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 last class. 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).
Assignment (Due 9/24): Choose a quote from Chesterton and write it out on your blog. Under that write your interpretation of what you think the author is trying to say. Then, after that write out your own explanation of the meaning of this passage and why you chose this specific quote. Next class, we will talk about the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.