Commentary Magazine


Ethnicity

To the Editor:

Robert Alter’s article on my book, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics [“A Fever of Ethnicity,” June], is sensitive and intelligent. On a number of matters, he moves me to make explicit what my book left implicit; on others, to clarify; on one or two, to change my mind; and on at least one major issue, to deepen the disagreement, but also the bond of respect, between us. It is on that same major issue—the conception of modernity—that I am less than satisfied with the parallel comments of Norman Podhoretz [“The Idea of a Common Culture,” June].

The notion of cultural pluralism is the most intractable of the entire American experiment. Regrettably so, since our experiment is on behalf of all mankind: the whole planet will one day be seeking a system of cultural pluralism. How can we humans, many, be one? How? What is the model? What are the methods? Even a good metaphor is lacking. Melting pot? Mosaic? Rainbow? The dangers of divisiveness on the one side and of homogenization on the other are equally depressing. It is my view that in America, at least, it is homogenization that is now more ominous.

That divisiveness is the greater menace is, of course, part of the conventional wisdom. Fears about divisiveness were recently most aroused by students who shouted, trashed, and bombed, and by black militants. “Bring us together,” the little girl in Ohio told President Nixon. But the nationalizing forces implicit in American corporations were already doing just that: forcing blacks to greater self-awareness and some students to rebellion against excessive rationalization (“All power to the imagination!”). The situation of blacks, say, in 1968, was no more “divisive” than at any earlier time, only more inexcusable in a national, now no longer regional, civilization. And radical students in 1968 were themselves aware that “corporate liberalism” and “the system” were rather more homogenizing, less liberating, than met the eye. My assessment of the relative dangers of homogenization and divisiveness may be in error; but it is not, upon reflection, implausible.

In this connection, I would like to draw attention to a section of my book which reviewers (has ever a book received such various, energetic reviews?) have nearly all overlooked. I draw a distinction between “Wasp culture” and “superculture,” which many have elided, against my intention, into “Wasp superculture.” The rationalizing, technological, “advanced” culture which establishes so many of the present conditions of contemporary life is as hostile to some traditional British-American values as it is to those of other ethnic groups. Many British-Americans (a term I now prefer to Wasps) are as upset about the new pressures of superculture as others are. One need only think—randomly—of George Wallace’s followers sending “them” (a foreign culture) a message; or of Richard Nixon picturing himself for small-town Republicans of Middle America as “anti-Establishment”; or of Dr. Spock and William Sloan Coffin deriding “the system.”

Another way of highlighting this distinction is to point out the various trajectories along which people are moving when they speak of “modernity.” Mr. Alter, for example: “. . . for if Jews in some respects have remained exemplary traditionalists, they have also been the modernists par excellence.” Like Mr. Podhoretz, Mr. Alter draws attention to “individual autonomy” and “personal authenticity” as precious and valuable “key concepts of modern culture in general.” These are not, both he and Mr. Podhoretz wish to emphasize (I heartily concur), “Wasp concepts, limited to the assumptions of Wasp ethnicity.” They are indeed part of “the idea of a common culture” in which all of us are free to share.

But the personal (and social) trajectories along which each of us moves brings us to these “common ideas” with divergent—and ultimately complementary—associations, images, experiences, emphases. If I may be so bold as to be overly simple for purposes of illustration: Various philosophical traditions, rooted in various “life-forms” (Wittgenstein), approach these common ideas from different directions and to different effect. Kant was the first to give classic expression to the ideal of autonomy. But English political traditions were already working out political and social ways of expressing such an ideal, grounding it thereby in practices, traditions, and sentiments not available in the same form on the Continent. The cluster of images in whose context John Stuart Mill writes of the individual and his rights is a network of experiences and symbols demonstrably different from those in the texts of Kant.

Similarly, so far as I can discover, “authenticity” is a concept given infinitely more extensive development in certain Continental writers than in classical or contemporary English writers. Nietzsche is not alone in detecting the great contrasts between Continental and English philosophy. There is, if I may put it this way, a pronounced attention to “inferiority” in Continental writers, as contrasted with the more homogeneous, calmer, complacent focus on the stable world (even somehow “external” world) of Oxford and Cambridge philosophy. One can, of course, point to Newman on the “Illative Sense,” Coleridge’s treatises on imagination and poesy, to novelists like D. H. Lawrence, and to a series of literary critics, and indeed to recent connections between the analysis of ordinary language and phenomenology. But the sense of reality, the stories thinkers sense themselves to be living out, and the symbolic materials in which they live and move, seem significantly different as between Great Britain and the Continent.

Let me take the argument a step further. It is generally conceded, I believe, that Jewish writers in the United States have greatly expanded “the common idea of culture” in America, not least by imparting into American thought some of that powerful Continental concern for—if I may use a term of my own—“intelligent subjectivity”: for conceptions like authenticity; ambiguity; psychoanalytic views of the complexity of the self; an analysis of culture and society that illumines the dark and indirect ways of power, privilege, and social position. These represent, at least, the gifts from Jewish thinkers for which, in examining what I have learned and from whom, I am most grateful.

So I do not hold, as Messrs. Alter and Podhoretz fear I may, “that for a non-Wasp in America, entry into the common culture amounts to nothing more than the trading of one ethnic heritage for another” (Podhoretz). For Jews this has not been true; nor need it be for “the ethnics.” Nor do I mean to imply “that the only choice we are offered is to remain in an ethnic community or to become facsimile Wasps” (Podhoretz).

Several times in my book I note that I do not live in an ethnic neighborhood; that I belong to no Slovak associations; and that I bring myself to say “we”—so as to include myself in an ethnic community in some territorial or organizational sense—only with difficulty and with the most’ extenuated plausibility. What I define as ethnic belonging is “sharing in a historical memory.” One can become a professional, move into “the common culture” (and even, God forgive us, into superculture), and still be cognizant of coming to that common culture from a historically unique starting point, along a different trajectory. I am neither British-American nor Jewish, but Slovak. Thus, even in entering into “the common culture,” which since a very early age has quickened my heart with desire, I bring to it something unique.

I believe that Mr. Alter is right for chiding me that I do not stress sufficiently “that ethnicity can also be a constricting context for identity.” I do not quite accept his aphorism counter to one of mine: “People preoccupied with their own identity are not wholly free.” For I can imagine some persons, estimating their inner resources and their finitude, exercising the whole of their freedom upon the task of becoming more fully what they already are. I have encountered beautiful lives of just that sort. Elie Wiesel eloquently describes such an option. That is one choice, and I would like to encourage those who make it freely.

But I do agree with Mr. Alter’s point. For many of us in the modern period, the implicit story of our lives is a wandering from home, an exploration into the unknown, the seeking of an identity not yet known, not yet invented. Along this way, many perish. Many others indulge in the most fraudulent of postures. But many, too, make of their lives a larger and more beautiful realization of possibilities than could ever have been imagined “back home” or, perhaps, even win sympathy from those who remained there.

So I should have stressed explicitly, not merely implicitly, the three prevalent coercions of American life: the constriction of the small rural town or strongly ethnic neighborhood, both of which sometimes suffocate the soul in the act of bestowing “love” upon it; the constriction of the larger ethnic or religious community, which sometimes demands adherence to a finite life-form not as a finite life-form, but as though it were some absolute form descended like blocks of brilliant ice from heaven; and, finally, the constriction of “modernity,” in a peculiar sense which now requires definition.

Besides the “modernity” to which Messrs. Alter and Podhoretz properly incline our respect and gratitude, there is another form far more common in its manifestations and powerful in its coercion. I mean the modernity of automobiles, television shows, assembly lines, solicitors and hucksters, and preachers of “enlightenment.” This modernity also includes a great many (not all) of its own critics. For one pretense of Modernity II (if I may so designate it) is that its members are enlightened, think for themselves, keep up with things, seek questions but not answers, fearlessly attack idols, bravely blaze the trails of the future. Modernity II corrupts even the most precious ideals of Modernity I: ideals like autonomy and authenticity, for example.

In place of a genuine autonomy, hard won after long years of slow and wise effort, Modernity II offers the clichés and poses of autonomy. Every “enlightened” person claims to be autonomous; yet how are we to explain the widespread pursuit of the fashionable among us? Even in a long life, one meets few really autonomous persons.

In place of a genuine authenticity (it is symptomatic of our times that such redundancy is necessary), Modernity II offers masks, mannerisms, disguised aggressions, complacencies, and most outrageous, fraudulence. So grievous is our lot that the very claim “frankly” or “candidly” or “I’m being authentic now” sets off sirens of alarm.

I conclude that it is just as difficult to be a good modern as to be a good Christian or a good Jew. One must distinguish the doctrinal aim from the personal practice.

Similarly, I do not hold, as Mr. Alter asserts in his last sentence, “that the ultimate cause of our present national disarray is an ideal of individualism allegedly deriving from White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.” Philip Slater has stated better than I, in The Pursuit of Loneliness, the defects of our particular version of individualism. There are many ideals of individualism, not all admirable. But, actually, I consider not the vapid individualism, but the homogenization pressed upon us by “superculture,” the greater menace to the human spirit.

Mr. Alter is correct, of course, in noting that I am in some fashion—not in my politics, nor upon the spectrum of ordinary American usage—profoundly conservative. I believe the purveyors of “future shock” and “change” frequently stand to benefit by the changes they wish to induce in the social fabric, and that real living human beings stand to lose as much as, or even more than, they will gain by acquiescing. A humanistic thinker today must, I believe, be as radically critical of radicals and of partisans of improvement as of the forces of the status quo. Sometimes it seems—it is not merely paranoia—that enemies of mankind stand on all sides, in every camp, even, alas, in oneself.

What I have desired to add to “the common culture” is a critique of autonomy, so as to illuminate the social factors that make it possible and test its genuineness. I wished to take away some of our unwarranted emphasis on the “individual” in our explanations of its meaning. (Messrs. Alter and Podhoretz seem not to stress, as I think they could, how Jewish traditions add to Anglo-Saxon traditions here.) Autonomy is a social achievement. The individual is not an atomic particle, but part of a network of living others, even in his autonomy.

I wished to illuminate some of the creative, liberating, and in any case ineluctable uses of obedience, loyalty, and docility even in the personal achievement and social practices of autonomy. One would expect a Catholic and a Slovak to be especially aware of such possibilities, would one not, even though all other humans, too, share in them daily?

Similarly, I wished to bring to the tradition of authenticity some fruits of the traditions from which I began my trajectory, not in order to weaken, but in order to expand and strengthen, our understanding thereof. No use repeating here my whole chapter, or indeed Lionel Trilling’s good essay in these pages [“Authenticity and the Modern Unconscious,” September 1971].

Finally, Mr. Alter pays me great respect—I am deeply grateful—by noting the intellectual care I tried to bestow upon my words, even when I seemed to him to be voicing dangerous defenses of the passions, the stomach, the instincts, and other non-rational capacities of humans. It is my deep conviction (tutored in me both by Catholic and by Slavic traditions) that the “irrational” cannot be separated from the “rational” in the typical divisions of modern Western thought.

In my view, the passions carry some insight, intelligence, and judgment in the very fibers of their movement. “The Karamazovs think with their stomachs” is not, to my mind, a declaration of irrationality, nor of a superior rationality, but only a refusal to close one’s eyes to any source of intelligence. I don’t believe that one should follow the deliverances of passion automatically; but neither do I believe that “dispassionate inquiry” or “reason” should be followed automatically. The whole self is the seat of such wisdom as we achieve.

I can understand how my emphasis on such matters stimulates uneasiness. But consider the rationality that brings us anti-personnel bombs made with tiny plastic flanges that can penetrate nothing, not even cardboard, except human flesh, and are incapable of detection by X-rays, so that the physician’s task with the shredded wounded is seemingly endless.

Contemporary managerial rationalism makes me far more uneasy than classical philosophical rationalism, but the latter, too, falls short. Uneasiness is frequently an index of irreducible experience—two persons accept a commonly stated idea, but neither quite perceives it from the same historical standpoint. I want to assert a common culture, but a pluralism of standpoints, a pluralism of sources of uneasiness. Even were ethnic differences to account for but 10 per cent of our divergences in perception, these would, for the sake of full mutual understanding, be worth explicit notice.

My ultimate hopes for the new ethnicity can be succinctly stated: 1) Among intellectuals, new cultural sources of experience, imagination, and reflection may be brought forward to “the common culture,” at a moment when it needs invigoration; 2) among the enlightened, new sensitivities will be developed toward the pain, the needs, and the aspirations of those millions of lower-middle-class whites who bear most of the actual cultural costs of the social progress so necessary if this country is to fulfill its dreams; and 3) among lower-middle-class urban whites, largely Catholic and largely ethnic, a new sense of morale, purpose, and political invigoration will make possible a fresh and more down-to-earth assault upon the evils in our cities that presently discourage black and white, poor and lower-middle class, and all of us.

The problem of morale among lower-middle-class whites seems to me to be the key to forward movement for our society as a whole. It seemed incumbent upon a Catholic and—how I hate the word—an ethnic to tackle it.

Michael Novak
Sayville, New York

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To the Editor:

. . . I would agree, of course, with Norman Podhoretz’s comment that we have one culture, a culture indeed which postulates the possibility of wide diversity within it, but still, one culture. I would also agree with Robert Alter’s comment on the books by Michael Novak and Peter Schrag that ethnicity is a deceptive prism through which to view everything that occurs in American society. Finally, I am prepared to go along with Harold R. Isaacs’s warning [“The New Pluralists,” March] that some of the new ethnic enthusiasts can go as far in their enthusiasm as to produce socially-divisive results, though I must say that data available to us would indicate that there is not all that much alienation among the white ethnic groups in American society.

And yet, I am uneasy about the discussion as it is presently taking place—and not merely because I am wondering what a nice Irish boy like me is doing getting involved in a Jewish family fight. In part, my uneasiness comes from the fact that it seems to me that the discussion is notably unencumbered by empirical data. A lot of people in COMMENTARY (and in the New York Times Book Review with even less insight) are pontificating about social and cultural diversity in the United States without having bothered to go through the arduous task of collecting data on that diversity.

But my serious problem with the discussion is that it seems to me to be asking the wrong question. The proper question, it seems to me, is not: “Are there still ethnic groups in American society?,” but rather, “Given the fantastic religious, racial, geographic, and nationality differences in American society, how does that society manage to hold together?” I suppose that the way I ask the question implies my own answer to it: “The United States survives not by eliminating cultural diversity but by finding ways to harmonize and balance this diversity within Mr. Podhoretz’s all-embracing common culture.”

Let me cite some phenomena. The United States was put together, for all practical purposes, in less than a century from some fifty million immigrants of greatly diverse religious, national, and cultural backgrounds. Saxon and Celt murder each other in the north of Ireland; in the United States they get along rather well. Poles and Jews have been enemies for a millennium and more in Europe; in the United States Polish and Jewish trade-union leaders cooperate rather easily. There has only been one civil war in the United States and that was between Anglo-Saxon groups. Is it too much to suggest that no one knows exactly how this relative amiability has come to be?

Secondly, alone of the major North American societies, the United States has always been committed to the notion that all that has been required for citizenship is the acceptance of certain political principles. An Italian immigrant can become an American citizen (and more recently, a Canadian citizen, too), but he can’t become a Swede or a German or even a Swiss if he happens to be a guest worker in one of those countries. Why is it that American scholars have made practically no effort to compare the treatment of immigrants in the social democracies of Western Europe with the treatment of immigrants in the United States?

Furthermore, why is it that at a time when ethnic and religious and racial conflicts are tearing apart nation after nation no one seems willing to comment on the fact that the surprising thing about American society is not that we have violence but that, given its newness, its size, and its diversity, American society is so peaceful? Indeed, one might be tempted to ask, “Is there any large multi-national, multi-racial society that the world has ever known that has been so successful at coping with diversity and so willing to face the injustices that it has done to some of the diverse components that constitute it?”

All of this may sound like a Fourth-of-July harangue. For those intellectuals who hate America (and that seems to be most American intellectuals), the suggestion that something can be learned from our ethnic diversity that could benefit other nations in the world will be thought to be close to blasphemy, but surely in COMMENTARY such blasphemy ought to be warmly received.

Finally, let us take the case of the Poles. Our data show that there is still economic discrimination against the Poles, though perhaps not to a very substantial extent. I would be much more concerned, however, about the cultural discrimination—and here I am inclined to think that Mr. Novak makes an important point, though it may be obscured at times by his rhetoric. I daresay that very few American Poles are particularly affronted by the existence of the New York literary and intellectual establishment. Most of them, in fact, don’t know of its existence, and if they did, would not be terribly interested in it. My own feeling is that the real problem is that the intellectual arbiters of the country know even less about the Poles than the Poles know about them. Indeed, I suspect that many American intellectuals know more about the Fulani and the Yoruba than they do about the 600,000 Poles stretched out along Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago (which Poles, incidentally, are still more likely to vote Democratic than any other white group in the country).

Is it possible that there are cultural riches in the Polish community from which the whole nation can benefit as it benefits now from the cultural contributions of American Jews, Irish, and, to an increasing extent, blacks? I submit the answer to that is, no one knows, no one has bothered even to investigate the possibility, and no one has particularly encouraged the Poles to explore their own heritage to see if there is any contribution they could make to the larger society. We have been content with Polack jokes and pictures in Harper’s of Stanley Kowalski-type characters sitting on bar stools in their undershirts.

This may not be so evil a form of discrimination as that practiced against American blacks, but it’s discrimination just the same. It is also, I would submit, a foolish waste.

Andrew M. Greeley
Director, Center for the Study of American Pluralism
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Robert Alter’s analysis of the resurgence of ethnicity comes dangerously close to presenting a case-study of the intellectual posing as the voice of the people in that he unwittingly expresses the Volkstum. of America regarding racism in our society. His faulty analysis reflects the failure of America to accept the fact that this is a racist society. Mr. Alter faults Peter Schrag and Michael Novak because of their overstatement of “the case against the already abundantly berated Wasp.” According to Mr. Alter they offer a “racist reading of American history.” But the Schrag-Novak interpretation of America, regarded as faulty by Mr. Alter, is in fact an accurate and precise perception of the racial-ethnic factor in American history. A nation of immigrants can only be interpreted from the perspective of interaction among the various nationalities. . . . America does not want to face the fact that it has reacted in racist fashion to non-Wasp elements.

Mr. Alter also states that he is suspicious of the political philosophy of ethnicity for it might compromise and circumscribe the individual’s discovery of his own unique nature. But the racist suppression of ethnicity in America has occurred throughout the history of immigration. For example, during World War I the German language was forbidden in twenty-six states as a medium of expression in schools, churches, newspapers, and on the telephone. . . .

Mr. Alter’s faulty analysis rests on an inaccurate definition of “ethnicity,” which he defines as “keeping up dilute enclaves of old-country ways in the new.” The inaccuracy of this definition gives rise to a basically Wasp-ish miscomprehension of the ethos of the new pluralism-particularism. The new ethnicity does not, and cannot, involve a return to the old ethnic life-style of the ghetto neighborhood community. As Norman Podhoretz notes, it would be false to imply that the only choices are between becoming a facsimile Wasp or staying an old-style ethnic. The new ethnicity is something else, for it is an expression of the third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation descendants of the original immigrants. It is an expression of their identity crisis along with their repudiation of the Wasp cultural soul. The culture of the new ethnic can never be pure Polish, Slovak, or Greek, for it is always hyphenated and hybrid: a synthesis of two cultural realms. . . . The boundaries of the new ethnicity cannot be delineated in terms of enclaves and geographical entities. The Wasp can only think of ethnic Americans in terms of the ghettos which they inhabit. He cannot comprehend that a whole world-view, ethic, and life-style inhabit the head of an ethnic. . . . Ethnicity is the first step in individual awareness and consciousness. All too often an individual finds that his ethnic group has been the object of persecution in America. Is he then supposed to evade the responsibility of concluding that a racist factor is at work in American history? An Indian, black, or Mexican-American would not answer in the affirmative.

D. Heinrich Tolzmann
Minneapolis, Minnesota

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To the Editor:

In Robert Alter’s commentary on Michael Novak we read: “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.” It seems to me that the Wasp elite could be charged with more serious crimes; at least, I do not share the implicit assumption of the sentence: that it is worse to justify wrong than to do it. . . . Though I agree that the ideas mentioned by Mr. Alter have been put to perverse and dangerous uses, I doubt that “egalitarian individualism” and the “myth of the melting pot” are really part of the ideology of that Wasp elite to which, historically, I belong

In the first instance, the phrase “Wasp elite” is a canard which lumps together Wasps of various ethnic backgrounds and intellectual traditions, thereby denying them all any ethnic authenticity; and it is also a canard, because it silently attributes this faceless, soulless character to a tiny and politically insignificant minority of Wasps, usually dubbed “Puritans.”

I take it, for example, that Mr. Alter means by “Wasp elite” not so much intellectuals like Emerson as the patriciate that Emerson was criticizing—those whose ideology found its ultimate expression in The Education of Henry Adams; and I suppose—from the general tenor of his remarks elsewhere in his article—that he largely excludes from the “Wasp elite” the patriciate of the South, a genuinely ethnic minority whose ideologies cannot be charged with the egalitarian individualism of Jefferson. If he includes Jacksonian democracy and the populism of the 60′s that developed the “myth of the melting pot” in his concept of this Wasp ideology, it remains, perhaps, Wasp, but it ceases to be the possession of an elite. By his “Wasp elite,” I suppose he means, or silently allows the innuendo, that the responsibility for these ideas may be laid at the door of that queer little group of Wasps whom Burke called “the dissidence of dissent,” and who, since 1865, have been so little concerned with American politics. Without some precisions of this sort, I find it difficult to see why the adjective should be linked to the noun, or why we should consider their combination a genuine class, capable of “promulgating” an ideology.

To illustrate this intellectual confusion, I would only adduce the older vogue, from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter to Santayana’s The Last Puritan and Miller’s The Crucible, of criticizing this Wasp elite for its ethnic purism, tending to totalitarianism. Surely the Puritan, with his broad-brimmed hat and buckled shoes, is as much an ethnic type as the Satmar rebbe; and I can assure Mr. Alter that he is viewed with the same exasperated affection and sense of inauthenticity by his descendants. . . .

Hugh Amory
Shaker Heights, Ohio

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Robert Alter writes:

Michael Novak’s reply seems to me to counterbalance the argument of his book in a very useful way, stating something of the other side of the dialectic between individual and collectivity neglected by the polemical emphasis of the book. The clarification he makes about the common culture and the different trajectories along which we approach it focuses the entire question much better than the formulations in his book, and I don’t think we now differ seriously on the issue. Indeed, the tone and substance of his whole response to my article illustrate the strength of our common culture, in which civilized discourse can be used to clarify thinking about shared problems.

D. Heinrich Tolzmann’s tirade on racism, by contrast, illustrates precisely the opposite—how conjuring with cant terms and slogans can obfuscate thought. I’m not sure whether Mr. Tolzmann has any clear notion of what racism really means, but the chief example he offers—an instance of American war hysteria during World War I—is hardly reassuring. I will refrain from enumerating the confusions in which his letter abounds, observing only that the much debased Weberian term, “life-style,” surely suffers an ultimate abuse when it is said to “inhabit the head of an ethnic.”

It is always edifying to be advised, as Norman Podhoretz and I are by Andrew M. Greeley, that one is asking the wrong question, but, in any event, his observation about the remarkable ability of American society to harmonize diversity is a helpful corrective to current discussion that places such stress on our divisiveness.

Finally, let me thank Hugh Amory for reminding me how dangerously easy it is to talk about these large cultural questions with general formulas that do not account for the diversity of the phenomena they pretend to describe. His point is well taken that “Wasp elite” is a concept which should not be accepted uncritically, as I’m afraid I did, picking it up inadvertently from Peter Schrag rather than from Michael Novak.

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