schuster, 428 pages, $27. Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 10, on page 5
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