Friday, December 2, 2011

December 2, 2011: Homogenous

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post on Ben Franklin’s anti-German xenophobia, and included in a supporting role some discussion of “The Dark Side of Diversity,” a truly abhorrent essay by Pat Buchanan that blamed the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre (and just about everything else Pat found wrong with late 20th and early 21st century America) on the Immigration Act of 1965. I didn’t link to the Buchanan essay then, as I didn’t want to give it or its host site, Townhall, any traffic; but since I’m going to discuss Buchanan’s ideas at greater length here, and moreover compare another and much more well-respected writer and historian to Buchanan, I feel that it’s important for me to provide that link. So, much as it pains me to subject you to this tripe, I’d suggest that you click on the “Dark Side” link above and get the full sense of Buchanan’s (thankfully pretty short) piece. When you’re done gnashing your teeth and rending your garments and cursing a blue streak (those were and are my responses, anyway), I’ll be here. And I promise never to ask you to read any Buchanan again.
Okay, welcome back, glad you survived. As you now know, there’s hardly a single sentence in Buchanan’s piece that doesn’t cry out to be marked up with a red pen for its logical fallacies, its total lack of evidence and support, its blatant and ugly bigotry, its failure to meet the standards of either the most rudimentary writing course or the barest level of civil decency. But for my purposes here, I’m interested in what is unquestionably the most defining and mythic—and in some ways the most erroneous and destructive—narrative on which Buchanan’s whole premise rests: the idea that “Before 1970, we were a people, a community, a country.” A couple paragraphs later, Buchanan spells out more fully exactly how much he believes “we” shared prior to the changes wrought by the 60s (including the Immigration Act): “the old ties of history, heritage, faith, language, tradition, culture, music, myth, [and] morality.” It’s easy to feel as if Buchanan’s central ideas in this piece are just more evidence of his (well-established) cultural, historical, and racist derangement (see his frequent defenses of Adolf Hitler, for example); certainly (I hope) most Americans wouldn’t agree that the Immigration Act “threw the nation’s doors open to the greatest invasion in history,” or see a similar “correlation between mass migrations and mass murder.” But the truth, to my mind, is that a very significant percentage of Americans do believe that there was once an America in which all those elements were shared, tying “us” all together into “a people, a community, a country”—it’s back to this mythically unified nation, after all, that the Tea Party rallying cry of “I want my country back!” seems so clearly to harken.
Moreover, this mythologized vision of a once-unified, clearly (if almost always slightly indirectly) white European Anglo-Saxon Christian (what else could Buchanan mean by “heritage, faith, language, tradition, culture”?) America, is to my mind the only possible way to specify Niall Ferguson’s concept of America’s declining and perhaps nearly lost form of “Western civilization” (a concept to which I responded in yesterday’s post). So it’s not just bigoted cranks like Buchanan or (predominantly) nostalgic older white Americans like the Tea Partiers who share the belief in this mythologized past—it’s also one of our most prominent and public scholars and historians, one of the voices to whom our contemporary American culture turns to make reasoned, complex sense of our history and identity. Whatever their differences as scholars and people—and I fully accept that they are many and substantial—Ferguson’s new book (as represented in that Newsweek piece at least) is entirely homogenous with Buchanan’s essay in this key way: the premises of both depend entirely on this mythologized narrative of a once culturally/ethnically/religiously/racially unified America that has lost that unity; both see the loss as a bad thing in various ways against which we should push back, which is perhaps an unavoidable corollary to believing in the mythic unity in the first place, but even without that particular follow-up, the belief in the myth is strikingly similar, and, I would argue, renders Ferguson’s core idea just as false, and just as destructive, as Buchanan’s.
So did the Immigration Act of 1965 not really change anything? Was America always just as diverse as it is in the 21st century? Have we not lost any unifying elements? My answers to those questions are, not surprisingly to any long-time readers of this blog, complicated, and the complexity itself is a big part of what’s missing from Buchanan or Ferguson’s accounts. I’ll get to them in Monday's post! More then,
PS. What do you think?

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