The human universe, we are told by optimists on the editorial pages, is contracting into a gray and insipid doughball, pasted over with brightly colored labels advertising the only ethnic rivalries that persist: the struggles between Nissan and Daimler, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Unfortunately, there are people around the world who do not read the Wall Street Journal, and some of them are hurling themselves into the bloody conflicts that regularly dominate the headlines. In the Middle East, the election of Ariel Sharon has predictably intensified the struggle between Arabs and their Israeli neighbors, who are mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants. U.S. support for Israel has cast American citizens in the role of enemies of Islam, and Muslim hatred of America reached a fever pitch on September 11, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the Balkans, Albanian immigrants in Serbia and Macedonia have been continuing their genocidal war against their Slavic hosts, and last spring, the “international community” was dismayed to learn that a U.N. employee is an accused Rwandan war criminal—really, just the perfect person to help with humanitarian development in the midst of an ethnic civil war.
The comedy continued in May, when a Rwandan accused of planning the genocide of a half-million Tutsis was found working in Tanzania as a defense investigator for the war-crimes tribunal. The very next day, John Ashcroft was in Mexico, promising President Fox that George W. Bush would send Congress a program granting Mexican immigrants guest-w orker visas. Unlike previous administrations, however, the Republican White House would not be demanding, in return, any concrete Mexican proposals to reduce illegal (much less legal) immigration.
It is a simple fact, so obvious that it should not need stating, but it does: All ethnic conflict is the result of migration, whether of Albanians into Kosovo, Anglo-Saxons into the Indian lands of North America, the forced migration of Africans to the United States, or the comparatively recent (18th century and earlier) invasion of Tutsis into Hutuland. Ethnic diversity almost always means ethnic conflict, which can be resolved by genocide (the solution devised by the English to answer the Tasmanian question), subjugation (the Norman Conquest of the Anglo-Saxons and of the Irish), or absorption (the fate of most Northern European ethnic groups in the United States), or some gruesome combination. Where are the Celts of yesteryear?
America, as we know, is an exception to every rule. Here, all the various ethnicities have blended into an harmonious multiethnic nationality that defines itself neither by blood nor religion. We are, as one Canadian immigrant who has spent his life making trouble for his adopted homeland puts it, “a propositional nation.” Ask Robert E. Lee. Ask W.E.B. Dubois. Ask Davy Crockett or Jesse Jackson or Abe Foxman. Ask Geronimo.
The reality of American life is that this nation has been dominated by ethnic conflicts throughout its history—some of them carried out openly in the form of Indian wars and race riots, others more covertly, as in the repeated attempts to keep Catholic immigrants in their place. Inevitably, both political parties have used ethnic tensions as a motive force for building coalitions and holding power.
In the 1850’s and 1860’s, the Know-Nothings and their successors, the Republicans, wanted to unify the country against immigrants (most of whom were Catholics) on the basis of ethnicity and religion, just as the Republican strategy today is to bind future generations of Mexicans, on the basis of class and economic interest, and use them as a counterweight to African-Americans, who vote Democratic.
The ethnic focus of the two political parties became very sharp in the years after the War Between the States. The Republicans were the party of the Union—that is, the GOP represented the members of the non-Southern middle classes who were Protestant and Anglo (or also, after a time, assimilated Germans and Scandinavians). After the end of Reconstruction, blacks hardly counted politically, because they had so little money and even less opportunity tovote; they were, nonetheless, clients of the GOP, much as they are clients of the Democrats today.
The Democrats were stigmatized as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”—that is, as a coalition of Southern WASPs and wine-bibbing and whiskey-swilling immigrants from Catholic Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Hungary. The coalition also included comparatively small numbers of Orthodox Greeks and Slavs and some Protestant ethnicities, but the lines were fairly clearly drawn. Midwestern WASPs, whose ancestors had once looked toward the South and to the party of Jefferson, were staunchly Republican, while Southern WASPs, whose families had been Whigs and unionists, became yellow-dog Democrats.
The Democratic Party, outside the South, was the party of excluded minorities and “forgotten men.” Finnish socialists voted Democratic (when there was no Marxist candidate running), and Southern and Eastern European ethnics supported the party of minorities against the WASPs who went to Yale and owned the country. The Democrats’ strategy was clear: to co-opt each arriving immigrant group by providing favors, organizing their neighborhoods, and getting out the vote. The same strategy almost gave them Florida and the White House in the 2000 election. The Republicans, on the other hand, relied on the farmers and the business classes and hoped, gradually, to convert the more assimilable ethnics, as they bought property and made money, to the bourgeois values of the GOP.
Both strategics were successful, to the point of stalemate, until Franklin Roosevelt made the big breakthrough of co-opting blacks by promising—and delivering—more goodies than the Republicans had done in over 50 years. This naturally introduced a strain into the Southern tier of the Democracy, but so long as white politicians maintained political and social control, they could afford to go along to get along.
Hubert Humphrey unraveled the skein: He could not resist the temptation to pull just that one thread, insisting on an anti-segregation plank in the 1948 Democratic platform. The result was the insurgency of the Dixiecrats, who failed to kick Harry Truman out of the White House; in the long run, though, Humphrey’s brilliant maneuver ensured that, in the South, the Democratic Party would become the black party and the Republicans would take over the white vote.
The effect on the South was tremendous. Politically active Southerners who had always defined themselves by their contempt for Yankee WASPs were suddenly forced to make common cause with Eisenhower and, later, with the Goldwaterites, and they finally ended up selling their futures entirely to Ronald Reagan. They could no longer think of themselves as Southern first, because “Southern” also meant the race-obsessed Marxists of the Democratic Party. In reconciling themselves to New England and the Midwest, they became generically American—which is why Southern Republicans cannot, by and large, be counted on to defend the Confederate flag.
For the foreseeable future, American political contests will be a bidding war between the two parties for the support of Mexican and Asian interests, hr the short run, at least, the Democrats will pick up most of the new votes: Unlike the Republicans, they have a solid record of delivering on their corrupt promises, and since what is left of WASP America is still a source of irritation for third and fourth-generation European ethnics, we can only imagine how the country-club Republicans must strike Cambodian- and Honduran-Americans. The Republicans can only get in on the action by playing off the new minorities against the African-Americans (who are sure to be portrayed as the source of all trouble) and by selling out whatever is left of the principles they have been abandoning for 50 years. The GOP is like one of those carpet stores that survive on a never-ending sequence of “Going Out of Business” sales.
Nothing in this should interest a decent human being who does not earn his living from politics—a contradiction in terms. The future of America—or whatever part of the country has a distinctively American future—belongs to us, the nonpolitical people who take care of our families as best we can, pay our taxes grudgingly, and pray the prayer of the publican.
Apart from doing our best to lead decent and happy lives and pass on something to our children, what can we do? We can begin by facing the fact that the America we thought we knew is gone and cannot be resurrected. The new regime is bent on destroying the relics of our civilization, stripping away the last vestiges of human dignity and political liberty, killing babies and feeding their stem cells to rich people who want to live forever. Please do not waste any more precious time worrying about whether a liberal gets elected to Congress in place of a wholesome, family-values conservative like Gary Condit or Orrin Hatch. The country as a whole cannot be saved, nor is there any Anglo-American region that can survive the onslaught. There are salvageable pockets in the South, but the South as a whole is represented by its political leaders: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Trent Lott. Enough said.
But within the South (and within other regions), there are places worth saving, religious and ethnic communities where people might circle the wagons and make a stand. I recently spent several days in Quebec and over a week in “Acadiana,” and I was impressed by the resistance shown by Quebeckers and Cajuns. Both places have peculiar cultures—cuisine, religion, folkways, literature—that are reinforced by a distinctive language. In Quebec, at least, French is in the ascendant, and in Louisiana, although few Cajuns my age can speak the language in any form, younger people are learning some French in school. Compared with ten years ago, when there probably were more people who had been brought up speaking French at home, there seems to be more French spoken on the street. Perhaps it is the success of their cuisine and their music, but Cajuns might be poised for a genuine cultural comeback. Chris Segura, a Cajun novelist and journalist who makes his first Chronicles appearance in this issue, thinks so.
At his suggestion, I went to the African-American Cultural Center in St. Martinville, and although there is not much to sec in the way of exhibits, the atmosphere of the place is astonishing. The intention is to tell a true story that is far too complicated to be fit into the usual categories of black and white, master and slave.
The black people working there were friendly and helpful, whether they were speaking English or French. Next door, at the memorial to the original Cajuns who had been driven out of Canada by the merciless British, blacks and whites spoke with pride of their heritage. Perhaps someday, St. Martinville can become for Cajuns what Quebec City is for Canadiens.
Why not extend the model? Why cannot San Antonio become a center not of Mexican revanchisme, but of Spanish-American civilization? What if the Norskis and Swedes in the Upper Midwest turned off Garrison Keillor (who mocks and hates them) and turned St. Olaf’s and Augustana back into ethnic colleges? Let a million flowers bloom, and if some of them bloom red with blood, as some Nation of Islam members would like, so be it. Their hysteria might be just enough to wake up some of the Anglos and inspire them with a desire to revive their own quaint folklore and customs-formal gardens, high teas, and the poetry of Shakespeare.
White-bread America is gone, and if it is replaced with corn pone, tortillas, and sticky rice, there may be a little room left for scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. If there is not, it will not be the fault of Quebec separatists, black militants, or Mexican immigrants. It will be our fault for our failure to read Shakespeare to our children or teach them to play Mozart on the piano or even to show them one of Jim Tate’s film noir classic movies, which do a better job of teaching the human condition than any sermon they are likely to hear.
What was left of Rome crumbled, finally, about 1,500 years ago, but fragments of Roman life were preserved—and not just by monks who copied old manuscripts. The traditions of civilized town life survived all over Italy, and by the time Europe really hit rock bottom (about the time of Charlemagne’s coronation), the Italians were already constructing a new, perhaps more brilliant civilization out of the ruins. Who knows what sort of civilization might emerge in a few hundred years from the far less impressive ruins of America? Whatever it might be, our task is the task of every generation of Christians: not to whine, but to redeem the time.