A Healthy American Diversity

August 30, 2008

Note to readers: postings may be lighter in the next few weeks, but I will continue to put up at least a short entry each Friday (plus or minus a day) in accordance with the policy for this blog. Thanks to all for your support and for your excellent comments! 

Have you ever investigated the origins of the town or community where you grew up? If you are lucky there may be a museum on this theme located at one of the prominent buildings or sites of the area; local libraries and local government also often have information.  I recently started paying more attention to such issues (for reasons I need not explain to my regular readers) and now try to pull over in my car when I pass a historical marker, statue, or the like. 

Compared with Europe, America’s historical sites are often modest and relatively new; and some of the most important sites may have been destroyed or burned down long ago. But the key to appreciating historical sites is to bring your imagination. It is not the place itself, but the people and the stories it conjures up, that move one’s feelings. In that respect the amazing story of America’s growth as a country makes even a humble building or mound of earth a vital link to our larger people and nation. 

In the Midwest, where I grew up, the typical town was founded in the first half of the 19th century by a semi-spontaneous grouping of settlers, usually of a particular ethnic and religious character, and directed by community leaders, educated men with wealth and with a philanthropic desire to create an attractive and permanent community. One thing that amazes me is how highly developed American towns were by the late 19th century. The same town 100 years ago was an utterly different place than it is today, although the basic layout is the same and some prominent buildings remain. And it is not necessarily the case that the town today is more developed than it was in the past. For instance, in my hometown, streetcars used to run regularly to the nearest, larger towns, 10 miles or more away, and railroads linked it to major cities. All of these conveniences are gone and you essentially have to drive everywhere now. Also, in the 19th century, it was possible to see famous lecturers and performers in surprisingly rural areas, booked by organizations like the Lyceums and the Chautauquas. The Midwest was also dotted with fancy resorts located near lakes and other scenic areas, where the wealthy could enjoy boating and health treatments and ice cream and other luxuries. I would give the health treatments a miss, but otherwise can’t see what is so much better about today’s environment! 

I have recently been reading James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) early novel The Pioneers (1823). (Here is the website for a society that promotes Cooper’s work.) It includes a great deal of description of a town founded by one Judge Marmaduke Temple and modeled after Cooperstown, New York, founded by Cooper’s own father. Cooper himself admits the novel’s weakness (general to his fiction) of an overabundance of descriptive passages of nature, discussions of history and the character of the community, and long dialogues having little to do with the plot. In fact, after about 150 pages the plot can be described in just a few sentences. The story is set in 1793. Judge Temple, a widower with a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, whom he is escorting home from boarding school, gets in a disagreement with an old woodsman, Natty Bumppo, over who shot a buck. The Judge’s unskilled shot had lodged a ball in the shoulder of Natty’s companion, a mysterious young man, part Indian, named Oliver Edwards. Oliver is brought back to the Judge’s estate to have the ball removed by a local doctor, with the help of John Mohegan, the Delaware, who applies Indian remedies. The villagers then all attend a Christmas Eve sermon by an Episcopalian priest, and the main characters gather in an inn to drink. It is hinted that a romance will develop between Elizabeth and Oliver.

However, I find the non-essential material to be extremely interesting in itself for its description of an early American community. One can honestly say that early American towns like the fictional Templeton were quite “diverse,” so much so that Cooper feels compelled to “explain the reason why we have been obliged to present so motley a dramatis personae” (implying that American communities had already become more homogeneous a few decades after the time of the story). The cast of characters includes local persons who sound “New England” or even a bit Irish, like the housekeeper with the wonderful name Remarkable Pettibone, or the proprietors of the inn “The Bold Dragoon.” There is a Frenchman, Monsieur Le Quoi, owner of a general store and a former French nobleman in exile following the French Revolution. There is a German, Major Hartmann. There are the woodsmen, Natty and Oliver, and the Indian John (Chingachgook, an aged Christian convert who seems at any moment ready to revert to savagery). There is the black slave Aggy (Agamemnon). There are Quakers, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Universalists.

Now, it is common these days for historians to focus on the supposedly marginalized people of America, such as women (yes, 50% of the population was marginalized), blacks, Indians, religious minorities, and so forth. It is also standard to focus on the “diversity” of early American society, to bring history more in line with the present-day marginalization of the historic white Christian majority. A newer history of colonial America, Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2002), exemplifies this approach. According to the Publisher’s Weekly review quoted on Amazon, the work

…challenges traditional Anglocentric interpretations of colonial history by focusing more evenly on the myriad influences on North America’s development. Beginning with the Siberian migrations across the Bering Straits 15 millennia ago, Taylor lays out the complicated road map of ownership, occupation and competition involving the Native Americans, African slaves and Spanish, Dutch, French and English colonists. He covers settlement and conquest from Canada to Mexico, and from the West Indies and mainland colonies to the Pacific islands. “The colonial intermingling of peoples and of microbes, plants, and animals from different continents was unparalleled in speed and volume in global history,” he writes.

Entirely by coincidence I see that Taylor previously wrote a history of Cooperstown, New York, called William Cooper’s Town! Perhaps his theme of the diversity of the early American population was influenced by The Pioneers.

Taylor’s history is full of fascinating information and I may write more about it in the future. However, it is completely lacking in the sense of the particular American nationhood we are concerned with in this weblog. Or, more accurately, it explicitly aims to undermine that sense of nationhood. Since “America” is simply a name we attach to a mass of people who live in a particular geographic region, and is the product of various random struggles for power between brown-skinned people, black-skinned people, and white-skinned people (as well as microbes and animals), from which the English-speaking whites ended up temporarily on top as a result of luck and cruelty, there is no sense of a history that links us with our forebears and explains who we are. The result is odd statements treating white settlers and their black slaves both as “immigrants,” one group of whom unaccountably oppressed the other. And there is the usual bias against the white settlers, evident in the use of language, as noted by at least one Amazon reviewer. 

Yet if we look at the town in Cooper’s novel, we should also note the homogeneity of the populace in important qualities. First, all the settlers are white and at least nominally Christian (there are no Jewish characters, though perhaps they appear elsewhere in Cooper’s work). They all speak English, though in a variety of dialects and accents, which provide spice and humor to the story. The Indian is Christianized and lives on the outskirts of the community; the black slaves are simply subordinate laborers. 

Further, the lives of the settlers are intimately connected. The whole town is managed under the aegis of the Judge, the owner of most of the land, who settles disputes and directs the construction of a local academy and other public works. Indirectly, he decides to some extent who gets to live in the village. People help each other in times of trouble and need, and of course everybody knows everybody else’s business. They argue about religious issues, but share basic values and pride themselves upon having “a moral community.” Furthermore, people who break the law are swiftly punished – the stocks are still in use in this town. It is not hard to see how in a generation or two the people of such a town would be much more homogeneous. 

Furthermore, though there is an American disdain for European notions of class, there definitely exists a wealthy, educated (by the standards of the time) elite who have authority in the community but also a sense of responsibility for contributing to its excellence. This is personified by the somewhat vain but well-intentioned and intelligent Judge Temple. In fact, Temple is a kind of environmentalist, critical of settlers who waste the timber and hunt recklessly. He has a sense of his own position, admonishing his housekeeper for calling his daughter “Elizabeth” and forcing her to use the term “Miss Temple,” much to the housekeeper’s chagrin. It is only stating the obvious to suggest that the character of our American communities was shaped by community leaders like Marmaduke Temple. If new American developments and communities are as characterless as they seem to me today, does that not suggest that our new leaders are lacking in some basic qualities of character and education? 

A question for another time. Meanwhile, the diversity of early Templeton (Cooperstown) suggests to me a model for those of us trying to strengthen European-American community. We are inevitably diverse – Northern and Southern, elite and working class, belonging to various sects or no sect at all. Yet we have to come together in our common heritage and work to build the foundation for our communities of the future. (We may also find that the old wars and rivalries with those of other European nationality are now irrelevant, making possible some very interesting and rewarding interactions with people in other countries.) So maybe we should indeed learn to “celebrate diversity,” as the multiculturalists put it. Not the false, anti-American diversity they speak of, but our own American diversity. “Out of many, one,” indeed.

A Couple of Epitaphs, and Reply to John Wright

August 21, 2008

This week I found myself engaged in composing a reply to John Wright, a libertarian, who noticed my essay last week for its mention of Ayn Rand, and made serious criticisms of some of my premises.

Though incomplete, I’m posting my response this week. I am afraid John will feel despite all this that I did not exactly reply to his comments, but rather changed the subject, as it were, giving an account of traditionalist conservatism and why I think individual rights and liberties need to be constrained by practices that embody transcendent values. The reason is that conservative and libertarian concepts are quite different and so I frankly found it difficult to answer his comments on their own terms. I hope that he will notice that most of his points are alluded to somewhere or other.

Some of my regular readers may find my rehashing of “traditionalist” principles unnecessary, though it was a useful exercise for me. I think I became engaged in the task because I have some idea of where John is coming from. Also, he seems like a familiar and appealing type, the kind of smart guy brimming with ideas who you stay up having arguments with all night in college. That’s not something I get to do much these days.

In any case, since I try to provide a bit of “American heritage” every week, I’ll just share something brief with you before getting to my response.

When I was a child, my mother had a record called Spoon River Anthology, the soundtrack to a theatrical production based on the poetic work of the same title written by Edgar Lee Masters and published in 1915. (Unfortunately the record is out of print and not available on CD.) This week I re-listened to the work. As a child I didn’t understand the meaning of the poems, but the rough music and drama of the blank verse appealed to me, and the soundtrack had several beautiful songs as well. As you may know, Spoon River Anthology is a collection of epitaphs spoken by the dead in a small Illinois town around the turn of the century. The idea of the small Midwestern town it evokes is deeply poignant and touching.

However, I realized as I listened to the record that the work is extremely dark. Masters definitely has an agenda of debunking a sentimental view of small-town America. Its narrators speak of infidelity, abortion, suicide, vain lives spent in pointless labor, cruelty, bullying, racism, murder. Only a small proportion of the epitaphs are of a person who lived well and in death speaks with contentment about his or her life.

So I could see that American self-hatred goes way back. Or, rather, the observation of the human suffering that occurs beneath the veil of respectability and which religion, laws, and customs fail to prevent, may lead one to think we’d be better off without them. Of course small-town life has its underbelly, but the way Masters deconstructs it you might easily become persuaded that there was nothing important to save and cherish. Still, somehow an air of sweetness and nostalgia can be felt throughout the work.

In any case, as dark as Masters is, his language has a rhythm and power that makes it beautiful. He captures something of America in his poems. I’ll give you one of the dark ones and one of the bright ones.

Roscoe Purkapile

SHE loved me. Oh! how she loved me!
I never had a chance to escape
From the day she first saw me.
But then after we were married I thought
She might prove her mortality and let me out.
Or she might divorce me.
But few die, none resign.
Then I ran away and was gone a year on a lark.
But she never complained. She said all would be well,
That I would return. And I did return.
I told her that while taking a row in a boat
I had been captured near Van Buren Street
By pirates on Lake Michigan,
And kept in chains, so I could not write her.
She cried and kissed me, and said it was cruel,
Outrageous, inhuman!
I then concluded our marriage
Was a divine dispensation
And could not be dissolved,
Except by death.
I was right.

Lucinda Matlock

I WENT to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

*     *     *     *     *    *    *

Reply to John Wright


Thank you for your thoughtful and stimulating reply to my essay on American individualism. I want to say that it is delightful to hear that you love the United States, and for the right reasons! Not because I like hearing my country flattered but because it means that there remains some good to be appreciated by immigrants who come here – for the right reasons.

I’m also interested in your self-description as a “theist” libertarian. Are there many of those?

I have moved away from libertarianism for a number of years now but I have never gone back and argued for my changed views with libertarians, so your reply challenges me to articulate some basic positions.

Inevitably I find myself at times arguing against “liberalism” rather than libertarianism, but I think libertarianism is a type of liberalism (a political philosophy placing individual liberty and autonomy at the center of things), so I think the criticisms generally apply. I will use the term left-liberal if necessary to distinguish statist, coercive, socialist liberalism from libertarianism.

On national culture

First, my blog is based on my belief that the historic American nation is being destroyed by current policies and social trends and that the only way to resist this is to revive in Americans a sense of belonging to an actual people with shared language, history, ethnicity, and values. As a libertarian this idea may sound so strange, collectivist, and even evil that you may find we have nothing further to discuss, but it will have to suffice for me to say here that I understand the difference between a healthy degree of diversity and today’s situation, where the founding and majority population is being transformed into a tiny minority through mass immigration and enforced multiculturalism. (It is not accidental that this ethno-cultural transformation is accompanied by the growth in collectivist policies.)

Therefore, when I talk about national culture I am talking about something enormously important, the whole matrix of shared language, understandings, and behaviors of a single nation, the air we breathe and the texture of our life, and not just holidays and symbols. If you do not consider culture an important part of your identity or America’s, what I say may not make sense.

On traditionalism

Now, what I’m calling “traditionalism” is a particular and relatively recent articulation of conservatism that needs to be clearly identified. I draw on Lawrence Auster’s terminology here (see the links below) though what I present here is simply my own understanding. It’s important to note, though, that conservatism is not a systematic philosophy (like Objectivism – and I am not saying you’re an Objectivist), and there are plenty of people with the same views who don’t depend on this terminology.

The basic idea of traditionalism is that there is a transcendent order to existence and that particular societies and cultures align themselves with that order, each in its own particular and historically situated way. The practices and institutions of a society that relate to that higher order comprise its “traditions.” These are the things conservatism seeks to “conserve.” For example, the idea of God or the divine is something universal which is expressed in different ways in, say, Anglican Christianity or Tibetan Buddhism. Or, the division of humanity into men and women with the potentiality for physical and spiritual union and reproduction, is a universal fact realized in the institution of marriage, which varies greatly by culture. I’m not saying all forms are equally true or good. I am saying the universal needs to be concretized and symbolized in some form in human life.

Traditionalism is opposed to liberalism and libertarianism because it recognizes values that are higher than, or transcend, the individual; though I would also say it recognizes transcendent grounds for certain timeless individual rights. The important point to note here is that the “liberalism” which traditionalism opposes is a kind of unspoken, contemporary, extreme version of classical liberalism with its emphasis on freedom and choice. Modern liberalism makes liberal autonomy the central, ruling principle of society. It places tolerance and nondiscrimination over all other values. And it dominates all our major institutions today, and is believed in even by most people who call themselves “conservatives,” who might better be called, in Mark Richardson’s terminology, “right-liberals.” I think that libertarianism is a variety, then, of liberalism, though it makes a very important distinction between achieving autonomy through coercing people, and doing it by freeing them from coercion. I’m not sure I succeed in keeping this distinction in mind adequately in what I’ve written here, so you may note some inconsistencies.

On traditional morality

Although I didn’t state in my essay what I mean by “traditional morality,” I am not talking about following tradition just because it’s tradition; I am talking about respecting traditional answers to questions about how to order our lives and being reluctant to break with those traditions without very good reason. I take it for granted a Western reader has some sense of what traditional Western morality calls for – think about the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule or Christian marriage; think also about the Protestant work ethic and American individualism. I think further that this moral ethos has an organic unity and coherence, and can’t be reduced to a mere collection of unrelated restrictions and freedoms. Nor is it sustained primarily by governmental coercion.

On individual liberty and its social context

Now, you see America’s greatness as resting in its enshrinement of principles of individual liberty in its government. And you see leftist collectivist values as being the enemy of that freedom. I have no disagreement with the sense of what you’re saying. We in the West, at least, see the right to make our own choices in our lives as important. We are against slavery, forced marriage, and having our job chosen by the State. In America of course there is strong tradition of property rights, free enterprise, gun ownership, and so forth which is valued by libertarians and conservatives alike.

Where I disagree is with the idea that a concept of individual liberty is a sufficient principle on which to form and sustain a society. I see liberty as a derivative or secondary value. If you are alone on a desert island you have infinite liberty but not much you can do with it. As soon as other human beings enter the picture, constraints to choice appear as one enters into relationships with those people. Most of these have nothing to do with government. But even this image is inadequate because we are actually born as social animals, raised by particular parents in a particular place with a particular culture, and we spend most of our lives embedded in a society and culture. Our early relationships, experiences, and education are not chosen at all. Probably you will stress the importance of the voluntary nature of our social relationships and I will not disagree; I just think that the mere right to start or terminate relationships is only a small aspect of the complexity of our social lives.

Anyway, for argument’s sake let’s suppose that there are more “individualistic” and more “collectivist” cultures, and that Anglo-American culture grants a high degree of (certain types of) freedom and autonomy within this web of social relationships. Let’s even judge that such a culture is superior to a more collectivist culture. I would still agree with you, though I would add the disclaimer, “at least for us,” because I am familiar enough with the variety and depth of human culture to know how shallow it is to say, for example, that Japanese people “lack individuality.”

Even if all this is granted, I would insist that individual liberty is not an essence or a “thing” of which more is better. It’s a relative concept; the freedom exists within an actual social framework and (here’s where you may disagree) the value of the freedom comes from its enabling a person to do something good with that freedom. So, I would say the freedom to drink alcohol, for instance – forbidden in Islam – is justified in that we recognize good, and socially important, uses for alcohol (wine with our dinner, “social lubricant” for our celebrations) even though abuse of alcohol also exists. So here we may be able to successfully apply your principle of “the rights of the individual to go about his or her business peaceably so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others,” and leave alcohol use unregulated except with things like drunk driving. On the other hand, with a dangerous drug like PCP there is no discernible benefit to individuals or society and I don’t see that making it illegal is a particular infringement of individual freedom. Maybe there should be laws about such things and maybe there shouldn’t but I find it odd that libertarians become passionate about the “right to” do things that are patently harmful.

With something like marriage things are more involved. Here I believe the liberal understanding of marriage as a voluntary arrangement between two autonomous individuals for their mutual benefit strips marriage of its special meaning and value. Marriage (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) is a transcendent relationship based on the mystical union of one man and one woman. This is expressed, for instance, in the passage from Genesis (whether it’s truth or poetry) which says: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply….” Do you see how this concept of marriage has a reality of its own? Do you see that it needs to be accepted by the whole society, at least publicly, for it to be realizable in a meaningful way? Particularly since fundamental issues of reproduction and childrearing are involved? Do you see that it cannot coexist with, say, Muslim polygamy in the same society? I think it also cannot coexist with gay marriage. I won’t try to demonstrate that here. I am not actually morbidly preoccupied with gay marriage; I talk about marriage here because it’s an example of an institution which I think cannot be upheld purely on libertarian principles.

This all kind of indirectly relates to the point in my article about “families, schools, and communities.” These may be partly formed by voluntary association but they are also formed according to transcendent standards. So, again giving the example of marriage, if we agree that a traditional heterosexual married household is, other things being equal, the best environment for a child to grow up in, then gay households deprive the children who grow up in them of that environment.

I will also add that it’s a characteristically conservative insight to realize that the acceptance of “transcendent” standards – ideals or categories that transcend individual instances – is not invalidated by individual exceptions, or indeed the fact that exceptions are inherent and inevitable.

Can liberalism – or libertarianism – protect us from non-liberal enemies? The case of Islam

My own move to traditionalism did not occur because there were individual behaviors such as homosexuality or terrible modern art that I “don’t like,” but because I began to see that my civilization is headed for extinction and that saving it requires the (re)establishment of standards that will inevitably restrict some such individual freedoms. For me, the September 11 terror attacks were a turning point.

Why is it that after 9/11 mass immigration of Muslims to the United States has continued and even increased even though it subjects the rest of us to significant danger as well as discomfort? The reason is that our society is now a liberal society. It sees all people as individuals with equal rights and thus refuses to discriminate based on collective assumptions about Muslims. (If you think Islam isn’t a mortal threat to Western civilization, please refer to the site Jihad Watch.)

Now, libertarians certainly have grounds to oppose some aspects of Islam, like the subjugation of women, the prohibition on charging interest, the persecution of homosexuals, and the treatment of non-Muslims as second-class citizens. They can cite the infringement of individual liberty and they can oppose Left-liberal policies that empower Islam, such as granting public money to Muslim organizations or requiring employers to accommodate Islamic prayer practices.

However, even if libertarianism were to become a powerful force in American society, I don’t think it is enough. The racial, ethnic, and religious conquest of America will continue. Again, this topic is too large to do any justice here, but a short way of expressing the problem is to say that the America you and I would like to live in – America of small government, individual privacy, the reward of enterprise and achievement, freedom of speech and worship – is not primarily sustained by abstract libertarian principles but by a living nation and people whose way of life sustains such liberties. Or, to put it another way, libertarian values will never be accepted by a populace that is not majority white “Anglo” and Judeo-Christian in heritage. Never! This is not something I’ll try to prove, but the evidence overwhelmingly points in that direction. I am afraid that libertarians will continue to make sophisticated arguments for a variety of rights while their actual societies become dangerous, impoverished, and chaotic.

Going beyond self-defense: the structures and constraints of a healthy society

It is when confronted by intractable problems like this, and I’d be delighted to be shown that I’m wrong, that the libertarian may turn toward non-liberal principles in the hope he can save something of his civilization. He may begin to think that what he is defending is his people, not a set of principles, valuable as those principles may be. He may realize, as I do, that he’d rather live among his people even if they adopt odious policies like national health care, than among alien peoples under a libertarian, non-intrusive regime. Policies can be changed; people go extinct forever.

And it turns out that preserving a people requires holding certain values that are higher than individual choice. (I don’t mean they crush individual choice.) Marriage, education, standards of dress, work ethic, gender roles, language, shared historical memories, literature, sports, festivals, education, manners, ethics…the list is endless. It is this shared culture, and the actual living, biological people making up a country, that provide the very foundation of human existence. And it is the collapse of these standards that has led to what I am sure you will recognize, the “trash culture” of America in the 21st century, with laziness, sloppiness, irresponsibility, self-indulgence, and the like more and more enshrined in our culture. (So I’m not just blaming things on immigrants, most of whom are more traditionalist than we are!) This is what I was getting at in criticizing “the right to be ‘different,’ to dress funny, to create ugly or incomprehensible art and be praised for it, to be a child at age 30,” etc.

As a result – as I realized – it’s not enough just to defend ourselves against Islam, or otherwise adopt particular policies to protect our way of life, such as restricting immigration, cracking down on crime, you name it. There needs to be an us that we are trying to protect. And that is the exact opposite of border-free liberal universalism.

For instance (I don’t know how to say this without being blunt), if white Westerners, having gained sexual freedom and access to birth control and abortion, stop having children at replacement rate, they eventually will go extinct, right? Many people will say this is a matter of complete indifference to them, but I’ve realized it’s not to me. And that leads one to reconsider liberal views on birth control, abortion, sexual freedom, gay marriage, and even liberal childrearing practices, all of which are leading to the group that holds that value going extinct and being replaced by other groups that don’t. (Without mass immigration, of course, the problem would not be this urgent; but it seems to me by and large, that either traditional marriage and childrearing is right and good and should be expected of most people, or it’s not and we should just dismantle our entire system in favor of a Brave New World sort of state rearing of children, which is what we’re heading for.)

To say that people are simply exercising their choice here and that if they choose to destroy themselves then at least they got to enjoy their precious freedom, begs the question concerning what traditionalists like myself are trying to do. We are trying to persuade people that the situation is wrong and organize a response to it.

Emphasis on values, not policy

You may at this point think I’m fantasizing about a coercive Nazi-like regime that regiments the lives of its citizens. I’m not. I probably oppose government interference with family, private enterprise, education, and so forth as much as you do. And I certainly oppose what you call collective rights. Individuals should be equal as individuals before the law. But as I said, individual rights exist within a particular social order, which is maintained not primarily by government coercion, but by informal enforcement of standards that are actually believed in by the people who enforce them. This is as it has always been – were English-speaking societies really so horribly unfree prior to, say, the 1960s? (Another useful concept is that of a majority culture – minorities have the same individual rights as everyone but do not have a collective right to disrupt the majority culture.)

As for policymaking, I confess this is an undeveloped area in my thought. I grew up, as you probably did, in basically prosperous, secure community and I had the much the same freedom in social, sexual, and religious matters that I think young people do today. Instinctively, I have no particular desire to interfere with people’s lives or get the government to do so. While there are areas (especially immigration) where I have clear ideas about laws and policies, I think for traditionalists the primary agenda consist mainly of resisting the current trends. Examples are: opposing mass immigration; opposing legal and informal preferences for ethnic groups; opposing bilingual education; taking needed anti-terror measures within our borders; opposing the further legal dismantling of social, sexual, academic and other standards. Apart from that, we are too few in number to have any ability to limit the freedom of others. Regardless of whether our program can succeed politically some day or whether we become a harried minority mainly concerned with survival in a dangerous, chaotic world, we are right now concerned with articulating our principles and with organizing.

Policy does need to be discussed. However, I disagree with the assumption that traditionalist conservatives are the same as the Left in wanting to use government to “restrict freedoms.”

On the idea of “liberal autonomy” and libertarianism

On a smaller point, you’re correct that I grouped different, or even contradictory, types of phenomena that I object to and categorized them all as social changes being forced upon “us,” traditionalist or conservative Americans. I should have been more precise. However, there was a reason for grouping them together, which is that they all are instances of a liberal society trying to expand individual “autonomy.” In the case of the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses are compelled to provide physical accommodation to handicapped people so as to make the physical handicap irrelevant to work performance. In the case of gay marriage, social practices are reorganized to make gender irrelevant to marriage. To a libertarian, the distinction between restricting freedoms by compelling actions or expenditures, and “expanding” a right by removing legal prohibitions to an action, is important. From a conservative perspective I’m not sure the two cases are so different. It seems evident that serious compulsion takes place in allowing gay marriage as well, though it may not be material. We have to stop talking about “husbands” and “wives,” we have to start teaching elementary school children about the normalcy of homosexuality whether we accept it or not, we have to let gay couples enter dance contests and adopt children and conceive children outside of the “marriage,” and so on. (Anyway, the compulsion certainly is material in the case of health care benefits, and the ever-present threat of lawsuits.)

I was, and am, honestly trying to grapple with the idea of liberal autonomy and how it relates to or is different from libertarian autonomy. Is Communism a form of liberalism or collectivism? It seems like a form of collectivism, but Engels did write about “freeing” the individual worker from material constraints to his desires, much as today’s liberal autonomy theory seems to do.

Second question: can libertarianism give us a vision of the true, good, and beautiful that we need in our public and private lives? Can a libertarian account of freedom fulfill the requirements I discuss here for protecting our society from a totalitarian religious ideology? I think not, but there are those who argue otherwise. Rand’s philosophy does give accounts of aesthetics, romantic love, etc. but I think misses some essentials. Try to imagine one of Howard Roark’s buildings. Could it possibly be as beautiful as a European cathedral or even a high-rise building in New York City build in the 1920s? If not, why not? And where are children and families in Rand’s philosophy?

(I think Rand tries to derive her transcendent values from the objective, biological nature of man; but I think this attempt fails. Other libertarians like Nozick seem to be basically using liberal ideas of freedom and equality. Nozick, like you, states right off “individuals have rights.” Where do the rights come from?)

Anyway, after this long journey I arrive at a couple of your views, that the powerlessness someone like me (or you) feels in the current climate has nothing to do with too much individualism, and that ultimately universal, individual rights and freedoms are the bottom line, regardless of consequences.

I agree that to complain of too much or too little “individualism” is not to make a very meaningful statement. So what I’d like to say is just that the instances of what Rick Darby, in the comments last week, called “micro-individualism” – things like body-piercing or other expressions of “decadent” individualism – are a sign of the collapse of standards, and should be criticized, though they’re in no sense the root of the problem.

I’ve tried to give an account, not so much of individualism or libertarianism, but of an alternative worldview in which a proper individualism can reside. To further comment on your libertarian philosophy, I’d have to know more about how you think the absolute individual rights you value – which exist regardless of consequences, a radical statement! – are justified, where they come from, and what their limits are. Meanwhile, I do think traditionalists can ally themselves with libertarians on a number of important particular issues, some of which I’ve mentioned here.

Again, thank you for commenting and sending your readers my way.

Links on Traditionalist Conservatism

I recommend the following pieces which come to mind as expressing the ideas of “conservatism,” “traditionalism,” “transcendence,” and the problem of American national identity.

Ten Conservative Principles

What is Conservatism?

Discovering Traditionalism–And Defining The Liberalism It Opposes

What Is Transcendence, And Why Does It Matter?

America No Longer Exists

What is the Order of Being?

What is European America?

Response to Reader Who Denies That Christianity Has Contributed Anything to the West

Fixing the Founding

The Tyranny of Liberalism

More on Liberal Tyranny

How Individualistic Should We Be?

August 15, 2008
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882

Individualism and Autonomy

HENCEFORTH, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice within.
*     *     *
And when I am entombèd in my place,
Be it remembered of a single man,
He never, though he dearly loved his race,
For fear of human eyes swerved from his plan.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Self-Reliance” (poem)

As I look back on my own education, I realize that even the “classic” American writers I was exposed to – Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, Hawthorne – were by and large associated with liberal or “progressive” qualities, although they were by no means liberal by today’s standards. I therefore think it wise to address the bias by looking at more conservative figures. Today, though, I look at one of the liberals, Emerson, as I consider the ideas of individualism and autonomy, so dear to the American heart.

The traditionalist blogger Mark Richardson, along with Jim Kalb and others, has frequently discussed the problems that arise from the liberal idea of autonomy in his critique of movements such as feminism. Richardson defines liberal autonomy here as follows:

Liberal autonomy theory is based on the idea that to be fully human we must be self-creating, self-determining individuals. This means that we must be “liberated” from whatever impedes individual choice.

Certainly we all believe in autonomy to some degree – in a reasonable degree of freedom to choose our work, our mate, our political allegiances free of outside compulsion. However, the true conservative understands that our freedom must exist within a stable social order that recognizes transcendent categories of being. Distinctions based on race, gender, intelligence, age, and other real qualities are essential to civilized life. As we see our Western societies literally invaded and their basic institutions overturned under the watch of bureaucracies purporting to enforce autonomy, it is right for us to suspect that a false theory of autonomy is one of the major culprits.

However, despite these problems, there must be some broader sense in which we believe in individualism. Surely it is good thing to be self-ruling, to think and work independently and to be true to one’s conscience. Americans see themselves as particularly individualistic, but individualism is characteristic of all English-speaking peoples. Emerson himself, I see, wrote of the English:

They are headstrong believers and defenders of their opinion, and not less resolute in defending their whim and perversity. (1)

What is the difference between a healthy individualism and a harmful concept of autonomy? The question interests me because for much of my life an idea of strong autonomy and an individualistic morality seemed perfectly reasonable. To me, the moral battle lines were drawn not between liberalism and conservatism, but between collectivism and individualism.

Randian Individualism and Traditional America

My main teacher in this regard was Ayn Rand. In my late teens her individualistic philosophy of Objectivism seemed to be the pure and beautiful truth. “I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” says John Galt in the novel Atlas Shrugged, who organizes the strike of the “men of the mind” that brings the world to a halt. “The mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought,” says the architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Brilliant visionaries like these men create what is great in human civilization, from bridges to symphonies, by following their own vision and shunning the crowd.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

To the individualism of her characters, Rand contrasts “collectivism” and “mysticism,” which she saw as characteristic of her native Russia. Collectivism, to Rand, means

the subjugation of the individual to a group — whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.”

Mysticism means “any acceptance of faith or feeling as a means of knowledge,” which Rand associated with the Middle Ages. It goes together with any collectivist system in some form. For instance, Rand would see Communism as a collectivist social system sustained by the “mystical” doctrines of Marxism.

Rand’s ideas were extremely persuasive to this young American, raised in a liberal milieu, during the Cold War. One could see the profound evil of the Soviet system as well as the increasingly collectivist tendencies in United States society. Keeping taxes down and rejecting affirmative action were causes to rally for. I have to thank Ayn Rand for showing me some of the falsehoods of modern liberalism, early on.

The world has changed. Rand’s libertarian approach seems increasingly ineffective in face of the problems brought by mass third-world immigration, Islamic jihad, and a widespread cultural and moral collapse. A general revitalization of society is needed, and this involves the strengthening, not weakening, of various social ties and values that transcend the individual. For this purpose, opposing “collectivism” and “mysticism” can be downright misguided. Is belonging to a family or a school or a community and incurring obligations related to these “subjugation to a group”? Is religion in all its manifestations merely a false method for gaining knowledge, like consulting a crystal ball? Rand fails to give a (non-hostile) account of fundamental aspects of actual human life and experience.

Her failure may be related to her “outsider” status. As a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who hated both the Communist party and the Russian Orthodox Church for their anti-individualism, Rand did not appreciate the conservative side of American society. She admired the individualism of America, embodied in men like Jefferson or Edison, but had no respect for its religiosity or its Protestant middle-class values. Though Rand was in a real sense an American writer, there were parts of America she did not understand. (I must credit my father for pointing this out when I ecstatically told him about Rand, though it took me years to understand what he was saying.)

Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

However, America certainly has its own strain of hyper-individualism. Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.” (I have no doubt that Rand was influenced by this essay, although she derided Emerson.) I read this in high school, and its appearance on many Internet sites for students suggests it is still being assigned. From it come many famous statements:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Emerson’s fiery and poetic words can be inspiring and bring on many “of course, he’s right” moments. They make one want to fight for what one believes in and to spurn shallow approval and material comforts. Certainly, he is not calling for modern self-indulgence but for taking a hard, lonely path when he says:

If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith [to seek God by separating oneself from the demands of others], let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth.

We can all, at least selectively, appreciate Emerson’s individualism, his romantic, ecstatic love of nature, his quest for integrity. But we must recognize also that he is thoroughly radical. As Tremaine McDowell remarked in 1940,

Today his pages are strewn with harmless fragments of exploded shells but hidden among them lie delayed action bombs which burst from time to time in the reader’s face. (2)

Not only are the problems with Emerson’s radicalism more apparent today then in the past, his exhortations to defy convention and his hatred of bourgeois conventionality do not seem to coordinate with the actual problems we fact in America and the West in the 21st century. I would love it if our biggest problem were that our professors and politicians were conservatives with the flaws of stuffiness and conventionality! (OK, Emerson did address big issues like slavery, but here we’ll stick to the issue of individualism.)

Different Types of Individualism

What notion of individualism does Emerson evoke? Certainly a very powerful one, dangerous in its radical implications, and he was considered a radical in his time, breaking with his church over its practice of Communion and supporting John Brown’s rebellion. “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” he writes. “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong is what is against it.” He may not literally be calling for lawlessness and anarchy but his words certainly invite a disdain for conventional morality. It is no surprise that a leading citizen of Boston called him “obnoxious to this community.”

Still, he also evokes most beautifully a sense of the divine experienced in solitude with nature, and he passionately believes that the quest for truth and the creation of beautiful works take place by somehow looking within oneself and fully trusting the experience. He writes: “When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.” We all have experienced something like this. I would rather have Emerson tell me about it than one of his pale imitators who write self-help books today.

Emerson also gives an account of an admirable type of young man found in early America (and resembling himself), for whom failure is just evidence of courage and ambition:

A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.

In today’s world, I find inspiration in his praise of working in solitude without heed of contemporary opinion. Those of us who oppose today’s political and social trends are very familiar with the feeling of solitude. To Emerson, working for what is right and true will be recognized in the future, and brings its reward today by cultivating one’s character:

Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm enough to-day to do right and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances and you always may. The force of character is cumulative.

The Other Side of the Story: Tradition and Community

Having granted the appeal and value of Emersonian individualism, I cannot help feeling uncertain over whether the idea of individualism has much concrete meaning in today’s America. Can some concept of “individualism” help us to recover our country?

I tend to think that the concept is of little value for us today. Certainly, we Americans are an individualistic people. Compared to those in some non-Western cultures, we value direct communication and we expect to be respected as individuals even by our superiors. One thing I value in interacting with my compatriots is the way people will joke or exchange personal information with someone they have met for the first time, even in a business transaction. And our expectation that people affected by a policy should have a say in that policy and are responsible for informing themselves about it is a healthy one.

But as our nation is steadily transformed into a loose conglomeration of separate and incompatible ethnic groups, and as our family, school, and work life is devastated by enforced “autonomy” and expanded “rights,” that require married couples to share equal status with homosexual cohabitants, that require schools to take in and accommodate uneducable people, that require small businesses to fit their offices with ramps and rails on the off-chance a handicapped person will apply for a job, it should become apparent at some point that we are becoming, not more, but less free. Unfree to be part of our historic people and civilization and to live according to the standards that civilization has set.

As that happens, individuality becomes meaningless. It becomes no more than the right to be “different,” to dress funny, to create ugly or incomprehensible art and be praised for it, to be a child at age 30 instead of a parent at age 20. And with our shared beliefs and traditions and language deprived of their power, the ability to “speak one’s mind” also becomes worthless. In America today there is no (or little) active censorship. You are free to write a letter to your local paper complaining about Muslim activities or black illegitimacy or how anti-war protesters should respect the troops in Iraq. The paper may even print it. (You’ll have to think about the impact it may have at your workplace.) But it won’t have the slightest effect on policy. It’s just a steam valve. And so we can see how the individual, stripped of meaningful cultural associations, becomes a mere individual, an atom, a powerless entity.

I would be very interested if there are any traditionalist conservatives able to give an account of individualism that can function for us in these perilous times.

Epilogue: Warning from an Emerson Scholar

While looking for information on Emerson, I learned that the late renowned scholar of American literature, Quentin Anderson, was long critical of the dangers of the individualism of Emerson and other American writers like Thoreau, Whitman, and James. Anderson was a liberal and a Communist sympathizer in his youth, so it is interesting that he talks about the same problem I have discussed, namely, that figures like Emerson ignore the importance of community. The interview is in the American Heritage magazine website (no relation to this blog!):

The wide claim Emerson is forever making for the self evades or denies the actuality of mother, father, children, wife, and townspeople, and this is a dangerous thing to do; our capacity to feel for one another, our very humanity, is diminished.

Anderson sees the hyper-individualism of Emerson and others as a response to American commercial culture, which since their time has completely triumphed. During my Randian pro-capitalist years I would have dismissed the idea that American capitalism could be harmful, but this now seems a reasonable concern if we consider how instrumental commercial interests have been in the destruction of our culture through immigration and globalization. Anderson says:

Emerson, and in their own ways Thoreau and Whitman, felt overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of commerce in their society. The society that had come into being with the “commercial republic,” as James Madison called it in The Federalist Papers, offered the individual American in pursuit of an identity and a settled sense of things little other reassurance than material acquisition. How much you were worth, and how you made your money, defined who you were. Their response was to assert that one’s self contained spiritual resources and could claim spiritual powers far greater than mere moneymaking could ever provide. Their work promises a glorious compensation for the apparent reduction of all pursuits to acquisition, for they assert that the whole world could be viewed as one’s possession.

The entire interview is well worth reading for Anderson’s insights on 19th century American culture, and his view (he is speaking in 1995) that a “creeping apocalypse” is being brought about by people’s withdrawal from collective life.

As today’s non-conformists and marginalized minorities, we traditionalists do indeed need to be individualists of a sort. Our position is not entirely different from that of leftists in the early 20th century, when they were shunned and persecuted and had to encourage themselves by supporting each other and dreaming of a better future. But I believe our biggest challenge now is not to assert our individuality, but to build our community and link it with our past and future nation.


(1) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “English Traits,” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Modern Library, 1950, p. 592.

(2) Emerson, Complete Essays, x.

The Spirit Lives Underneath

August 8, 2008

It often seems that there is nothing more to be said about immigration to those who have understood its existential threat to our nationhood. Do we need to read the Koran in Arabic, do we need anthropological studies of the Hmong, do we need to “prove” that the presence of millions of Mexicans is harmful to our country, before we can convince those running our society to stop it? In this blog, I generally try to focus on other issues.

But it was dejecting to read at Debbie Schlussel’s website what I knew would happen before long. The flood of Iraqi refugees the media has been agitating for has started to arrive in earnest in the United States. There are supposed to be 30,000 refugees by the end of this year alone, and eventually 60,000 or more. Most of them are expected to settle here in Michigan, many in formerly “non-diverse” places like Warren and Shelby Township.

The American people are no longer in control of the country and the flood of useless information we have access to conceals the truth from us. When was this project ever presented to the people of Michigan? Did it ever even occur to the bureaucrats and visa-stampers and “religious charity” workers that they had no right to make this decision? Could there be any irony more obscene than for Americans to be mass-murdered by Arabs, for this atrocity to convince them to approve of a war to depose an enemy Arab dictator, and for them finally to be rewarded by having their own society invaded by tens of thousands of these same Arabs?

These people do not belong in Michigan. They do not belong in America. The Arab American National Museum notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, as if my interest in the propaganda-fest for Chinese world domination and the deracination of the West could decline any more, I see that a nationalized Sudanese is our flag-bearer. How utterly typical of the kind of decision our “managers” make! Lacking any capacity to oppose China in meaningful ways, they remain compelled to make their little demonstrations for their beloved global democracy. As if the Chinese will be impressed that America sends an African to represent it!

Yet not all is lost. Not by a long shot.

It is best not to pay too much attention to the mass media and the news. Because there are other realities not picked up by those sectors. 

A personal experience I wanted to share. The other day my work took me on a drive to northern Ohio. I was able to take a local highway rather than the interstate. It was one of those sunny, late summer afternoons. I passed through the rolling fields of corn and thought how beautiful this country is. Just as what it is – much of America is not the Swiss Alps or anything so dramatic as that, but how comforting are the farms and the trees and the lovely old houses and the small towns with their Main Streets, churches, and fine shop buildings. I took a few photos on the way, but they could not capture what I felt….

As if I were seeing mystical signs everywhere, I felt the spirit of the old America. A shed painted in the form of an American flag with a Mexican flag in the corner, and the inscription “Remember the Alamo,” with the word Alamo crossed out and replaced by “NAFTA.” A handwritten sign saying “Be still and know that I am God.” American flags lining the streets of several small towns. A banner announcing a historic reenactment. Some spontaneous humor from a woman who looked at me with my camera and said in her (distinctly regional) accent, “I’ll get out of the way, I’m gonna break your camera.” (Which I briefly thought was a threat!)

No, not all was well. In one of the towns the sprawl had taken root; there was a Wal-Mart and Taco Bells and car dealers and billboards with the usual overrepresented minorities. No part of our heartland is safe from the invasion. But, the towns are still there, with their old English or new American names, with the streets still following the paths of 100 years ago, with the descendents of the same people still living there.

That day, I could feel that we are still the people of this country. The cities are not everything. The media is not everything. There is so much life left in America that is there if you look for it. If we learn to give ourselves to our nation again, the invaders will be as nothing to us. They will dry up and blow away. They have no roots here.  

Updates: In the Comments section, a reader gives details on the meaning of the Sudanese flag-bearer: “He is part of that southern Sudanese group that has been persecuted by the northern Sudanese, who (the north) are getting military aid from China.” Also, Judy of Refugee Resettlement Watch disagrees with Debbie Schlussel’s analysis of the Iraqi resettlement. Resettlement doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war in Iraq, but that we’ve lost the war against resettling Iraqis. The refugees will come regardless of how good or bad conditions are in Iraq. 

Does the Land Belong to Us? Do We Belong to the Land?

August 1, 2008


Indian Mound near Helen, Georgia

Indian Mound near Helen, Georgia

A commonsense definition of “country” is a land inhabited by a particular people. Is the United States of America a country anymore?

Robert Frost, our last truly national poet, expressed the idea of a people “belonging to the land” in a poem written for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He acknowledged the sometimes rough and violent origins of our nation, but never questioned the fact of American nationhood:


The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

This familiar poem, written only a few decades ago, is now a little strange to read because its central premise, that there is a “we” who possess a particular land, no longer feels true. Are “we” the mosaic of all the races and languages of the world now presented by our public institutions as “America”? Is this increasingly crowded land with its host of competing religious and ethnic groups still “our” land?

An exploration of the theme of “pioneers” and the “frontier” in American culture reveals the importance of the physical territory, the land, of a nation. Thus one issue that appeared of its own accord in my previous discussion of David Crockett was the dispossession of land from the Indians. It was not, of course, my intention to promote white guilt over past treatment of Indians or any other group. Real and imagined injustices perpetrated by whites against nonwhites are used in such a poisonous way today that it would probably be better not to teach about them at all than to teach them as is done now. Still, if we dip into the American experience prior to the 20th century, the memory of the Indian presence is so strong that it is impossible to ignore. Not for their sake, but for ours, we should remember how our encounter with them shaped us as a people. In understanding is strength.

Ancient Mystery, Recent Forgetfulness

One of the mysteries of our land is the people who inhabited it in ancient times. The Midwestern United States, where I grew up, is the site of numerous Indian burial mounds and earthworks built between about 3000 B.C. and the 16th century A.D. A number of excellent museums also exist that display artifacts and explain what is known about the people that created the mounds, mostly through archaeology. Here is the site of an excellent museum in David Crockett’s home state.

When I was a child my parents took me to a famous Indian mound park, and I still remember my feeling of speechless awe as I gazed at these simple yet profound structures. I also remember that the museum displayed items excavated from the mounds, including several human skeletons. This summer I returned to the museum for the first time in decades. The exhibits had improved dramatically, with beautiful, sophisticated recreations of scenes from the various cultures that inhabited the area in succession. (One fact I was reminded of was that the Indians we associate with particular American places were often relatively recent arrivals, and themselves knew little about the ancient earthworks.) But the skeletons were gone. I asked one of the curators what had happened to them, and she said that they had been removed many years ago to one of the state historical institutions for safekeeping. She stated what I already knew, that displaying “native” remains is too sensitive an issue nowadays.

What bothered me was not so much that the remains had been removed, but that the fact that these bones had once been displayed, and why they had been removed, was nowhere indicated. Why would the museum suppress its own history?

The Fraud of “Repatriation” to Indians

In a remarkable article in the journal Academic Questions, “Scholarship vs. Repatriationism” (1), and in a shorter article on the website Friends of America’s Past, attorney and professor James W. Springer reveals exactly what is going on behind the “return” of non-European human remains and other artifacts to self-designated representatives of the “indigenous” peoples of North America. The issue is what he calls “repatriationism,” the idea that living American Indians should have exclusive custody of prehistoric remains and that the interpretation of such remains should be made to confirm to traditional Indian beliefs. As in every area of American life, aggressive claims ungrounded in facts or fairness are being made by minority groups against the institutions and practices of the historic American people, and the targets of those claims are, by and large, surrendering to those demands. Not only that, this surrender is institutionalized in government agencies and legal decisions.

Springer’s article demonstrates well that any time anti-Western forces are given power in our society, our legitimacy as a people and our very ability to pursue and speak the truth is undermined. He writes:

…[The] ideology of repatriationism, often promoted by those with academic backgrounds, has attacked the entire basis of natural science and genuine scholarship, and sought to replace it with a combination of racial collectivism, animistic religion, and postmodernist ideology…. It has been endorsed, perhaps unwittingly, by the United States Congress and the President of the United States; and it is in a position to demand that scholars defer to its dictates, or be deprived of the information that is essential to their work. (p. 6)

Springer discusses the study of human remains, and the amazing wealth of knowledge it can bring us, especially with sophisticated techniques currently being developed. Human bones teach us about demography, diet, disease and accidents, amount and type of violent conflict, biological relationships between populations, and attitudes toward the dead. Of course, such knowledge is almost entirely the product of Western science, just as much of our knowledge of the Indian mounds comes from the labors of Americans who excavated them from the 18th century onward. (In fact, the very existence of many mounds was only revealed when settlers cleared the forests.)

None of this matters to the repatriationists, who want to deprive European Americans of all access to these remains. Springer describes three streams of repatriationism, which assert the following. (1) “[N]o matter how scientific, scholarly, and objective [researchers] may claim to be…traditional methods of analysis are racist, and the racist taint cannot be overcome except by embracing repatriationism.” (2) The attempt to use conventional methods of history, archaeology, and the like cannot give genuine knowledge of the Indian past. This can only come from individuals who are “genetically and culturally Indian,” and from the perspective of traditions involving “spirits, the supernatural, the creation of the world, and the origin of the tribe.” In particular, concerning human remains, “the spirits of the dead are disturbed when their bodies are not buried or are disinterred. An Indian can sense such spirits and their disturbance. One who handles human remains will be punished by the spirits of the dead with illness or death.” (3) American Indian tribes are sovereign nations that should have control over their cultural heritage, including all human remains, whether or not these are the ancestors of any living individuals. (p. 12-13)

Springer then discusses recent laws that have been used to enforce repatriationism, most notably the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. What he describes is alarming. Essentially, Native American religious, tribal, and political organizations have the power to demand that institutions hand over human remains to them, and it appears that tens of thousands of skeletons have been thus handed over. These tribes then do as they please with the remains, not only reburying them but doing such things as ritually burning plant materials with the bones, thus contaminating them with modern DNA and ruining the possibility of further study.

Springer shows that one motivation of the contention over Indian remains is that scientific study of these remains often contradicts Indian oral traditions regarding their own origins. For instance, a tribe that claims to have lived in a land forever may have actually migrated there only recently. And as far as treatment of the dead is concerned, Indian mutilation of the bodies of enemies is well-documented by archaeology, and even burial of kin could involve practices like pushing aside the older remains to make way for the newer. More importantly, Springer refutes the idea that white “racism” has generally led scientists to disrespect Indian remains. In fact, Caucasoid remains have often been displayed and photographed, with the deceased individuals sometimes being named. Springer suggests that the celebrated “Ice Man” of ca. 3300 B.C., now on public display in Italy, would have been destroyed or otherwise hidden from scholars had he been found in a glacier in the United States. (p. 26)

Giving Ourselves Outright

The sorry story of the repatriation movement shows once again the ubiquitousness of the assault against Western civilization. In this case, our identity and culture are attacked not directly, but indirectly through the attack on our traditions and practices of scientific and historic inquiry. Concessions to minority interest groups out of goodwill or desire to avoid conflict lead inexorably to greater and greater demands that soon come to have great political significance, such as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement or the ceding of oil fields to Indian tribes in Canada.

George Orwell has said something to the effect that no aesthetic experience is possible to someone who is hungry or ill. Similarly, we Americans will not be able to look with joy and wonder at our land, whether our beautiful natural scenes or the ancient Indian earthworks, when we no longer possess it. I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Robert Frost meant it this way, but the time has come to once again give ourselves outright for our nation. We still have strong ties to our land, so let us keep in mind its rich history, and ours, as we look for ways to rebuild.

(1) James W. Springer, “Scholarship vs. Repatriationism,” Academic Questions, vol. 19, no. 1 (2005-6), 6-36.