Commentary Magazine

A Warning from 1995

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

In November 1995, COMMENTARY published a symposium called “The National Prospect” in which dozens of writers offered their view of America’s possible future. I just went and looked at my entry in that symposium, which I had not thought of in years, because of Laura Ingraham’s statement on TV last night that “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like … this is related to both illegal and legal immigration.”

What my symposium entry indicates is that views like hers have been percolating on the Right for decades. I thought you might find it interesting to read:

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“This is not the country my father fought for,” a one-time colleague who grew up as an Army brat was telling me over lunch five years ago. He sang a threnody of national faults, and I could only hang my head in mute agreement—crime, multiculturalism, educational collapse, everything conservatives have worried over and fought against for twenty years or more.

He grew more and more excited. From multiculturalism, he began talking about the threat posed by immigrants, and from that threat to the threat posed by native-born blacks. As he was taken over by his passion and imagined me an ally in it, he began dropping words into his monologue that in his calmer moments he never would have used with me, words like “nigger” and “wetback” I had heard used only in rages and then only maybe twice before outside of a movie or TV show. And then, forgetting himself entirely, he allowed as how Jews were blocking the true story of our national decline.

It is not only inconvenient to hear words you might have spoken coming out of the mouth of a racist, nativist anti-Semite. It is also a reminder that ideas you hold dear may be used as weapons in a war you never intended to fight—a war in which those weapons may be turned against you just as my one-time colleague turned his assault on multiculturalism into an assault on Jews.

This is my warning as we consider the national prospect. Those who believe America is in a period of cultural decline are obviously correct; I am not at all sure how anyone of good will could argue otherwise.

And yet, and yet, and yet. It is one thing to worry over and battle against the dumbing-down of our schools; the assault on taste, standards, and truth posed by multiculturalism; the rise of repellent sexual egalitarianism; even the dangers of advanced consumerism are becoming increasingly worrisome.

But it is quite another thing to make the leap from that point to the notion that the nation itself is in parlous and irreversible decline. After all, nations are always in parlous moral health; nations are gatherings of people, and people are sinners. When the United States was putatively healthier, back in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, 12 percent of its population was living in de-facto or de-jure immiseration and the Wasp majority protected its position in the elite by means of explicit quotas and exclusions.

The declinists are both wrong and spiritually noxious. After all, the purpose of declaring the nation in decline is to root out the causes of the decline, extirpate them, and put the nation on the road to health. But, for some of them, the search for causes always leads to blacks, immigrants, and Jews. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Harvard’s own Quentin Compson finds himself suicidal over America’s conversion into the “land of the kike home of the wop.”

Blacks and Jews are ever the inevitable, juicy target—so inevitable that they still find a link in the fevered minds of the paleo-Right, even though all blacks and Jews have in common now is the way the paleo-Right links them.

What blacks, Jews, and immigrants always seem to lack in the eyes of declinists is some version of the American character—that which my one-time colleague believed his father to have fought for. The dark underbelly of the American political experiment is the very idea of an American character itself. It is, fundamentally, an un-American idea. It is the nature of America that there is no one American character. Demography is not destiny in America as it is everywhere else; where you come from is not who you are.

I can find no quarrel with the brief of particulars offered by the declinists. But their central idea gives heart and strength to people whose threnodies can sound like the song of the siren—and must, like the siren’s song, be resisted by all strong men.

–Nov. 1, 1995

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