When someone as renowned and knowledgeable as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. fears an impending unravelling of our nation’s social fabric, all thoughtful Americans should sit up and consider his argument, succinctly and lucidly set forth in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, c. 1992).
As one of this nation’s most eminent historians (author of studies such as The Age of Jackson and A Thousand Days), Schlesinger brings to this book a mastery of historical data, meshed with a sensitivity for context, all too rarely evident in simplistic “multicultural” manifestos. As a champion, throughout much of his life, of liberal social and political causes, he easily foils those who would, ad hominum, tar him with “reactionary” or “racist” labels so as to discredit his argument. Toward the end of the book Schlesinger sums up his case: “The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins. It has done so because democratic principles provide both the philosophical bond of union and practical experience in civic participation. The American Creed envisages a nation composed of individuals making their own choices and accountable to themselves, not a nation based on inviolable ethnic communities. The Constitution turns on individual rights, not on group rights. Law, in order to rectify past wrongs, has from time to time (and in my view often properly so) acknowledged the claims of groups; but this is the exception, not the rule” (p. 134).
The traditional “genius of America” is today threatened by proliferating hosts of “minorities” seeking special status in order to secure an elite sense of group identity. Rather than maintaining the historic American endeavor to engender a “new race,” unique to this continent, many hyphenated Americans now seek to break down the national identity into exclusionary ethnic communities.
This splintering phenomena is alarmingly evident on some college campuses. Once fully integrated places such as Oberlin are now divided into hostile Asian, Latino. Black, Lesbian, Gay and Jewish enclaves. And this, to many leaders of the avant garde, is to be applauded! If WASPs segregate themselves, court action follows–“racism” is, of course, the worst of all sins to professional liberals. But non-WASP ethnics who segregate themselves are lauded for establishing their own sense of group identity, recovering their own “culture.”
To accomplish this goal, Schlesinger says, some make “history the weapon” to achieve their ends. This disturbs him. This aroused him to write this treatise. Since “history is to the nation rather as memory is to the individual” (p. 45), it must be treasured and rightly recalled if the nation endures. There’s substance–truth, objectivity–to all “history” worthy of the name. Though he admits the fallibility of historians such as himself, he stoutly defends the high calling of the profession to strive toward the unattainable ideal of objectivity” (p. 46).
That “historians” have prostituted themselves to serve a variety of “isms” (nationalism; communism; colonialism) is clear to anyone who reads them. But it’s equally clear that they failed to be faithful to their real calling: telling the truth, as best it can be discerned, about the past. American history, admittedly, has often been told to enshrine WASP heroes and ways. Minorities of various sorts were often brushed under the rug of mainstream publications.
Thus there has always been need for debunking and revision, for celebrating the accomplishments and significance of the multiplicity of minorities which have assembled in this nation. Much that has been done to illuminate the stories of blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Irish, Jews, Poles, et al. has enriched our understanding of our past.
Yet throughout this nation’s history most ethnic groups have sought to subsume their own story and interests to that of the larger community. Irish and German immigrants may have treasured and celebrated their heritage, but they always insisted they were Americans, not Europeans living in America.
During the past decade this traditional approach to history has, in some quarters, been abandoned. In 1987, for example, New York State revised its history curriculum to emphasize “multiculturization.” It was determined that students of “‘African, Asian, Latino, and Native American descent'” suffered at the hands of “‘the European-American monocultural perspective'” (p. 67) imposed upon them in the schools. Such suffering must not continue, the state reasoned, so the “American” story was splintered into various versions of ethnic victimization.
In an increasing number of American schools, teachers are encouraged to engender racial (or sexual) pride rather than historical truth. At the heart of the “Afrocentric” agenda, Schlesinger warns, is a reverse racism which threatens both the schools and the nation. By taking this position, he knowingly opens himself up to a barrage of criticism. For “Little is harder to talk honestly about in America these days than race. Too many sensitivities are involved, too many opportunities for misunderstanding” (pp. 74-75).
Willing to run such risks, however, Schlesinger insists we understand what’s taking place in “the battle for the schools,” whether or not we enlist for the war. Historians, particularly, must insist that truth be told about this nation’s past, for Afrocentric writers, more determined to raise consciousness and elicit elitism than to demonstrate fairness, often warp the record.
Take the oft-told story (which I’ve read and heard recited by several of my students and accepted as “gospel”) of Charles R. Drew, a black physician who developed techniques for preserving blood plasma. Supposedly he was injured in an automobile accident and subsequently refused admission to several white hospitals, dying for want of a blood transfusion. He was, the story declares, killed by racists (or at least by a racist society) who denied him access to the very blood his techniques preserved. The only problem with this story is this: “it is not true” (p. 79).
Propagandists, many of them politicians (or even preachers!) have always, routinely, elevated their cause above the truth. But historians are called to challenge such deceit. However admirable their cause, whatever their sincerity in seeking to establish racial solidarity and pride, the “use of history as therapy means the corruption of history as history” (p. 93). In fact, Schlesinger argues, one’s own self-esteem can hardly be elevated by celebrations of one’s ethnic roots. Rather, it encourages an escapism into an illusionary past which in time proves self-degrading.
The threat posed by history-as-therapy is, importantly, more than of individual concern. What’s at stake is “the disuniting of America,” the failure of “E Pluribus Unum” as this nation’s distinctive. “‘The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all,’ said Theodore Roosevelt, ‘would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality.’ Three quarters of a century later we must add a few more nationalities to T.R.’s brew. This only strengthens his point” (p. 118).
This is a brief, readable, persuasive work, well worth the reading, demanding attention and discussion. We who teach, especially we who teach history, need to think through the questions Schlesinger raises and then rise to the challenge of speaking and defending the truth.
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Don Feder, a syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Boston Herald has published a collection of his columns, all published during the past decade, entitled A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America (Layfayette, LA: Huntington House Publishers, c. 1993), which reveals some of the ethical values treasured in traditional Judaism. Unlike those “liberal” Jews who often push high the barrier between church and state, he declares he could comfortably live in a “Christian America”–if only “Christian” rather than pagan morality prevailed!
To explain the book’s title, Feder says: “By Pagan America I mean that this is no longer a Judeo-Christian nation, animated by the ethical vision of the Bible, with its special emphasis on honesty, hard work, caring, and self-discipline. Instead we are evolving into the type of Canaanite culture (unrestrained hedonism, ritual prostitution, child sacrifice and the civic virtue of Sodom), which my ancestors encountered at the dawn of moral history” (p. 10).
He writes with the deeply-held conviction that “Ideas have consequences.” When the cultural “elite” espouses “toxic notions” the masses soon follow (p. 12). Then the nation decays. Most of the “toxins,” like the first snort of cocaine, appear attractive at first glance. Thus “Churches, schools, government, and media all have done a fine job of cultivating immorality in the name of compassion” (p. 101). What’s really needed is some tough Old Testament Law!
To those who insist we must ride with the tides of the times and be tolerant of fashionable trends, that we be sensitive and tolerant lest we be labeled old-fashioned, Feder replies, reviewing a Steven Spielberg film which was packed with profanity: “Be a fogy; this is something you should care deeply about. Corruption begins with ideas, conveyed by words” (p. 172). Wise up! It’s wrong to debase language with profanity! If it’s old-fashioned to call filth filth, be old-fashioned!
That ancient Jewish moral code, for all its stringency and self-discipline, holds the key to the good life. Indeed, it contains “a life-transforming doctrine: that there is but one God–the Eternal, the Creator of life, ruler of the universe, and author of human destiny–and that our Maker and Master has two basic demands of us: righteousness and holiness” (p. 191).
In defense of that displaced Judeo-Christian ethic, Feder hammers away in his columns, defending the traditional family, religion, chastity, public decency, attacking pornography, Planned Parenthood, radical feminism, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia. When dealing with right-to-life issues, especially abortion, he joins conservative Roman Catholics and Evangelicals.
Indeed, he writes, “Feticide–the wanton destruction of 1.5 million unborn children a year in this country–could well be considered the modern equivalent of pagan sacrifice, a burnt offering to the voracious gods of modernity: rational autonomy, gender sameness, sexual liberation. Overturning these idols is a task worthy of a modern Elijah” (p. 201).
To deal with all the moral chaos we face, Feder urges us to get back to the Bible! “The roots of our drug problem, teen alcoholism, the crisis of illegitimacy, of a million abortions annually, criminality in our inner cities, and family dissolution lie in our abandonment of the doctrines decreed at Sinai” (p. 107). So, it follows: “Our society can yet be saved, if we but have the wisdom and courage to accept these sacred truths” (p. 107).
Writers of Feder’s resolve rarely, it seems, gain a hearing in mainstream media. So this book helps him reach a broader public. He writes well, cites valuable data, and lets us know religious “conservatives” inhabit all religious communities in this land.
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Whereas Feder writes for the masses, Os Guinness, in The American Hour: A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith (New York: The Free Press, c. 1993), seeks to cultivate a more erudite audience. Feder you can read for tasty morsels during commercial breaks in TV football games or as bedtime snacks. Guinness demands that you, along with other “thoughtful Americans” (p. 20), chew on tougher cerebral fare.
He writes with the conviction that we are in the midst of a major cultural watershed, a “crisis of cultural authority” (p. 4) scarred with “the black holes of modernity,” which will usher in a new form of civilization. He joins other analysts who see a “seismic shift” in American culture during the 1960’s, and he has no doubt that the ideals and traditions which once typified this nation are dissolving if not utterly dissipated.
“The American question,” says Phillip Rieff, “is ‘no longer as Dostoevsky put it: “Can civilized man believe?” Rather, can unbelieving men be civilized?'” (p. 30). The threat is, Rieff suggests, deadly, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s seems to agree, asserting that “‘The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time'” (p. 70). They are the “hollow men” T.S. Eliot described, the “men without chests” C.S. Lewis decried.
But such realism need not, Guinness urges, breed pessimism. He wants Christians (people of faith) to help shape that coming social order, so he writes to inform and enlist them. His hopes are rooted in the reality of God’s transforming power, redeeming societies as well as individuals.
He hopes we will discover, with Lee Attwater, who died in 1991 at the age of 40, what’s important in life. Converted to Christ just prior to his death by cancer, Attwater said, in one of the quotations which make Guinness so worth reading: “‘The ’80s were about acquiring–acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. .. . It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through he ’90’s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul'” (p. 126).
To speak to “this spiritual vacuum” Guinness urges us to venture into “the civil public square,” where political debate takes place. “Debate and persuasion are so incontrovertibly central to liberal democracy,” he insists, “that if freedom and justice are its lifeblood, debate and persuasion are its oxygen” (p. 268).
Here we Christians must discern the truth of George Mason’s words in the Virginia Declaration: ‘”No free government or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles'” (p. 149).
To recur to fundamental principles, we have a mighty mission: to make clear this nation’s religious heritage, the moral sinews of our once strong civilization. Our Founding Fathers knew this. As this nation’s first Vice President, John Adams wrote: “‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other'” (p. 348).
For good reason America’s constitutional architects make freedom of religion the first item addressed in the Bill of Rights. The perspicacious Alexis de Tocqueville understood it. “Religion,” he wrote, “takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions'” (p. 153).
At its best, religion helps shape truthful men and women, persons of integrity and character. Underlying the visible social problems such as street crime and corporate corruption are more subtle evils: “broken families, mediocrity in education, alienation in meaning, and nihilism in popular culture” (p. 285). There’s a cancerous “erosion of personhood and truth” which is emasculating our culture.
Joined to that is “the widening collapse of a sense of roots and stability in American life” (p. 304). We’ve lost our feeling for history and home, and the “street people” are hardly the most seriously damaged of the homeless. Adolescent suicide has increased dramatically. Divorce shatters families. Kids grow up bounced from place to place: from pre-school to boarding school, from stepmother to stepfather, from grandmother to social worker. The social consequences of a generation’s assault on home and family are only now becoming clear. Since WWII, unfortunately, the religious influence in America’s public life has been deliberately diminished. Under the guise of “strict separationism,” this nation’s courts have effectively expelled virtually all hints of religion from the public forum. Thus a junior high school orchestra was prevented from performing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and the “Mayflower Compact” was banned from a classroom because of their religious contents!
Yet our nation desperately needs religious guidance. “As President Truman stated in a speech in Columbus, Ohio, in 1946, ‘no problem on this earth’ is tough enough to withstand ‘the flame of a genuine renewal of religious faith.’ Without it, he insisted, ‘we are lost'” (p. 385). If only we could remember, with gratitude, our roots; if only we could repent of our evil ways; if only we could resolve to do the tough things needed to rebuild a culture; if only we could take responsibility for making our nation what it ought to be; if only we could deal realistically with the problems which beset us; then we might turn today’s predicaments into “the American hour.”
Though Guinness insists there’s time to redeem our nation, the book’s message is somber, almost despairing. He avers that he still believes America’s hour has not passed, but it’s hard to sustain that hope given the mass of evidence set forth in The American Hour which documents the cancerous tumors sapping the nation’s strength.
If anything, Guinness’s work should drive us to our knees. We clearly cannot save ourselves. When Lyndon Baines Johnson, who presided over the 1960’s like a demonic genius, declared, “We are a nation of believers . . . we believe in ourselves,” he said more than he planned! He pointed out the tragiievers flaw in this nation’s ethos: the hubris which has forever damned man. If we’re to be saved from destruction, only God can (if He in His mercy decides to) save us now!