Our Way of Life

"You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children's children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done." - Ronald Reagan

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Religion of Americanism

From Jim Kalb at Turnabout I found this most interesting essay by John Rao, who looks at America and Americanism from a Catholic perspective. While one may not share all of his views or even his Catholic interests, much of the essay constitutes excellent critical thinking and observations which traditionalists should find good to read. Here are a few excerpts:

Thus, the United States presented a two-fold image of protecting “freedom” and ensuring “stability” at one and the same time. It created the impression of establishing what has become known as a “pluralist” society, where many ways of life are “respected”. In truth, however, the manifold organs of Anglo-Saxon society and the spirit of Anglo-Saxon culture were “moderating” and “integrating” this diversity out of existence, slowly, peacefully, but surely. It created the illusion of stability, since the purpose of “integration” was to ensure the continued dominance of native American ways. In truth, however, native Anglo-Saxon Americans themselves were pressured into a gradual transformation of their own traditions. Anything threatening the adoption of the new groups soon began to be discouraged and renounced as much as immigrant particularities. Unity took precedence over custom, habit and even adherence to what was believed to be the truth. While seeking to integrate, native Americans were being integrated as well. Integrated into what? Into a “pluralist” society which could only survive by missing bits and pieces of the ideas of all of its component parts and by bending the entirety to the construction of a grayish culture serving the least common denominator in human material needs. A process was begun which has ended with the “integration” into American life of groups espousing perversities and determining how their needs and interests might help improve the GNP. A process was begun which has ended in the glorification of the computer technician over the saint, media hype over substantive issues, and mass-produced hamburgers over the creations of the great composers.
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Generations of European observers, beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, have remarked upon the effectiveness with which American society, motivated by its Anglo-Saxon spirit, has quietly repressed the emergence of sharp differences of opinion, and channeled its population’s efforts into limited, peaceful, but indiscriminately vulgar material goals. Their commentaries have been supported by numerous American writers who have felt the obligation to “drop out” of this society in order to live as full human beings. I am speaking here of men of the Right, and not of liberals, whose “anti-Americanism” is itself a form of the same Americanist mentality. One is reminded, for example, of T.S. Eliot’s assertion that the thinking American often sought to “lose himself” somewhere outside the national mainstream, in places like New York City, in order to maintain at least the illusion of intellectual and spiritual survival. One can point to H.L. Mencken’s satirical essay, On Being An American, wherein he argues that there are only two grounds for an intelligent man to remain in the United States: either as a means of swindling an easy living, or to enjoy some cheap laughs at the expense of the vulgarity around him. The writings of many such men betray a common bitter theme. America has made the “thoughtful”, the “spiritual”, the “committed” appear to be the province of either the “insane” or the “treasonous”. It has required no secret police in order to achieve this goal. The work has been done gently and naturally, due to the character of an Anglo-Saxon influenced “soul” gone wild.

I believe that these critics have been correct in their assessment. The American obsession with avoiding controversy has ended by punishing the serious man. This is a regrettable phenomenon, since a human being—and a patriot—is not merely a prosperity machine, but also a thinker, a culture builder, and a dreamer of dreams. He needs to pay his respect, both alone and as part of a community, to higher things. As Isaiah says, “without a vision, the people perish”. A nation that allows little or no public scope for such important demands of the human personality is a defective “cradle” indeed. Still, the Anglo-Saxon desire for stability retains some insight into the importance of “home”, its needs, and the value of harmony therein. It sees that something resembling a “nation” is vital enough to men to require sacrifices to maintain it. It appears to admit the country as a structure distinct from the individual and the obvious framework for his development. The baggage that it gives to its citizens may be faulty and inadequate, but it does, at least, provide something onto which they can latch in order to work towards certain legitimate goals in life.

But America grew up under a second and more destructive influence. It developed underneath the tutelage of Puritan Protestantism. This was a teacher that understood so little about human nature that it inevitably poisoned everything that came into contact with it. Even when it tried to fill the void left by the abandonment of higher national purposes, it did so by crushing entirely the idea of the nation. It thus threatened the American with the prospect of having no “home” to love at all.
What lies at the basis of Puritanism? An emphasis upon the total depravity of man after Original Sin. How can man be saved according to its precepts? Only by an individual act of faith in God’s willingness to accept an intrinsically evil monster to live with Him eternally. Nothing that a man might do, good or bad, can, according to the Puritan dogma, affect the outcome of his personal saga.

The results of such an outlook are manifold. A dichotomy between the all-perfect God and totally wicked individuals allows no scope for the work of society in the divine plan. All men are like atoms in the face of their God, fundamentally alone in their approach to Him. “Atomism” is, perhaps, the most basic Puritan by-product. The presumption of communities and authorities like the Church, which claimed to lead men to God, became intolerable. Popes and bishops, seen in this light, must inevitably corrupt whatever functions they perform in this wicked world, and, hence, cannot be part of the divine plan. A “Church”, insofar as one must exist to perform symbolic functions and prayer meetings, thus becomes merely the instrument of a “democratic” congregation of atomistic believers.

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Americanism promoted an atomism that sneered at true community life with its panoply of authorities and traditions as the worst of plagues. This atomism did not understand just how necessary community was to save men from madness. When this atomism infected country living, where such respect was often great and where it was perhaps most essential, it made rural existence intolerably lonely. It has now created the suburb. It has punished those who fled the structured community of the old city for the “freedom” of the outside world with the misery of lives spent on super highways and in soulless shopping malls. The drive towards individual space has led to the creation of vast tracts of “sameness” across the entire breadth of the land. Similarly, those who wished to remain in cities found themselves forced to apologize for their behavior with reference to “personal needs”, “unique life styles”, and an equally corrupt spirit of self-reliance. This “individualism” has been crowned by an insufferable and repulsive trendiness. If the suburbanite atomist is herd-like in his vulgarity, the city-dwelling atomist is machine-like in his obsession with pseudo-intellectual and cultural fads. Americanism is, to a large degree, responsible for their troubles, and Americanism is a principle of death; of life-long euthanasia.

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Thirdly, Americanism destroys patriotism and the nation. Those who accept it and are truly interested in ideas will take its secularized Puritan elements seriously, and see it to be their patriotic duty to support anyone “hurt” by a United States which betrays its “mission” to set peoples free. They will, therefore, willingly aid outright enemies of the country in various parts of the globe and destroy its consistent friends, should they believe Pluralism to be invoked by the former and rejected by the latter. Despite horrendous strategic consequences, truly destructive to the concrete nation, American ideals and American purity must be honored! Meanwhile, Americans who understand something of what a nation truly means and who want to protect the United States and her legitimate self-interests in a traditional sense, are misled by Americanist influences into dangerous waters as well. Thus, for example, they presume that every other nation’s practical desires ought to bend to fit our own. For does not the United States, by definition, defend what is good? It might, on specific occasions. But even if it does, one must always recognize that there are also legitimate national differences which will last until the end of time, and it is precisely these distinctions which a true patriotic sense discerns and respects in other peoples. Sometimes, such Americans think that the only reason for our quarrel with the Soviet Union was our different political and social institutions—as though exaggerated Russian military power would have been a mere trifle without Marxism-Leninism! Americanism blinds them to the fact that nations fought wars before ideologies existed and will continue to do so should they ever disappear. And, finally, there are true patriots, who are also respectful of other nations’ integrity. They find, to their amazement, that the entire strength of the Americanist message is aimed against them and the expression of their real love of the land and concern for the independence of all nations. Why are they amazed? Because no one has pointed out the existence of Americanism to them.
The result is that Americanism makes us men without a country, just as it makes us men without an authoritative state, a network of real institutions with traditions and esprit de corps, men without a history. Americanism seeks to replace the nation with an ideology, patriotism with an ideological, fideisitic religion. But ideology cannot take the place of faith, the state, the city, the family and everything else of importance to national life. It cannot take the place of a real nation. And, hence, it leaves the American suspended in a limbo which the Americanist would have us believe is a model for the cosmos as a whole.