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America’s British Culture, by Russell Kirk. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993)

multicultural

The word “culture” is used in many senses. Advocates of the multicultural curriculum cheerfully assume that they and their readers know exactly what is meant by such a thing, and that all would agree in recognizing the “monocultural” nature of our traditional education. A typical “multicultural” curriculum will concentrate on the lore, language, and literature of the modern pro­ letariat; on the history and “struggles” of minorities; and on the lowest and most popular forms of music, art, and entertainment. This monotonous study of ephemera can be encountered everywhere in America, Canada, Britain, Australia, and Scandinavia. I would be tempted to describe it as “monocultural,” were I convinced that it is capable of imparting any culture at all. By contrast, our grandparents studied the languages, religions, and literature of ancient Palestine, Greece, and Rome; they were brought up on the fairy tales of Arabia, the folklore and music of Germany, the art and architecture of the Mediterranean, and the history of the world. If the word “multicultural” means anything, then it should certainly be applied to their curriculum. It is precisely this openness toward culture in all its forms that is the essence of European civilization.

Dr. Kirk makes some effective criticisms of the “multiculturalists,” whose program, as he rightly points out, derives less from the love of other cultures, than from the rejection of their own. But his principal purpose, in this wise and interesting book, is to show that, in any normal understanding of the word, America has a single culture, that this culture is British, and that the multifaceted and diverse character of American society is hardly conceivable without the virtues of the British culture that prevails in it.

Kirk identifies a culture in anthropological fashion, as a set of “folkways”—inherited forms, procedures, expectations, and customs, which together define a communal way of life. Four principal folkways define America’s British inheritance: the English language and its literature, the rule of law, representative government, and the moral habits and beliefs which Tocqueville identified as the moeurs of the American people. Kirk gives a characteristic account of each of these, and shows how, between them, they have formed modern America as a society that is tolerant, free, welcoming towards newcomers while also proud of its traditions, and conscious of its past.

Of course, there are comparable phenomena in other parts of the globe. Latin America has a common language, and (albeit short-lived) spells of lawful and representative government. The mores of the British are shared, in part, by the Norwegians and the Danes; while the rule of law is common to European countries outside the former Communist empire, and north of the line of corruption that extends from Lisbon to Athens, via Madrid and Rome. The interest of Dr. Kirk’s analysis lies in two facts: first, the attempt to describe what is distinctive in our moral and political heritage; second, in the unashamed defense of these things as the foundation of America’s freedom and stability.

As he rightly says, our rule of law is distinctive in deriving from common law rather than statute. The English law stands above and beyond all sovereigns, all parliaments, all usurpers and military powers. Its authority derives from custom and precedent, and, even the most well-established legal decision may have no stable principle in the form of a written statute, or precise legal rule. I would place much more emphasis on this point than does Dr. Kirk, for it shows the inherent concretion of the English law. A case can be accepted as rightly decided, even though nobody knows exactly why—even though nobody can agree on the abstract principle from which the decision flows. Since human beings are better at deciding individual disputes than formulating abstract principles of justice, this means that the objectivity and persuasiveness of the English law is superior to anything displayed in the civil (i.e., Roman­-law) jurisdictions.

Americas-Birtish-CultureThe basic law of England, and of any state that adopts the common law, is a matter of custom and precedent and not of written rules. Americans fondly imagine that they have a written constitution from which all legitimate decisions derive—and Dr. Kirk flatters them in this illusion. In fact, the American Constitution is contained in some four hundred fat volumes of case law, the principles of which are as hard to state in abstract terms as the details are immediate and comprehensible. The written document is of no independent significance.

Dr. Kirk refers to America’s British culture. But it is right to point out that the common law is English law—the Scots have a civil system, and it is because of English sovereignty that the other Celtic races came to adopt our law. Moreover, our language is English, our literature English (even when written by an Irishman or a Scot), and our Parliament that of Westminster, seat of the English crown. Only in religion do we distinguish the nations—admitting a Church of Ireland and a Church of Scotland besides the Churches of England and Wales. Even so, there is no British church, and no Englishmen ever feels comfortable with the suggestion that his culture is British. This, I believe, is what underlies Dr. Kirk’s perceptive analysis of the American settlement­ that it sprang from a law and a language which had already freed themselves from national boundaries, and become open to the larger world.

There is so much pertinent history and so much wisdom in Dr. Kirk’s 115 pages that his book would serve as a useful summary of America and its culture for the busy student—even for one who is hard pressed by the demands of a multicultural curriculum. I doubt that it would appear on such a curriculum, however, since any student who read it would be so immediately aware of the superiority of his inheritance, that the rival “cultures” in which his teachers seek to interest him would appear quite barbaric. Indeed, that is probably what they are.

Books by Russell Kirk or Roger Scruton may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 1994.

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9 replies to this post
  1. We should also note that with America’s system, as Scrotun referred to it, it started out as racist in two pronounced ways: the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land and the enslavement of Blacks. Now, is racism a just reason to be critical of one’s own culture?

    And of course we could remember what Martin Luther King Jr. said during his speech against the Vietnam War because that also applies in discussions where multiculturalism is attacked:


    The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

    All we need here is to replace the word “Western” with a fill-in-the-blank. Such not only allows one to be critical of one’s own culture, it allows one to assert that there are things others can learn from one’s own culture as well.

    The above article is nothing more than an appeal to authoritarianism and tribalism. It is authoritarian in that past credentials are being used to make claims to positions of influence and power. It is tribal in that its authoritarian appeal is based on a particular past society of a particular race and thus its tribalism might just involve racism. Such does not fully understand what democracy is about and I doubt that is much concern to those who oppose multiculturalism. That is because democracy is the authoritarian’s kryptonite regardless of whether that authoritarian is conservative, liberal, or even leftist.
    .

    • The problem with Mr. King’s quote is that “others” turn to the West again and again to teach them what they themselves admit they cannot teach themselves, and then grow rather resentful for having been so taught.

      • Marcia,
        We invade nations or intervene to overthrow their gov’t so we can put in proxy leaders and you claim that these same others turn to the West?

        • They certainly turn to the West for food and medical care, and are now trying to emigrate there en masse.

          Western Culture is simply superior by any reasonable standard.

    • Curt,

      Ethnic cleansing, and enslavement was practiced in North America long before the Europeans arrived. One might argue, this WAS the culture of the Indigenous Americans. At any rate, the natural progression of Mankind advanced by the process of advanced culture displacing primitive culture. This has occurred from the beginning of time. What ever injustices the natives might have perceived, were inevitable to happen. The argument I have yet to hear, is that, would North America and the world be better off today, if the Europeans hadn’t arrived? Would N.A. today be any more prosperous, or progressive, than say, Africa, or the middle east? What if the Chinese, or Russians settled instead. It so easy to make the argument how bad something was, but not so easy to imagine what some thing could have been.

      • George,
        Your statement is not exactly true and it wasn’t how we found the land in the first place. Yes, there were wars between Indian tribes, but there were also a plethora of Indian tribes when we got here. I would not call all wars attempts to ethnically cleanse.

        But I don’t that is the main issue. For some who want to excuse what Christian Europeans did to Native Americans and Africans by saying others did it, they seem to overlook the claims our founding fathers made about themselves in the first place. That they were exceptional people who created a city on the hill that serves as a beacon for all other nations.

        This idea that we so minimize the atrocities committed by those who preceded us only indicates that we wish to live without consiences . Yes, most victims are themselves guilty of some other crimes. And all of us are sinners. But please explain to Native Americans how what we did to them was mere average compared to what happened on this continent before. And do the same for African-Americans.

  2. At what point can we argue that all cultures might not be conducive to the progress of Mankind? All cultures may have been “progressive” at a certain point in history, and for a certain period of time, but why is it so difficult to argue that not all cultures are suited to a rapidly changing, modern world, that’s getting smaller, and smaller. It’s not hard to concluded that Islam, by it’s nature offers little opportunity, or prosperity for it’s followers. We instead blame these failings on “Climate Change”, or misguided foreign policy. Those in Muslim countries who can, will flee to the west for just this purpose. What if, on the other hand, Man has outgrown culture, except for a modern, human culture that could included everyone? Would we even recognise one should it evolve, or would our inherent racist bigotries preclude us from embracing it? What if this is already happening? What if English culture, by it’s very nature to evolve, IS modern culture.

  3. Charles James Napier, a nineteenth-century governor of Sind, that part of India which is now Pakistan, was a sort of multiculturalist. When the Brahmin priests objected to the British banning of suttee, the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, he informed them, “But my nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them, and confiscate all their property….Let us all act according to national custom.”

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