I. He explains the failure of the "melting pot" as a metaphor for assimilation; II. He argues that true "genius" of America is its ability to incorporate diverse cultures into its national culture; III. Finally he argues for some methods to further this ideal of "transnational" America and emphasizes cultural diversity in the universities and dual-citizenship status as means to further this goal. If the nation is a cultural entity, then he is arguing for going beyond a certain culture, but what is that culture?
Bourne, is writing shortly before the U.S. enters World War I (1914-1918) allied with the British and the French against the Germans and the Austrians. This essay is as much an anti-war essay as it is a defense of what we today call "multiculturalism," or "cosmopolitanism." The year after this essay is published, the U.S. Congress will declare war on Germany under the pretext of "making the world safe for democracy," and will pass the Immigration Act of 1917 and another in 1918, along with the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1917 and 1918. These acts gave the state tremendous power to detain and deport immigrants (or hyphenated Americans) suspected of sabotage, espionage, or other subversive activity. Domestic dissent, even speech, was also suppressed and many radical leaders like Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party were thrown in jail. German language was banned in schools, and German food was renamed (frankfurter to hot dog, sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage"). In solidarity with their English allies, many parades and public displays were held emphasizing the nation's Anglo-Saxon heritage.
By the 1920s many modern technologies have been created. Designs and operations are primitive but people are able to buy or use the following: automobiles, airplanes, electric lighting (the first electric automobile was invented in 1892), electric stoves, other electric household appliances, washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioning, elevators, credit cards, color photography, telephones, radio, movies, caterpillar tractors, skyscrapers, and many other inventions. These scientific achievements also helped reinforce the sense of cultural superiority.
Obviously American culture in some part it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon (British) colonists who settled here in the 17th century, displacing the original Indian settlers. The most notable contribution are the political institutions modeled after Anglo-Saxon tribal customs. Bourne argues that over time this culture has become very rigid, and very set in its ways, and seemingly difficult, if not impossible, to change. Furthermore, he argues that the imposition of Anglo-Saxon culture upon other ethnic groups has been a dismal failure and has had the opposite effect of strengthening loyalty to ethnic culture:
To face the fact that our aliens are already strong enough to take a share in the direction of their own destiny, and that the strong cultural movements represented by the foreign press, schools, and colonies are a challenge to our facile attempts, is not, however, to admit the failure of Americanization. It is not to fear the failure of democracy. It is rather to urge us to an investigation of what Americanism may rightly mean. It is to ask ourselves whether our ideal has been broad or narrow--whether perhaps the time has not come to assert a higher ideal than the "melting-pot" Surely we cannot be certain of our spiritual democracy when, claiming to melt the nations within us to a comprehension of our free and democratic institutions, we fly into panic at the first sign of their own will and tendency. We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place only on our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed. All our elaborate machinery of settlement and school and union, of social and political naturalization, however, will move with friction just in so far as it neglects to take into account this strong and virile insistence that America shall be what the immigrant will have a hand in making it, and not what a ruling class, descendant of those British stocks which were the first permanent immigrants, decide that America shall be made. This is the condition which confronts us, and which demands a clear and general readjustment of our attitude and our ideal.
However, he also seems to suggest that there is no real American national culture, that in fact it has always been sort of a mash-up between all kinds of different cultures–the Anglo-Saxon being just more predominant, but never exclusively. What he wants to do is separate Anglo-Saxon culture from its identification with "America." American culture then is really a mixture of different cultures and customs, that collectively form a unique, transnational political culture.
In the North where this mixing has already taken place to a large extent, the whole region has grown and developed, it is in the South which has remained more "Anglo-Saxon" that has lagged behind in development:
The South, in fact, while this vast Northern development has gone on, still remains an English colony, stagnant and complacent, having progressed scarcely beyond the early Victorian era. It is culturally sterile because it has had no advantage of cross-fertilization like the Northern states....The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit, not only of themselves but of all the native "Americanism" around them.
In this regard, he sees the process of "Americanization" as flawed, as he says:
But if freedom means a democratic cooperation in determining the ideals and purposes and industrial and social institutions of a country, then the immigrant has not been free, and the Anglo-Saxon element is guilty of just what every dominant race is guilty of in every European country: the imposition of its culture upon the minority peoples.
Ironically, Anglo-Saxon it is itself a mix. The Saxons are a German tribe. The Angles were another Germanic tribe that settled the land earlier and were the original inhabitants of the land that is England (Angland) when the Saxons arrived beginning around the 5th century CE. The English language is actually considered a Germanic language, that has over time synthesized different elements of Latin, French, Scandinavian and other languages–all of these linguistic influences can be traced to foreign conquerors.
What Bourne's essay suggests, in part, is that national identities are constructions and in the modern era people are more aware of these identities, as opposed to a biological or mystical explanation for nationalism. Consider the Germans: Deutschland means "Germany" but it also means "Fatherland" as in the word patria, as if they were somehow the children of the land they were born on (nativus or natus). It also explains in part why symbolic depictions of the nation are commonly portrayed as a woman or maternal figure:
|"Germania," Philipp Veit, 1848|
|"Columbia," from WWI poster an early personification of U.S. predating "Uncle Sam." The Columbia Pictures logo depicts the same figure.|
Of course paternity or maternity suggests a sense of obligation to the parent as well. Instead, nationality is a more or less made up idea. This is not to deny the influence or power that this idea has over people. In fact, cultural constructs such as nationalism seem to have even more influence over people, than supposedly "natural behavior." Nationalism persists: because many share this value already, because it is supported by the state, and because it gives people a sense of meaning in life.
However, by becoming more self-conscious of the influence of culture over people's lives, gives people greater control over the shape of this culture. So in one regard, Bourne seeks to strip away the mask that conceals the prejudice behind the process of Americanization; at the same time, he does not want to abolish citizenship or the process of Americanization but to redefine it in a way that allows more equal expression from different groups in society, as he says "Let us not speak, of inferior races, but of inferior civilizations. We are all to educate and be educated. These peoples in America are in a common enterprise. It is not what we are now that concerns us, but what this plastic next generation might become in the light of a new cosmopolitan ideal." (Cosmopolitan meaning "cosmos" as in universe and "polis" meaning city-state or political community, universal political community. Or, cosmopolitan is a derivative of metropolitan or metropolis, also a Greek word, meaning "mother city"–like Fatherland using familial language to describe a relationship to land and community.
He argues that the growth of nationalism is dangerous and has contributed greatly to the violence of the war. The U.S. is unique in that it contains all the diversity of Europe without the bitter antagonisms that characterize actual life in Europe:
The voices which have cried for a tight and jealous nationalism of the European pattern are failing. From that ideal, however valiantly and disinterestedly it has been set for us, time and tendency have moved us further and further away. What we have achieved has been rather a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed. America is already the world-federation in miniature, the continent where for the first time in history has been achieved that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun. Nowhere else has such contiguity been anything but the breeder of misery. Here, notwithstanding our tragic failures of adjustment, the outlines are already too clear not to give us a new vision and a new-orientation of the American mind in the world.
Bourne is not a total relativist and does judge cultures as being better than others. You will notice that he still confines his analysis to mostly different European cultures who were the major immigrant groups a this time. Until the 1960s, the U.S. would restrict immigration from most non-European states. Bourne also does not really say anything about race relations between blacks and whites in this essay at least. He does suggest that at an institutional level, colleges and universities play a role in developing this cosmopolitan ideal:
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 to-day. He breathes a larger air. In his new enthusiasms for continental literature, for unplumbed Russian depths, for French clarity of thought, for Teuton philosophies of power, he feels himself citizen of a larger world. He may be absurdly superficial, his outward-reaching wonder may ignore all the stiller and homelier virtues of his Anglo-Saxon home, but he has at least found the clue to that international mind which will be essential to all men and women of good-will if they are ever to save this Western world of ours from suicide.He also advocates allowing immigrants to hold dual citizenship:
Dual citizenship we may have to recognize as the rudimentary form of that international citizenship to which, if our words mean anything, we aspire. We have assumed unquestioningly that mere participation in the political life of the United States must cut the new citizen off from all sympathy with his old allegiance. Anything but a bodily transfer of devotion from one sovereignty to another has been viewed as a sort of moral treason against the Republic. We have insisted that the immigrant whom we welcomed escaping from the very exclusive nationalism of his European home shall forthwith adopt a nationalism just as exclusive, just as narrow, and even less legitimate because it is founded on no warm traditions of his own. Yet a nation like France is said to permit a formal and legal dual citizenship even at the present time. Though a citizen of hers may pretend to cast off his allegiance in favor of some other sovereignty, he is still subject to her laws when he returns. 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 .
Bourne himself was an intellectual, but one who was limited by various physical disabilities from participating in public life. He was however a prolific writer and contributor to several influential political news magazines like The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Seven Arts. Sadly, he died at the age of 32, from the influenza pandemic unleashed in the aftermath of World War I. Before his death, Bourne was considered one of the leading Progressive intellectuals. Progressive liberalism is still influential to this day and in part I choose these essays to begin with to show the similarities.
The obvious question to ask then as we conclude is to what extent has this vision been achieved in the U.S. in the present today? Is Bourne's idea practical, and if so what are the obstacles that prevent its realization?
The other essay we are reading is actually the first chapter, "What is America?" in the book What I Saw in America, by British writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in 1922. Bourne is writing when World War I is still going and as a public intellectual figure, Bourne's writing is serious and meant to persuade and is moralistic to that extent. Chesterton is writing in the aftermath of the war and shows a more ironic and almost amused nature in his writings, it does not have the moral urgency of Bourne's writing, but in its own way it could be equally persuasive for pointing out absurd aspects of modern life.
|Chesterton, Vanity Fair|
The essay we are reading is his reflection about filling out his passport information at the American Consulate. This leads him to question how much do people really learn when they travel. There are many distortions that prevent people from experiencing another culture. For one, people have a conservative instinct to want to stay by what is familiar, "to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside" (Chesterton 2008, p. 1), in other words the inside representing the family or the community and the outside being the outside world. This can turn into hostility towards those who seem different.
Another reaction is to find amusement in different cultures. He finds no fault in being "amused" by another culture (although that is debatable) but argues, "where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously" (p. 1). In other words most people never challenge their own superficial first impressions and are content with getting by on that. This second reaction he regards as clearly better than aggression or hostility, and argues that under certain conditions amusement can be constructive: "But I believe there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences" (p. 1). We can assume that this is his overall point. The rest of the essay is his reflection of his experience in the U.S. which to him offers a guideline for how this could be created. However what is the source of his own amusement upon reading the passport application? Why are these questions so unusual to him?:
One of the questions on the paper was, 'Are you an anarchist?' To which a detached philosopher would naturally feel inclined to answer, 'What the devil has that to do with you? Are you an atheist?' along with some playful efforts to cross-examine the official about what constitutes an ἁρχη [Greek: archê]. Then there was the question, 'Are you in favour of subverting the government of the United States by force?' Against this I should write, 'I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.' The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity, had then written down, 'Are you a polygamist?' The answer to this is, 'No such luck' or 'Not such a fool,' according to our experience of the other sex. But perhaps a better answer would be that given to W. T. Stead when he circulated the rhetorical question, 'Shall I slay my brother Boer?'—the answer that ran, 'Never interfere in family matters.' But among many things that amused me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled to treat it respectfully. I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, 'I am an anarchist. I hate you all and wish to destroy you.' Or, 'I intend to subvert by force the government of the United States as soon as possible, sticking the long sheath-knife in my left trouser-pocket into Mr. Harding at the earliest opportunity.' Or again, 'Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and my forty-seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries.' There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies (pp. 4-5).
At first he is taken back by how invasive the questions seem and makes some comparisons to other authoritarian states and the Spanish Inquisition. This then sets up his main argument about the U.S.: it is founded on a creed, the meaning of the creed is best captured in The Declaration of Independence:
The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things (p. 8).
Chesterton is considered to have anticipated the idea of "civil religion" that I mentioned. This relates to what he said earlier about a form of "friendship based on differences," but why does he believe the creed in the Declaration is good for this purpose?
In its most simplest form he believes the creed is based on the ideas of equality and justice. It is only to the extent that government supports these principles that its authority can be considered legitimate. As stated clearly in the Declaration if the government does not and will not change its abuses then the population has the right to rebel and to form a new government.
Being based on the idea of equality the creed is also universal, much like the Christian religion. It is no surprise then that the U.S. is heavily influenced by Christian values. Or more than that: democratic political values are basically Christian values. Chesterton would argue that the "Christian" aspect to American democracy comes out most clearly by using the metaphor of the "melting-pot," or as he says:
Now in a much vaguer and more evolutionary fashion, there is something of the same idea at the back of the great American experiment; the experiment of a democracy of diverse races which has been compared to a melting-pot. But even that metaphor implies the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance. The melting-pot must not melt. The original shape was traced on the the lines of Jeffersonian democracy; and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned, its exclusiveness is religious because it is not racial (p. 9).
The mixture of races he refers to still needs a strong government to provide some shape to the fluid mix of culture, or as he says the pot must not melt. He argues that the political system established by Jefferson (the 3rd president) most closely resembles this and is most appropriate for containing the melting-pot. Bourne regards the "melting pot" metaphor as a failure, Chesterton argues otherwise, but both seem to suggest that the exclusivity of Anglo-Saxon culture is antiquated and cannot sustain itself. At the time in which they are writing anti-miscegenation laws make it illegal to marry outside your race, miscegenation, meaning "mixed race."
Chesterton contrasts what he calls the "American experiment" with the European states. Why does he argue that in Europe they do not have a creed because they have a type? He refers to the "national type" of England which he seems to suggest is a set of beliefs, values, and attitudes that are heavily embedded in English culture and reproduced through institutions which leaves their imprint on every English subject (not citizen, they have a king). He seems to suggest that there is an absence of a similar American 'type'. This point is highly debatable.
He is not unaware of the realities of American life "but the point is not that nothing exists in America except this idea; it is that nothing like this idea exists anywhere except in America" (p. 15). He argues that this experiment is not internationalism (inter- a prefix meaning "between" as in between nations, similar but not identical to "transnational," trans- being a prefix meaning "beyond"). Instead, he refers to it as "nationalization of the internationalized" (-ize or -ized past tense, is a suffix that creates transitive verbs that usually mean "to create or make something" as in "creating a nation" out of people who have been "created between nations"). This process is sustained to the extent in which equality and justice guide the actions of the government.
What then undermines equality? Besides, racial and gender inequality, Chesterton writing in the 1920s is aware of the enormous income inequality in American society at this time. The period of the Gilded Age (circa 1868-1896) and the rise of the "robber barons" is over and they have consolidated their power. By the 1920s, large international corporations like General Motors and the United Fruit Co. already exist. Automobiles, especially the Model T produced by Ford have now become affordable to many middle and working class Americans. The first suburbs are created as transportation allows people to live further away from where they work. "Culture industries" like radio and film are already developing quickly which also tended to replace the participation of citizens in the public sphere with diversions and spectacles that reinforces the status quo. Despite this income inequality is at an all time high in the 1920s. Economists like Paul Krugman have spoken of the 1930s and 40s as the "great compression" meaning the relatively compressed period of time in which a middle class is created in the country. In other words, before that there was no middle class in the country at least not since before the Civil War.
In this economic context, the "natural law" of equality tends to be obscured leading people to believe that inequality between people is the normal and natural state of being, but as Chesterton says:
In truth it is inequality that is the illusion. The extreme disproportion between men, that we seem to see in life, is a thing of changing lights and lengthening shadows. A twilight full of fancies and distortions....It is the experience of men that always returns to the equality of men; it is the average that ultimately justifies the average man. It is when men have seen and suffered much and come at the end of their elaborate experiments, that they see men under an equal light of death and daily laughter; and none the less mysterious for being many (p. 19).
In part to compensate for the large size of early 20th corporations large government bureaucracies were created in order to manage and regulate the increasingly complex demands placed on the political system and society. One of these vital demands is regulation of the immigration system which was crucial for American economic expansion since its beginning and provides a large work force for corporations and businesses. However bureaucracies work by creating a standard set of rules that are applied to all cases, however this makes it difficult to adapt to circumstances as well as creating something broad to encompass everyone–this is the origin of the absurd questions Chesterton is asked. It is a product of bureaucratic decision making.
Bureaucracies according to the sociologist Max Weber, despite their flaws, are the highest development of order and rationality. However, at least since the Romantic era of the 19th century there has been a reaction against the suffocating and "dehumanizing" (making people less than human) tendencies of science and reason. Distrust increased more after World War I (1914-1918) witnessed supposedly "rational" European states massacre each other by the millions in a few years, all appling "science and technology" to more efficiently kill each other with poison gas, machine guns, and tanks. These events loom larger in Chesterton's imagination, who is only writing a few years after the end of the war, and this is probably why he emphasizes the "direct experience" of things rather than more abstract scientific models of understanding (which would never allow laughing at differences or even notice them) and is able to poke fun at the "rational" bureaucracies.
The 1920s is known as the "Roaring 20s" or the "Jazz Age" in part because of the development of consumer mass culture adding more "excitement" to life. The 20s was also the time of Prohibition when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal which created "organized crime" in the U.S. Prohibition was also directed at immigrant groups many of whom consumed alcohol regularly. It is not a coincidence that most of the major beer manufacturers were German. The influence of the time period shows, Chesterton speaks only of "men" and says other things that would not be considered politically correct today.
Chesterton also seems to assume that "nationalism" in the form of the "national type" or personality is natural. He may poke fun at the stereotypes of the English but he does not seem to think that they are unnatural, nor does he give any indication these values will change and seems to assume they are fixed and permanent, and not constructed from institutionalized social practices. In the 1920s the British Empire still existed after becoming the dominant world power in the 19th century and would last until World War II. At one point their empire reached every continent in the world and even had a slogan: "The sun never sets on the British Empire," and at one point it controlled the territories that are now India and Pakistan; Burma; Singapore; Iraq; large parts of East Africa including Kenya and the Sudan; Australia; Canada; and islands in the Caribbean like the Bahamas as well as parts of Honduras, and British Guiana in South America. In a sense, what helped Great Britain become a world power was its geographical separation from the rest of Europe; Great Britain is an island nation separated by water.
Until World War II (1939-1945), this protected it from attacks from other European powers; it also encouraged the development of a strong navy which was what made Great Britain a powerful empire in its day. Trade and commerce also developed alongside its naval power and Great Britain is usually regarded as the first nation to undergo the "Industrial Revolution" beginning in the mid 1700s. Textile production was the major industry which required raw materials from different parts of the world like Egypt and India and this in turn facilitated colonization of these areas. Even more important was the production of opium by the East India Company whose ships supplied the world (Greenberg 1951). During World War II, its colonial empire in Asia was mostly destroyed by the Japanese. This and the war in Europe and North Africa against Germany destabilized the entire empire. After the war, liberation movements many of which began before the war were able to throw off the foreign control of the British once and for all, in some cases this continued into the 1980s. The last major colony to gain independence was Hong Kong in 1997 when it was returned to China. After World War II, the United States became the dominant world power. At the same in which decolonization as a global process is occurring throughout the world, a massive new influx of immigration to the U.S., and to a lesser extent Europe, occurs as barriers against travel and immigration are lifted.
Chesterton points backwards to many thinkers who have come before him and points forward to many future thinkers who still echo many of the things he said in this essay. Chesterton is an early influence in developing the idea of "civil religion" to explain the relationship of citizens to the state. Chesterton could also be classified among influential American political scientists and historians, writers like Louis Hartz associated with the term "American Exceptionalism" that came about in the 1950s. The basis of this idea was that the development of the United States followed a unique path of development from Europe. Some of the basic "exceptional" characteristics that are isolated are:
1) Lack of feudal history i.e. a division of land and power between hereditary lords who rule over peasants.
2) The Western frontier that until about 1890 permitted almost continuous expansion west.
3) The geographical separation from the rest of Europe and "natural defenses" like the ocean.
4) The influence of the Puritans and emphasis on religious tolerance.
5) Relative income equality compared to Europe.
1) Tocqueville emphasized equality as the chief virtue of democracy (although he saw downsides that Chesterton does not acknowledge as much, he also believed that equality creates anxiety and that's what makes American life so fast paced).
The origins of this idea however runs deep in American political culture and go as far back to the colonial times and the Puritans who saw their community as "a city on a hill," a model for the rest of the world. All of the American "Founding Fathers" were also similarly aware of this and saw themselves in this role as well. Another famous foreign visitor to the U.S. is Alexis de Tocqueville who in 1835 published volume 1 of Democracy in America (volume 2 1840). Tocqueville basically set the pattern for how everyone who follows American politics studies it. The influence of Tocqueville on Chesterton is apparent in many areas:
2) The emphasis on the Puritans who established small democracies upon their arrival that became the foundation for all democratic institutions in this country.
3) The emphasis on values or what he refers to as "mores" (as in morality) beliefs that are accepted without question for sustaining American democracy.
Here is a passage from Democracy in America that reflects these ideas:
Thus the Americans are in an exceptional situation, and it is unlikely that any other other democratic people will be similarly placed. Their strictly Puritan origin; their exclusively commercial habits; even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the study of science, literature, and the arts; the accessibility of Europe, which allows them to neglect these things without relapsing into barbarism–a thousand special causes, of which I have indicated only the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American on purely practical objects. His desires, needs, education, and circumstances all seem united to draw the American's mind earthward. Only religion from time to time makes him turn a transient and distracted glance toward heaven. We should therefore give up looking at all democratic peoples through American spectacles and try at last to see them as they actually are (Tocqueville 2000, pp. 455-56).