A 1991 book by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., vital for today
Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of an essay published in the current issue of National Review.
Very rarely does the whole world face the same problem at the same time. I’m not talking about the staples: aging, want, crime, and the rest. I’m talking about something specific, such as the coronavirus. It is truly a common enemy, worldwide. It’s as though Earth had been invaded by hostile extraterrestrials.
Has this extraordinary situation served to draw the world closer? Not that I can tell.
Well, how about the coronavirus in one country (to adapt a phrase from Stalin)? I have the United States in mind. Has this common enemy served to draw Americans closer? On the contrary, it has heightened our divisions, I think. The bonds of affection — Lincoln, this time, not Stalin — are very strained.
In recent weeks, I have thought of a book, published almost 30 years ago: The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. First appearing in 1991, it was reissued in 1992 and 1998. It was a hit with many conservatives, which was surprising, given the source: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., that high priest of liberalism.
He was in his mid 70s when he wrote Disuniting. He had published his first book more than 50 years before, when he was 21. That was his senior thesis at Harvard, a study of Orestes Brownson, a 19th-century New Englander who wrote, preached, organized, etc. Schlesinger followed that up with The Age of Jackson, a hit in 1946.
Writing about Schlesinger in 2001, William Leuchtenburg, a fellow historian, walked down Memory Lane. “I recall one afternoon in 1946 overhearing a grizzled bookseller on Fourth Avenue saying to another, ‘How do you figure this business? A book on Jackson a best-seller!’”
The Disuniting of America was a best-seller too. Schlesinger had a lot to say, all life long, I grant you. But also, he could write — which made him a best-seller. Here is a stylish, and typical, sample from Disuniting:
Those intrepid Europeans who had torn up their roots to brave the wild Atlantic wanted to forget a horrid past and to embrace a hopeful future. They yearned to become Americans. Their goals were escape, deliverance, assimilation. They saw America as a transforming nation . . .
I wish Disuniting could be a best-seller today, too. It is “ripped from the headlines,” as they say — the headlines of right now. It is dated only in small, trivial ways. Whether to teach “Ebonics” in school was a hot issue in 1991, and not so much today. Also, we don’t speak much of “barrio-ization,” although the concept still applies.
This book is an expression of the old liberalism, supplanted by leftism and other flavors of illiberalism. It is conservative, in one sense: protective of the “American Creed,” as Schlesinger writes — with no irony, and with those capital letters.
Sitting down with the book recently, I marked it up, excitedly. Have you ever marked up a book so much, you render your markings useless?
Schlesinger opens by observing that the Cold War is over and new wars have begun: not over ideology but over those old standbys: race, ethnicity, and tribe. Soon, he quotes Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who lived from 1930 to 2013. (It was he who wrote Things Fall Apart, whose title is borrowed from Yeats.) The greatest weakness of the Nigerians, Achebe said, is “their inability to face grave threats as one people instead of as competing religious and ethnic interests.”
For his part, and discussing America, Schlesinger warns that “the contemporary sanctification of the group threatens the old idea of a coherent society” — a society never based on race, ethnicity, or religion, but on “a common adherence to ideals of democracy and human rights.”
What Schlesinger wants to know is, “Will the center hold? or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel?” In speaking of the center, holding or not holding, Schlesinger is borrowing from the same poem as Achebe. You may remember, also, that Schlesinger wrote a book called “The Vital Center” (1949).
As for Babel, Schlesinger writes quite a bit in Disuniting about English and bilingualism. There have always been many languages in America, he says, as immigrants have landed, but these languages have given way to the common tongue, English — which is critical for all concerned.
On Election Day a few years ago, I looked at my ballot and saw that it was in both English and Spanish. There was a yes-no question for voters to vote on. What you saw was “Yes/Sí” and “No/No.” Oh, come on, I thought. How insulted a Spanish-speaker must be to see “No/No” — and “Yes/Sí,” for that matter.
Schlesinger is big on integration and assimilation. Unironically, he uses “melting pot,” as you may have noticed, above. Other people have preferred a “quilt” (Jesse Jackson) and a “gorgeous mosaic” (David Dinkins). Those are okay with me because they are at least one artwork. But Schlesinger, unblushingly, likes “melting pot.”
I cherish a story about Toscanini, the great conductor. When he first came to America, someone asked him, “Maestro, what do you think of American orchestras?” He replied, “What’s an American orchestra?” Before him were players from many nations, speaking with many accents — but they were part of the strange, splendid American melting.
Melting is a two-way street, Schlesinger notes. I will quote him:
When old-line Americans . . . treat people of other nationalities and races as if they were indigestible elements to be shunned and barred, they must not be surprised if minorities gather bitterly unto themselves and damn everybody else. Not only must they want assimilation and integration; we must want assimilation and integration too. The burden to make this a unified country lies more with the complacent majority than with the beleaguered minorities.
In France, this is a burning issue (sometimes literally). Which is truer: that Muslims, many of them, won’t become Frenchmen? or that Frenchmen, many of them, won’t let them? But I had better get back to America . . .
“For a long time,” writes Arthur Schlesinger, “the Anglo-Americans dominated American culture and politics and excluded those who arrived after them” — including people from Italy. I thought of my friend Pat Gigliotti (whose first name was originally “Pasquale,” but who became “Pat” when a teacher of his, an Irish nun, had trouble with the original).
Pat grew up in Kansas City. Certain mothers forbade their daughters to date him because he wasn’t “white.” He was Italian. Later he lived in Southern California and was called an “Anglo.” Pat told me, “I can’t tell whether that’s a promotion or a demotion.”
He further pointed out that people around him were called “Latino” — yet the original “Latin lover,” Rudolph Valentino, was an Italian.
About black Americans, it is hard to be so lighthearted. “The curse of racism has been the great failure of the American experiment, the glaring contradiction of Americans ideals and the still crippling disease of American life.” I have quoted Schlesinger — who quotes Melville:
I muse upon my country’s ills —
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.
That is a perfect phrase, is it not? The world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.
In their treatment of black Americans, says Schlesinger, white Americans “betrayed” their Creed. Elsewhere in his book, he says, “Little is harder to talk honestly about in America these days than race. Too many sensitivities are involved, too many opportunities for misunderstanding.”
Yet he does talk about race, and honestly — and sensitively and forthrightly. It is one of the gifts, or favors, of this book.
In the past few months, many prominent newspapers and magazines have decided to capitalize “black,” in reference to people and culture; some of them are doing the same with “white.” I myself recoil from those capital letters. I think they accent apartness (a word that, in Afrikaans, is “apartheid”). I think they constitute yet another blow to E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.”
Also, the phrase “black culture” — or “Black culture” — is interesting. There are subcultures in America, naturally, as there are in countries all over. But it should not be forgotten that black culture is part and parcel of American culture, across the board. Thomas Sowell once pointed out to me that the average black family has been on these shores longer than the average white family.
Obviously, there are always racists in the woodwork, and out of the woodwork. It seems to me that swarms of them have come out of the woodwork in recent years. A story out of Michigan caught my eye earlier this month — in part because I’m from Michigan; in part because I’ve spent time in Leelanau County; in part because I’ve spent time in Interlochen; in part because it’s a shocking story (at least to me, but maybe I am naïve to be shocked).
A member of the Leelanau County Road Commission said something nasty at a commission meeting. It involved the use of the N-word, or, to be less delicate about it, “nigger” — the nastiest word in the American vocabulary. Then the commissioner went on Interlochen Public Radio to say, among other things, “A nigger is a nigger is a nigger. That’s not a person whatsoever.”
You may think I’m the naïve-est guy in town. But I promise you, I never heard anything like that, when I was growing up. Perhaps I was sheltered.
Reporting this story, the Washington Post described the road commissioner as “White” — with that capital “W.” I thought this was appropriate, actually: because the fellow is clearly conscious of himself as a member of a racial group, set against other racial groups. He does not strike me as much of an American (or as much of a man).
Now to education. Last year, the New York Times embarked on its “1619 Project,” which places slavery at the heart of the American founding. (It was in 1619, according to the scholarly consensus, that African slaves were first brought to the United States, or to the land that would become the United States, late in the next century.) Being a historian and teacher, Arthur Schlesinger has a lot to say about the teaching of history. I will quote a sort of introductory paragraph:
History is to the nation rather as memory is to the individual. As an individual deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost, not knowing where he has been or where he is going, so a nation denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. As the means of defining national identity, history becomes a means of shaping history. The writing of history then turns from a meditation into a weapon.
Schlesinger proceeds to quote a Party slogan from 1984, Orwell’s classic dystopian novel: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Beware “compensatory history,” says Schlesinger. That is a coinage of his, and a good one. This is the kind of history that tries to make up for neglect, oppression, and other sins. Out-groups have always been attracted to compensatory history, understandably. Schlesinger gives the example of Irish Americans.
Beware “history as therapy,” he also says. History — real history — discomforts, as well as soothes. In one of his killer lines, Schlesinger writes, “Low self-esteem is too deep a malady to be cured by hearing nice things about one’s ethnic past.”
Schlesinger is one of those who think that history should be taught warts and all — and don’t forget the “all,” when concentrating on the warts. I think of a line that Jeane J. Kirkpatrick once uttered: “Someday, Americans will have to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is.”
I had to smile — or was it more of a grimace? — when reading Schlesinger on higher education: “The situation in our universities, I am confident, will soon right itself once the great silent majority of professors cry ‘enough’ and challenge what they know to be voguish blather.” I think Professor Schlesinger, 30 years later, would find himself still waiting.
In 1991, he was more worried about lower education than higher. Listen to him:
The impact of ethnic and racial pressures on our public schools is more troubling. The bonds of national cohesion are sufficiently fragile already. Public education should aim to strengthen those bonds, not to weaken them. If separatist tendencies go on unchecked, the result can only be the fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.”
Today, Christopher Columbus is in the news — more than 500 years after his death — because Americans are vandalizing, toppling, or demanding the removal of monuments to him. Schlesinger strikes me as very wise: “Let our children try to imagine the arrival of Columbus from the viewpoint of those who met him and also from the viewpoint of those who sent him.”
Without blushing — there is not much blushing in this book — Schlesinger speaks of the “Western tradition,” and defends it. He also speaks of people who assail this tradition. About them, he points out something interesting: For support, they invoke Marx, Nietzsche, Gramsci, Derrida, Habermas, and a host of others — all of them European, all of them products of the West.
I can’t help thinking of a Falun Gong practitioner I once interviewed. He said something like the following: “The Chinese Communist Party says that Falun Gong is alien to China. Actually, the roots of Falun Gong go deep into Chinese history and tradition. You know what’s alien to China? Communism. Marxism-Leninism. That was imported from you people in the West, and I wish you’d take it back.”
Professor Schlesinger makes a further point:
Unlike other cultures, the West has conceived and acted upon ideals that expose and combat its own misdeeds. No other culture has built self-criticism into the very fabric of its being. The crimes of the West in time generated their own antidotes.
They have provoked great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism, to promote religious tolerance, to defend freedom of inquiry and expression, to advance personal liberty and human rights.
Schlesinger spends a fair amount of time on freedom of speech — of which he is a champion. You may smile, or sigh, over this statement, 30 years ago: “A peculiarly ugly mood seems to have settled over the one arena where freedom of inquiry and expression should be most unconstrained and civility most respected — our colleges and universities.”
The man hadn’t seen anything yet. (He lived until 2007.)
In the arena of free speech, Schlesinger is clearly uncomfortable to have allies on the right and adversaries on the left. Right-wingers are supposed to be the censors (as sometimes they are). But left-wingers, too, prove excellent and ferocious censors. And they may find that, in altered circumstances, they are the censored rather than the censoring.
As if trying to get through to dull-witted children, Schlesinger writes, “No one needs the First Amendment more than those who seek to change society. Radicals are always in the minority, and minorities gain most from the protections of the Bill of Rights.”
He also gives us this killer — and ungainsayable — sentence: “It is ironic that what the multiculturalists began as a joyous celebration of diversity ends as a grim crusade for conformity.”
I have said that The Disuniting of America is ripped from today’s headlines, and it is. But if the author could revise it, he would surely spend time on political polarization. Red states and blue states. Fox News and CNN. Everyone in his own political camp, at daggers drawn with the enemy (and not the coronavirus). Is this worse than the ethnic, racial, and other divisions that Schlesinger takes up? There is some overlap, I think.
People on the left are loath to live with people on the right, and vice versa. A few years ago, I was at a conservative gathering. A lady said she had just moved to Asheville, N.C. — which, by consensus, is one of the most desirable places to live in all of America. A man said, “How can you stand it?” The woman was momentarily puzzled: Doesn’t everyone know that Asheville is delightful? But she quickly realized what our friend meant: Most Ashevilleans are liberal.
A few paragraphs above, I used the word “ungainsayable,” in homage to William F. Buckley Jr., who used it with some frequency. I have never heard anyone else use it. WFB and Arthur Schlesinger were old antagonists, but the last book WFB ever read, I believe, was Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952–2000 (published posthumously). He was enthralled with those journals. There were two references to him, both of them mean, he told me — but he was wowed by the journals nonetheless.
He had a plan: to review the journals at great length — 20,000 words or so — for The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, or a comparable publication. He died before that could happen, however.
I will trust Bill on the journals, which I have not read. The Disuniting of America, I have — and I find it an outstanding contribution, made by the author in the twilight of his career. This is a patriotic contribution, too. You can hear in Schlesinger’s book the mystic chords of American memory, which Lincoln hoped would swell again.
A final quotation, please, from the book in question:
Our task is to combine due appreciation of the splendid diversity of the nation with due emphasis on the great unifying Western ideas of individual freedom, political democracy, and human rights. These are the ideas that define the American nationality — and that today empower people of all continents, races, and creeds.