Commentary Magazine


A Fever of Ethnicity

More and more, America comes to seem the land of perpetual identity crisis. First there were the founding Wasps, outcasts, misfits, dissidents, and adventurers who in the momentous crossing of waters had torn themselves loose from the Old World ties of tradition and community. In the vast solitude of the American wilderness—as Oscar Handlin and others have contended—the new settlers had to live with a new kind of existential loneliness that called into question familiar assumptions of value and identity. The characteristic response to this insistent dread inspired by an unpeopled, disorienting new landscape was less a distinctive American identity than a distinctive American fantasy: a self-consciously masculine ideal of craggy independence, toughness, cool resourcefulness, and resolute self-discipline. By the 1950’s, that ideal had become for many as factitious as its tinniest embodiments in Hollywood cowboy heroes and fictional private-eyes; and Americans, now no longer preponderantly Wasps, began to look elsewhere for images of identity.

The great vogue of Yiddishkeit, beginning in the late 50’s and peaking in the mid-60’s, was the first signal break from Wasp cultural hegemony, at least on a literary level. Whatever the falsifications and the sentimentality fostered by the vogue, Jewish Americans felt encouraged to look freshly at who they were in the light of their own distinctive experience, while other Americans (some of them undoubtedly Wasps) tried to see in the distorting mirror of Jewishness possibilities of selfhood neglected by the dominant Wasp culture. The Black Power movement of the mid-60’s, and the more radical movements of protest of the later 60’s, though often a response to particular political grievances, could legitimately be seen as the violent throes of a collective identity crisis affecting certain vocal ethnic groups and social classes. Still more clearly, the emergence of a counter-culture in this same period reflected, as many commentators have noted, a vehement—and for the most part, filial—rejection of the values and models of identity of affluent America, whether old Wasp or second-generation Jewish. The two major alternatives of identity, then, developed in the dissident movements of the late 60’s were a submergence of individuality in some paramilitary collective identity among the dark-skinned minorities or revolutionary youth, and a flamboyant antinomianism among the proponents of counter-culture. In both directions, one senses a frantic urgency to become in the face of all the forces that seem subtly or crudely to coerce the self, and much the same urgency is detectable in the current women’s movement. Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler nicely catches this special American quality of a driven need to discover oneself in one of his reflections on the more extreme manifestations of the counter-culture:

Antiquity accepted models, the Middle Ages . . . but modern man, perhaps because of collectivization, has a fever of originality. The idea of the uniqueness of the soul. An excellent idea. A true idea. But in these forms? In these poor forms? Dear God! With hair, with clothes, with drugs and cosmetics, with genitalia, with round trips through evil, monstrosity, and orgy, with even God approached through obscenities? How terrified the soul must be in this vehemence, how little that is really dear to it it can see in these Sadic exercises.

Sammler, one might note, does not coolly put down the new cultural dissidents but rather views them with a compassionate sadness (“How terrified the soul must be. . .”). The idea of the uniqueness of the soul—it is an idea to which I would like to return—seems to him true and excellent, but he is at a loss to imagine how uniqueness can be realized through an absolutism of originality, with no regard for models of emulation. Elsewhere in the novel, he pointedly observes that the programmatic abandonment of models leads only to the unwitting imitation of lesser models, the dream of autonomy translating itself into a grotesque rehearsal of derivative gestures and roles.

Now, the waves of upheaval on the cultural and political Left of the late 60’s generally were in one way or another reactions against the increasingly “rationalized” nature of American society, the growth of bureaucracy, large-scale if ineffectual social planning, computerization, corporate commercialism, mindless standardization through the media—all those tendencies that Norman Mailer, over a decade ago, with his characteristic combination of insight and irresponsibility, began to lump together under the rubric “totalitarianism.” (Mr. Sammler, too, suspects that the “fever of originality” may be the result of modern collectivization.) The dissidents’ vigorous reflex of rejection, as Bellow’s analysis makes clear, revealed the depth of the problem of identity but offered no viable solution. It might have been predictable, then, that the politics of protest of the late 60’s would be followed by a politics of identity in the 70’s, one in which a different cultural and demographic base would be proposed for creating alternatives to both the old Wasp myth of strenuous individualism and the depersonalized face of the new corporate America.

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Two signs of the changing times are two new books that argue for the political implementation of cultural pluralism in America, Peter Schrag’s The Decline of the Wasp1 and Michael Novak’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics.2 Schrag’s book combines slick thinking with an abrasive manner, and since there is little in its argument that is not said more reflectively and more probingly by Novak, it need not be dwelt on here. One of its chief defects, however, does illustrate the principal virtue of the Novak book. Schrag, writing from a standpoint beyond ethnicity, as a Jew thoroughly assimilated into the new culture of swinging protest, exhibits not only icy contempt for the Wasp patricians but also, despite his professed pluralism, a barely veiled disdain for the TV-trapped masses of the lower-middle and working classes. One comes away from his book with the impression that the most shamefully exploited Americans after blacks and Spanish-speaking people are university students. Novak, on the other hand, is a Slovak Catholic intellectual who, just recently involved in articulating a theology of radical politics, has now rediscovered his Slovak ethnicity in the full weight of its political implications; and he begins by reminding us that there are nearly fifty million Catholics in this country, perhaps seventy million descendants of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain, Armenia, and the Slavic nations. His forceful argument against the Left in particular and the intellectuals in general is that the recent politics of protest has largely ignored the legitimate aspirations, sense of value and self-respect, and the pressing economic needs of these large groups, who have been written off as benighted hard-hats and proto-fascists, have been seen not as various human beings with a special role to play in this country but merely as “pigs,” wielders of nightsticks and wavers of flags.

Novak’s argument to the electorate at large is that the many millions of derided white ethnics are the swing vote of the future. They have at least as good reason as any other group of Americans to feel deep political resentment. Preponderantly working-class and preponderant in the working class, they constitute a looming proportion of the seventy million Americans whose annual family income is between $5,000 and $10,000; their real income as workingmen declined 3 per cent between 1965 and 1970; typically, the chief wage-earner in the family of this group hits a permanent income plateau by his early thirties, and from year to year life becomes more of a treadmill of grubbing and frustration. On their television screens they are regaled with the expensive gimcrackery and luxury of activity of an upwardly mobile America, and confronted with the contemptuous rejection of their own values in the political protests of the children of the affluent. They themselves, by contrast, enjoy only the most limited economic or social mobility, while still clinging to a stalwart Americanism which now seems decidedly too American to the very educated classes that once encouraged them to adopt it. Simple prudence, Novak plausibly argues, should suggest that the needs of the white ethnic minorities be given considerable priority in future public policy.

Novak’s new ethnic politics, however, goes far beyond the old ethnic politics of group self-interest (“Is it good for the Jews?”) that has been such a fixture on the American electoral scene. I have called it a politics of identity because ultimately it proposes the tight texture of ethnicity as the one, the true and salubrious means to a viable sense of selfhood. The following rationale for ethnic belonging in America is characteristic of the argument as a whole:

The emergence of “rational” universal values is dysfunctional since it detaches persons from the integration of personality that can be achieved only in historical symbolic communities. The “divisiveness” and free-floating “rage” so prominent in America in the 1960’s is one result of the shattering impact of “forced nationalization” upon personality integration. People uncertain of their own identity are not wholly free. They are threatened not only by specific economic and social programs, but also at the very heart of their identity. The world is mediated to human persons through language and culture, that is, through ethnic belonging.

The function of ethnic belonging is to integrate a person’s sense of reality, the stories that tell him how to live, the symbols that move him. These are the matrix in which his conscience receives instruction. By contrast, the American system of individualization and rationalization leaves all but a certain human type profoundly deprived—deprived of initiative and symbolic thickness, unable to function in the nonconnected way demanded by the ethnic symbols of Wasps: individualism, competition, and merely rational interest.

This seems carefully considered, and whatever uneasiness the statement may elicit, it is an argument that needs hearing now. Intellectuals, accustomed to conceive the realization of self as a matter of individual choice, endowed as they generally are with the economic, geographical, social, and imaginative maneuverability to select from a whole spectrum of values and life-styles, tend to forget that most people simply don’t have that wide freedom of choice or energy of self-forging initiative. The alternative to Little Italy or Little Warsaw with their networks of close kinship and distinctive custom is usually not the riches of individualism but a fresh-frozen life in some pre-packaged suburb, Howard Johnson’s on Sundays, Disneyland vacations, the cut-rate American dream of happiness out of an aerosol can. Against the corporate-wasteland vision of a standardized American, and against the dissident’s extravagant dream of an absolutely original self, Novak suggests that our various ethnic subcultures can offer the self precisely the “models” that it needs—the images, gestures, rituals, memories, modalities of feeling through which a vigorous, confident selfhood can be realized.

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Novak’s aphoristic summary of his rationale for ethnicity is memorable: “People uncertain of their own identity are not wholly free.” It is a point that will be vividly familiar to many Jews, a point, indeed, that has been made repeatedly over the last two centuries by nationally-conscious Jews about the uneasy self-consciousness of assimilated Jews. For much of this period, Western Jewry has been conducting a precarious experiment in combining the preservation of cultural distinctiveness and group solidarity with full participation in the civic and cultural life of larger national communities. In the continuing tensions of this enterprise, Jews have often felt the preciousness of the very values Novak extols—family ties, communitarian closeness, tradition, collective pride. But the modern Jewish experience offers a double perspective on this set of values, for if Jews in some respects have remained exemplary traditionalists, they have also been the modernists par excellence, and it is precisely modernity that gets short shrift in Novak’s plea for ethnic belonging. What his argument consistently neglects is that ethnicity can also be a constricting context for identity. The obverse of his aphorism would be equally true: “People preoccupied with their own identity are not wholly free.”

Perhaps this truth is more readily perceptible among Jews because historically it has been not ethnicity but rather a sense of peoplehood—that is, an ongoing national identity, not just the recollection of common origins in a single “old country”—informed by religious covenant that has bound Jews together. Today, both the covenant and the peoplehood remain as possible options for Jews, together with two highly ramified Jewish intellectual traditions, the classical and the modernist, from which individuals can draw models of identification, resources of experience. Against this background of resonant possibilities, mere ethnicity—B’nai B’rith bowling leagues, Temple Sisterhood fashion shows, lox-and-bagel breakfasts—may seem empty and limiting, a cultivation of clannishness rather than the matrix for the development of a secure and open self.

The fact is that while a genuinely national identity has the flexibility to develop and change with history, ethnicity is by its very nature a conservative concept (keeping up dilute enclaves of the old-country ways in the new), and The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics is indeed a profoundly conservative book. I use the term not as an automatic pejorative, since some of what commands respect in Novak is bound up with his conservatism, but in order to locate precisely the implicit dangers of his outlook. I also do not intend the term in its ordinary journalistic sense, since Novak is clearly aiming his argument somewhere toward the Left wing of the Democratic party, and his ideas on the redistribution of national resources, as much as they can be inferred from his statements here, would put him not far from the social-democratic position of, say, Michael Harrington. The explicit world-view underlying this apologia for ethnicity is nevertheless fundamentally and pervasively conservative.

Novak believes, as we have already seen, that the best integration of personality “can be achieved only in historical symbolic communities.” Again and again he exhibits a utopian nostalgia for the traditional communities of the past, never suggesting how those communities could stifle individuals within them, could exert cruelly coercive force on their own disadvantaged or dissident members. (Revealingly, he offers an idyllic image of the Jewish community through the ages as “a people who without governmental or coercively structured economic institutions nourish[ed] in their midst strong persons, strong cultural selves.” In point of fact, Jewish communities were usually rigidly hierarchical, both economically and politically, and had their own internal institutions which could be harshly coercive—in recent centuries in Europe, the oligarchic kehillah organizations.) Again and again Novak stresses feeling over mind, past over present, collectivity over individuality. “When a person thinks, more than one generation’s passions and images think in him. Below the threshold of the rational or the fully conscious, our instincts and sensibilities lead backward to the predilections of our forebears.” There may be a nucleus of truth in the assertion, but one becomes uneasy with a language that presents the individual as a passive conduit for the collective past (the past thinks in him) and places such peculiar stress on what is nonrational (passions, instincts, sensibilities, predilections). The sense of uneasiness is confirmed when Novak goes on in the next breath to articulate a mystique of ethnic mentality: “Upper-class Quakers think and feel in a way I cannot think and feel; Jewish intellectuals tend to live and breathe out of writers, concerns, and experiences I can emulate as second nature, but not as first; certain Irish Catholics exhibit emotional patterns I can follow, but not find native to me.”

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The statement, of course, has a minimal and quite literal validity, but its grand sweep of implication is mere resonant nonsense. The easiest thing to convince yourself of, if you set your mind to it, is that ineradicable, deeply indwelling differences exist between others and you; it is the last thing intellectuals, who after all have succeeded in creating a genuine lingua franca at least among themselves, ought to be doing. I can enter into the thought and feeling of Edmund Wilson far more completely than I can enter the thought and feeling of the Satmar Rebbe; though I have in common with the obscurantist religious leader some Jewish experiences and two Jewish languages, I share with the literary critic an embracing realm of discourse with some of its implicit values, an engagement in American culture and modern experience, and to that basic commonality of enterprise the differential element of Wilson’s Wasp background is incidental. Or, to take an example closer to home, I can identify with Michael Novak’s writing and thinking far more readily than with Peter Schrag’s, though the latter is a Jew, the former a Slovak Catholic, because Novak, whatever his conclusions, respects the same linguistic and intellectual standards that I do, works within the broad modes of logic and conceptualization to which I am accustomed, while Schrag affects a souped-up prose and a turned-on sensibility that I can understand but which seem alien to me.

I risk the gratuitous absurdity of these comparisons to illustrate what is untenable in Novak’s position—the implicit tendency to view everything through the prism of ethnic origins, with the social and political contexts of any particular act or statement, the individual psychology of the person or people involved, falling away before the “ultimate” fact of their ethnic identity. Eugene McCarthy’s peculiar petulance and negligent manner in the campaigning of 1968 are explained not in terms of his idiosyncratic character but as expressions of his refusal as an Irish Catholic to play the Wasp game of evangelical politics. Norman Mailer’s attempt to create a “revolution of consciousness” in his writing (perhaps like that of William Burroughs, whom Mailer has much admired?) is seen not as a function of an individual writer’s quirky ambition and imagination but as the reflex of a Jewish sensibility rejecting the images of identity of Wasp America. Even a provocative gesture made by a female student demonstrator to a policeman is viewed not as an attempt to offend an armed representative of the Establishment but as an insult directed squarely at the policeman’s ethnic sensibilities. To be fair, Novak’s book is by and large more carefully reasoned than these few examples might indicate, but they suggest the inherent danger in making ethnicity the absolute point of departure for all thinking about America. On the level of practical politics, such unrelenting insistence on the primacy of ethnic identity could lead, given the perverse logic of competitive interaction among people, not to a new American diversity but to a Balkanization of political interests and cultural life. At any rate, in regard to the way we think about ourselves, the insistence on ethnicity tends to encourage certain unconstructive simplifications and misdirections of attention.

Thus, a major fault shared by Schrag’s Decline and Novak’s Rise is to overstate the case against the already abundantly berated Wasp. To be sure, the Wasp elite has much to answer for in American history, from the virulent Nordic racism it once promulgated to its hypocritical ideology of egalitarian individualism as a mask for privilege and the denial of the dignity of new immigrants implicit in its myth of the melting pot. Nevertheless, both Novak and Schrag, from their different viewpoints, offer what is ultimately a racist reading of American history because, finally, all the ills and wrongs of the nation are traced to some sickness or perversion of the Wasp spirit. Such highly industrialized urban societies as those of France, Germany, and Japan have done quite nicely in producing social pathologies similar to ours unaided by Wasps of their own. Yet reading Schrag and Novak, one infers that all we suffer derives from the arid puritanism, the estrangement from life, the competitiveness, the sexual insecurity, the hatred of the body, the emotional frigidity, the atomistic individualism, the mechanistic view of self and society, that are seen by these writers as the very body and blood of Wasp ethnicity.

All this, of course, merely turns discredited ideas around 180 degrees: the nation is still divided into good guys (immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and dark-skinned people) and bad guys (the paleface descendants of Englishmen and Northern Europeans). This sort of inadvertently Manichean division seems particularly bizarre in the case of a fundamentally reasonable writer like Novak. He implies that, given the imperative fact of ethnicity, there is no common American standard of discourse and value, but his own book illustrates the vigor of just such a standard. He repeatedly insists that the self is mediated by language, and the primary language for almost all ethnics in this country after the first generation is American English—if they choose to write, generally educated American English at that. Thus, the very categories Novak invokes to defend ethnicity—inner freedom, integration of personality, historical symbolic community, conscience, “imaginative and symbolic thickness”—are conceptualizations rooted in a common Anglo-American idiom of thought, if you will, in the dominant Wasp tradition of discourse.

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I would like to return to the conservative implications of founding a view of personality and history on ethnicity. Novak claims at one point that he is not anti-modern, but the “skepticism” he repeatedly evinces toward modernity is so far-reaching that the line between skepticism and actual rejection blurs and fades. If modernization tends to break down traditional social structures, conceives of individuals as free agents, reduces family, clan, and ethnic group to mere options instead of necessary contexts, it must be viewed as a threatening, negative process: “Modern civilization—urban, fluid, democratic, determined to change history—is a Nordic invention. The men of the south and the east have long been skeptical about its outcome.” The statement makes clear not only the grudging attitude toward modernity (including democratic process) but, more embarrassingly, the gross distortion of a racial reading of history.

Repeatedly, Novak imagines modernization as a pulverizing mechanical force that assaults traditional life from without: “The weight of every conceivable social practice and psychological instruction is to break up extended families and to atomize nuclear families. The fission of America seems to focus upon all organic, communal links.” Though “atomize” and “nuclear” are of course intended in a sociological sense, their use here in quick sequence with “fission,” set over against the idea of organic community, suggests a doomsday image of social change as a kind of slow-motion hydrogen explosion blowing apart the “natural” wholeness of pre-modern life. The metaphor of modernity as a destructive mechanism or a technological “processing” that threatens organic growth recurs elsewhere, and it may make one a little nervous, for it has been invoked before by others in the service not of a tolerant conservatism but of fanatic reaction.

Since intellectuals as a class have been the great catalysts of modernity, the social planners, the spinners of schemes for radical innovation, Novak devotes more than a third of his book to a critique of the intellectuals. It is precisely here that one sees most vividly both the positive value and the ultimate danger of conceiving culture and politics in terms of ethnicity. Novak, let me hasten to say, is not anti-intellectual but fits clearly into the tradition, going back to Burke and Tocqueville, of conservative attack against the excesses of the intellectuals. That tradition has recently been described by Peter Steinfels, an associate editor of Commonweal, as “counterintellectualism.”3 Counterintellectualism at its best, Steinfels writes, “is an antidote for the nonsense which the intellectuals are always capable of producing,” and there obviously has been no slack in the production of such nonsense over the past few years in this country. Novak seems especially sound in his sustained assault on the elitism of the intellectuals, their general failure to imagine as real people large segments of our population unlike themselves, their fondness for abstract schemes of social amelioration that are out of touch with the needs and desires of many of the people whose lives are being planned.

The notorious arrogance of the intellectuals, however, is for Novak merely a secondary manifestation of their primary error, which is nothing less than their adherence to “an image of history favoring the future,” an image reflected in the very use of the metaphor of an avant-garde for the intelligentsia. From the ultimate viewpoint of a conservatism that seems theological as well as political, Novak sees this commitment to the future as a kind of anthropocentric heresy: “To be on the side of the future (a benevolent future, safeguarding the continuous progress of man) is the equivalent [for modern intellectuals] of standing in the presence of God.” It has of course been a long time since such naive faith in continuous progress was a serious intellectual position, but one wonders why the intellectual aspiration to make the future more humanly livable than the past should be inherently suspect. Novak cannot be proposing that we simply reconcile ourselves to the bottomless misery and outrageous inequities of the present and the past; he surely does not want us to go back to the repressive feudalism of some ancien régime, or even to an America before the social legislation of the New Deal and its aftermath. Social planning and progressivist ideologies have been guilty of dismal blundering and unfounded self-assurance, but must that discredit the very attempt to use reason to construct a future which will not compound all the hideous mistakes of the past?

The intellectual’s indispensable role, whatever his sins, has been to envisage alternatives, to imagine new possibilities. According to Novak, however, “his function is not to lead, in the way an avant-garde leads, or in the way planners, managers, and experts lead,” but rather “the intellectual’s vocation is to be a voice of the people—to put into words what they already know.” Though Novak realizes that not everything in the people is admirable—what the intellectual will put into words will “terrify” as well as “illuminate”—he nevertheless comes disturbingly close here to a mystique of Volkstum, which hardly seems what we want to return to after all that has been perpetrated in its name in recent history. The individualistic assertion of self, beginning as far back as the Renaissance (and not merely among Anglo-Saxons!) has admittedly been one of the most tortuous enterprises of modern culture, but it also has been heroic, incurring great inner risks in order to realize a new order of inner freedom. In this enterprise, the assertive voice of the intellectual has often been abrasive or disdainful but it has been necessary, and I think one must strenuously resist any suggestion that the time has come for the intellectual to submerge himself in the people, or that the most valid realization of self can come only through the people.

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It is simply wrong to say, as Novak does, that individual autonomy and personal authenticity are Wasp concepts, limited to the assumptions of Wasp ethnicity. They are, rather, key concepts of modern culture in general—paradoxically, without them Novak would hardly have written his book. Whatever the enormous difficulties in the realization of these ideals, the very currency they enjoy points to a new horizon of possibility for every human being. That horizon, as Novak justly observes, will scarcely beckon at all to large numbers of people; nevertheless one must be grateful for its mere existence, for the fact that a person can at least in part free himself from subjugation (in some degree it is always that) to the community and the past in order to realize his selfhood according to his own needs. Granted, the self always requires a social context and always uses previously experienced models in creating its own goals: the dream of absolute originality, as Mr. Sammler reminds us, is a dream to drive men mad. But Mr. Sammler also knows that individual uniqueness is a true, an excellent idea; and modern individualism, whether as a social ideology or a pervasive style of intellectual discourse, has sustained the live and various possibilities of fulfilled uniqueness, however imperfectly and intermittently. Each of us must live between the relentless dialectic tensions of communal norms and the self’s imperatives; to disallow either side of the dialectic is to expose the self to crippling impairment, from without or from within.

Ethnicity, to be sure, in no way implies the extirpation of individuality, but one is entitled to be suspicious of any political philosophy that might compromise or circumscribe the individual’s scope for discovering his own uniqueness. At this point in American history, it seems less than helpful, and it could be pernicious, to promote atavistic feeling at the expense of reason; to proffer a thoroughly ahistorical ideal of innocent organic community as an attainable goal; to suggest that the highest vocation of the intellectual is to become the voice of the people; and, above all, to insist that the ultimate cause of our present national disarray is an ideal of individualism allegedly deriving from white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.

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Footnotes

1 Simon and Schuster, 255 pp., $6.95.

2 Macmillan, 321 pp., $7.95.

3 “The Counterintellectuals,” New American Review 14.

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