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The American Way

Richard Brookhiser prefaces his 153-page meditation on America's civilization and national characteristics by identifying himself:

The Brookhisers were German Catholics. My father's mother's maiden name was Gleason, which wasn't Irish but a respelling of Claesgens, another German name (they tried to Anglicize it, evidently, and didn't quite get it right). My mother's maiden name was Stark (English); her mother's was Quilhot (French Protestant).

I was raised in the Methodist Church, from which I have lapsed. I grew up in middle-middle-class suburbs and went to Yale. [p. xi]

Bottom line: an all-American mongrel. And, though he doesn't mention it, he is evidently a member of the Boom Generation.

He begins with the example of Bush I, President at the time of his writing, and living image of the effete, Northeastern, old stock/old money snob that the term "WASP" evokes. But as he points out, "the word WASP includes all of WASPdom: the whole loaf, not just the upper crust" (p. 20). Just think of Bush II, who won election (barely) and then re-election by virtue of downward and Southwestward mobility, from Preppie to Good Ol' Boy. In between, of course, we had Bill Clinton, scalawag scion of the late Confederacy, who rose to Good Ol' Boy from White Trash (by way of Oxford and Yale). And of course he recognizes the historic importance of Germans, Irish, Huguenots, and whatnot. Still, as evinced by his self-deprecatory title, he does not forthrightly assert Americanness as distinct from the WASPery of, say, Lester Pearson or Tony Blair -- at least, not enough for my taste -- and he still pays most attention to the Northeastern elite variety.

This cavil aside, let me quote Mr. Brookhiser's thesis at length:

The WASP character is the American character. It is the mold, the template, the archetype, the set of axes along which the crystal has grown. Without the WASP, it would be another country altogether. Without the continuing influence of his values, it is sure to lose its way.

This is, I realize, an eccentric interpretation of American exceptionalism. There are many competing ones to choose from. An old favorite holds that America's character was determined by its frontiers. Wide open space made American society wide open....Intellectual cousins of the frontiersmen are the immigrationists, who see America as the sum of its heterogeneous parts, a composite of the peoples who filled the wilderness or were sucked into the settled parts of the country in the wake of the departing pioneers.

There are also partisans of ideological explanations of the American thing: that it was the first, and fairest, fruits of the Enlightenment; that it was the first, or second, modern democracy (depending one how democratic the pre-Reform Mother of Parliaments is held to have been); that it is the twin sibling of capitalism, whose Declaration of Independence was published in the same year as The Wealth of Nations (said with as many groans as hosannas).

These alternative explanations, material or intellectual, miss the mark. The frontier is too crude, the others too abstract. A country is not the acres of dirt of which it physically consists, but the people upon them; and the best guide to understanding them is their character, not the names they give their systems. Their character shapes their systems. Russia had a huge frontier; so did Argentina and South Africa, which also attracted millions of immigrants. America is not like any of them; it is not all that much like Canada, also big, barren, and settled by outsiders. Capitalism has flourished in all sorts of places, from Hamburg to Hong Kong, without turning them into little Americas. Democracy takes even more peculiar forms. India is a democracy. So is Haiti, off and on. East Germany -- the German Democratic Republic -- called itself one, even while the Wall was still up. The latter society was undeniably a product of the Enlightenment -- a different line, certainly, but an equally legitimate one.

The American is not a homo economicus or democraticus. He is not what he is because he sat in a salon or tramped through the wilderness. His nature is more particular than a theory or a circumstance. It has a local habitation and a name. And that is, that he was once a WASP. To miss this is to get everything wrong; it is like listening to music with an ear infection. Political rhetoric about a return to values and academic chatter about habits of the heart become idle. One slights what we have and misjudges what we can become.

From the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, America was created by what are known, for lack of a better term, as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They wrote the rules; everyone else played by them. If America had been settled and founded by Frenchmen or Spaniards, as it might well have been, or by the Austrian Empire or the Ashanti Empire, to be purely hypothetical, it would be a different place now. And a worse one. This book will make that case.

Any project to improve or repair the country the WASPs made should be attentive to its particular patterns of thought and forms of behavior. If the only living and healthy values to which the whole country has access are WASP values, then anything restorative or profitable we try to accomplish has to draw on them. This book will also make that case.

... Americans have been turning away from WASP ways of thinking and behaving, with disastrous results. At first the turn was an elite trickle, but in the last twenty years [i.e. since 1971] it has become a stampede. Products of a social and cultural machine that works as well as anything humanly can, Americans have ineptly tried to fix it. Hip-deep in blessings that the rest of the world covets, they have thrown them away with both hands. The worst tinkerers and misfits have been actual WASPs themselves. As a result of their fecklessness, the WASP character, which is the American character, has shattered. And since the world does not hold many better ones -- or if it does, it has kept them well hidden -- a cry for restoration is in order. Or at least a lament.

America was made by the way of the WASP, though many Americans, WASPs included, have recently abandoned it. This book will urge them to return to it, in a manner more decisive than a simple vote of the Electoral College. [pp.14-17]

Of the three constituent parts of WASPness, one would be hard-pressed to match his pithy summary of America's racial character:

In early America, white meant not red and not black. It meant, therefore, everyone who was in a position to shape the colonies' and the new country's institutions.

Indians permeate American mythology, but they are a sideshow of American history. They have lately taken to calling themselves Native Americans, and they are certainly native. [Though their ancestors immigrated from Siberia, they did, after all, get here first.] But "Americans" is an anachronism. America was an invention of European mapmakers [emphasis added]. America fought Indians, displaced them, and finally impounded them. It did not include them.

Blacks raise a more interesting question, as far as WASPs are concerned, for they lived from the beginning in a WASP world, though they were compelled to occupy an inferior role in it. Black culture and WASP culture crossed at a multitude of points, from food to worship. But despite their proximity, black slaves were in no position to shape the institutions of WASP society directly. [p. 22]

Though noting the fin-de-siècle faddishness of "Anglo-Saxonism," he nevertheless affirms:

The crucial fact is not the blood in the settlers' veins or the shape of their heads, but the cast of their minds. The predominance of ex-Englishmen was more than numerical.

The most obvious manifestation of it was linguistic ... Americans overwhelmingly thought their thoughts and expressed their conclusions in English....The world is full of fine literary traditions. Only England's happens to be ours.

If English provided the vocabulary, England -- specifically, English Whiggery -- provided the terms of political discussion....America did not borrow across the board....Whatever conservatives in the English sense there were in the colonies mostly ended up dead, or in Canada. [pp. 24-25]

Finally, one can hardly do justice, in this brief space, to his discussion of American Protestantism, which he accounts the most important of the three constituent parts, and runs as a leitmotiv throughout the book. Let him sum it up in his own words:

The Protestantisms of early America were institutionally and doctrinally divided, but spiritually similar and culturally dominant. These faiths were the faith of the country. [p. 27]

He devotes the whole of Chapter 8 to the taxonomy of contemporary Protestantism (see p. 102, in particular). Those of us who are inclined to jeer at "fundies" are well advised to bear these subtle distinctions in mind.

The core of the book is Brookhiser's analysis of the WASP character as a hexagram of traits: Conscience, Industry, Success, Civic-mindedness, Use, and Antisensuality. To do this analysis justice, I can only refer the reader to it directly. For my own part, it crystallizes my own thinking, and I would offer a simpler yet more elaborate pattern of fewer terms covering more phenomena.

Every culture may be seen as living between two polar oppositions: spiritual/material, on the one hand; and individual/collective, on the other. America is lopsided towards individualism -- communitarianism is its polar opposite; collectivism has never gotten much traction here. However, the tension between (primarily Protestant) spirituality and materialism has never been so one-sided, either way.

Clearly Industry, Success, and Use fall together under the heading of materialism. Civic-mindedness just as unambiguously exemplifies communitarianism. Conscience lies at the juncture between individualism and spirituality: hence the combination of religious freedom and widespread religiosity. Antisensuality lies at the juncture between between spirituality and communitarianism: hence Prohibition and kindred crusades against private vices deemed publicly deleterious. At the juncture between communitarianism and materialism, I would add, lies the welfare state.

All these oppositions are currently aligned on the Left/Right, liberal/conservative axis.

The way of the WASP can lead in a number of different directions and take a variety of forms. WASPs can be, and have been, imperialists and America firsters, followers of Social Darwinism and of prairie socialism. For more than eighty years, the country they built was half slave and half free. Yet certain social structures, some good, most monstrous -- fascism, communism, the caste system -- are out of bounds. Everything that is within bounds will be done in the characteristics behavioral style.

The way of the WASP can also lead to frustrations....But the most important thing the way of the WASP has led to is American peace and prosperity. It explains why we are richer than Russia, though we have fewer natural resources; calmer than Lebanon, though we have more sects; freer and more just than either. It also explains why so many Russians and Lebanese, and people of numerous other societies, have come here. [pp. 38-39]

Brookhiser's discussion of immigration and assimilation begins with one of the pithiest descriptions of nationalism I have ever come across, quoting a nativist of the 1920s: "government not imposed by external force is the visible expression of the ideals, standards, and social viewpoint of the people over which it rules" (p. 41). Not exactly contradicting this, he makes the usual case that assimilation is practically automatic:

The leap from an old country that any immigrant makes is sundering. The new country confronts him with new ideals, standards, and social viewpoints. Under any circumstances, the pressure of the new ideals and standards will be compelling. If they happen to be, in crucial respects, superior to the immigrants' old ones, the attraction will be doubly powerful. [p. 42]

The domestication of the Irish Catholic Church is important, because it shows how assimilation works. Others do not assimilate to the way of the WASP by learning the language or getting a job, though these are important. The process is more than recognizing that life here is better than it was at home. The immigrant knew that when he arrived, sometimes before he arrived. Assimilation occurs when the outsider intuits the character traits that make life here better for him. [pp. 46-47]

Objections immediately come to my mind. Just for starters: To his credit, Brookhiser will eventually try to address this last objection, and in the meantime is not entirely disrespectful of the impulse to exclude the foreigner: "More than mindless malignity lay behind these reactions" (p. 48). What he goes on to assert, however,

is that non-WASPs were welcome--welcome enough, anyway, that most of them stayed, and more kept coming....

The exception, the special case, as always, is blacks, slaves for two centuries, second-class citizens for a century more. To which one can only say that the war which emancipated them was not nothing; neither is the money that has been spent on the black poor in the last twenty-five years [and counting]. Whether it has been spent to anyone's benefit [except bureaucrats, social workers, and "community organizers"] is another matter.

The only price even the most inclusive WASPs exacted was that newly arrived others should become exactly like themselves....One reason for WASP complacency is surely that none of the non-WASP others separately, nor all of them together, offered any coherent or attractive alternative way of life. Where there is no threat, there should be no anxiety. Foreign things -- bagels, banjos, burritos, beer steins -- posed no threat at all.....

Cultural contributions that were more than random items were more problematic. An activity or a belief that implies or proclaims a different view of the world is less easy to make use of than pizza or Santa Claus. Yet even here WASPs exercised considerable adaptive powers. If a potentially alien force could be seen as unserious, and therefore beneath notice, it could be allowed to fill a gap in the national pattern without disturbing the pattern. It ran free in WASP backyards as fun (the fate of jazz). Counter-philosophies that were unmistakably earnest were made to conform in their externals. Their domestic affairs, so to speak, may have remained unchanged, but their foreign policy was transformed (the fate of the Catholic Church). Ideas that did not slip into the mainstream bobbed in it, insoluble and unabsorbed. Socialism offers a case in point....

The fact is, there was no challenge that non-WASPs were capable of mounting that could have undermined the cultural hegemony of a group as large, as central, and as entrenched as the WASPs in America. The great majority of others, [perhaps] preoccupied with becoming a part of the WASP world themselves, offered no such challenge.

But, of course, challenges do not come only from outside. [pp. 50-51]

Brookhiser had, in passing, already noted that to some, blacks (or more precisely, the worst among them) do offer a coherent and attractive alternative way of life. Norman Mailer, for one, explicitly lauded their "perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break, what-have-you ... morality of the bottom" (p. 9, quoting Advertisements for Myself). Nowadays, blacks who try to rise above this sort of thing are bitterly condemned by their fellows for "acting white"; white punks who emulate this dissolute and dangerous life-style are objects of amused indulgence by their fellow whites, who are disarmed from criticizing blacks themselves by the fear of being called "racist."

For Brookhiser, Woodrow Wilson marks a turning point, at least in "political and moral discourse," though the man himself and his presidency were abject failures in the short term. Progressivism unmoored America from both principle and tradition, leaving only ungrounded prejudice and trendiness.

The progressive project and Wilson's advocacy of it were laden with ironies. Wilson was a lifelong Anglo-American democrat, and democracy was what he confidently expected to see coming out of history's hold -- not in 1989, but in 1919. The next few years instead brought bolshevism, fascism, and national socialism. Wilson lived to see the first of these, and it was a rude shock to him. Detachments of American troops went to Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution to fight the wrong kind of progress. So progressives seem disingenuous, when they pass their preferences off as history, and flatfooted when rivals appear claiming a different historical dispensation. [p. 62]

Brookhiser passes on to the economic side of the WASP establishment. For the first half of this century (roughly demarcated by the two Roosevelts, the last and greatest Presidents from New York State), Wall Street was fairly civic-minded, especially in foreign affairs, being generally patriotic, specifically Eurocentric, and particularly Anglophile. (This calls to mind Walter Russell Mead's account of the Hamiltonian tradition in foreign policy.) In more recent years, however, Mammon has become a more jealous god.

Next up: art. One of the WASPs' great deficiencies is that they cannot take it seriously, on its own terms: they look to it for uplift, or entertainment, or as a status-symbol. Unfortunately, most of what he has to say is about the cases of John Updike and Charles Ives, of whom I knew practically nothing before, and in whom I have, even now, no interest at all. While the motives of uplift and status are not entirely discreditable (they're all that keeps PBS going), the entertainment-motive is, for all its deficiencies, relatively healthy and creative -- certainly compared to the decadent pretensions of self-conscious "artists."

Brookhiser has much more to say about religion. In a nutshell: the second turning point was the split between liberal and conservative Protestantism. This in turn had two causes.

The first disruptive force was the higher criticism, the application, especially in Germany, of historical and textual analysis to the Bible, as to any other ancient document....Just as the political progressives would tear the public functions of the conscience away from principles ... the new theology cut religious conscience loose from its scriptural moorings....

The second disruptive force was the Social Gospel. Protestants had never been shy about attacking specific evils [e.g., slavery, dueling, alcohol]. By the end of the [nineteenth] century, however, big industries and big cities seemed to present an interrelated complex of vices, which required nothing less than an attempt to reform society as a whole. [pp. 103-104]

The great failures of Protestantism were Prohibition and the Scopes trial. The do-gooders' association with the former cost them when repeal came with the New Deal; thereafter they turned to every trendy progressive cause that came along. Having unmoored themselves from Biblical Christianity, they had nothing to hold  them back from drifting with the tides of fashion. In contrast, the fundamentalist troglodytes humiliated by Clarence Darrow ultimately emerged from their caves as part of the general backlash against all those trendy progressive causes. Now, this fundamental divide weakens Protestantism (and the "Protiform" Catholic Church in America), in stark contrast to the vitality of many contending sects within a cultural consensus.

Brookhiser discusses the sociological and intellectual explanations for "the birth of the post-WASP world" (p. 129): the rise of what Burnham called "the managerial class," and the importation of foreign ideas. He does not discount them entirely, but finds them wanting.

The postwar new class was opened to new opinions not because it wore white collars or had earned sheepskins. It was exposed to solvent ideas because the people who should have repelled them, by force of example if not by actual force, had fallen down on the job....If only some (well-placed) WASPs were persuaded by progressive politics and liberal Protestantism, it was enough to disable the WASP elite as a class. [p. 134]

After all this, Brookhiser asks:

If the way of the WASP is so good, why is it in trouble? Why would people defect from something that was self-evidently superior? One of the qualities to be expected of a good social order is durability. Aren't defections a sign that the way itself is flawed, that it is internally contradictory, or that it fails to satisfy, in any realistic fashion, unignorable human needs? [p. 137]

He makes no serious or sustained attempt to answer these questions, offering no suggestions to remedy these real or perceived defects. Instead, his conclusion is to turn the question around:

What, then, would be better? Since we are not talking about higher mathematics or ancient history, but about how we live, critics have an obligation to answer this question. If the way we once lived was wrong, what are the alternatives? And since the experience of every revolution since the French has shown that men can't simply make up societies, as if from a hotel laundry list or a Chinese take-out menu, what are the alternatives concretely available?

Who lives better? [p. 143]

One by one, with mordant wit, he demolishes the pretences of "the self-created others -- 'alternate' life-styles," and then the rest of the world. This alone is worth the price of admission. To sum up:

If the society the WASPs built weren't safer, freer, and richer than any other -- if it didn't offer less likelihood of being arrested for voting wrong or praying oddly, or more chance of accumulating a nest egg and keeping it -- would so many people want to come here?

Most of these societies, to be fair, have the great mitigating advantage of history. Adam Smith said there is a lot of ruin in a nation. There is more of it -- that is, more capacity to endure it -- the longer there has been a nation....America, a nation founded on a set of ideas and dispositions [emphasis added] -- the ones we have been discussing -- has no such fallback. [Here "ideological explanations of the American thing," albeit qualified, make a pernicious reappearance, implicitly making nonsense of his whole book.]

...If the benefits of WASP civilization outweigh any discontents we are likely to find, we can decide to feel its discontents less keenly. [p. 145]

Thereafter he is a bit more substantial and constructive, addressing three major social problems head-on: "affirmative action," immigration, and the "underclass":

Group-mindedness may employ the language of rights, but it is the enemy of the understanding of rights that shaped American law and American habits....Affirmative action, which is a fancy name for compensatory discrimination ... awards credentials to those who don't deserve them and devalues the achievements of those who would have earned the credentials anyway....

The best favor America can do its newcomers is to present them with a clear sense of what America is, and what they should become....English-only laws are an obvious answer, though they must be applied with care....

There is a group of Americans that needs WASPifying even more desperately than immigrants. That is the urban poor. The poverty programs of the Great Society were a massive program of de-assimilation, of fighting poverty without changing poor people. The underclass is the result, though the very word "underclass" is part of the problem, for the worst thing we can do to the people we use the term to denote is to treat them as a class, economically or characterologically locked into their plight. Treating them so will keep them there. For those who believe that industry and antisensuality can lift them out of it, the class barriers will give way. [pp. 147-149]

The feebleness of that codicil to official English is only one example of the great underlying flaw in his whole argument about immigration: the premise that we are somehow obligated to do any kind of "favor" for anybody who wants to come to our country. Still, inasmuch as he already considered immigration a problem in 1991, he was ahead of the curve; and the man deserves high praise for having the brains and backbone to stand up for WASPhood in an era when too many people feel that even rootless, abstract "Americanism" is too ethnocentric.

© 2011 by Karl Jahn