Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Conservative Idea of Americanness

Half way through their essay Lowry and Ponnuru veer off on an otherwise inexplicable disquisition on European critics of the United States, which they then identify as the source of virtually any argument or political position that has diverged from the ideology of modern conservatism. Jane Addams, Herbert Croly, New Deal economist Stuart Chase—all of them, and many more, failed to understand and appreciate America’s exceptional character and sought to replace it with “the best innovations of the modern dictatorial movements taking over in Europe” during the 1920s and ‘30s. That’s America for you: Members of the modern conservative movement squared off against the European-inspired liberal fascists, forever searching in desperation for “a foreign template to graft onto America.” If only the latter could be convinced not to hate—let alone to like or love—their country. But alas. . . .

– Damon Linker, The New Republic

Damon Linker’s critique gets at an intriguing contradiction of today’s conservative movement: it is at once profoundly sensitive to any serious criticism of the United States and alarmingly damning of formative American leaders and the policies they represent. The way Glennbeckistan deals with this glaring contradiction is simple: either label their opponent’s policies as distinctly un-American or ignore inconvenient facts. The Texas Board of Education’s recent vote to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum is perhaps the most ridiculous example of the latter, but the former tactic is the most prevalent.

The condemnation of LBJ and his contribution to America’s welfare system is a common example of this phenomenon. Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis cogently illustrates how de-Americanization works. In describing white resistance to the influx of poor African-Americans to Detroit from the south, Sugrue points to Detroit’s white neighborhood’s creation of neighborhood associations (“variously called ‘civic associations,’ ‘protective associations,’ ‘improvement associations,’ and ‘homeowners’ associations.’”) aimed at preserving the racial integrity of Detroit’s white neighborhoods. “As improvement associations, they emphasized the ideology of self-help and individual achievement that lay at the very heart of the American notion of homeownership. Above all, as home and property owners’ associations, these groups represented the interests of those who perceived themselves as independent and rooted rather than dependent and transient.” (p. 211)

The booming automobile industry, the seemingly less antagonistic race relations of the North, and the promise of middle class livelihood drove many blacks to Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, creating a severe housing crisis and prompting a movement for public housing by blacks that received a sympathetic hearing by liberal politicians. Discrimination by employers, realtors, and city planners, among others, left a majority of Detroit’s black population in dire need of affordable housing. Over time, economic and racial antagonism led to the development of a distinct political ideology. White Detroit persistently associated “whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence…To be fully American was to be white. Popular images of whiteness and blackness—and the ways in which they changed—influenced the day-to-day encounters between whites and blacks at work and on city streets.” (p. 9) Thus, the liberal push for desegregation and social services for the poor (including many blacks in urban centers) is not seen as part of the slow process of progress in American history, but rather as an abrogation of “American” beliefs in independence, hard work, and so on.

That this view of what is “American” is apocryphal is obvious to anyone with a loose grasp of history, but under the influence of modern conservatism’s most visible pundit, Glenn Beck, this understanding of American history is slowly seeping into the mainstream. Featured prominently on Beck’s website and television show is a purported history of the United States: A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Coming in at nearly 1,000 pages, the cover of the updated paperback edition of the book informs us that it now includes “Swift boats, Katrina and Iraq’s liberation.” A cover like that normally guarantees the book will not receive serious scholarly attention, but one extremely patient historian took a look. The review deserves to be read in full, but this passage is representative:

In their chapters on recent U.S. history, the authors make claims that are not even remotely endorsed by the footnoted sources. In excoriating the Great Society, for instance, Schweikart and Allen observe that one "malignant result of AFDC's no-father policy was that it left inner-city black boys with no male role models" (p. 689). In support of this Gingrichian pronouncement, the authors cite a single 1989 study from Social Forces— an article that makes no mention of AFDC, inner-city black youth, or role models and indeed has almost nothing to do with the argument to which it is attached. In the same paragraph, we read further that after the 1960s, "gang leaders from Portland to Syracuse, from Kansas City to Palmdale, inducted thousands of impressionable young males into drug running, gun battles, and often death" (p. 689). For this dramatic observation, the authors rely on two broad studies of family structure and drug use, each published eight years apart in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. Among the phrases that do not appear in either study: "Gang leaders," "Portland," "Syracuse," "Kansas City," "Palmdale," "impressionable young males," "drug running," "gun battles," and "death." With little effort, this reviewer has identified nearly a dozen such cases in which the authors have tortured their sources to score points against social programs they oppose, political philosophies to which they object, or historical actors whom they do not like.
Although I find my opinion changing repeatedly, Tony Judt’s essay on social democracy and the United States has become more convincing to me over time. The American left does have something to defend; the left is in a way now part of the status quo: “The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.”

Even at a point in our history when liberals are pushing for major progressive change to America’s health care system, they defensively couch their arguments in conservative terms (efficiency, incentives, competitive markets, oh my!). Linker is of course right to point out that “liberal love for the United States is complicated by criticism,” but liberals also have a stake in being assertive about the progress they helped produce. The conservative contradiction would be more obvious if liberals did just that.

William Orangeman Williams

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