In the first view of America, I suggested that the Left is naïve about words. Prevalent on the Left is a view of language that allows–almost encourages–solipsistic equivocation around moral terms; such equivocation will eventually destroy the possibility of democratic discourse. This view destroys discourse by making language such a private affair that no communion between differing views is possible. No debate, no dialgoue, no discussion. Public discourse can always, of course, puddle around the lowest common denominators of physical pleasure (especially sex) and physical pain (especially violence). But when we say, as so many on the Left are fond of saying, that (a) “language constructs our social reality” and (b) “the center of our common culture is that every individual is free to live life on their own terms,” then the logical conclusion is that words become incapable of expressing anything but private preference. “I want x” and “x is good” mean the same thing. “That is wrong” and “I don’t like that” are identical statements. The very possibility of recognizing a good that you fear or a wrong that you desire is anesthetized at best; perhaps the experience is rendered impossible.
Within this realm, covenants are replaced by contracts of convenience as David Brooks suggests in this column. The possibility of a genuine, generous, boundless love that rises above a business model, sentimentality, manipulation, or enlightened self-interest is no longer possible, as Plato explains in the Phaedrus. Sex, friendship, religious faith, family, or—for that matter—owning a pet: all collapse into sentimentality, manipulation, or efficient self-interest. The road to happiness lies within a cost-benefit analysis, as though all Others (even God) were objectified commodities answering to our subjective, private, personal feelings of happiness.
Thus, the Left is as responsible as the Right is for Donald Trump and the New Nativism. You cannot spend 50 years talking about how social reality is rhetorically constructed and then be shocked when people decide on Alternative Facts to construct their social reality; their choices should look to those on the Left like a logical conclusion, not a bizarre aberration. You cannot adopt theoretical positions that allow individuals to rhetorically craft their own identity rooted mostly in their own subjective experiences and then be angered when people craft their own identity rooted in their own subjective perspectives that you don’t want them to have. That is not an option, unless you are ready to do away with the mask of tolerance and champion some red, white, and black flag of Liberal Totalitarianism.
The symbiotic idea intertwined within this shallow view of language is the celebration of diversity and the goal, as we saw in Part 1, of creating unity around diversity. That concept too, we challenged earlier. Ex pluribus unum when the unum is larger and more powerful than the pluribus, of course. When there is a unity that both (a) goes beyond and (b) is ranked higher than what differentiates us, we leave the differences behind and become one. This is not unlike the old idealized mid-20th century view of covenant marriage where each of us left our own family culture behind as the defining aspect of our identity, and we merged into something that was neither yours nor mine, but transcended both and was different from either. Out of our many differences, we made one family. Set against this view of one out of many, is the recently popular idea of circum pluribus unum—one around many. This idea of building unity around—keeping and celebrating—diversity may, in the end, possess some redeemable particulars, but it can hardly be embraced prima facie as a perfectly clear and obviously reasonable idea.
I’ve so far suggested that the idea of America cannot function as a unified culture and country if it tries to define itself as a collection of sustained diversities. A self-definition transcending our diversities and calling each of us beyond them is required. That transcendent ideal, according to the Right, is exactly what America used to have. That is what America used to be.
They are correct. There was once a unifying dream, a sweeping set of cultural definitions and assumptions, that underwrote American Unity. Not even the Civil War broke it. The trouble is, that unifying vision of America was, essentially, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant vision. WASPs dominated and defined being American, really. There were other Americanish people around, but the normal, standard America was white, northern European, Protestant, and mostly male, to boot. That was the assumption played out in sweeping aspects of culture, and one need look no further than the plays, magazines, movie pictures, novels and (later) advertisements from 1825 through the late 1900’s to see those assumptions on display.
In other words, there was a unifying cultural dream, but it was a particularly specific dream. When they sang the glory of America, they were singing mostly of themselves. They did not see a larger America, a different America. Those who fell outside that far too narrow culture were simply not registering as an (important) aspect of America. And that helps to explain the timing of the present moment.
If the Idea of America that was put forward in Part 1 ([a] liberty to pursue happiness on our own terms, [b] tolerance of those who pursue a different path, and [c] united in our willingness to defend the other’s right to their path) is as deeply flawed as I’ve suggested, why did it take so long for the problems to appear? The answer is, it didn’t. The Idea of America as a land of freedom and tolerance was simply not tested until 1964. That is the moment we began to see whether or not the idea of liberty and tolerance would function for people who were really different from normal America. Prior to the Civil Rights Act, Americans were generally tolerant of their differences, and allowed others to pursue their own way. But of course, that generally meant that the Presbyterians were willing to grant liberty and tolerance to their neighbors. Who went to the Methodist church. Now, admittedly, Calvin and Wesley had their differences in theology, and those differences are significant, and moreso to someone who is a part of either church. But to be honest, tolerance in this frame is a pretty low bar for the intellect and conscience to clear. And their differences found other, common, ground to unite with: work, sports clubs and teams, the kid’s schools. And the non WASP world was simply not on the radar. It was largely segregated and invisible.
Challenges to the WASP view had come before 1964, of course. The Spics and Wops and drunken Irish had arrived. But these were in waves, assimilated fairly easily, and sometimes looked white-enough. But it was only in 1964 that the systemic definition of WASP America began to be challenged. And WASP America didn’t like it.
It is this background, so far as I can tell, that makes it so easy for those on the Left to typecast those on the Right as racist. The Right appears (to the Left) to be clamoring for a return to an era that no good person wants to see again: one filled with segregation, Jim Crow, and invisible people without serious legal standing in the culture when they need it most: when their homes were threatened, their children terrorized, and their career and education options unjustly limited by those in power. Of course, some on the Right want exactly that, just as some on the Right genuinely do hate gays. And some on the Right really are prudes who cannot bear to think of a woman’s body apart from issues of use or control. But I find plenty who don’t fit these molds.
I find any number of those on the Right who rail against PC speech not because they hate Latinos or Blacks, but because they recognize the simple fact that nobody has a right to not be offended, as Dawkins reminds us. I find many on the right who take traditional stands on sexuality not because they hate gays, but because human sexuality is sacred in Christian theology and it is not unreasonable to assert that requiring a person to accept a state sponsored definition of sex and gender is a violation of the free exercise clause of the Constitution. I find many on the Right that neither want nor expect Christian Theocracy in America, but who recognize that if you shift the major metaphysical assumptions of a culture, then you change everything about it, and maybe that is worth a conversation? I find many that are no more interested in controlling a woman’s body than they are in removing their own fingers with a bolt cutter. But they have serious and powerful questions about when, exactly, that woman’s body became her own to do with as she saw fit. When did she cease to be the property of Someone Else to do with as they saw fit?—that Someone Else being her own mother, of course.
These are generally examples that still matter, though they come from the more or less now defunct Culture Wars of traditional Conservatism; that said, they are still whipping boys for the Left and we will examine them in more depth down the line. Perhaps Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option needs a conversation.
But at present, we can sum up two points. First, American cultural unity seems unlikely to emerge from an attempt to maintain and celebrate infinite diversity. But, second, there was once this American cultural unity and it did keep us together and, really, it kind of sucked. Are there other options?
What is actually on the front pages these days is of course not Conservatism but a New Populism that flirts with a unique sort of Fuedal-talitarian vision. Perhaps we’ll touch on that view, briefly, in America, Part 3: Sweet Home à la Bannon.