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Jewish World Review August 4, 2005/ 28 Tammuz, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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Second chance for ‘Western Civ’ | We once celebrated the melting pot as the alchemy that created the common culture. The metaphor was peculiarly American. The term was coined in 1908 by a London-born playwright, who speculated that the American would eventually be produced by a fusion of all the races, and for a long time, no one could argue with him.

America not only changed and absorbed its immigrants, but was itself changed by them. The melting pot was not about the leveling of experience, as we think today, but an enriching experience synthesizing politics, art, folkways, jazz, modern dance, folk music, abstract expressionism, the contributions of many philosophers, all drawing on various cultures to forge the unique American idiom. The melting pot was big enough to accommodate both the traditional wisdom of our ancestors and the creative innovation of tradition breakers.

The cultural critic Terry Teachout suggests now that the melting pot is battered beyond repair and the metaphor is obsolete. "The common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped unite Americans of all creeds, colors and classes no longer exists," he laments in Commentary magazine. "In its place, we now have a 'balkanized' group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways."

Internet bloggers, who post opinions on everything and are the focus of his essay, have been the prime movers of this balkanized cultural change. But they get a lot of help from the purveyors of identity politics. A watershed moment took place at Stanford University in 1988 when minority students and faculty demanded that the long established introductory course in Western civilization be thrown out. I happened to be on the campus that day and recall how puzzled I was, watching the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading the chorus: "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go!" At the time I thought this was merely a mindless expression of identity idiocy by kids trying to get attention by being outrageous, but we soon saw that it ran much deeper than that.

The movement coincided with the dumbing down of American education, reflecting a new form of anti-Americanism that spread quickly to the faculty lounges of our best universities, where the politics of resentment thrives. Even a year earlier, the First National Assessment of History and Literature found that 60 percent of eleventh graders couldn't name the author of "Leaves of Grass." That would have been unthinkable in earlier decades, when schoolchildren had to memorize at least one Whitman poem. This was particularly sad because Walt Whitman was the poet of patriotism, the fresh and enduring American voice.

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," he wrote. "Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined." He saw himself as the poet of the common man, but his voice was uncommonly original. Americans were his muse.

A century and a half have gone by since the publication of "Leaves of Grass," and the "leaves" have moved from the printed page to the digital form in the Walt Whitman Archive. There's hope. The Internet version may reach more readers than print ever could. Whitman, Emerson, Hawthorne and Melville, the giants of the American Renaissance in the years of the mid-19th century, may be caught in the safety of the 'net.

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These were the writers who established an authentic American voice that stood on its own, separate from Europe but within the tradition of Western civilization, sufferers all in the wave of multiculturalism which shaped the conflicts between liberals and conservatives, red states and blue, politically correct and politically incorrect.

Dismayed by what was happening in schools, on college campuses and in the media, cultural conservatives created a parallel universe, like Candide's garden, abandoning the common ground in the common culture. They turned for news of this parallel universe to The Washington Times and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, and then to talk radio and Fox News. They home-schooled their children and chose colleges for these children from campuses ranked by the quality of academic discipline. Now come the Internet blogs on art, literature and music, such as "About Last Night" (

Bloggers do not work with the rigor and resources of newspapers and magazines, flawed as they are, but nevertheless provide the crucial cultural links. Their gardens are beginning to bear fruit. "The proof of the poet," wrote Whitman, "is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbed it." The infamous dead white males may get a second chance through the new technology of digitalized archives. If conservatives win the culture war, it will be because they found a way to root the future in the values of "Western civ."

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© 2005, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate