The better future which Americans propose to build is nothing if not an idea which must in certain essential respects emancipate them from their past. American history contains much matter for pride and congratulation, and much matter for regret and humiliation. On the whole, it is a past of which the loyal American has no reason to feel ashamed, chiefly because it has throughout been made better than it was by the vision of a better future; and the American of today and tomorrow must remain true to that traditional vision. He must be prepared to sacrifice to that traditional vision even the traditional American ways of realizing it.
Already in 1909 the future founding editor of the New Republic, Herbert Croly, was telling Americans that to realize The Promise of American Life (the title of his book) they were going to have to sacrifice all that was distinctive in their way of life. What Croly actually knew of American life, it is hard to tell. His parents—an Irish immigrant father and an English feminist mother—were both journalists who spent their life in New York, which even then was a city that had lost its American accent.
Croly spends much of his book exploring American history to justify his “preferences . . . on the side of Hamilton” against Jefferson. On his interpretation, the United States was an organism gradually realizing its destiny by centralizing its political, social, and economic structures. “To be sure,” he concedes, “any increase in centralized power and responsibility . . . is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of a constructive national democracy.” He denigrates the views held by the defenders of “an individualist and provincial democracy” as “the inevitable attitude of the traditional Bourbon.”
In foreign policy Croly pretended to praise the traditional American policy of isolationism. This policy could not, however, “persist in its present form,” because America eventually had to take its place with Europe, China, and Japan “in a world system,” and in the years to come no one beat the war drums more sanctimoniously than the editor of the New Republic and his loyal employee Walter Lippmann, although when war actually came Lippmann used all his influence to keep himself out of the conflict. For Croly and his editors, “the promise of American life” could only be fulfilled by tearing down the old America, based on individual liberty, free markets, local government, provincial culture, and isolationism, and replacing it with a new model democracy based on a collective sense of social responsibility, economic planning, centralized power, nationalized culture, and aggressive internationalism.
The political conflict between New Republic liberalism (represented by Wilson and both Roosevelts) and Middle American populists and progressives was one chapter in the ceaseless struggle between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians for the body and soul of America. However, there is a deeper, almost mystical side to the conflict. My predecessor in this position used to say that there were two Americas, the one symbolized by Plymouth Rock, the other by Ellis Island, and those whose families had come by way of Ellis Island had to remember what they owed to the old stock that had made their good fortune possible. On one occasion I ventured to correct Leopold Tyrmand by saying that the old America was better typified by Jamestown than by Plymouth Rock. At the time, he thought that this was the half-serious joke of a Southern nationalist, something like the mock outrage of a Scot who protests against the statement “there will always be an England.”
But there is more than regionalism to the symbolic conflict of the two settlements. If the Puritans came to found a city on a hill and drive the Devil from the wilderness, the settlers of Virginia (and Pennsylvania and New York) came for more practical reasons. They wanted cheap land, the opportunity to prosper by their own efforts. Politically, many of them wanted nothing more than to be left alone by government. Their republican ideal was neither the theocracy of the godly nor the democratic tyranny of the town meeting. They were willing to work hard and run great risks but found few attractions in cities where troops were quartered and where regulations told a man how often he might bathe and punished him for impudence to his spiritual superiors.
Jamestown gave America her first hero. Captain John Smith, a mercenary adventurer who ended our first experiment with the welfare state. The colony’s backers in England had established a form of corporate communism that discouraged all individual initiative, and the settlers neglected their defenses and began to run out of supplies. Although he protected them from the Indians and turned them from starvation to plenty, the shirkers and aristocrats in the little colony hated Smith; they slandered him and almost succeeded in killing him, but despite their best efforts—and those of such later detractors as the last of the Puritans, Henry Adams, who devoted one of his first essays to debunking the captain—Smith remains an enduring symbol of the American frontiersman and takes his place ahead of Boone and Crockett as the first of the “lost boys” of the American frontier.
The settlement of Middle America could be told as a series of ethnic invasions. First came the backwoodsmen—mostly Celts from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. They were looking for rich land but even more for abundant game. Even after the War Between the States, Pa Ingalls (Laura’s father) kept his family on the move in search of good hunting. After the greatest risks had been run and the homesteads had been cleared, a quieter invasion of hardworking Yankees came in, bringing with them a sense of order that often succeeded in driving out the wild Celts. The early history of Illinois is a perpetual friction between the Connecticut Congregationalists of Rockford and Freeport and the downstate Kentuckians and Virginians. Elizah Farnham, a New York Quaker who traveled the state in the 1830’s, never fails to record her disgust with the shiftless “suckers,” and always repaid their hospitality with contempt.
In time, the two groups—ethnic first cousins, if not brothers—began to coalesce and find national political themes to divide and unite them along different lines. By one of the period’s typical ironies, the Yankee Stephen Douglas champions the Southern-leaning Democrats and the Kentucky cracker Abe Lincoln becomes the hero of the Republican Party.
The tension between Virginia and Massachusetts defines the American character at its best. Their friendship—summed up in the persons of Adams and Jefferson—made both the Revolution and the Constitution. Their hostility created the first political parties and eventually undid the work of the Founders. It was during and after the great national suicide of 1860-65 that the new America of Ellis Island began to supersede both Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, and it is one of the myths that Americans live by that we have recovered from the massive immigration that was halted by the immigration reform of 1924.
Rockford, Illinois, shows the changes as well as any other town, and if I seem to pick on Rockford, it is only because I find myself living here. The earliest settler in the area, Stephen Mack, was a Vermonter who married a local Indian princess, and by 1840 what are now Winnebago and Boone Counties were home to prospering settlements of New England Congregationalists and Scottish Presbyterians (direct from Argyleshire). The first Swedes arrived in 1852 and two years later were able to establish a Swedish Lutheran church with 77 members. The Swedes continued to arrive after the war, and they were joined by Irish (some had already come with the railroad in the 1840’s) and German immigrants and eventually by Italians. (The first Italian family arrived in 1878.)
A newcomer to Rockford is soon puzzled by the layout of streets and neighborhoods, as if the city were really a set of separate towns haphazardly joined together. Streets can change names several times in the course of two or three miles. (31st St. becomes Peters before turning into Fairview and then Chelsea.) The mystery begins to clear only when the newcomer becomes aware of the old ethnic neighborhood lines. In fact, the best symbol of Rockford is the hospital situation: the Swedes go to Swedish-American; the old families tend to go to Rockford Memorial; and the Catholics, predominantly Italian, go to St. Anthony.
All of this might be considered quaint, but unfortunately little is left of the old ethnic cultures. The local Swedish societies consist almost exclusively of old people, and apart from the ubiquitous pancakes, it is hard to find real Swedish cuisine on any menu. There are dozens of Italian places, all of them offering microwaved lasagna, pizza, and overcooked spaghetti with the same red sauce. Hardly anyone under 50 can speak more than a few words of Italian, but this is not to say that they have become fully Americanized. Many of the Italo-Americans I have talked to express resentment at the way they and their parents were treated in the old days. One successful man of 60, whose parents had come from the Veneto region, told me that, when he first went looking for work, Swedish employers routinely told him they had no jobs for a dago. They also told him to stay on his side of town.
Forty years later, the man is still resentful—not so much for the obstacles put in the way of his success, since he has in fact succeeded. What he resents most is the shame he was made to feel for being Italian. In their desire to make him a good American, his parents told him very little about the old country, and it was only when he made a sentimental journey back to Italy that he realized that he came from the richest cultural tradition on the face of the earth: in literature, music, painting, architecture, America had never produced and will never produce anything comparable. How could a man go through life without knowing this? The answer is simple: he had an American education. Since the 20’s our schools have been too busy teaching citizenship and vocational skills to have any time for history, much less painting.
The Italian experience is not much different from that of the Greeks, Poles, and the Irish who formed ethnic enclaves in Rockford. Even the Swedes were originally looked down upon as “dumb Swede” peasants, whose daughters might do as clumsy servant girls, but God forbid if the son of the family developed too much of an interest. The Germans may have the most to complain of Despite their large numbers, they are virtually ignored in the local histories I have looked at. Most of this oblivion is due to the anti-German propaganda of the two World Wars, when a campaign was waged against the teaching of German even in the private schools of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. In Rockford there used to be a Berlin Avenue in the same neighborhood with Paris, Rome, and London, but the name was changed during a wave of anti-German hysteria.
Eventually, however, the Germans and the Swedes intermarried with the Yankees and joined the Northern European power structure. In this generation even Italian-Swedish matches have become common. Does this mean, as Richard Alba argues, that a new pan-European identity is emerging? No. What seems to happen is that either one or the other heritage dominates or else the family loses any sense of ethnic identity. All that is left is white skin, which distinguishes them from Latinos and blacks. I wonder if part of the growing racism in America is not due to the deracination of the old ethnic stocks.
The low-level ethnic tensions surface in a number of ways in Rockford. People here are generally kind and pleasant, like most Midwesterners. As drivers, however, they are incredibly rude (as well as incompetent), and they will impatiently tailgate a car with its turn-signal on as if to say, “Who the hell are you to be in my way?” In supermarkets, they wander through the aisles, completely reckless of anyone else’s existence or safety. When they are not running you over, they are staring at you with a directness that strangers find uncomfortable. A visiting friend from the South, after experiencing two stores in one day, observed that in South Carolina a man who acted like a Rockfordian would be punched out in five minutes.
This contrast is obviously exaggerated, and there is a relaxed Midwestern set of good manners that gives many older Rockfordians a pleasantly youthful air; unfortunately, this air has not been handed down to the current generation, and the well-bred Midwesterner is generally over 60.
What explains the difference in manners noted by my friend? South Carolinians are not actually nicer than Rockfordians. Despite their good manners, Southerners are a good deal more dangerous than Midwesterners. I think the main difference is that while South Carolinians live by an inherited code of manners, the peoples who settled Rockford arrived with quite different, often conflicting codes, and while most of them have lost their old manners, they have neither adopted the manners of the old Yankees nor created a new common code.
The failure was not inevitable. Charleston has its share of Germans, Italians, and Irish, but they all act and speak like Charlestonians. I think there are two reasons for this success. First, the immigrants came in at a slow enough rate to be absorbed, and second, they were entering a powerful culture capable of transforming anyone—Yankee or European—into a Southerner. But the transforming capacity of Charleston or New Orleans needs to be explained in a century when local attachments have been steadily loosened by the fingers of national government and national culture.
Part of the answer is to be found in 1861, when the hotheads in Charleston did their best to start the War Between the States. South Carolina has always acted as if it were a sovereign state and Charleston—”the holy city”—as if it were Rome, or at least Constantinople. A college friend once told me that he had spent his Wanderjahr in Europe and after seeing London, Paris, and Rome he had concluded that those cities were all right in their own way, but there was no place like Charleston.
That is the attitude which all small town Americans used to take. Sinclair Lewis mocks George Babbitt’s devotion to Zenith City, but as long as the citizens still loved Duluth, it had a chance of living up to Babbitt’s boosterism. Considering the real and substantial advantages offered by Rockford, I am always surprised by the lack of civic pride. Rockford is actually a pleasant place to live, with tree-lined neighborhoods that might be the setting for a Father Knows Best episode. But in talking to the natives, I hear mosdy about poor schools, bad weather, and the lack of opportunities. Rockford is always near the bottom of the Places Rated surveys, and this announcement usually brings forth a tepid defense of the city amid resentful criticisms of the survey. No one gets really angry; they accept it as a matter of course that whatever it is that makes a place attractive, Rockford just doesn’t have it. Enough Rockfordians have moved to Scottsdale to hold a Rockford picnic, and there are similar enclaves in Florida. Good Rockfordians all go to the Sunbelt when they die, as Oscar Wilde might have said, and some of them try to anticipate death by a decade or two.
Recently, a prominent local politician returning from a tour of the “Sunbelt states” conceded that, oh sure. Rockford doesn’t have either mountains or the seashore, and it has nothing like the history and charm of Charleston, but. it’s still “a pretty good place to live,” and if some people complain of the lack of restaurants and entertainment, all they have to do is drive to Chicago or Milwaukee.
A pretty good place to live. I thought immediately of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery: if Ralph doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it anyway. No, Rockford does not have the beauty or sense of history you find in Charleston or even San Antonio, but that is not because of its youth. Photographs taken at the turn of the century disclose a town of considerable charm. In the middle sat Sinnissippi Park, the nearest thing to a formal garden in this part of the country. The park and gardens are still here, but they are cut through by an ugly and entirely unnecessary freeway.
Today, there is literally no downtown Rockford, only an abandoned city center increasingly occupied by the library, arts center, the nonprofit theater (one of the town’s great cultural assets) and public offices. Most of the old buildings have been torn down, and a few years ago preservationists were unable to rescue two old limestone buildings that had been typical of old Rockford.
In a recent American Scholar article (“Back to Batavia”) Bill Kauffman puts his finger on the problem. In his hometown the local Catholic hospital wanted to buy and tear down one of the last downtown mansions (built in 1811) and replace it with a highrise apartment building for rich old people. The two old-fashioned Batavians on the planning board voted no; the three from more recent immigrant stock voted yes.
In a series of essays and books, co-written with James Q. Wilson, Edward Banfield developed the notion of “other-regardingness,” a willingness to work for the common good, as a characteristic American virtue, one to which European Jews rapidly assimilated, but one that it has taken other European immigrants much longer to acquire. Much of the American social and political system, especially the best qualities of American democracy, grow out of this “other-regardingness” that characterized the Pilgrim fathers and the self-reliant individualism of John Smith. Without the one there would be no concern for the welfare of poor immigrant groups, and without the other we shall soon lack the abundant wealth that made our generosity possible.
I have more than once tried to explain all this to Ben Wattenberg and other advocates of increased immigration. They aren’t stupid or even particularly cynical, but I cannot make any headway for a simple reason. The America I know (and remember) is a place where they have never lived. In the course of their lives most of them have gradually transcended their families’ ethnic enclaves and become citizens of the great North American cosmopolis. My America is something they may have read about in books; they may even mourn its passing; but they do not believe it survives except in a few degenerate pockets of Appalachia characterized by incest and pellagra.
Assimilation has worked, we are told, and by ceasing to be Irish or Italian or Czech, the immigrants and their children have either become American or have created a new culture for “the first universal nation.”
But where is this new national culture that sets a pattern for the world? Is it on MTV or in the “songs” of MC Hammer and Public Enemy? Perhaps it is the films of David Lynch. Or better still, the commercials for fast-food chains, blue jeans, and poorly made automobiles. We may not be able to quote from Daniel Webster’s Bunker Hill address or get an allusion to Macbeth, but we all “deserve a break today” or want to know where the beef is. Some of us drive today’s Chevrolet on the way to the Magic Kingdom, where we can see genuine replicas of European villages. No wonder the new immigrants despise us and refuse to give up their languages and cultures.
The Big Lie of modern American life is that the assimilation process worked. It didn’t. The great postwar promise of American life was a new way of life in the suburbs, where the Hamiltonian man of business could return from a hard day in the city and pursue the life of a Jeffersonian yeoman in his off hours. Booth Tarkington ends his great novel trilogy Growth with the construction of a suburb where the immigrant laborers could escape the smoke and shed their ethnic heritages. A generation later Frank Capra held out the same promise for Bailey Park in It’s a Wonderful Life, and after World War II the designers of Levittown and other new cities claimed to be creating a new and more democratic culture that transcended the old limitations of class and tribe. That didn’t work either: the suburbs proved to be sterile non-communities where abandoned and resentful housewives slowly turned into angry feminists.
What sort of community can be created without the ties of blood, history, and faith to bind it together? All the block parties and Scout Troops and Little Leagues in the world could not disguise the fact that the suburbs were little more than refuges for women and children. They had neither past nor future and offered the worst features of town and country: a dense population without the variety and sights of the city; the boredom of the countryside without either the wildlife or the hard work that gives a savor to rural life. The new life was as hollow as the editorial blusterings of the New Republic: the suburban “homesteaders” traded in the real America of Cincinnati and Indianapolis, of farms and villages, for the promise of a New America that could never be realized.
What the suburbs, especially restricted communities, now represent is an escape from the ethnic terrorism of the cities. The rich have withdrawn into their private islands and padlocked paradises, and the rest of us have achieved the minor success of learning how to live with each other in suburban civility, but even that civility will give way before the continuous invasion of aliens seeking to fulfill the promise of American life.
Immigration per se has not been the major obstacle to America realizing her nationhood, but the pressure of immigration made it impossible to deal with the real problem, which has been and continues to be the centralization of political, economic, and cultural power. At this point in our national history, there are only two ways to escape the moral and political paralysis that afflicts communities across the country. The most obvious solution is the quasi-fascist measures promoted by liberals, neoconservatives, and the Bush administration: create a national culture out of an odd lot of great books and the national curriculum that William Bennett was designing during his tenure as secretary of Education. Institute a new program of National Service along the lines recommended by William Buckley. Give these kids uniforms and empower them, as Paul Weyrich suggests, to clean up the slums and harass drug dealers and other undesirables. Engage in a series of pointless foreign wars to rebuild pride in the nation and distract the voters from the unpleasant facts of contemporary American life: an economy in decline, a crumbling infrastructure, ethnic strife, and a growing “public sector” that will soon deprive citizens of even the shadow of civil rights they think they possess. If you remember the World War II propaganda films in which a platoon is forged out of a Southern redneck, a northeastern patrician, an Italian, and a Jew who all learn to respect each other in their fight against fascism, then you have the general idea. If these measures didn’t work for Mussolini, that is only because the Italians are not worthy of empire.
Unfortunately, we apparently are no more worthy than the Italians. What was the New Deal, if not an experiment in National Socialism? Roosevelt did not unify the nation by attacking Jews, because the Germans and the Japanese were convenient to his purposes. Roosevelt the Second did not even begin the process. That honor goes to Woodrow Wilson and even to Roosevelt the First. All three had swallowed Herbert Croly’s vision of a new America and were eager to trade in the old historical republic for a new model. It was the New Deal and its monstrous children that sapped all the authority from local communities and tried to unify the country around the ideology of democracy militant.
If another round of Neonational Socialism is not to your taste, then you might consider my plan: decentralization of the government structure to the point that Italian and Swedish neighborhoods in Rockford can be free either to preserve their ethnic heritage or to amalgamate into a new Rockford identity. Before there can be an America, there must first be a Rockford and an Illinois that are real, organic communities as opposed to artificial administrative units carrying out the will of the Washington government. The citizen populations of Athens or Florence were hardly greater than Rockford’s, but both created great civilizations that enriched neighboring states who in turn enriched them. They were great because they believed in themselves and pitied the rest of the world. Rockford needs to burn the Places Rated studies in the public square, to thumb its nose at Chicago and New York, and despise the weaklings who move to the Sunbelt. Like Chesterton’s Notting Hill, the Rockfords of America need to learn that the only honorable form of imperialism is local.