The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
By the time historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote “The Disuniting of America” in 1992, his slimmest book with the widest reach—for several weeks it topped Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance on the New York Times Bestsellers List—few public intellectuals could match his liberal credentials.
Schlesinger was a founder in 1947 of the ultra-liberal, anti-Communist Americans for Democratic Action. He’d written a three-volume study of Franklin Roosevelt’s first administration and The Vital Center, a 1949 manifesto on the New Deal that prefaced Lionel Trilling declaring the following year that “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Schlesinger had written speeches for Adlai Stevenson, John, Robert and Teddy Kennedy and George McGovern. He served as a special assistant in the administration of John Kennedy, whom he’d found to be “on the conservative side” on first meeting him.
He’d opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion in a memo to the president but loyally lied about the invasion to reporters. He beatified JFK’s Thousand Days in a book that earned him a Pulitzer and a National Book Award (Gore Vidal called it “the best political novel since Coningsby). He named his son after Bobby Kennedy, refused to vote for Carter either in 1976 or 1980, finding him too conservative, worked on Teddy Kennedy’s 1980 campaign—dismal but for “The Dream Shall never Die,” one of the great speeches of the Republic, to which he contributed—called Nixon’s an Imperial Presidency and rated Reagan a “low average” president.
Schlesinger died in 2007. Had he written The Disuniting today, Fox’s booking agents for Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson would have fought over him. That’s not to discredit Schlesinger’s liberalism. The book is not illiberal. But the “cult of ethnicity” it mercilessly attacks can be. The phrase is catchy. The sneer is not.
Schlesinger surprised his admirers and was the subject of plenty of criticism from liberals at the time. But to read The Disuniting again 30 years later suggests how much the orientation of liberalism has changed, and how little America has. Like a long-running sit-com where the storylines follow the same formula with a different cast, the debates at the center of Disuniting would be as familiar to us today as they had been to readers in 1992. That’s a problem. Renewal is the essence of Americanism. Women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights, the Great Society, Rachel Carson’s environmental revolution: fiercely debated in their time, no one debates anymore whether Blacks and women should vote, whether Social Security or Medicare, clean air and clean water are rights. Those battles are over.
The battle over race, ethnicity, identity, belonging, isn’t. We’re brawling over the same antagonisms today as we did 30 years ago. We’re doing so cruelly and violently. I’d like to say that when it comes to identity and what defines us as Americans, our renewal has only stalled, and with it our sense–the world’s sense–of the United States as a beacon of ideas and social progress. But it’s worse than stalling. We’re regressing. Politically at least, the ethnicity debate and its effects on how and why people vote today has more in common with the 1850s than with Schlesinger’s 1990s.
The Know Nothing Party, also known by what sounds like an obscene misnomer of appropriation today, the Native American Party, formed in 1844 and won elections in the 1850s on promises to fight the influence of immigrants and Catholics. At school board meetings of the 1850s those two cohorts were the CRT and LGBTQ demons of the day. The Know Nothings vilified new Americans and specialized in finding ways to disenfranchise them. We’re back to that.
What Schlesinger had detected in trends here and there is now orthodoxy–from both sides, neither for the better. The “ethnic rage” he warned of is as entrenched on campuses, in newsrooms, in advertising and even in the writing of history. Schlesinger blamed liberalism. But the Know Nothing-like reactions against the orthodoxy are no less entrenched, and with the incandescence that animated Trump’s white rage or that continues to fuel the ratings of those Fox types who’d have invited Schlesinger to their set. Instead of defining themselves through their commonalities, Americans define themselves by their differences. The differences are the limit of their horizon.
This is not new. Nor is it necessarily bad. Why shouldn’t Portuguese-Americans celebrate their heritage, why shouldn’t Blacks recover the history or Native Americans the identity–if not the lands–they were denied? (Long before Occupy Wall Street, there was Occupy Alcatraz.) Multiculturalism was a recognition of the nation’s ethnic federalism. Schlesinger tells us that what started as recognition, as respect and pride in differences, has hardened into dogmatism, that we are more proud of our differences than whatever used to unite us. That assumes there was a golden age of unity, and that the dogmatism is liberals’ fault.
American history doesn’t support the view that neatly. Ethnic and racial differences may have been more latent, more effectively suppressed by a nation made demographically more uniform. The stupendously racist Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to keep Asians and Jews out. Jim Crow kept Blacks down within. The Immigration Act was replaced with more open doors in 1965, the same year of the Voting Rights acts and a year after the Civil Rights Act. Racial, ethnic, immigrant pride all burst out with volcanic relief. White pride came later because it took white Americans a while to realize the supremacy they had taken for granted was over. Once they did, it’s they who raged. Rush Limbaugh resuscitated Father Coughlin on ABC radio starting in 1988. By 1990 he had the largest radio audience of any shout show host. Schlesinger must have noticed. He still (like Limbaugh) blamed liberals.
Schlesinger published “The Disuniting” in a year when the words “multiculturalism” and “diversity” populated headlines, but also the year when Pat Buchanan repurposed the Know Nothing platform in his “Culture War Speech” at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. Buchanan seethed and snarled about feminism, homosexuals, “the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women,” and what he called “a religious war going on in this country, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself.” George H. W. Bush’s campaign was hobbling by the time it reached Houston. Buchanan’s speech doomed it. The country wasn’t ripe for that much reaction.
When Donald Trump repurposed the Know Nothing platform after slowly descending that golden elevator at Trump Tower in June 2015 to speak his many phobias (China, Islam, Mexico, Obama, globalism), America was ready to get back to 1850. Buchanan’s speech exalted what the Cold War had numbed, the war within, the American instinct to divide and demean to ensure a particular kind of supremacy. But it was like the parable of the seeds. Buchanan’s thorns mostly fell on unfertile ground. Trump’s speech fell on middle-American loam and did what Trump did best, what Henry Adams had called the “systematic organization of hatreds.”
That strain has always uglified American politics from the time Benjamin Franklin spoke like any old bigot about “swarthy” German immigrants “herding together [and] establish[ing] their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours,” to the 1924 law–America’s Mein Kampf salute to immigration rules. World War II made it difficult for American policy to promulgate white supremacy at home while sending boys, 1.2 million Blacks among them, to fight fascism. That untenable paradox powered the civil rights movement and three decades of the kind of liberalism Schlesinger immortalized in his books.
By 1970, the French philosopher and political analyst Jean-Francois Revel, in Neither Marx Nor Jesus–a refutation of socialism and evangelicalism–could exuberantly point to the United States and its 1960s as proof that it was the world’s last best hope for cultural, social and economic change. He cited Eldridge Cleaver approvingly: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the entire human race depends on the way America will resolve the problems currently facing it. Whether its orientation goes right or left, that’s the contemporary world’s number one question.”
It oriented right. Hard right.
It’s not that Revel and other liberals could not imagine Reagan or Trump possible. Revel, Richard Rorty, Joseph Stiglitz, Edward Luttwak all did. “Economic and social insolvency could make more probable the middle class’ notable slouch to the right and toward political authoritarianism,” Revel wrote in the same book. Luttwak in The Endangered American Dream saw “an America already in full Third World conditions,” diagnosed why–globalism–and predicted that globalism’s inequalities would fuel political exploitation. He saw spaces “wide open for a product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people.”
Reagan and Trump, who are more alike than different (Reagan was more Trump than Trump was Reagan), rode the wave of reaction against the very revolutionary movements Revel had admired and Schlesinger, in his pre-1992 life, had championed and built. The revolution had gone too far too fast. The Reagan reaction was paradoxically proof of its success. “The right has its own version of political correctness,” Schlesinger wrote, “and, if political correctness becomes the rule, the right can turn out far larger crowds for monoculturalism than the left can for multiculturalism.” So it has.
“The monoculturalists,” Schlesinger wrote in prose as current as yesterday’s OpEds, “are hyperpatriots, fundamentalists, evangelicals, laissez-faire doctrinaires, homophobes, anti-abortionists, pro-assault-gun people, and other zealots. They inveigh against ideas and books they deem blasphemous, atheistic, socialistic, secular humanistic, pornographic, and/or un-American and seek to impose on the hapless young their own pinched, angry, monistic concept of America. Leftwing political correctness is more systematically thought out and more pretentious in its rationalization. It concentrates its corrective program on institutions of higher education. Rightwing political correctness is more primitive and more emotional. It concentrates its corrective program on public schools, public libraries, local newspapers, and local radio and television stations.”
How familiar this sounds in light of Flagler County’s own recent battle over library books, or the ongoing attempt in Florida and a few other states to turn the teaching of civics and history into PR for a mythical America. “Monoculturalists abuse history as flagrantly as multiculturalists. They sanitize the past and instill their own set of patriotic heroes and myths,” Schlesinger wrote.
Like Rorty in Achieving Our Country, Schlesinger places disproportionate blame for America’s hard-right turn on liberalism. The inability of the left to see past Reagan to a more constructive, pragmatic resumption of its agenda within the leery confines of a more conservative America locked it into that redefinition of liberalism as a crusade for identity. If Ayn Rand-like libertarian self-interest at the expense of community and nation has defined Republican ideology and economic policy since 1980, the cult of identity on the left has mirrored that self-interest, also at the expense of national cohesion, placing ethnic or racial identity above all else. The corollary between the right’s and left’s abandonment of national purpose is no small thing. They are each other’s creations. But somehow Schlkesinger blames the fracture on liberals.
There is nostalgia at work in The Disuniting of America. I’m not sure it helps. Schlesinger opens with a long discussion of the melting pot, a phrase popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play of the same name and that had Theodore Roosevelt gushing (“This is the stuff”). But Zangwill’s play is like “It’s a Wonderful World” for immigration, a sappy illusion with an underside as sinister as Henry Ford’s actual melting pot ceremony in Detroit on July 4, when he would have his foreign workers descend down one side of a huge pot and ascend the other side, New Americans deloused of their national or ethnic origins. (Ford’s anti-Semitism and subsequent bromance with Hitler fit right in with his conceptions of racial purity.)
Imagine for a moment if the melting pot was as effective as that supposed ideal. Imagine if, instead of waking up in Pottersville, George of “It’s a Wonderful Life” woke up in an entirely molten New York. No Chinatown, no Little Italy, no Harlem, no Jewish Lower East Side or Russian-Jewish Washington Heights, no Arabs in Brooklyn, the impossible diversity of Queens’ Northern Boulevard or Jackson Heights clipped to the uniformity of Levittown lawns. How insipid. How small. But Schlesinger seems by 1992 offended by this “ethnic upsurge.” Somewhere along the line an acceptable diversity he never defines now “threatens to become a counterrevolution against the original theory of America as ‘one people,’ a common culture, a single nation.” I don’t know how much less of a single nation it is for being so much more ethnically diverse. How is it less of a single nation for having 50 states?
From the mythology of the melting pot to the mythologies of American history: Schlesinger gives us excellent pages on the history wars of his day. He anticipate the current battle over The 1619 Project and critical race theory. He finds the usual examples on the fringes–Molefi Kate Asante saying the Eurocentric curriculum is “killing our children, killing their minds,” Dr. Leonard Jeffries and his fabrications about Black supremacy, or the opportunistic perpetuation of falsehoods in school curriculums to make ideological points, like the often-told story of Charles R. Drew, inventor of plasma, being denied admission to a hospital after a car crash because he was Black, and dying. That wasn’t true, he got prompt medical attention. Schlessinger asserts it as if to say: look how schools mislead in the name of racial self-esteem. Sure. But is Schlesinger really suggesting that the fabrication about Drew is of greater concern than curriculums’ still-glaring “absences, evasions, and lies” about the Black experience, as Nikole Hannah-Jones put it in her introduction to The 1619 Project?
The disproportion can turn positively reactionary: “One senses a certain inauthenticity in saddling public schools with the mission of convincing children of the beauties of their particular ethnic origin. The ethnic subcultures, if they had genuine vitality, would be sufficiently instilled in children by family, church and community. It is surely not the office of the public school to promote artificial ethnic chauvinism.” Pages earlier, he had no problem preaching the chauvinism of the melting pot.
Schlesinger saw in 1992 the growing self-segregation of college campuses, a “cult of ethnicity [that] exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives ever deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities. The endgame is self-pity and self-ghettoization.” He decries “white guilt,” which can be “pushed too far,” and only as an afterthought seems to agree with Diane Ravich that “the United States has a common culture that is multicultural.”
Schlesinger diagnosed the left’s abandonment of ideals that could properly be called “American” in favor of a doctrine that encourages a more sectarian view of society. Ethnic ideologues, he writes, “set themselves against the old American ideal of assimilation. They call on the republic to think in terms not of individual but of group identity and to move the polity from individual rights to group rights. They have made a certain progress in transforming the United States into a more segregated society.” It’s difficult to argue the point, but not the exaggerations. His evidence for this “ethnic upsurge”? The Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act Congress passed in 1974. By 1977 the program had funded a whopping $5.9 million in 140 grants across the country, with a $2.3 million budget in 1977. It wasn’t funded past 1978.
But as when he makes one of the grossest analogies in the book–“If some Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan wanted to devise an educational curriculum for the specific purpose of handicapping and disabling black Americans, he would not be likely to come up with anything more diabolically effective than Afrocentrism”–Schlesinger can sound crabby, defensive, aggrieved, and a bit blind.
The focus on ethnocentrism, on the “cult of ethnicity,” entirely misses the cult of identity, which has been a more powerful driver of the Reagan-Trump reaction than ethnocentrism’s effect on resegregating society. The deeper problem is not a failure of assimilation. Just look at any second-generation family of immigrants. They’re more American than the native born. If there is resegregation, it’s a failure of cohesion, the result of inequalities unseen in 100 years, cleaving the country racially but more profoundly, economically. That wasn’t happenstance. It was willed by four decades of gilded-age tax policy starting in 1981 when, as Kurt Andersen wrote in last year’s Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, “the Great Uncoupling of the rich from the rest began,” resulting in “the largest and fastest upward redistribution of wealth in history.”
Schlesinger by 1992 could see the full effect of the Reagan tax cuts and the uncoupling already sharpening the divide in income distribution graphs. He ignored that entirely even in his revised and expanded 1998 edition. Demonstrably, upward mobility is increasingly a myth. As always, immigrants and minorities are foil to white resentment.
To right-wingers’ delight, Schlesinger took the bait. He gave a cultural interpretation to an economic dislocation, and has given a generation of social critics the language and method of making red herrings out of his dearly departed melting pot. As long as we blame Blacks, Browns and gays for cramming their identities down our throats, we don’t have to worry about the deeper corrosion to national cohesion. But whatever dislocations are caused by the “cult of ethnicity” pale compared to the dislocations of the cult of capitalism, or what Matthew Desmond more precisely terms “low-road capitalism.”
America’s relationship with ethnicity–America’s relationship with itself–is an exploration of the core of the American paradox going back to the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” phrase. At its best, the American experiment is a history of that paradox in action. At its worst, it’s a history of suppressions, segregations, racial, ethnic or cultural wars. If this country has any claim to exceptionalism–it has far fewer than it presumes–it is that, as even America’s critics can agree, it has been willing to wrestle with the paradox, to experiment, to push the limits of the meaning of “all men are created equal.” The tension between the forces of change and the forces of reaction has powered the country from its beginnings. The forces of change aren’t always wise, the reactions aren’t always wrong. The disuniting of America, in that sense, is nothing new. We could do without the rage but not the tension at the heart of multiculturalism.
What is newer is a sense of paralysis, of regression. Since he wrote The Disuniting, it’s as if the country hasn’t moved past this 30 years’ war over ethnicity and identity. It just rages, deaf and blind to so much as debate. That’s the shock of reading the book again this year. Its exaggerations and blind spots aside, its familiarity is its biggest disappointment. Change a few book titles, and the curricular wars it refers to are identical to today’s. Have we really been stuck in this cultural quagmire for three decades? A book like that should have been dated by 2000, out of print and out of mind by 2010. Instead, it “lives on,” a mirror to our insolvency.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.