The conservative proposition is that the United States is not an ideological abstraction but a nation, a people, a culture – like other nations in some respects but unique, as John O’Sullivan pointed out, in one vital particular: “American national identity remains at the moment more cultural than ethnic,” and for that reason “this identity is inclusive. It is possible to become an American,” no matter what one’s genetic roots, “in a way it is not possible to become a Slovak or a Pole.” Liberals, by contrast, along with some conservatives, believe that America began with certain ideas about liberty and equality, “outlined in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Constitution,” and that those ideas continue to define America.
The implications of the two views are profoundly different. Culture, organically transmitted “by dint of common history, habits, tastes, shared experiences, tales, songs, memories, familiarity, and intermarriage,” is richer, more real, and truer than any philosophy. Most importantly, the conservative view “offers a protection against the virus of multiculturalism, which the liberal theory cannot offer.” Indeed, open immigration in a context of the welfare state and multiculturalism gives a boost to liberal statists, who have an interest in fragmenting the country into many nationalisms in order to dominate them.
Of course, the American people, while more unified in times past, were never strictly speaking homogeneous. I began the morning panel the next day by tracing colonial immigration patterns – predominantly from the British Isles, but divided between hill people and valley people, herders and farmers – and concluded that, well before the Declaration, America had the makings of national unity and a national character as well as the seeds of disunion, regional characters, and civil war. Bernard Sheehan analyzed the disagreements among historians over when and why America changed from a largely communal and hierarchical society into an atomistic agglomerate of acquisitive individuals. It is easy, at the end of the twentieth century, to blame much of America’s decline on LBJ or FDR, or on the Progressives who preceded them. But, as I replied to a questioner following the presentations, the process really began almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Founding documents, as those in power in each succeeding generation extended the franchise to maintain that power – much as some liberals today want to extend it not only to non-citizens but even to illegal aliens.
John Willson, drawing on his forthcoming work on Timothy Dwight, focused on the New England character – derived from the settled, valley-dwelling strain of immigrants. Dwight believed that “society preceded government” and that “the character of the citizens determined the character of the government.” It was on the “spiritual and cultural strength and moral continuities” of the local community that all else depended. These were attitudes and beliefs that Americans shared – whatever they thought about natural rights to liberty and equality – and that laid the foundations for the evolving American culture of which O’Sullivan had spoken.
The first afternoon session, entitled “What They Saw in America,” was devoted to the United States as seen by three foreign visitors and one quintessential American. Christopher Wolfe summarized Tocqueville’s belief that America’s genius was in its sense of community, but that its democratic political system was inimical to excellence. Lord Bryce, according to James McClellan, described Americans as “good-natured, optimistic, intelligent, practical, conservative, religious without being superstitious, tolerant, industrious, and hard-working” – traits that have since “gone the way of the bison.” On the negative side, Bryce cited as American faults “a tendency to level down intelligence, laxity in the enforcement of the law, the low moral level of our politics, and the concomitant mediocrity of political and professional life” – nothing changed there, McClellan quipped. Robert Royal quoted a number of Chesterton’s epigrams, among them, “America is a melting pot, but the melting pot itself must not melt.” Chesterton grew almost poetic in describing parts of America, notably in his portrait of an idyllic small-town and rural Middle West, where he saw the same virtues that Timothy Dwight had seen earlier in New England. And it was from that small-town Middle West, Edwin Meese pointed out, that Ronald Reagan derived his compelling vision of America.
By this point in the proceedings a disquieting undercurrent was beginning to emerge. The consensus was that America had once been a wonderful place and that the American culture had been strong enough to survive wars, constitutional amendments, technological revolutions, territorial expansion, and wave after wave of immigration – until some time in the recent past. But a concurrent consensus was developing: America had lost or was losing the qualities that had made it great, and whether those qualities could be regained was uncertain.
During the next session, this other consensus swelled to the surface. Arnold Beichman declared that “for a society to be at peace with itself, there must be a minimal set of values that a population reveres and is determined to protect.” These values we no longer have.
Christian Kopff cast a wider net. He pointed out that American society, like Western Civilization itself, rests upon ideas coined during the fifth century B.C., when the Greeks invented history, science, and the concept of self-rule or citizenship. Those ways of looking at things are not “natural” to man; they must be taught and learned, generation by generation; and they are not being taught and learned today. Dependent as we are on science, we are not training our children in its fundamentals. Dependent as we are on citizenship, our government has made a conscious decision to purge its study from the curriculum.
Even more outrageous than our government’s failures and refusals to pass along Western civilization are its choices of what it does promote. The meeting’s most outspoken doomsayer, Thomas Landess, addressed himself to the doings of the National Endowment for the Arts. NEA grants are based upon two assumptions, both false and both pernicious. The first is that all art is equal and equally deserving of respect – the music, for example, “of Austria and New Guinea.” That assumption derives from our fear to make judgments; we have become moral cowards, afraid to criticize lest we offend. Secondly, the NEA assumes that restrictions are bad for artists, who need absolute freedom. “Stuff and nonsense,” said Landess: formal limits and strictures have always challenged the creative mind. For example, the social ban on obscenity forced Shakespeare to find infinitely richer expressions than, say, 2 Live Crew – as when Iago tells Brabantio, “your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.” Our general failure of taste, Landess concluded, and our rejection of God to worship the false gods of absolute equality and absolute freedom have destroyed the pietas necessary to civilized behavior. When the barbarians come, as they always do upon the collapse of a civilization, they will find that we have already sacked ourselves.
At the Sunday breakfast session, immigration policy was at last explicitly the focus. Opinions ranged from that of Stephen Moore, who absolutely opposed any restrictions on immigration and declared that multiculturalism is not the choice of immigrants but of egghead elites, to that of Peter Brimelow,who stood by the powerful argument for immigration restriction that he made in the magazine, declaring that only by restricting immigration sharply could we permit the last three decades’ immigrants to assimilate – to become Americans.
Occupying the middle ground, Tom Fleming said he would concentrate less upon restriction than upon setting high qualifications for citizenship. He would deny any handouts to non-citizens and to those, such as criminals and congressmen, who do not contribute to society what citizens should contribute. Tim Ferguson, a longtime champion of open immigration, said his return to California from New York had sensitized him to the merits of restriction, but on balance he preferred strict qualifications for citizenship. Michael Vlahos expanded on Fleming’s observation that when republics grow too large – as Rome did and as the United States has now done – they broaden and dilute their citizenship, which makes it easier for tyrants to rule.