Saturday, September 06, 2008

WHO NEW?

I’ve just come across a book review by Joe Amato, published in the Journal of Sociology for June, 2006. That journal isn’t digitized, but the review is available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2005/is_4_40/ai_n27310636?tag=content;col1).

The book under review is “American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts To Be A Nation Fall Short”, by the sociologist Robert Wuthnow, published by Princeton University Press in 2006. Amato sums up Wuthnow’s point as being that “we will make America a ‘better nation’, a more pluralistic democracy, and a true nation of immigrants if we open ourselves to newcomers’ experience”.

In recent Posts I’ve already opined that ‘immigration’ – legal or otherwise – became part of the Democratic strategy to replace the voters – industrial blue-collar, males and Southerners in general – lost by its embrace of the Identities. There weren’t over 200 million Americans when they started and now – even with abortions numbering in the dozens of millions – there are somewhere north of 300 million folks in the country.

This strategy fit right in with the deconstructionist urge to deconstruct. In this case, the reputedly oppressive entity to be deconstructed was the composition of the American citizenry itself. If enough ‘new’ people or ‘oppressed’ people could be brought in, to complement those born here but born into ‘oppression’, then soon enough – the strategy envisioned - the erstwhile oppressed would come to greet the Democrats as their liberators. This, in turn, would create a new super-coalition of voters faithful to the Democrats, thus replacing the coalition forged by FDR in the Depression and now deemed ‘oppressive’ by the Identities of post-’68.

Of course, since America had always been a land ‘open’ to immigrants, then that historical factoid would cloak this strategy in the soothing aura of long-standing American ‘tradition’.

The strategy, alas, didn’t work. It took a far too optimistic view of the time and the ease required for accomplishment, there was an abiding if inchoate popular unease concerning it that slowed down the process and then the usual spins about unenlightened and isolationist ‘backlash’ didn’t quite work as expected, and there was insufficient thinking-through of unintended consequences. In a curious historical symmetry, this is also a post-mortem description of the failures in the planning for the invasion of Iraq.

Certainly, it made sense to welcome immigrants in the era when America had much frontier land, much industry, and not enough folks to provide the labor. But that can hardly describe the America of the 1970s and subsequently, especially when American industrial pre-eminence began sliding starting in the mid-‘60s if nor before and the neoliberals of the 1990s tried to make a political virtue out of economic reality by ensuring that there wouldn’t be much ‘industry’ that required a large, muscular, and not highly educated work force.

The conceptual doubling of the potential pool of workers through assorted initiatives under the rubric of womens’ liberation, when accompanied by large immigration, precisely during the recent decades when the reliable and remunerative jobs of the industrial age were going away, could not but lead to a situation where the only possible way to ‘employ’ people was by acquiescing in a ‘temp’ and short-order peasantry.

Apparently the Democratic response to this unforeseen (We have to generously imagine) development was to take consolation from the fact that there would now be an endless pool of ‘oppressed’ whose plight could be usefully characterized by the Party as yet more examples of ‘old’ American selfishness, xenophobia, small-mindedness, racism, and generally brutish unenlightenment.

Wuthnow’s book falls into that large category of academic productions in the service of lubricating this gambit, which had seemingly started out as simply ‘multiculturalism’ – the dubious but attractive insistence that all cultures are equally ‘good’ and ‘valid’ if taken on their own terms and that no other culture could or should ‘judge’ them . But when the entire productive base of the working-class began to erode, but the numbers of immigrants had mushroomed, these productions took on a gauzy aura of accuracy whose ominous implications for Us went largely unremarked by the ‘experts’, the professional intelligentsia, and the assorted subspecies of the Beltway elite.

Oy.

Wuthnow makes the perennially accurate but thus hardly new assertion that – as Amato puts it – “America needs a new mind to become a better nation”. It’s true – but also rather Scriptural: the prophets were always preaching the need for ‘metanoia’ (a new mind and heart, a new way of thinking and feeling). So far so classic. Of course, the prophets were trying to aim their people toward God and toward a consequent concern for the ‘poor’. No right-thinking academic could keep his or her union card by basically preaching a ‘return to God’ – and especially with so much of deconstructionist and Second-Wave feminist theory precisely needing and demanding that God be dropped out of the picture altogether (which - who can deny it? – tended to make the ‘big picture’ a lot less … big).

And it’s true that the immigrants – especially from Ireland in the period immediately preceding the Civil War, and certainly the southeastern European and central-European immigrants who came over in the waves of the 1880s to the 1920s – faced a certain unease as to their ability to assimilate into American culture. Much of this unease was somehow tied in with ‘small-mindedness’, no doubt.

But that didn’t make it utterly baseless. A commonality of culture is to some as yet undetermined extent essential to the productive functioning of any society. Newcomers and old-comers have to adapt to each other’s ways, but there must be some benchmark common-ness to which all must adhere or the very cohesion of the society as a group disintegrates.

And especially prior to the Progressive reforms of the early-20th century, unregulated industrial capitalism was a harsh land in which to make one’s way: large numbers of immigrants – up to one third of the Italians who came over – returned home.

Wuthnow purrs – and not inaccurately – that if Americans would simply listen to the stories of newcomers, then they would understand them and things would go a lot better. This is true as far as it goes. But it hardly goes far enough. I’d say that what Wuthnow proposes is a perfectly good strategy for a community mental health provider trying to improve communications among newcomers and residents in this or that neighborhood or community, or perhaps some human-relations coordinator in a company or corporate setting. But in such a setting its purpose cannot begin to touch the larger issues and complications of immigration as a national societal policy, accurately addressing the numerous complicated dynamics and distilling a comprehensive policy enforced by the sovereign weight of law.

And consequently, it is hardly impressive – indeed it’s irresponsible – when mainline academics simply take neighborhood-level therapeutic tactics and blithely erect them into some concocted version of a national Plan and Vision. And heaven knows that Our legislators and even courts are sufficiently befuddled as it is, without having thickish tomes from prestigious professionals waved in their faces. With far too few – if noble – exceptions, the tomes are not read nor deliberated upon; rather, laws or judgments are simply passed in the hope that the cameras will go away happy. And that ‘things’ will automatically or more or less ‘get better’.

This is no way to run a railroad. Which may be why Our trains no longer run on time. And why We need to be extremely concerned that somebody’s going to come along before too long and offer to make them run on time again – for the price of … well, We all know the story.

Amato clearly draws a line – and rightly so – when he asks: “Can and should American society … treat the recent wave of newcomers who have come to the nation in the last two decades in the tens of millions as one group?” What he’s going for here is that [on top of what I’ve mentioned above] this huge mass of newcomers is itself polyglot. It cannot be usefully presumed that all the ‘newcomers’ are essentially one distinct and cohesive group simply because they have all undergone the experience of having come here. Persons from different countries or classes within that country, from different cultures, are not wisely categorized as ‘all the same’ simply because they can all be classed as ‘immigrants’ or ‘newcomers’.

Far less can it be merely assumed that all of their differences can be accommodated within the host (‘American’ – which you still have to clearly define) culture and ethos. Nor can it be assumed that all of the differences between these distinct groups of newcomers can be reconciled to each other, conceptually or – oy! – in practice.

Nor can it be presumed that any culture and ethos is so infinitely elastic that it can merely absorb any and all new – let’s not mince words: foreign – beliefs or practices ad infinitum with no ill effect to itself. A point will be reached where adaptation becomes dilution, where the host culture abandons so much of its ethos that its own identity loses integrity and dissolves.

Nor can it be presumed that such dissolution is ‘constructive’ and that with little or no effort an entirely new culture and ethos will emerge. Perhaps this is a version of the Hegelian dynamic: that Thesis will automatically generate Anti-thesis that will in turn automatically generate Synthesis. But nothing happens ‘automatically’ in History.

Presumptions such as these – as prevalent as they are in academia and have been for some decades now – seem to make Rumsfeld’s profoundly feckless lack of clarity in deliberating and contemplating the wars in the East … seem to make that appear as just a Bushist variant on an already-entrenched national incompetence to conduct mature analysis. And this isn’t good news at all.

I cannot help but think that Our recent ‘revolutionaries’ here – since ’68 – have made some of the same mistakes Lenin made: assuming with a palpable childishness that in his burning desire for massive change what he hoped for and desired would come about with just another ‘development’ – his abiding and almost fatuous hope that “electrification” of the whole of Russia would solve everything, for example, or (soooo ominously) just another tweak in the manipulation of propaganda, or of terror, or of torture. Thus does a too-easy involvement in ‘great things’ make children, fools, even monsters, of Us all.

Having – whether they realized it or not - introduced among Us a revolutionary aversion to the slow and deliberate processes of a democratic politics, the visionaries of the Identities also imported some of the great, perhaps even monstrous, mistakes made by their unacknowledged forebears.

Now We face a truly momentous election. We can look to no remarkable one among Us who would or could suddenly provide the wisdom and the skill and the will to cut a way through the monstrous web of problems We face; who could chart a magic course through the rocks and riptides now all around Us.

Prayer, always a national recourse – however imperfectly it was made – is no longer officially open to Us. Nor can We look ‘up’ for some pole-star by which to navigate. The last decades have generated a fog – a miasm – that imprisons Us and Our ship of state in a darkling prison of vision and spirit that no other sovereign power on this earth could ever have , nor ever, imposed upon Us.

Lincoln said that where now slaves are excluded from the protection of the laws, it would eventually come to be that “foreigners and even Catholics” would be excluded from the laws. When that moment might come, he said, he’d prefer to move to a more honest place – Russia, he said – where injustice could be “taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy”.

“Hypocrisy” is a part of it. And if not an overweening pride, although that is a part of it, then a thorough-going complacency: in Our place in the world, in History, in God’s plan.

“Go shopping” is the advice of a small man who should never have been placed in a position to speak for Us or to Us or to set Our path. And he himself is an indentured servant of equally small-souled men (generically speaking) whose visions of profit should never have been allowed to over-ride the common weal, Our common weal.

The symbolism of a black man (to the extent that the categorization is accurate) is insufficient ‘progress’ to master or even navigate the times. The symbolism of a ‘woman’ would be equally feckless, grossly unequal to the demands of Our present circumstances.

Whoever wins this election – and the Parties as currently constituted and comprised offer little ground for easy hope – We shall have no end of grave work ahead of Us, work that will make the clear exertions of World War 2 seem simple. And to imagine that a country that won that great war could not lose a itself in the present situation is as witless as a generation of Americans blithely assuming in 1860 that a country that won its independence some decades before could easily avoid losing itself in a great civil war.

And that great trial came.

Another is upon Us now. “We, even We here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. What We do here and now will mark Us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”

“The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union when yet touched – as surely they will be – by the better angels of Our nature”.

If We do not realize that We here and now face a challenge as great as – though different from – the challenge that Lincoln faced, then We do not understand what is going on around Us, or what has happened to Us.

We are not alone. But We are responsible. And if the soul-stretching yet soul-compressing burden of responsibility is only seen as an instance of victimization and oppression, that should be lifted by some act of a government to which We have somehow come to look for all deliverance and indeed salvation, then We shall surely fail. And fall.

I would like to think ‘the angels of Our nature’ are better than that.

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