Commentary Magazine


The Idea of a Common Culture

Reading Robert Alter’s “A Fever of Ethnicity” (p. 68), I was struck by the relative coolness he displays toward the “New Pluralism”—just as I was struck by a comparable reserve in a piece on the same subject by Harold R. Isaacs which appeared in our March issue. (An exchange of letters on this piece can be found on p. 8 below.) Mr. Alter and Mr. Isaacs, of course, are not alone in feeling less than fully enthusiastic about the “rediscovery” of ethnicity. But unlike most critics and opponents of this development, they are both long-time students of and even believers in ethnic particularism. They believe, that is, in the continuing importance of the ethnic factor in modern life, and they believe in its spiritual and cultural value. Yet there is something about the new assertions of ethnicity that bothers each of them; and there is something about this movement that also bothers me, sympathetic though I too (like so many writers and editors associated with COMMENTARY over the years) have always been to ethnic particularism in general and to the recent efforts to establish it as a significant and legitimate force.

What mainly worries me is not the potential these efforts carry for an exacerbation of group conflict. The danger of such intensified conflict is certainly real, but the fact that it is so widely recognized as a danger by the leaders of the ethnic resurgence themselves constitutes a strong and reassuring protection. This is not, however, the case with another disturbing element in the ethos of the New Pluralism about which I want to say a word here—and that is its relation to the idea of a common culture in America.

The attitude I have in mind is expressed in the disposition to deny the very existence of a common culture in America. Thus ethnic enthusiasts, first black and then white, have in effect been telling us for some time now that there is no such thing as a common culture available to all Americans. What we imagine as the common culture, they say, is actually nothing more and nothing less than the particularistic culture of a single ethnic group, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or as they are now almost universally known, the Wasps.

This notion represents a radical change in the way American society is popularly understood. Only a few years ago, Wasps were not even recognized, either by themselves or by others, as an ethnic group at all; they were thought of simply as Americans, and it would have been considered tautological and even faintly absurd to speak of the typical mode of life and thought in this country as their culture, quite as though the word “American” possessed no meaning of its own. Now, in one of those violent swings of the pendulum so characteristic of our (shall we say common?) culture, the very idea of an embracing American mode is ridiculed as a mystification, designed to reinforce the dominant position of the Wasps.

Surely, however, if the earlier view of American culture disingenuously understated the degree to which that culture was coextensive with Wasp particularism, the new view wildly overstates the relative weight of the Wasp component. How, after all, can it be said that the language we speak in America, the arts and the sciences we practice and study, the books we read, the songs we sing, the jokes we tell, the food we eat, and the system of law by which we do our business and regulate our social and political lives are entirely expressive of and merely reducible to the tribal culture of the Wasps? Moreover, as Mr. Alter points out in his critique of Michael Novak (in whose book, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, this reductive tendency is given the most sophisticated formulation it has so far received), neither the sins of America nor its virtues are wholly traceable to the workings of the Wasp spirit. “Such highly industrialized, urban societies as those of France, Germany, and Japan,” Mr. Alter writes, “have done quite nicely in producing social pathologies similar to ours unaided by Wasps of their own,” while values like individual autonomy and personal authenticity, far from being “Wasp conceptions, limited to the assumptions of Wasp ethnicity,” are in fact “key concepts of modern culture in general.”

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None of this is of course to deny that the Wasps have historically been the dominant American group. They have; and although there is also no denying that they have suffered a loss of nerve in recent years, I for one believe that their much-proclaimed and vindictively celebrated decline is another of the exaggerations to which the astonished discovery that they too are an ethnic group has lately given rise. Nor would I deny that entry into the common culture involves, for any person raised in any of the non-Wasp ethnic groups, a substantial degree of assimilation into the modes and manners—especially the manners—of Waspdom. (I myself, indeed, once coined the phrase “facsimile Wasp” to describe how people look when they have undergone this process of assimilation.)

But what I would deny, and emphatically, is 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. In some cases, no doubt, this is all that happens, but precisely because the common culture is not altogether coextensive with Wasp ethnicity, it offers to anyone who wishes to live in it, including many Wasps themselves, all the broader and wider possibilities, as well as all the risks and deprivations, summed up by the ideal of individual autonomy. To denigrate this ideal, and to imply moreover that the only choice we are offered is to remain in the ethnic community or to become facsimile Wasps, is to falsify and impoverish our sense of what pluralism can mean in America. Because just such a false and improverishing view is implicit in the attitudes of certain ethnic enthusiasts, I find myself more bothered by their movement than—as an old believer in the value of cultural pluralism—I would ever have expected to be.

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