America’s British Culture by Russell Kirk
The “identity crisis” is a relatively recent development of human psychology. Most people in history were what they were, and they didn’t bother overmuch to wonder what that was. Freud undermined this taken-for-grantedness when he taught that the Self was not a fixed essence but the mutable effect of early experiences buried in the subconscious but capable of being discovered and analyzed in the search for a better Self.
This was wonderful news. There are, after all, few things as fascinating as one’s Self. And if the materials comprising it could be rearranged to form a Self purged of its present weaknesses and capable of greater happiness (or at least of less guilt about sex), that would justify any amount of delightful introspection. Yet the more people broke their Self into its component parts, the more they began to doubt if there was any There there. Maybe that feeling of a distinctive and permanent soul inside oneself was just an illusion. Maybe the Self really was, in Hume’s pre-Freudian insight, a “shifting bundle of sensation.” Maybe we are what we eat, or what we have been taught, or how we exercise. The identity crisis had been born.In a collective age, however, the identity crisis could not be limited to the individual. Since there are such things as national identities, then nations too must have the right to a crisis. Indeed, if people could be persuaded to doubt their own personal identities—which are, for most of us, a fairly strong inner conviction once adolescence is out of the way—how much more easily could they be led to doubt the identity of their tribe, class, nation, culture, or civilization.
After all, the concept of a national identity crisis does have some roots in reality. Nations are created from amalgamations of other nations, tribes, and religions. They sometimes collapse and disappear, silently absorbed into some new grouping or breaking down into their component ethnicities. And although what finally defines a nation is a matter of constant dispute, several influences are generally accepted as shaping it: in particular, a common language, shared experience embodied in history and tradition, generally accepted ways of resolving disputes, common moral customs and sometimes the religion that sustains them, a heritage of songs, tales, and proverbs. In short, all that we mean by culture (in its various meanings).
America is at present undergoing an identity crisis called “multiculturalism.” This asserts, in one version, that America never had an identity, being merely an Idea in the mind of Thomas Jefferson. Or in the more moderate version, that America used to have an identity, but it got lost in a large crowd of jostling cultures, and is very unlikely to be seen ever again. In either event, we must recognize that America today has no single national identity but instead a multitude of different ethnic identities, none of which is “privileged” as distinctively American.
Russell Kirk will have none of this. The simple message of his latest book is that America has its own national identity, but that it is one built firmly on British cultural foundations. He offers what he calls a “summary account” of the four main foundations: the English language and its literature; the rule of law based upon British common law; a system of representative government that in most respects imitated Britain’s domestic political institutions; and an ethical heritage of mores and customs that reflected the surprisingly rich variety of British churches and religious sects in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although these foundations are at present being sapped by the multiculturalists, they are still capable of being restored to their original condition.
The volume is a slim one—but not too slim for Dr. Kirk to take us on some pleasant intellectual detours as he argues his case. He reminds us that, although we take for granted that Anglo-American law is friendlier to individual liberty than the European Roman Law tradition, its survival after 1776 was far from a foregone conclusion. Jefferson, who thought they did these things better in France, was among those suspicious of common law as a colonial relic. It was fortunate that he had been succeeded by the commonsensical Madison when Jeremy Bentham, a thoroughgoing rationalist on the French model, offered to draw up an entire system of American law de novo. Bentham thought it a trivial irrelevance that he had never actually set foot in the United States; the Legislator with a grasp of Sound Principle was at home anywhere. But these absurdities were merely the teething troubles of the new republic. Blackstone’s legal Commentaries, widely read before and after 1776 by men of substance, triumphed over the spirit of legal innovation. By the 1830s, the United States had decisively embraced the common law with its reliance upon precedent and past practice, the adversary system of justice with its assumption that the individual accused is on an equal footing in court with the state’s prosecutors, the jury system, and in general the pragmatic libertarian traditions of British law.
It should be noted from the first that Dr. Kirk is not saying that Americans are ethnically British. He stresses at several points that Americans of British ancestry are a minority even among whites in the U.S. Indeed, they are not even the single largest European ethnic group; that distinction belongs to German-Americans. But British culture—in Britain itself, in the former British colonies such as Australia and Canada, but most dramatically in the U.S.—has shown a capacity both to absorb people of different races and cultures into the national community, and to stamp the newcomers with its own impress.
Most of the influences pushing the new Americans into adopting their British-American identity were informal social and economic pressures, such as the need to learn English in order to get a job. But for much of the period, these informal pressures were supplemented by a deliberate policy of cultural assimilation. This robust and self-conscious policy—frankly called “Americanization”—began from the moment when the new immigrant was given his Anglicized name at Ellis Island by some harassed official and continued in school, courtroom, and citizenship ceremony where he was expected to demonstrate a good grasp of American life in decent English. The reward came when he saw his children graduate from Harvard, enter the U.S. Senate, be appointed Chief of the Joint Chiefs, or, more important, become Americans ethnically indistinguishable from other Americans.
This cultural assimilation is essential to the success of American society in practical as well as spiritual regards. As Thomas Sowell is quoted by Dr. Kirk, saying: “Cultural features do not exist merely as badges of ‘identity’ to which we have some emotional attachment. They exist to meet the necessities and forward the purposes of human life.” The fact that we all speak English makes it that much easier to sell soap quite as much as it allows us to feel “at home” at home.This practical consideration is always ignored by the multiculturalists. The sheer inconvenience of a balkanized society, in which taxi drivers can neither understand directions nor ask passersby for help, never seems to occur to them. Their arguments dwell in the thin but bracing metaphysical atmosphere of ethnic self-realization where a man whose language differs from that of his ancestors is at best living a lie, at worst groaning under a cold oppression. When, because of unrestricted immigration, large numbers of men find themselves so placed, then whole tribes are held to be victims of cultural genocide. They can be saved only if their languages and cultures are granted equal standing with American culture, now demoted to “Euro-Americanism.” America’s national identity, built on British ways, must therefore be deconstructed and replaced by a concept of America as a set of political and legal principles which shelter various tribes all proclaiming their cultural authenticity.
All this is, in Bentham’s best phrase, nonsense on stilts. It manages to stay upright only by ignoring a crucial distinction that Dr. Kirk points out as early as page seven of his book: the distinction between a common culture, enriched by new ethnic myths and heroes, and a multiculturalism which claims to uphold all cultures equally. An enriched common culture, celebrating different ethnic contributions, is how America has traditionally rewarded newcomers for their agreement to assimilate. It is America’s side of the “brutal bargain.” It also explains why Americans and Brits, although they are culturally closer to each other than to other nations, are yet not the same people.
Multiculturalism, however, is an incoherent concept. No single set of political principles could accommodate both feminism and Islam—and certainly not the principles of the Declaration of Independence. For these did not spring spontaneously from the imagination of Jefferson; they are a conscious political expression of the British culture explored by Dr. Kirk, indeed of the elevated culture of comfortably-off English Whigs in the eighteenth century. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are among the Great Books of Western Civilization—and more narrowly, they are classics of liberal political thought. As such they are bound to discriminate in favor of themselves.
If multiculturalism is an identity crisis, therefore, it is an identity crisis of liberalism. For, as Dr. Kirk points out, it is not the immigrant, nor the hyphenated-American, not John Doe, nor even Jane Doe, who seeks to retain or revive the culture of their ethnic origins; it is the liberal class—Jefferson’s heirs—in the academy, politics, the bureaucracy, the media, and major cultural institutions. We thus witness such absurd paradoxes as earnest liberal professors and social workers writing to the New York Times to plead for an understanding of clitorodectomy as part of African culture. Absurd but logical. Once liberalism transfers its protection from individual to group rights, then it will find itself protecting cultures that treat some individuals as less than fully human. Multiculturalism is liberalism deconstructing itself—and that could never be a pretty sight.
But the damage may not be confined to liberals and liberalism. Multiculturalists sometimes coerce newcomers into remaining separate but authentic by insisting that their children be educated in languages other than English. Because they are dimly aware that official multiculturalism may not be able to resist the unifying power of American culture, they seek to strengthen balkanization further by importing more and more people from other cultures via high levels of immigration. Above all, they seek to make ordinary Americans feel guilty—alas, no difficult task—about the “privileged” position that American culture enjoys in America. Given the dominance of an unreflective liberalism in our major cultural institutions, there is no guarantee that it may not also deconstruct America as a side-effect of its own dissolution.
James Burnham once famously defined liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide.” It is Dr. Kirk’s achievement to establish that this may have been a typical British understatement.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. John O’Sullivan was at the time of writing editor of National Review. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the University Bookman (Summer 1994).