Sunday, April 20, 2014

Catching up on Kaufmann

I'm still reading The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America by Eric Kaufmann. If you remember, up to the later 1800s the American elite had a double consciousness. There was a strong focus on an Anglo-Saxon ethnic identity but also a laissez-faire commitment to open borders. Immigrants were expected to assimilate to the dominant Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.

Between 1905 and 1913 the Protestant church establishment (functionaries within the Protestant churches) broke from the earlier view; they now supported the idea of pluralism in which no single group would be dominant. Shortly after, the Greenwich Village intellectuals also shifted to a pluralist and cosmopolitan position. Randolph Bourne wrote a significant essay in 1916 in which he claimed that Anglo-America had no vital culture of its own and that therefore it was best for Anglo-Americans to become cosmopolitan consumers of the more authentic cultures of others.

What happened next? According to Kaufmann the loss of the intellectual class continued apace. Kaufmann observes of the period following WWI:
For the first time in its history, a considerable number of Anglo-American intellectuals openly disparaged the traditions of their own ethnic group.

He gives as an example the novel Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis in which the Anglo townsfolk are described as "a savourless people, gulping tasteless food," the protagonist, Carol Kennicott, finds welcome novelty in the Scandinavian population of the town, but is disappointed when she observes them being "Americanized into uniformity...and along with these foreigners she felt herself being ironed into glossy mediocrity".

This is clearly a reaction against the earlier view: Anglo-Saxons are no longer bearers of a special dispensation, but represent a cultureless mediocrity. A multiculture, in this scenario, becomes a form of welcome relief from Anglo conformism and assimilation is to be regretted.

In the 1930s, a new generation of New York intellectuals emerged to carry on the cosmopolitan attitudes of the pre-WWI avant-garde. This generation had a higher representation of Jewish intellectuals; Kaufmann considers it to be a roughly equal fusion of Jewish and Anglo-Saxon radicals.

According to historian Terry Cooney, these intellectuals thought of themselves as standing for "cosmopolitanism, internationalism, secularism, rationalism, urban complexity, intellectual sophistication, artistic creativity, and progress" as opposed to the alternative of "ethnic and regional particularism, nationalism, religious mystification, emotionalism, rural narrowness, simplification, populist politics, popular writing, artistic stagnation, and reaction."

It was in the interwar period also that an artistic clash occurred. An artistic movement called Regionalism represented a popular, national view:
This school of art and literature, known as Regionalism, sought to draw on the American landscape, its history and folk culture, in an attempt to generate an authentically native "American" culture and reconstruct an American sense of national community.

The Regionalists were attacked by the avant-garde intellectuals as reactionary populists. Mary McCarthy, for instance, complained that Regionalist Maxwell Anderson's success came from an appeal to "old-fashioned American symbols" and Meyer Schapiro warned that "The appeal to national sentiment should set us on guard" and then criticised Thomas Hart Benton's
conceited anti-intellectualism, hatred of the foreign, his emphasis on the strong and masculine, his uncritical and unhistorical elevation of the folk, his antagonism to the cities, his ignorant and violent remarks on radicalism

By the end of WWII regionalism had given way to an abstract expressionism that was more in line with the views of the intellectual avant-garde. It was at this time, too, that the avant-garde and the American government moved more closely together. The New York intellectuals had abandoned Soviet communism and they looked to America as the focus for their liberal cosmopolitanism; the American government came at the same time to look to the avant-garde intellectuals as a bulwark against communism.

So by 1950 the older tradition had been destroyed amongst the intellectual and artistic elite, who were dedicated to liberal cosmopolitanism, and this elite had the support of those wielding political power. That's not quite the end of the story: Kaufmann goes on to look at how the avant-garde then won support in the institutions and, following from that, how rank and file opinion was won over.

One thing to remember in all this: the avant-garde intellectuals were reacting against an older understanding that had its own limitations. What was really needed was something different to both.


  1. I have not read Kaufman's book but I must challenge that last conclusion.

    The "intellectual and artistic elites" have never veered away from socialist sympathy's unless it was to jettison the too-hot-to-handle appellation of "communist"

    during the investigations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1945-1950's. This is a major theme of a controversial book

    I am currently enjoying called "American Betrayal: the Secret Assault on our Nations Character" by Diana West (

    It asks how America has esentially repudiated its cultural heritage that was "American Execptionalism". An how this has occured more or less "in plain sight" within

    the freest nation in the world. A core part of her arguement is that a "revised" interpretation of history - as it was taking place - was inculcated as accepted fact

    by a vast network of communist sympathizers, infiltrators and cultural betrayers in government, academia and the media. What would have been dismissed as a crazy

    conspiricy theory 50 years ago resonates much louder today when we are able to witness in real time the effortless complicity of Big Government and Big Mainstream

    Media due to the democratizing impact of the internet.

    The final chapter makes an obvious parallel to the vastly over-arching actions of the current U.S administration inculcation of Islamic ideology into current

    government institutions and bureaucracy.

    1. What Kaufmann is doing is tracing the shift in the "mythomateur" - the image and symbols and self-concept of what was held to be the American identity. I don't think you can pin this shift on a communist conspiracy, as it began in the late 1800s with both Protestant and Jewish universalists/ecumenicists/humanists; had reached its full-blown intellectual development by WWI; was accepted within the bureaucratic leadership of the Protestant churches prior to WWI; and captured the artistic and intellectual elite by the 1920s.

      Already by 1943 the Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie was an advocate of the new liberal cosmopolitan "Americanism".

      The process seems to have been:

      a) The new mythomateur grips the most radically "progressive" wing of the churches and the intellectual class by WWI

      b) It then captures the intellectual and the artistic classes more generally in the interwar period

      c) By the 1940s, an influential section of the political elite has come on board (but not all)

      d) In the very early 1950s, the media swings around

      e) By the 1970s mainstream opinion falls to the new "Americanism".

  2. Plus - Remember Solzhenitsyn

    And here is a recent blog posts that makes the notes the similarities between FDR's Soviet policy moves and Obummers Iran policy.

  3. The American business community also became a major player in this process. During the 1970s, in the face of growing foreign competition, it adopted an attitude of “If you can’t beat them, join them” and began pushing hard for outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries and insourcing of low-wage labour. This shift didn’t involve just lobbying of congressmen and senators. It also involved funding of “civil rights” groups.

    During the 1950s and 1960s, such funding was motivated by a desire to maintain social peace. By the 1970s, American businesses began to realize that it could also be used to weaken immigration enforcement and stifle any nativist backlash.