In British tradition there is a one-line statement that announces the passing of a monarch:
“The King is dead. Long live the King.”
A political institution with a 1500 year history spanning war, conquest, and in several instances its own apparent extinction, can afford to take a little bad news in stride. The end of one reign is merely the dawn of the next. We, on the other hand, are seldom so stiff-lipped over the passing of an era.
Each generation of Americans seems to kvetch over their own morbid fantasy of our demise. During the ‘50’s the far-right fringe believed that the Communist juggernaut was “50-70% complete” with its conquest of America and Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Soviet conspiracy.
In the ‘80’s we feared that the Japanese were going to dominate the world. Look how that turned out. Now some of us are convinced that a totalitarian third-world country that registers a GDP per capita less than the Dominican Republic is about to steal our thunder or that immigration, which has consistently enriched us is about to finish us off.
At the height of our power, we are running out of credible challengers to feed our favorite guilty obsession.
Pat Buchanan, is the latest in a string of commentators to announce the nation’s impending doom. The source of our demise this time around? Take your pick. Buchanan’s new book Suicide of a Superpower, blames America’s decline on just about every cultural innovation since the 16th Century.
He decries, in no particular order:
Vatican II, discrimination against white men, Muslims, birth control, the Pope’s failure to protect a Holocaust-denying bishop (it’s on pp.107-9), Martin Luther, Socialism, Commercialism, Global Capitalism, Secularism, Mexicans, blacks, desegregation, blacks who rape white women (p.243), diversity, free trade, black sororities, Chinese, the Voting Rights Act (pp.332-9), universities, “bigotry against white Christians,” immigrants, Republican efforts to win non-white votes (p.346), and, most of all, the “decline of the European Majority.”
Buchanan has created a comprehensive encyclopedia of terrors. Apparently he got tired before he could explain the dangers of spicy food and iPods. Expect an addendum.
America has always been radically secular and shockingly culturally diverse compared to standards of the contemporary world around it. At a time when European governments enforced one official state church as the only means to preserve civil order America tolerated an impossible diversity of belief. Congregationalists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Jews, Shakers, Quakers, Catholics, Episcopal, Presbyterians, Methodists, and frontier types with their own home-brewed factions came together in a frightening collection of faiths that could only coexist under a carefully secular government.
Buchanan insists that the only reason these folks were able to live together and build the greatest nation on Earth was that they all descended from the same Judeo-Christian heritage. Never mind, for a moment, that his history simply writes out of existence the contributions of a large percentage of Americans. The common European heritage he speaks of in such magical terms wasn’t nearly common enough to keep them from slaughtering each other without scruple in the old country. America has kept order for centuries by tolerating a shocking degree of cultural disorder.
The paranoid nativists warn that we are too culturally chaotic to survive. They are right. America dies over and over again in a thousand different ways, like the cells in your skin. The real test of a culture is not whether it dies, but whether it regenerates itself. What frightens these folks is our nerve-racking dynamism; our accelerating pace of reinvention.
We are in fact living through the end of white America. That “end” will be just as catastrophic as the end of Puritan American, the end of Colonial America, the end of White, Male Landowner America, the end of New England Whaling America, the end of Slaveholding America, the end of Rural America, the end of Pre-Industrial America, the end of Jim Crow America, the end of Industrial America and all of the other endings America has experienced in her short history.
In other words, we can be confident that this ending will be yet another in a jarring series of gateways to an ever freer, richer, and more powerful future. Such optimism may be out of step with the spirit of the moment, but it is still the most reasonable and sober expectation of what’s in store for us.
We are too independent to tolerate the claustrophobic, manufactured unity of a top-down cultural mandate. Conservatives may score a few short term points selling Buchanan’s white Tribalism, but in America the “culture warriors” of each new generation always lose. In the long run his vision is a blueprint for little more or less than Republican political failure. The nation, if necessary, will simply go on without us.
Our chaotic diversity, for all its many benefits, makes for a white-knuckled ride through history. Buckle up, because the next American Century will probably be even wilder than the last.
America is dead. Long live America.