Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pat Buchanan and the death of American culture

In his most recent column, "Is America Disintegrating?" (read the whole thing here), Pat Buchanan laments the passing of his vision of America.  No more, he says, are we a nation of a common blood, faith, language, history, customs and culture:
I argue that the America we grew up in is disintegrating, breaking apart along the fault lines of politics, race, ethnicity, culture and faith; that the centrifugal forces in society have now become the dominant forces...  We are not now and will not (in thirty years) be "descended from common ancestors."  We will consist of all the races, cultures, tribes and creeds of Earth — a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual stew of a nation that has never before existed, or survived...  The moral consensus and moral code Christianity gave to us has collapsed...  There was a time not so long ago when the nation was united on a common faith, morality, history, heroes, holidays, holy days, language and literature.  Now we fight over them all.
I question this on a variety of grounds.

First, his bemoaning of the increasing multiculturality of America ignores the fact that a little over a hundred years ago, a significant chunk of citizens -- including my wife's ancestors and my own -- did not speak English.  My ancestors spoke French -- both on my dad's side, where they were recent immigrants, and on my mom's, on which they had lived in North America since the 1600s and in what would become the United States since the 1780s, resisting the forces of assimilation and acculturation by sheer stubbornness.  My wife's ancestors spoke Yiddish, and maintained their cultural identity even in that enormous mixing vat that is New York City.  Far from threatening the fabric of American society, they enriched it.  And more of us today are of mixed ancestry -- of a really homogenized genetic background -- than ever before.

Second, and more importantly, Buchanan's idealization of life prior to the most recent influx of immigrants -- the apogee of the white middle class, the Leave It To Beaver squeaky-cleanness of the 1950s -- was hiding a good many ugly secrets.  The unity of a common set of morals, standards, language, and the rest came at a significant cost.  This "moral consensus" was at the root of the assumption of inferiority of those of other races and religions, leading within our borders to bigotry, persecution, and denial of basic rights to African Americans, and outside our borders to colonialism and exploitation.  It was at the root of "keeping women in their place," denying them the opportunities that men had in every venue.  It was the root of the demonization of those who were different -- of atheists, of homosexuals, even of free-thinking men and women who simply elected not to marry or pursue traditional careers.

Would you really return to the 50s?  Would you return to a time when being of a different race meant that you couldn't eat in the same restaurants, work in the same offices, even drink at the same water fountains as whites?  Would you return to a time when talented, brilliant women had only two choices -- to buck a system that was set up to keep them from succeeding in the career of their choice, or to cave in and become secretaries, lab assistants, or wives?   Would you return to a time when conformity was the gold standard for behavior?

I'm not saying that our society isn't facing problems.  I'm no sociologist, capable of teasing apart the causes of immigration (legal or otherwise) and proposing policy for governing our nation's response.  I understand that the changes we will undergo to respond to shifts in culture, language, and religion may well be painful and difficult.  I'm merely saying that this is hardly the first time we've had to face these kinds of problems, and that the shifts we've seen in morality since World War II have not all been negative.  Americans are freer now than they have ever been to express themselves, to pursue careers they find meaningful, to practice the religion of their choice -- or no religion at all.  Yes, there problems with poverty, crowding, and resources stretched too thin and too far.

But I think, to paraphrase Twain, that rumors of America's death will turn out to be vast exaggerations.

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