“Culture, with us, ends in headache.”
While the state of American—in fact of Western—society today is probably unique in human history, it is in some ways the inverse of the situation that prevailed at the end of the Roman Empire, when the barbarians had Roman citizenship extended to them without their ever becoming Romans, and the early Church was already an unignorable presence within the majoritarian pagan culture. The differences between that age and our own are that the neopaganism of contemporary times is a sinister corruption of the original, and that the empire was destroyed not by the subversive new religion of Christianity but rather by the age-old forces with which it had contended for centuries. Such of course may still be our civilization’s end—we could be overrun by barbarian hordes as Europe is overrun in jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints, or devastated by incoming warheads from Kazakhstan (or both)—but it appears more likely that the agency of our ruin will be progressivism, a religion as wholly without precedent as Christianity. The barbarians and the missiles could follow later.
As was the Roman Empire, the United States is divided vertically by tribalism (what we call “ethnicity”) and horizontally by belief, the modern antagonism between what James Davison Hunter calls “orthodoxy” and “progressivism” substituting for the ancient enmity between paganism and Christianity. In the case of the Roman Empire, however, the religious division was heavily overbalanced on the majoritarian side, while in that of America the contest is much more equal in influence, if not in numbers. In the 1950’s, C.P. Snow advanced the thesis of “two cultures,” a widely accepted but finally implausible theory holding that Western thought had split itself into two hermetically sealed worlds, the scientific and the humanistic. In Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, Professor Hunter argues that the United States has developed a cultural bipolarity in which the opposed magnetic forces emanate not from science on the one side and humanism on the other, but from contradictory bases of moral understanding that cut at an angle of 90 degrees across all previously established lines of agreement; so that a “progressive” Catholic today has more in common with a “progressive” Lutheran or agnostic than he has with an “orthodox” member of his own church, an “orthodox” Jew more sympathy with an “orthodox” Catholic than with his Liberal or Reformed brethren.
According to Mr. Hunter’s interpretation, the countervailing parties to the contemporary cultural debate are broadly identifiable as acolytes of one or the other of two “world views,” or as manifesting “impulses” toward such. “Orthodoxy,” Hunter defines as “the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority“; “progressivism,” as “the tendency to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.” Between the orthodox and progressive parties, which have a reality superior to that of the Republican and Democratic parties, war is being waged to define—or to redefine—the nature and purpose of American civilization. The weapons deployed in this war include the media, direct-mail solicitation, and political campaigns whose substance is more symbolic than programmatical; yet because both sides defend radically opposed ground and argue on separate rhetorical planes, each finds itself speaking past the other. Between them, debate is finally impossible. Hopeless of making converts among their opponents, they concentrate instead on delegitimizing the enemy—on convincing the broader and more neutral public that he is “un-American.” Although Hunter concedes that the debate is polarized to a far greater extent than is the country itself, he does not hesitate to suggest that, “our national identity and purpose has [sic] not been more a source of contention since the Civil War.”
William Bennett agrees with Hunter that, “America . . . is engaged in an ongoing and intensifying cultural war,” which he describes as “the struggle over the principles, sentiments, ideas, and political attitudes that define the permissible and the impermissible, the acceptable and the unacceptable, the preferred and the disdained, in speech, expression, attitude, conduct, and politics.” But (perhaps because he is getting ready to run for something) his understanding of the “war” is far more shallow and partisan than Mr. Hunter’s; he seems to believe that the issue is, after all, just another clash between the “conservative” Republicans and the ‘liberal” Democrats. “Why is there a battle about our culture?” he asks. “Part of the answer lies in understanding that there is a fundamental difference between many of the most important beliefs of most Americans and the beliefs of a liberal elite that today dominates many of our institutions and who therefore exert influence on American life and culture.”
If only it were as simple as that. Mr. Hunter, while no great shakes as a writer (Culture Wars is padded, pedantic, and pompous), is at least a scholar of sorts; Dr. Bennett, by contrast, is a lifer escaped from the license-plate-manufacturing division of Penitentiary State University. A trained scholar who has failed to produce a work of scholarship beyond the dissertation, he has made his way outward from the campus exercise yard by accepting work in the hardly less insular world of the federal government in Washington, D.C., where his proven strategy has been to accept futile but highly prominent jobs (chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; Secretary of Education; Drug Czar), declare expansive and ambitious goals, make provocative speeches (in contemporary American politics, a “provocative” statement is something on the level of, “Money can’t buy a great education”) that solicit the attention of the media, declare all missions in process of accomplishment, all battles tending toward victory—and resign. Describing his tenure as a Cabinet secretary, he writes, “I wanted to do with higher education what I tried to do with elementary and secondary education: engage in some truth telling, set the stage for a full-scale effort at much needed reform, force Congress to go on record, and keep the pressure on. . . . Given the political climate of the times, I couldn’t hope to enact all the reforms I wanted. But I could help create a climate of change and lay the groundwork for future reform.” Clearly, Dr. Bennett has succeeded better than anyone since Thornton Wilder in making the part of the Stage Manager a stellar role.
The De-Valuing of America (Bennett contra Mundum would have been a better title) is a smug, self-serving, platitudinous, tedious, and ill-written book by a working politician and self-described conservative who believes that “Dr.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man and that anybody to the right of himself (for instance Pat Buchanan) is un-American and probably a dangerous demagogue to boot. Although he perceives initially that, “a culture war . . . is a war to the death,” he is too much the official spokesman and intellectual trimmer to resist contradicting himself by foreseeing a happy conclusion to it: “Values that were once in exile,” he booms, “are being welcomed home. The American people are renewing their commitment to our common principles. And so the task of cultural reconstruction has begun.” Thanks be to God that William Bennett—and not M.E. Bradford—won confirmation as chairman of the NEH! The job was divinely created for him, and for those like him.
Bennett’s pragmatic optimism (which is that of the professional vote-getter) overlaps partly the ideological optimism (which is that of the professional liberal) of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. on the subject of those vertical divisions in American society that used to be welcomed as “pluralism” but are increasingly viewed askance as “multiculturalism.” “There are those today still,” Bennett observes darkly, “who claim we are now too diverse a nation, that we consist of too many competing convictions and interests to instill common values. They are wrong.” Professor Schlesinger, though of course he expects that all will eventually be for the best in the United States of America as it has been since the North won the Civil War, does not sound quite so confident.
Arthur Schlesinger’s great concern is for what he calls, after Gunnar Myrdal, “the American Creed,” defined by the Swedish writer as “the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals” of any Western country. Schlesinger endorses Crevecoeur’s vision during the American Revolution of “a new race of men” gathered from all the nations to act upon a newly created principle—a principle he believes is threatened by the “cult of ethnicity,” which denies that this new race is either possible or desirable, assails the idea of “a common American identity,” and emphasizes the rights of groups above the rights of individuals in a way that is not congruent with the expressed meaning of the Constitution.
The weakness of Schlesinger’s argument lies in his romantic understanding of American history, which he views as the progressive vindication of a latitudinarian conception of the motto E pluribus unum. For Professor Schlesinger, the story of America (once the paradox of slavery was resolved) is a glorious pageant of ethnic and cultural assimilation accompanied by an expanding tolerance, in course of which the ideal of a new race has been substantially realized. Unfortunately, this story incorporates as much myth as it does reality, as James Lincoln Collier has shown in his recent book, The Rise of Selfishness in America, where he describes the socially destructive impact of non-Anglo-Saxon and non-Nordic immigration to the United States. Schlesinger’s is the classic liberal fallacy: the notion that political principles define, create, and shape a society, and not the reverse. E pluribus unum was an idea pregnant with danger from the beginning, but that danger required a century to make itself apparent; long before the advent of multiculturalism, it had outstripped the pluralist ideal. The profound truth is that the matrix of American individualism has historically been Christianity, not Enlightenment philosophy; that it was Christianity, not democratism, that inspired American idealism and flogged the American conscience to surpass itself. Although Schlesinger observes that, “The crimes of the West have produced their own antidote,” he fails to identify the Christian religion as that antidote. In fact, in the course of 138 pages of text defending the Western intellectual heritage, he does not mention Christianity at all. (“The American mind,” he has written elsewhere, “is by nature and tradition skeptical, irreverent, pluralistic and relativistic.”)
If the United States really is rapidly becoming a house divided against itself—a gigantic college dormitory carefully and precisely segregated according to race and creed—is it possible to have any hope at all? For Professor Schlesinger there remains the ideal of the new race—”still the best hope.” For Dr. Bennett, there is the prospect of a well-paid new bully-pulpit—the Surgeon Generalship, say, which Dr. Koop exploited so effectively as Condom Czar—if President Bush is reelected next fall. For Professor Hunter, there is the probability that the culture war will not—at least in the foreseeable future—escalate into a fighting war, in which the mighty pen is abandoned for the trusty sword.
Although Hunter claims to find the orthodox and the progressive camps fairly evenly matched, he also seems to believe that time and history favor the progressive cause. Citing the work of Gramsci, he observes that the orthodox position is peculiarly vulnerable to cooptation—a process that is already well advanced in this country, and of which Dr. Bennett himself is the personification. To this should be added the argument (Hunter himself does not make it) that while traditional society is less and less adapted to the structure and purpose of the modern state, progressive society is perfectly designed for it. Thus, in order for the progressive armies of the cultural wars to triumph, they may have only to sit back and let the state pave the way for them.
[Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter (New York: Basic Books) 416 pp., $25.00]
[The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children, by William J. Bennett (New York: Summit Books) 271 pp., $20.00]
[The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (New York: W.W. Norton) 160 pp., $14.95]