Jewish World Review August 4, 2005/ 28 Tammuz,
Second chance for Western Civ
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pot is battered beyond repair and the metaphor is obsolete.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.
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
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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