Monday, March 17, 2014

The Bourne Identity 1916

In 1916 an Anglo-Saxon American by the name of Randolph Bourne wrote an essay titled Trans-national America.

In his essay Bourne criticises an older liberalism which combined open borders with an expectation that migrants would assimilate to an established Anglo-Saxonism. Bourne criticised the primacy of the Anglo-Saxonism by claiming that:
We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born

So here we already have the argument that we are all immigrants - which in one stroke denies the existence of an established national identity.

Bourne then dismisses the older Anglo-America as merely derivative:
They invented no new social framework. Rather they brought over bodily the old ways to which they had been accustomed. Tightly concentrated on a hostile frontier, they were conservative beyond belief...In their folkways, in their social and political institutions, they were, like every colonial people, slavishly imitative of the mother country...

It is just this English-American conservatism that has been our chief obstacle to social advance.

The immigrant has the superior qualities:
We have needed the new peoples—the order of the German and Scandinavian, the turbulence of the Slav and Hun—to save us from our own stagnation.

Bourne, an Anglo-American himself, claims that America up to 1900 simply had no culture:
The Anglo-Saxon was merely the first immigrant, the first to found a colony. He has never really ceased to be the descendant of immigrants, nor has he ever succeeded in transforming that colony into a real nation, with a tenacious, richly woven fabric of native culture. Colonials from the other nations have come and settled down beside him. They found no definite native culture which should startle them out of their colonialism

Haven't we heard that over and over from Western intellectuals from Sydney to Stockholm - a denial that a national culture even exists to be defended?

Bourne goes on and on attacking Anglo-America, attacking the South, for instance, as being a cultural backwater. But what happens next is quite revealing. His aim is to praise the immigrant cultures and so he argues that it is better for these cultures to stay strong:
It is not the Jew who sticks proudly to the faith of his fathers and boasts of that venerable culture of his who is dangerous to America, but the Jew who has lost the Jewish fire... Just so surely as we tend to disintegrate these nuclei of nationalistic culture do we tend to create hordes of men and women without a spiritual country, cultural outlaws, without taste, without standards...The influences at the centre of the nuclei are centripetal. They make for the intelligence and the social values which mean an enhancement of life.

OK, but surely this argument can be turned against Bourne himself. Where is his Anglo fire? Where is his boasting of his venerable culture? Where is his spiritual country? He has cast it all aside, denied its existence, identified it as a source of stagnation....

We have the beginnings here of that double standard, in which the leftist argues for pluralism (the vibrancy and enrichment of cultural diversity) whilst at the same time attacking and denying his own culture.

So what then is the role for an Anglo-Saxon American? According to Bourne, it is not to enjoy his own national tradition, but a newer cosmopolitan one. Bourne begins on this general note:
It is for the American of the younger generation to accept this cosmopolitanism, and carry it along with selfconscious and fruitful purpose. In his colleges, he is already getting...the privilege of a cosmopolitan outlook...If he is still a colonial, he is no longer the colonial of one partial culture, but of many. He is a colonial of the world. Colonialism has grown into cosmopolitanism, and his mother land is no one nation, but all who have anything life-enhancing to offer to the spirit...If the American is parochial, it is in sheer wantonness or cowardice. His provincialism is the measure of his fear of bogies or the defect of his imagination.

The Anglo-Saxon American is to liberate himself from his own repressed and stagnant provincial culture through a cosmopolitan intermixing with the vibrant immigrant cultures:
Indeed, it is not uncommon for the eager Anglo-Saxon who goes to a vivid American university today to find his true friends not among his own race but among the acclimatized German or Austrian, the acclimatized Jew, the acclimatized Scandinavian or Italian. In them he finds the cosmopolitan note. In these youths, foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents, he is likely to find many of his old inbred morbid problems washed away. These friends are oblivious to the repressions of that tight little society in which he so provincially grew up. He has a pleasurable sense of liberation from the stale and familiar attitudes of those whose ingrowing culture has scarcely created anything vital for his America of today. He breathes a larger air.

Dual citizenship is necessary, thinks Bourne, because it would be unreasonable to expect someone to give up the identity they were born to:
Dual citizenship we may have to recognize as the rudimentary form of that international citizenship to which, if our words mean anything, we aspire...Once a citizen, always a citizen, no matter how many new citizenships he may embrace. And such a dual citizenship seems to us sound and right. For it recognizes that, although the Frenchman may accept the formal institutional framework of his new country and indeed become intensely loyal to it, yet his Frenchness he will never lose. What makes up the fabric of his soul will always be of this Frenchness, so that unless he becomes utterly degenerate he will always to some degree dwell still in his native environment.

Again, Bourne thinks it would be "utterly degenerate" for a Frenchman to lose the Frenchness that "makes up the fabric of his soul". But what about his own Anglo-Saxon identity? Why is it not utterly degenerate for him to deny it and to denigrate it in favour of cosmopolitanism?

Apart from the ethnic double standard that emerges in Bourne's essay, there are two other features worth noting. The first is Bourne's emphasis on creative spirit, which I believe is one aspect of human nature that liberals tend to prioritise. The second is the "magic thinking" that runs through his essay, by which I mean his willingness to hold contradictory, inconsistent or mutually defeating positions at the same time. For instance, he wants America to be at the same time diverse but also unified and integrated; a land with a cosmopolitan outlook but in which different groups retain their distinct, historic national traditions; a land, in his words, whose "colonies live here inextricably mingled, yet not homogeneous. They merge but they do not fuse." He wants America to be trans-national and yet at the same time a nation.


  1. Is he similarly arguing that the British had no native culture? In arguing that Americans had no native culture, he must mean that they didn't change the culture they inherited from the British. In this he is no different from modern progressives, who also essentially argue that Europeans (a class in which I include Americans) have no culture.

    This is strikingly different from Alexis de Tocqueville's view of Americans.

    1. "Is he similarly arguing that the British had no native culture?"

      I'm not sure, but nowhere does he praise them the way he does other European national cultures. I suspect that he so wants to play down the Anglo-Saxon tradition, that he avoids doing so.

  2. Mark, I think when you say 'magical thinking' you are describing double-mindedness. Magical Thinking is the attributing of causal relationships between actions and events where there is none or by an assumption that something must happen.

    Nevertheless, the doublemind is a feature of the utopian Left's natural thinking process. Thanks for bringing this essay to light.

    1. Jason, thanks. I didn't realise there was already a term "magical thinking" with a well-defined meaning. I'm not accusing the utopian left of being magical thinkers in the sense defined by Wikipedia. What I meant is that there is an element of wishful thinking in believing that you can have contradictory things.

  3. I hadn't read these words before. They are clearly leading up to those writers in the 1920s, such as Mencken, Masters, Lewis, and Anderson, who relentlessly ridiculed small-town America. A key part of their criticism was that Americans were philistines who cares about nothing but money, and that the lives of Americans were therefore sterile. This was often combines with a criticism against "puritanism," by which they meant sexual restraint. This lead to the glorification of primitive peoples and the working class, both of whom were said to abound with primitive energy and erotic power. One thing Bourne doesn't understand is that you cannot build a civilization, global or otherwise, by embracing the manners of the semi-civilized. It may be that humans will always rebel against what Freud called the 'discontents' of civilization, but when they do, they should not expect that civilization to go on as before. People like Bourne liked to think that it was possible to combine the mechanical skills and civil conscience of New Englanders with the volcanic emotional passion of some swarthy Other. They liked to think that we could stop acting like bourgeoise and yet go on living like bourgeoise.

  4. interesting perspective on white privilege

    1. The concept of 'white privilege' in the KT article is an interesting the article 'white' is a generic person...a bit sad in a way as we whites are actually beige...but enough of that! 'White privilege' is a fake construct to straw man the argument of those who seek to impose power on the rest of us to enable their selective accumulation of power. The only question in politics, even the diffuse politics of the left, is power. Get it any way you can, and if we need to finger 'white privilege' so as to build forces (against it...but 'build forces' is the object) let's do so, no matter that the preponderance of whites in positions of economic and political power is a mere statistical epiphenomenon of old-style liberalism: that is equality before the law, and freedom of enterprise and expression. This occured in the pale beige countries and its great power is demonstrated, arising as an outcome of the beliefs that dominated those contries.