Which of our editors wrote this indictment of post-Christian America?
More than a few of us begin to see that while wealth accumulates in these United States, man seems to decay. Corruption corrodes our political and industrial doings. In our private lives a pervading relativism, an absence of conviction about what is the good life, a willingness to seek the easy way rather than the way of integrity, blunts the prodding of conscience, takes the zest out of living, creates a general boredom. We are not a happy people; our alleged gaiety is not spontaneous. Our boredom results not only in a reluctant morality but in shockingly bad manners, which most of us do not even know are bad manners. We become increasingly truculent. Our way of life, while opulent and brash, is less and less conducive to peace of mind and security of soul.
This condemnation of American culture is not to be found in a Chronicles editorial written during the Clinton years, but in an essay of Bernard Iddings Bell published in 1952 as a chapter in his short but important book Crowd Culture, republished now by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Bell was that rarest of writers, an American “centric”; of course, by the American standards of shoddy vulgarity, he was entirely eccentric, but both by the purity of his prose and the integrity of his thought, Bell represented the central traditions of civilization.
Like Russell Kirk, whom he inspired, Bell was a Midwesterner: Born in Ohio in 1886, he attended the University of Chicago and served as vicar and dean of an Episcopal church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, before becoming warden at St. Stephen’s College in New York. By one of America’s richest ironies, St. Stephen’s was later transformed into Bard, an academic shrine to every anti-Christian leftist fantasy that has seduced the poor American republic.
If we are to believe solid movement conservatives—decent men like William Rusher—America, in the generation coming before and after the mid-20th century, was—despite the depredations of the New Deal—a pretty swell country, indeed. The criticisms of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, of the Southern Agrarians and Catholic Distributists, and of liberal individualists such as H.L. Mencken and Albert J. Nock, the mere fact of the thinness (and tawdriness) of American achievements in literature, philosophy, scholarship, and music—none of this was allowed to spoil the illusion that American civilization was a going concern down through the Eisenhower years until an assortment of malcontent beatniks, communists, and hippies took to burning their draft cards and interrupting professors.
Canon Bell, spending the last few years of his life in the Golden Age of Ike, had little sympathy for this very American habit of self-congratulation: “The chief threat to America,” as he begins Crowd Culture,
comes from within America. It comes from our prevailing self-admiration, from indisposition to listen to adverse criticism of our way of life, disinclination to see ourselves as we are, an unwillingness to confess our sins which has come dangerously near to being an inability to see that there are serious faults to admit and remedy. Most Americans regard an insistence on national self-criticism as traitorous or near to it. In consequence, our people as a whole have acquired a false optimism about the ability of our way of life to survive and flower.
If Canon Bell were alive today, he would be set down as a crank, a naysayer, one of those blame-America-first leftists masquerading as so-called paleoconservatives. Everybody knows, he would be told, that true conservatives believe in change. They are bullish on human nature and, rejecting outmoded theories of original sin, adopt a can-do approach to social problems. Our civilization, which provides shower stalls and frozen food even to the poor, has outdistanced all of its rivals and predecessors. “The whole cult of comfort,” Bell responds, “is petty, ignoble, unworthy of human nature, absurd,” and he wonders why so few people ask “whether it can possibly be that, since our primeval ancestors crawled from the slime of the sea, first the animal world and then the human race have struggled on, at cost of travail and pain and tears and death, merely that modern man may sit down and be comfortable.”
The collapse of American education, both higher and lower, since the 1950’s has been the subject of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of well-funded studies showing how a perfectly decent system was destroyed by ideologues and social experimenters. In 1952, Canon Bell was already decrying the stultifying effects of government bureaucracy upon public education, predicting that the generation growing up under such a system (he is talking about my generation, here, and the generation born in the early 30’s) would be “incompetent for the most part to think and act intelligently and bravely in this difficult era, unable to understand themselves or their society, easily victimized by propaganda devices manipulated by the unscrupulous.” Although Bell was happy to concede that the motives of those who established American public education were noble and democratic (they were neither), the revulsion from education, the refusal to inculcate decent manners, and the rejection of intellectual discipline did not begin in the 1950’s. “American life,” he writes, “in respect to manners, morals, character, ability to think clearly, has alarmingly deteriorated during the first half of this century.”
Bell fervently hoped that, through education, a democratic elite class might emerge, capable of displaying those qualities that were necessary for the survival of America. He was wise enough to realize that, however much the fault of American degeneracy might be attributed to the ruling class, the people were themselves to blame. The schools could never save us, he concludes, “so long as most of the people, the taxpayers, the parents are satisfied with what is being done to and for and with the children.”
Bell realized that the schools’ greatest failure was in abandoning religion, but when he looked at the American churches of his day, he saw the same forces at work. There were, of course, people among the clergy and the laity who accepted and practiced “historic Christianity,” but the liberals—whom he playfully called “neo-Christians”—were already, by 1952, in control. The brutality that results from de-Christianization was already apparent in the criminal record of the post-Christian regimes established by Nazis and communists, but Bell saw the same process at work in a nation whose government, working in tandem with the communists, was demolishing Korea. Only Christian love, he argued, could save America from the coming violence.
Leftists and progressives of the type that applaud editorials in the New Republic and the Weekly Standard can safely dismiss Canon Bell as an old fogy, a reactionary, a Christian. Christian and Jewish conservatives (and Bell was careful to note that Jewish degeneration paralleled that of Christians) have to deal with the reality that, for most of their lives, their country, beginning on a low level of moral civilization, has rapidly declined to the point that even Canon Bell might well pine for the Golden Age of Ike. The republication of Crowd Culture is a small but important sign that the ghost of Russell Kirk still haunts the minds of his disciples and prowls the corridors of the institutions he helped to create.
[Crowd Culture: An Examination of the American Way of Life, by Bernard Iddings Bell, with an introduction by Cicero Bruce (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 136 pp., $19.95]