There are three Americas left, north of the Rio Grande; only two of them are countries. I live in one; most of my readers now live in the other. Since the spiritual disintegration of Quebec in the 1960s, however, we are really just one cultural space: about seven million square miles of “Middle America,” ignoring minorities and the freshly-arrived. The divide between “conservative” and “liberal” within both Canada and USA is now much deeper than any cultural divide between the two countries. A “conservative” in Canada has almost everything in common with a “conservative” in any of the “red states”; a “liberal” here is almost indistinguishable from a “liberal” there. They hate each other, ever more viscerally, but both are products of the same basic culture, that is now divided against itself, but might as well be having its civil war in the same country.
The third America is entirely uninhabitable. It is an “idea.” The politicians, south of the border, call it, with unintended accuracy, “the American dream.” It can be called, and has been called, many other things, from Manifest Destiny, to Get Rich Quick. Though puffy and evanescent on the surface, it has a hard core: an abiding and unthinking materialism. While the two current political factions may disagree on everything else, there is fundamental agreement on the purpose of life. It is to be “successful.” We are a “land of opportunity,” where the little guy makes good, because he has been freed from all the traditional constraints of history and nature. (Not like Europe, where they still have slavery.) In point of fact, the little guy very seldom makes good, here or anywhere, but he could if he wanted to, according to the myth, if he would only buy into “the American dream.”
The Republican version of this pipedream currently dominates. It requires the believer to know no history at all. According to the narrative, the Europe of socialism, bureaucracy, and the Nanny State was a product of the paternalism of the old ruling classes, going back let us say to George the Third — from whom America wisely broke free. “Freedom” is American democracy; “oppression” is European aristocracy. In reality, socialism, bureaucracy, and the Nanny State, were a direct result of the spread of working-class democracy through Europe, and the removal from power of aristocrats among whom personal independence (i.e. “freedom”) had always been extremely important; their interest in “equality,” high taxation, and the redistribution of wealth being — of course — nil. A few seconds of thought would burst the illusion that an aristocracy could have any possible interest in the creation of a Nanny State; but it is the function of secular myth to prevent those few seconds from happening.
Let me rub this in a bit, by alluding to the Magna Carta. The late King John was not brought to trot by “the people” of Olde England. He was made to sign the unpleasant document by a posse of titled nobles. And it was a mediaeval document, whose context is light years removed from our politics, eight centuries later. A shrieking anachronism is required, to present it as a harbinger of democracy. In this case, Americans subscribed to an old British Whig constitutional myth, or more precisely, hallucination.
To my own essentially mediaeval Catholic view, there is little to choose between Left and Right, once the argument is reduced to the profane; although that little surely makes me a rightwinger. “Democracy,” “Freedom,” “Capitalism,” “Socialism,” “Civil Society,” “The Welfare State” (I could go on listing these slogans) come down to much the same thing: a way of living from which both God and Man have been excised. They are the signboards of the new Mass Man, who began to emerge in the conditions of the “Industrial Revolution.” I use the quotes because the term makes something vague, too specific. An urban proletariat appeared, first in the north of England, associated with coal and cotton. But before that, in such a country as France, still substantially agrarian long decades after the British economy had turned to manufactures, one may trace the growth of a new kind of class consciousness, the product of the rise then defeat of Huguenot factions. The central management and authority of the French Sun King had much to do, quite inadvertently, with the creation of the conditions for the French Revolution, for which both urban and rural “proletariats” served as manipulable powder.
In Scotland, too, by the triumph of Calvinism, a new sense of “the people” emerged, as the result of novel religious doctrines — such as the notion that everyone must be made literate, so everyone may read the Bible for himself, and be freed of the oppression of priestcraft. Ditto, elsewhere across northern Europe, Calvinist and Lutheran revolutions lie under the later, Godless, Enlightenment ones, for the whole organic, hierarchical ordering of mediaeval society was disrupted. To my mind (and no other governs these Essays), Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is half true. The actual methods of modern capitalism, of banking and trade finance and double-entry bookkeeping, had been invented mostly in Florence and developed in the other sophisticated city states of northern Italy, long before they were copied in the less sophisticated north. That “spirit of capitalism” was already well-established, and was in fact a mediaeval development. And yet the detachment of economic from spiritual life was a product of the Reformation, and had a lot to do with new forms of asceticism that developed, beyond the reach of Holy Church.
The “little guy made good” is an atom of this Mass Man, this “proletarian” of whom I’m writing. He has no real identity. He is an economic operative, working outside the older social order; a man for whom even land becomes a commodity. He does not owe anyone for his own success. The income he makes goes entirely to himself, unless someone robs him. This is a dimension of economic history that is lost on post-moderns, who cannot imagine the forms of income redistribution that exist in an organic order, which has grown around the requirements of family and Church, and in which one has irresistible duties — much more by custom than by law. The very concept of “the voluntary” has changed, but may be masked where the changes are gradual. But over time, well before the American Revolution, the lion’s share of Western society (in Catholic as well as Protestant countries) was radically transformed, into what today we take for granted.
When the British moderns acquired India — through the East India Company, more as an investment than from Imperial pretensions — their economic ideas were already so advanced that they were appalled by the caste system. They could only understand it in terms of oppression. They could not understand that for innumerable centuries, caste obligations, which included duties towards far extended family, had provided for the sick, the aged, and the poor, and had maintained the temples, teachers, and priests who in turn steadied the social and spiritual order. For a Briton even of the late XVIIIth century (let alone the middle of the XIXth), with his Western, analyzing mind — the kind of mind that could think in discrete, reductionist terms of investment and return — the material and spiritual orders were detachable. And each could be consciously “improved,” by prescriptive law, and decisive, rational human action.
We should try to remember the age in which the United States came into being. It was quite unlike the present. But it was also very much unlike the deep European past; and for people who spoke and thought in English, already vastly removed from mediaeval traditions which persisted, in parts of the West isolated from the metropolitan centres, right into the XXth century. For instance, in Quebec.
It is arguable, but unreasonable, to describe this new, universal, proletarian, atomized and “alienated” Mass Man, as a product of America. (Europeans like to think of it that way.) America, it might outwardly seem, was the place where he was first deracinated; melted in the pot, as it were. The American Revolution preceded the French — and almost certainly made the French one possible — but the idea of man stripped down to a particle, detachable by heat, came from the Atlantic’s other side. Nor was it intentionally embraced, by the Founding Fathers of the USA.
In my view (for yes, it is still I who am writing), they made the same simple mistake as Immanuel Kant, when he absent-mindedly assigned a series of synthetic propositions to the analytical reason. (I am now using both terms as Kant proposed them.) It was the kind of mistake (or series of mistakes) that came naturally to a Prussian, however humane. The effect was to reset Reason itself to the default position of Atheism, in the course of disposing of the claims of metaphysics. Kant was unquestionably a Christian, but engaged in a philosophical enterprise which he conceived as unambiguously “secular” or profane. This contributed to the philosophical inattention, into which the Founding Fathers of USA had already slipt: the notion that the religious dimension of human life is tautological; that it lies outside empirical inquiry; that it can be neatly hived off from consideration, when forming a new kind of State for all men. Instead they need only focus on contractual principles.
When I write of “the default position of Atheism,” I do not mean to imply that Americans, or anyone else, became atheists directly because of it. Kant himself would never have dreamt such a thing. I mean instead that religious faith itself had now to contend with a secular default position that was irreligious. In effect, it had to pretend to be irrational, in order to be allowed. In addition to the Puritan heritage of English-speaking America, supplemented by Protestant immigration from northern Europe, the Evangelical streak in American Christianity owes to this inversion, in which religion came to be associated with the irrational; and the rational conversely associated with worldly power. This is prior to any consideration of what ideology we should buy into: for ideology had now replaced religion as the thing to be publicly fought over. Religion became a private matter. (In this respect, I pine for the religious wars.)
“Ideas have consequences,” I was taught in my youth. I daresay they have. In particular, the idea that “ideas have consequences” has been tremendously consequential. It was a replacement for the mysterious notion that faith has consequences.
As still a child, really, I got my first good taste of the United States by busing and hitch-hiking around her. I found the country unusually large. To most foreigners the diversity or variety of her parts is also unusually small. This is less apparent in the superficial conditions of “globalization” today, than it was a generation or two ago, to the bus traveller, or other explorer. But it is still quite apparent. One might drive a thousand miles, two thousand, nearly three in some directions; indefinitely, if one includes the English Canada that belongs within the same cultural sphere. And stepping out of the bus, one would still be hearing not only the same language, but the same dialect, more or less. One would encounter towns and cities on the same grid plan; see the same shops; hear the same music from the radios. In restaurants they served exactly the same food. As a young explorer myself, with an unhealthy curiosity for journalism, I remember thinking that every town seemed to have the same newspaper, with the same columnists and comic strips, and the same advice from Ann Landers.
It wasn’t like that in Europe, where a journey of a hundred miles would take one to another country, often within the same national borders. One was bewildered by Europe in a much different way. In England, I could cross two county lines and begin to have trouble understanding what people were saying to me, in English. In America I could fly from New York to Los Angeles, and have no trouble at all. For sure, I was still in the same country, although with acclimatization I began to discern some regional variety. The cities, too, had different flavours: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were not quite the same, though in the same state. Notwithstanding, the differences were subtle, compared to Europe where they hit you in the face.
Now, everything changes, as sage Heracleitus says, and outwardly the rest of the world has been changing more than America, and becoming superficially more like America as, for instance, all human life is progressively adapted to the requirements of the motor car, and Western Europe especially to the requirements of central planning, on a scale not seen since the Mongolians descended upon the Hungarian plains. The Internet is the latest of media to provide a powerful universal homogenizing force, and sameness is increasingly enforced in commerce by international branding. In politics, Left and Right have agreed, everywhere it seems, not only that “progress” is ineluctable, but that it comes with “democracy” which in turn requires the reduction of everything to the lowest common denominator — including the human himself to the condition of an animal seeking food, comfort, and sex (though sometimes he cavorts irrationally). In such an age, the sameness of America seems truly pioneering, with her Puritan/Protestant heritage of social pressure to conformity, eventually turned to unChristian ends.
So far, so Fukuyama, and to be fair to the fellow it ought to be said he wasn’t entirely happy with what he could foresee, nor entirely complacent about new challenges that would rise through human rebellion. For in the end, humans are not like other animals, and they will push back in the strangest ways. That tiny, God-given sparklement of soul — that irreducibly unique quality in each of the persons He has created — will “express itself,” for better or worse. It is in the strictest sense, immortal, so that nothing can quite snuff it out.
In America, they had hobbies. I bet they still have. It was the little secret I discovered about American suburban life. The living rooms were much the same. The kitchens were much the same. The bathrooms were much the same, and one caught glimpses of kids’ bedrooms decorated with the same pop posters, &c. But down in the basement, personhood would out. There would be, for instance, a “rec room,” which though it might sport the same bowling trophies, as a kind of protective coloration, would also contain evidence of the hobby. It might be a secret collection. One could see it if one gained the confidence of one’s host, and showed the proper kind of respect and interest. It might be a collection of stamps, or cigarette cards, or obscure jazz records; an aquarium full of exotic fish; a trove of genealogical documents; butterflies pinned on carefully captioned boards. Or perhaps in the garage, some antique vehicle being patiently restored. Or a workshop in which a model was being meticulously assembled, of some ancient sailing vessel. It would be “daddy’s little secret,” or secret world, in which his masculinity went secretly unchallenged.
For God gave gifts, special talents, to every being he placed in this world. And to every man, remarkable gifts and talents, with which to find his way. And men need an outlet for them, from the way we were designed; for without the means to use God’s gifts, we are stifled and unhappy.
And upstairs, hidden in plain sight, mommy has been collecting tiny blue glass bottles, which she has set on the muntins of the window over her sink. And when she does the dishes, she is in a secret reverie, of contemplation on the colour, blue. Nobody needs to know about this. All they need to know is that, on Mother’s Day, they may give her a new tiny blue glass bottle. And perhaps a little understanding wink. (I’ve known other women who have mastered baking, and done so for no reason at all, baked goods being cheaply available in the supermarket. And it takes time, and it takes attention. And nothing can make her stop. And when someone notices what she has done, she glows in a way that is unearthly.)
This is something I love about the human condition. It may even be true of God’s other creatures, for I study the finches I have attracted to my city balcony, and the sparrows I feed while picnicking in the park, and each one has his little foibles. And God has this infinite foible, for he never makes quite the same creature twice.
America, with perhaps the most conformist society I have encountered in my travels, once created the myth of “rugged individualism.” There was some truth to it, in pioneering conditions, both for men and women, from the time when women, as men, had to help shift rocks, and pull tree stumps out of the ground, and the two learnt to look each other in the eye. (For there was nowhere else to look for help.) But there’s not much truth to it, under our present economic conditions. As I like to say, “Look at all the rugged individualists, lining up for their Big Macs.”
America is however not responsible for the conditions of factory labour, and the administrative offices that came with that, and the principles of management and salesmanship that emerged — the basic productive arrangements by which the gifts and talents of the great majority of people are made to count for nothing, and their lives reduced to sterility, in an environment made quickly replaceable, and almost purposely ugly. That was an English invention, and for decades through which English and then Continental industry “progressed,” America was still basically agrarian. Her very culture resisted, for long, the imposition of machinery, with an attitude inconceivable today: that you must never buy what you can make for yourself. Americans copied the fashions of European high society before they copied the techniques of European industry. (Go look at the history with fresh eyes.) It was, I believe, paradoxically because of American naïveté, in the face of the machine, that America was able actually to lower the aesthetic standards of machine production, while leap-frogging over the Europeans on the point of industrial “efficiency.” (I write as the son of an industrial designer.)
The myth does not account for all this. Even on the purely material plain, it does not account for the dunkle Materie.
America is human, but she is also a country; and as I said when I began, an idea, too. The country might be rather over-large — I think of her often as “the supersized country” — but she is lovable on her own terms, and the terms are really not that demanding. The old Norman Rockwell America has passed, yet is something we can still almost touch, and cherish, so recently has it been eradicated. America has “hoped and changed” in many apparently fundamental ways, as she has chosen to follow a more ambitious, Kafkaesque model of cradle-to-grave bureaucracy and regimentation. But the changes are in detail, and her allegiance to the ideals of the Enlightenment, in the form of “the American idea,” has not wavered. It is an idea which, paradoxically enough, contains the idea of “American exceptionalism,” as if America really were the foundry in which the New Man was forged. But no, I will not blame America for him, but instead the larger circumstances of modernity, and post-modernity.
I have made several provocative assertions, and I have made them on Independence Day: so that I hasten to remind gentle American reader that I include English (and now, French) Canada in every part of my critique; for we, up here, have long since abandoned every principle of our own Loyalist founding, and embraced “We the People” in our turn. I might even, at this point, be accused of agreeing with Obama, when he mentioned that the Greeks also think themselves exceptional, and the Bolivians, too, and the Sri Lankans. It rather goes with being anything at all.
But so what? Let’s just say America has been an exceptionally benign superpower, since the last World War. I don’t like it when Obama lets the world push America around, for the United States has been our protector. It is for the very reason that the world is full of exceptionalisms — many of them quite monstrous — that we have needed America. She was usefully employed standing up to the truly Evil Empire of Soviet Russia; chasing off Jihadis; stopping other murderous nonsense here and there; racing to the scene of natural catastrophes; patrolling aerospace; preserving some order on the high seas. For the Royal Navy sailed away; and the alternatives to “American Imperialism” have been consistently much worse. (Or when they were not so bad, too small.) We, who have received such services gratis, could afford to cut her a little slack, or alternatively pick up more of the bill.
The part of “the American idea” which has proved most attractive to people of far countries is its essentially peaceable nature. Since the heyday of land grabs from Mexico, and less successful invasions of our North, the Americans have shown little interest in conquest, though no little interest in right and might. I write as a Canadian, so I know. We are a big empty nation of sitting ducks, with a cornucopia of natural resources. If Americans were Russians they’d have walked over us a century ago. Instead they are content to sell us things, and buy what they want in return.
American arrogance has been decried by the world, but it is mostly a response to American generosity. It is the one American crime that can never be forgiven: that she has placed the rest of the world in her debt.
Nor were we ever “Americanized” — nor could be since, after all, we were Americans ourselves to start with. Nor have they tried, very hard, to Americanize anyone else. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the rest of the world has been flattering America in its sotto voce way. They like wealth. They like taking a break from “history.” They have visions of the easy life.
Years ago, a young Chinese lady of my acquaintance, who had spent two years as an exchange student in an American high school, in a small town in the Midwest, explained the attraction perfectly, when I asked her to tell me what “freedom” meant:
“Freedom is walking down Main Street in jeans, eating an ice cream cone, and nobody thinks you are a prostitute.”
Not anything specified in the Declaration of Independence, we agreed. For this was a way of life that was prior to that, which had actually preceded it in time, and may have been one of its principal causes. It was a particular form of freedom, that had something to do with far horizons, and enemies easily annihilated. America was “the world’s safest place.” It was a country in which the people were at ease. It was a whole culture that had been built upon ease, and a genuinely classless informality.
“In America, you can talk to anyone,” she said, “and say please and thank you in the same way.”
Now, this was an exceptionally astute young Chinese lady (with whom, at the time, I happened to be in love). She had a high regard for America, and I asked her if she would like to live there.
To my surprise she replied, “No. … I am one of the nine in ten who does not want to emigrate to America. Or maybe it is ninety-nine in a hundred. We are the people the Americans can’t understand.” And moreover, she added with a glint of arrogance, “And they think we don’t understand them.”
The two of us used to translate poetry together, which is how we came often to discuss cultural differences — and similarities, too — not only between places, but also over time. She was familiar with major American poets, and popular songwriters, too. She could do good parodies of American music that was excruciatingly sentimental. (Once, in order to test my patience, when I asked her who was the greatest American poet, she fluttered her eyes and said, “John Denver!”)
I am suddenly reminded of something else she said; that, “If you want to make money, then the important thing is to get to America. But if you want to write poetry, then the important thing is to get out.”
For that “American idea” is anti-poetic, as well as intrinsically irreligious, and finally irrational. It is full of a sometimes impressive optimism. There is no tragedy or comedy in it, however. It is a success story, plain and simple, and now there is nothing left but to cling, in a time of failure. The sunny optimism of Reagan has now set, and for the future America hopes for leaders who can “manage decline,” like the European leaders.
No one can look realistically at such a phenomenon, as the re-election of Barack Obama, without entertaining the proposition that America’s remarkable historical run is over. The people themselves have abandoned God, and in so doing lost faith in themselves. As all who break faith, they have embarked on the path to self-destruction.
Or rather, we have embarked; for again, Canadians made the same choice: to live and die for nothing but pleasure. (And lost our pleasure, into the account.) In many ways we have been ahead of the curve, to perdition. Our re-election of Pierre Trudeau, all the way back in 1972, showed that we, too, as a people, had lost our dignity and self-respect, in the course of losing our religion. “Canada” may remain on the map, but there is acá nada (“nothing here”) any longer much worth defending, our achievements being all in the past.
Here, as in USA, the ideology itself is changing, yet on the same premisses first invoked, of citizen and state in contractual obligation. It took time for the full depravity of that rationalist “theory” to be realized; but we have had the time. In the age of Obama, it gets farther and farther from Washington and Lincoln, closer and closer to Marx and de Sade. But still there is a flag flying, whether the stars are white or yellow, or on a field of blue or red. And the pledge of allegiance is to the flag, not to God; and the anthem is not cast in the form of a prayer, but as an exaltation of revolutionary violence. (Nota bene: “Ideas have consequences.”) Lady Liberty stands in the place of Mary Mother of God, and licentiousness in the place of freedom.
We have come, as it were, to the reductio ad absurdum of the premisses on which the Enlightenment was lit, after a full century of violent post-modernism. Yet it passes as inevitable, as still the only way forward, for by now the idea of the State as the ultimate source of authority, and idol for collective public worship, has travelled the world. It was enhanced in the French and Russian Revolutions, and the sheer obscenity of it is lost on men who have come to take the contractual State as a fact of nature. The State’s claims bathe in spilt religion, as well as in that legacy of blood, and by now the man who hesitates to bend his knee to the latest “politically correct” ukase is denounced as “an enemy of the people.”
But I adhere to an older notion of patriotism, of a pre-revolutionary, or pre-ideological kind, in which the nation was more the product of its people than the other way around. I think back, in this anniversary year of the coming of the Great War, to the waning moments of the Habsburg realms, and the many small nations living in peace within a comparative paradise, each set in its own ancestral ways, yet with roads open and passing over every rise to a new vista of quiet beauty. Instead this order would be overthrown by the blood-curdling cry for “democracy,” and the jackboot of violent secular nationalism, descending on every human face.
One hears the echo of it today, in the roar of the football crowds contending for the World Cup: the car-horns beeping and the flags waving as the victors parade their ugliness through the city streets.
But the love of one’s own is not evil; and there is much in the hearts even of football supporters of an innocent pride, founded on that love of one’s own; a pride that is not hooligan, and a joy that includes love of the game. True patriot love is thrilled, when something fine is accomplished by one’s own countrymen. Yet it is also shown in the shame we feel, when our countrymen behave badly. A patriotism which takes pride in victory alone, is unworthy; it is the patriotism, or rather chauvinism, of the thug.
We might take honest pride, even in a State that avoids evil works, which rules with a light hand and with the consensus of all honest and reasonable men. For long Americans could take honest pride in a State that was, in the balance, a decent thing; which enforced reasonable laws at home, and defied despotic tyrants abroad; which was “a duly constituted authority,” not eager to make extravagant claims. To my mind, that America was indeed a blessing for the people, and a triumph, in the sense that the old freedom of America, of which I wrote above, prevailed in the face of new government agents.
Yet to my old Loyalist mind, too, the seeds of the new statism were planted in 1776; and in the defeat of a distant and gratuitously demonized monarch, the principles were laid for what could become, merely by the manipulation of words, and the extension of the franchise to the easily befuddled, a revolutionary totalitarianism. For all its strengths, and weaknesses, the American culture resisted the spread of this cancer, more effectively than many other cultures. And the seed itself was not particularly American; it was imported with the ideals of the Enlightenment from the Atlantic’s other side. Still, it was the fate of America to show the way, to create the precedent, to plant the insidious Tree of Liberty in soil watered by blood. The American Revolution made the French one conceivable, not under a paternal and aristocratic General Washington, but now a sans-culotte Robespierre.
A constitutional order was nevertheless enacted which has survived to the present day, and makes the United States after two hundred thirty-eight years one of the world’s oldest continuous constitutional regimes. It should be respected, not only in itself, and in its authors, but in the wisdom of later men who did not overthrow it, but struggled to make it work. It should be maintained, for the good of all; revised only by necessity; restored, where foolish changes have been made. It is right that, in America, each anniversary should be celebrated, as such anniversaries are celebrated in every other country. A flourish, some pomp, is certainly in order: and there are moments when everyone loves a parade.
I think we should keep what is good and what works; but we should never worship the works of man. That has been the Hebrew, the Christian and Catholic teaching, found throughout Old Testament and New, standing today against nationalist idolatry. So far as America has been good and has worked, we should thank God for her, not men. So far as she has failed, we should also turn to God. And in a time of trial and encroaching darkness, likewise turn, with our better angels, and make our appeal to Him, to “stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above.”