Some people love to go to Washington. The sight of so much power and wealth is exhilarating, especially for young conservative writers who discover that their names are recognized on the Hill. For many, however, the reaction is just the reverse. Within a few hours they are mulling over certain scriptural passages in Eliot—”Oh my people . . . ” they are tempted to exclaim. The worst part of the Washington experience is the nativist feelings it triggers in ordinarily tolerant Middle Americans.
Flying from O’Hare to National is always a jolt. In less than two hours you’ve gone from the USA to the Third World. Even the American faces look foreign—subtle, sleek, and vaguely sinister. If you are lucky, the cab driver is a Jamaican who speaks a kind of English. Otherwise, he may be an Ethiopian who wants to take you to his cousin’s restaurant. He overcharges outrageously, but there’s some thing about the look in his eye that discourages a quarrel. For the next several days you will be treated to Mexican waiters who don’t speak English, Pakistani drugstore clerks who don’t speak English, congressmen and bureaucrats who speak no dialect known to linguistic science. By the end of the trip you may be shocked to find yourself muttering nativist remarks that would have sent your mother into paroxysms of indignation. But after a few days back in the safety of Tennessee or Montana, the air pollution is washed off and you’re ready to try an Indian restaurant or listen to reggae.
Actually, I’ve never been able to endure reggae, and I’m even beginning to lose patience with foreign food. How can a man remain a patriotic American, I ask my wife bending over the steaming wok, if his digestion is unsettled by a culinary World War III? Dim Sung for Monday lunch, followed by Saltimbocca for dinner; on Tuesday it’s pork carnitas with red pepper and lime juice, refried beans, and Mexico’s best German beer—Bohemian; on Wednesday we eat Indian—a vitriolic barbecued chicken, a yogurt, cucumber, and raw onion raita washed down with Chinese beer (it’s the closest thing drinkable, geographically) and Pepto Bismol. By the end of the week you don’t know who you are.
I took one nativist acquaintance to a superb Greek restaurant in Chicago, and he professed to be ill for 24 hours—probably an inner-ear problem: he’d lost his sense of balance. If you want to meet a real nativist, talk to almost any black resident of Washington. Since they are in direct competition with the newcomers for low-paying jobs (whose wages are kept low by the constant influx), their resentment is easy to understand. One young lady, a bureaucrat, told me she always tried to block grants to “non-Americans,” by which she meant immigrants: Weren’t there enough Americans looking for Federal money? If Washington weren’t our capital, I suppose, the shock would be less. Part of the charm of New York and San Francisco lies in the riot of polyglot cultures elbowing each other on the street.
All of these shameful reflections are obviously part of a Washington hangover, but in a larger sense some of us must be getting tired of hearing how our lives are being enriched culturally by the current influx of immigrants. America is a nation of immigrants, we are told ad nauseam by Lee Iacocca, who will recite Emma Lazarus’ repellently socialist verses at the drop of a hat: “Give me your tired, etc.” Somebody out there obviously finds the hoopla funny, or at least they think our children will: The Cabbage Patch Kids includes an “Alice Island,” holding a sack of money in one hand, a bag of garbage in the other. By now, perhaps, we could do without much more “huddled masses.” By now we might be more in the market for talented engineers, brilliant artists, and the courageous and competitive spirits who cannot endure the mediocrity of socialist life. As for the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” I’m not sure if that can be read as anything but an insult. Besides, “masses” is a dubiously Marxist term that usually refers to the urban proletariat—hardly an appropriate term for land-hungry peasants from Sweden, Italy, and Ireland. How the Statue of Liberty got defaced with egalitarian graffiti is another story, but bad verse and worse politics cannot mar this tribute to the American spirit.
Before “nativist” is added to the other epithets usually pinned to my name (sexist, rightist, social Darwinist, religious fanatic), let me say in my own defense that I have devoted the better part of my adolescent and adult life to studying foreign cultures and made some effort to learn the languages of Greece, Rome, India, Yugoslavia, France, and Germany. In addition, let me point out my own typically American credentials. One branch of my family were Highland Scots who came to North Carolina in the 18th century; other branches—Scots, Norwegians, and Irish drifted in 100 years later, while still another didn’t arrive until after WWI. So, the sons of Garibaldi, Knights of Columbus, and the Vasa Society can spare me their recriminations. Despite the contaminating presence of old WASP blood, I can still claim the aristocrat lineage of Ellis Island.
Leopold Tyrmand used to say that we were two immigrant countries-Plymouth Rock America and Ellis Island America-and that the second could only exist if the former were secure. The peculiar virtues of the older settlers—self-reliance, moral courage, and industry—have made it possible to incorporate vast numbers of newcomers into a thriving economic and political system. Of course, that old America is not Plymouth Rock but Jamestown, where Captain John Smith demonstrated once and for all the advantages of free enterprise over the welfare state. In the bold and restless Smith we can already see the American character emerging. For 300 years it has been developing and growing like a snowball rolling downhill.
Each immigrant group has, to one extent or another, made a contribution-but not equally or uniformly. Some, like the Dutch and Germans, were so compatible with the older stock that much of their culture was picked up and assimilated. A great deal of what we think of as American cooking—hot dogs, potato salad, coleslaw—is really German. Other less-compatible ethnic groups seem to be sucked into the main currents of American life without bringing much more with them than exotic restaurants.
The point is, there is an American cultural history, rich in local and ethnic diversity but at the same time identifiable in national terms. By the 1920’s we had found a distinctive voice in journalists like Henry Mencken and Albert Jay Nock; novelists like Booth Tarkington, Glenway Wescott, and Ernest Hemingway; poets like Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and Hart Crane; an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright; a composer like Gershwin. Some of the most impressive artists and writers were first-generation: Henry Roth, author of the still-admired Call It Sleep; and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the son of poor French and Irish immigrants, who rose to the very pinnacle of American cultural and social life—the true American story. America has been, almost uniquely, a place where a Saint-Gaudens or a Podhoretz could “make it,” if he were sufficiently talented, and it ought to strike anyone—then and now—as absurd to claim that Americans have been so culturally malnourished—that we are lying around starving (like the wastrels at Jamestown) for the food that only immigrants can bring us. After testing Ethiopian cuisine, I’ll stick to peanut butter sandwiches if I have to.
As Wilfrid McClay pointed out in a recent number of the American Scholar (and Clyde Wilson in Chronicles), the influx of talented fugitives from the Third Reich nipped the native growth of our civilization perhaps not in the bud but in Bower. Up till then our civilization had been growing, self-confident, a mixture of old stock like Henry Adams and the new, like Adams’ friend Saint-Gaudens. Some of our productions were hollow, pretentious, and provincial, but John Philip Sousa and Scott Joplin were ours in a way that practically no composers since have been. To some extent it was Bauhaus architects and Frankfurt School philosophers who taught us to despise our own civilization and worship at the feet of guess-which-talented immigrants.
Without wishing to encourage any America Firster sentiments, I do think it is long since time for us Americans, to quit groveling before the nations of the world. There is much that could be better in this country, but nothing that a few terrorist attacks on Broadway, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood couldn’t cure. Americans have become addicted to worrying about the neighbors. In the good old days, we applauded Our American Cousin for laying into British pretensions, and in the 20’s our best novelist (Tarkington) celebrated the virtues of The Plutocrat against all critics domestic and foreign.
But after WWII, we seemed to assume responsibility for the entire world. It was not enough to defend American interests, watch American movies, eat American food. We had to become internationalists. What began as a noble dream exemplified by the United Nations and International PEN Conferences turned out to be more like General Foods International Coffees: desiccated, artificial, and sweet. The more we attempted to ape French fiction, the more tenuous became our grasp of American things—without, by the way, arousing much interest among the nativist French who had been so happy to strike a deal with Hitler.
The strangest symptom of the internationalist itch erupt ed recently in a rash of celebrity fundraising events: LiveAid, SportAid, Sun City; the Soviet Union even had its own NukeAid for the Chernobyl victims. What rock musicians have to tell us about foreign policy—much less charity—it is hard to imagine, but at the drop of a hat, Bob Dylan or “Little Steven” Van Zandt (or little Stevie Wonder, for that matter) will arrange an event for you, complete with live satellite coverage1 Woodstock rhetoric, and monotonous theme song.
We are the world
We are the children.
Even otherwise cynical musicians get roped in. Rumors have it that Lou Reed is rehearsing with a group in Atlanta in preparation for another orgy of international remorse. Whatever Mr. Reed’s other faults, he has always displayed a splendid contempt for political idealism, in fact for every virtue known to ethical science. When the Baudelaire of rock begins to pound the pulpit, then—to borrow one of his lines—”the absurd courts the vulgar.”
Human beings simply cannot think on a global scale. Lawrence Kohlberg, who is responsible for a famous outline of ethical development, recently conceded that his level six (universal conscience) is only to be met with in an occasion al saint like Mother Teresa. The rest of us are lucky if we can follow orders and, occasionally, be civil to our next door neighbor. “Easy to be hard” was the 60’s rock answer to all of this caring about people, “easy to say no”—a silly song but a solid point.
Internationalism encourages long views, which is sup posed to be a good thing. I am not so sure that a broad perspective is so good an idea. There is a wonderful scene in The Third Man where Harry Lyme takes his friend up in a Ferris wheel to explain why he sold rotten penicillin to a children’s household. From up there, he explained, people looked like ants. What difference did it make if a few of them got stepped on? Jesus, it will be remembered, was offered a similar Weltanschauung by the tempter who took him up into a high place and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. “Take short views, hope for the best, and trust in God” was Sydney Smith’s famous credo. I can think of many worse.
The more we think about all mankind, the worse we shall treat our children, our neighbors, our friends, and even our allies. Charity and benevolence are not like some chemical herbicide that can be manufactured and sprayed every where to rid the world of chickweed and dandelions. They are seeds which must be planted, tended, watered, and when the fruit is ripe—plucked and shared with hungry neighbors and passersby. Attempt to sow them from a cropdusting plane and they become a nuisance.
Whenever anyone ventures to complain about the erosion of national identity, he is sure to be told that the modern age is an internationalist era of Satellite Communication, UNESCO, and multinational businesses. We are already living in McLuhan’s “global village,” and there is no point in kicking against the pricks. Maybe so. But in the midst of all these transnational embraces, it is possible to detect counterindications: the flare-up of nationalism among Scots, Welsh, Bretons, and Basques; the persistence of tribalism as the basic motivation of Third World politics; and finally the emergence of the multinational company as a nation claiming the allegiance of its managers. Territorial loyalties remain very strong; if they are attacked or stretched too far, they have a way of snapping back at the oddest times and in the strangest ways. Internationalism has, in the past, flown under many flags: the pax romana, the Holy Roman Empire, liberty-equality-fraternity, Pan-Slavism, and Communism. All of them became, whatever their origin, a pretext for territorial expansion.
It is difficult for the diverse strands of the American population to think in national terms. Some Texas schools on the Rio Grande celebrate Cinco de Mayo as the major patriotic holiday of the year, and many Southerners still have difficulty working up much enthusiasm for Lincoln’s birthday. With all the divisions in American life, you might think we would be devoting our best efforts to unifying the nation, but no. The debate over aid to the Nicaraguan contras occupied the attention of President and Congress for a good part of the past 12 months. To listen to some conservatives, destroying the Sandinistas is more important than reducing unemployment or refurbishing the national parks. The left takes the same view of South Africa. Some black political leaders like to speak out on behalf of Nelson Mandela or the affronted Angolans as if it were Americans whose liberties were at risk. Meanwhile, conservatives continue to fawn over Jonas Savimbi as if they knew anything about him—other than who trained him (the Communist Chinese) and who ghostwrites his articles. Greek Americans egg us on to damage our relations with Turkey—an important strategic ally; Hispanic leaders agitate for bilingualism.
Even more divisive than ethnic irredentism is the ideological furor. The concept of global democracy would be amusing in a pathetic sort of way if its exponents did not have so much influence on public policy. Going alphabetically down the roster of the United Nations, a Boy Scout would have trouble finding two democracies close enough to rub together for a fire. South Africa is to be condemned not because it is failing to deal successfully with the situation in which it finds itself, not because it is in our interest to slough off a potential embarrassment, but be cause it is not democratic enough. If the democratizers have their way, Mr. Botha will chew on the exile’s bread along with Mr. Marcos, to be joined in the near future by the leaders of South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, we can’t find enough nice things to say about the liberal regime in mainland China. Judged by the standards we apply to South Africa, China should be a pariah in the company of nations. Why? We know why: Because any form of Communism—in the befuddled minds of some globalists—is preferable to any form of colonialism. On the other hand, it is equally disgusting to hear the way some conservatives support South Africa simply because it is more democratic than its neighbors or even because of its racial policies. The other outstanding example of an ideological enemy/ally is Israel. The left attacks her because she is an American ally and a Western redoubt to check Soviet expansion. The right, for the same season, sometimes seems to put Israeli interests above our own. (Some of them even use a zany, apocalyptic interpretation of Scripture to support their view.) Considering Israel’s almost unique efforts to sustain a democratic society outside Europe and North America, it is easy to understand why some conservatives should become unbalanced in her defense. Still, I am waiting for someone to explain why, in concrete nonideological terms, I should be too concerned with the quality of rascals other nations allow themselves to be oppressed by. We have our own to worry about.
By nonideological I also include all references to what my old Senator (Strom Thurmond) calls the international “Commonist” conspiracy. But we have never had a consistent anti-Communist policy. In fact, the U.S. has never had a foreign policy for more than a few years at a time. Americans may not be smart enough to conduct affairs of state: Our attention span is too short. The result is, leftist politicians are always able to short-circuit any real policy of containment and to drum up support for Communist dominated insurgencies. In the long run, a moderate defensive posture somewhere between Robert Taft’s isolationism and Irving Kristal’s highly modified and restrained globalism is probably in the best interest of the United States.
Good anti-Communists tell me that any withdrawal from the world stage plays into the hands of the Soviet Union. However, for all the rhetoric and secret operations, we have not kept the Soviets out of Cuba and Nicaragua. If we are really willing to go to war (a third time) for the liberty of Europe or to boot the Communists out of Latin America, I have no objection—so long as we do it for us and not for the nations we propose to “liberate.” Unfortunately, U.S. bellicosity, increasingly selective, is only directed against nations who can’t fight back. There just aren’t that many Qaddafis in the world to keep the Air Force busy for more than a week.
All of our Founding Fathers understood these questions far better than we do. Washington’s warning against entangling alliances was taken to heart by every President until McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson destroyed forever our splendid isolation in the world. Early on, John Randolph of Roanoke had warned Americans against taking the Declaration of Independence too seriously, much less applying it to foreign affairs. Randolph was as mad as Cassandra and has gone unheeded.
While “Mad Jack” was an aristocrat, his best disciple in modern times was a populist Democrat from Illinois (and Nebraska), William Jennings Bryan. When the Republicans were hell-bent on conquering and administering the Philippines, Bryan discovered the correct word for these proceedings: imperialism. When Woodrow Wilson insisted on applying a double standard to the antagonists of World War I, Bryan resigned as Secretary of State. When war came, he was among the first to volunteer his services. Although a passionate believer in democracy, Bryan was prudent enough to realize that other nations had the right to work out their own destinies. Despite his dislike for monarchy, he attended the coronation of the King of Norway. If the Norwegians wanted to saddle themselves with a king, that was fine with him. Bryan was convinced that America’s greatest role was to set an example for the world, to attract rather than to drive other nations to democracy.
Bryan’s open-mindedness stands in sharp contrast with the professorial parson’s son under whom he served. Wood row Wilson, on at least one occasion, prolonged the war by his refusal to deal with the kaiser’s representatives. Wilhelm II, he observed icily, had not been properly elected. Wilson is hardly the only politician who has taught himself to put ideology above the national interest. The worst aspect of all this politicking over South Africa, Nicaragua, etc., is the way it keeps the fires of our disunity stoked. The moderate left and the moderate right would stand a better chance of collaborating for the common good, if both parties ever gave up locking horns over their favorite foreign constituencies. As it is, we continue to define ourselves not so much as Americans but as supporters (or enemies) of the Soviet Union, South Africa, “democratic aspirations everywhere,” or the cause of popular revolution.
It is a bit too reminiscent of the scenes described by Thucydides in his History. In the course of the long war—hot and cold—between Athens and Sparta, city after city underwent a civil war in which the democrats allied themselves with Athens, the aristrocrats with Sparta. At the end of the war, the Athenian aristocrats succeed in dishing the democrats and making peace with the enemy on less than heroic terms. For Athens, the civil strife was more destructive than losing the war. Athens’ greatest asset had been her national energy and sense of commitment. Ideological bickering destroyed Athenian patriotism as it is destroying ours.
Let me make myself clear: I don’t particularly like the regimes in Angola and Nicaragua; I was even brought up to hate the estimable Turks; I fully support our alliance with Israel, and I’m even prepared to say nice things about Jonas Savimbi or Pancho Villa. But what is hard to stomach is the assumption that we should put the interests of any other nation on par with-much less above—the interests of the United States. Ethnic and political factions who think otherwise might consider emigration. I’d like to see a brigade of blow-dried congressmen and their well-groomed aides marching shoulder to shoulder and eating dog meat with the contras or living off cattle blood and taro roots with Mr. Savimbi. The diet will agree with them about as much as their internationalism agrees with the taste of most Americans.