from Rational Review

Why is American Culture in Peril?

Tibor Machan
February 2002

What is American culture? It is not like others, that much is for sure. That's because from the beginning the US citizenry has been a collection of people from other, sometimes historically well grounded cultures that have had numerous entrenched elements with which the people have identified. Art, religion, and the rest all were fragmented, unlike in Rumania or Hungary or Ireland from which so many immigrants hailed.

But there was one thing about American culture that had been unique, namely, the widespread commitment to the ideal of individual liberty.

No, this ideal was by no means universally practiced or protected in law.

But it had been announced in that unusual document, the Declaration of Independence, so much so that when Lincoln wanted to find justification for freeing the slaves, he could turn to that document and forcefully — or, some claim, duplicitously — call upon its ideals in his quest. And to this day there is still some echo of loyalty to this admittedly minimal but nevertheless powerful political element of America's admittedly highly varied culture. Mostly, however, it comes off as Fourth of July rhetoric, without much substance to its message.

As Americans become less and less committed to the ideal of individual liberty, however, there has emerged a sad development. This is that America has become Balkanized. Large groups of people with a heritage from their original countries are no longer focused on embracing America's political ideals. Instead they are vying for special political muscle.

Intellectuals — most of the teachers from elementary to higher education, most of the writers and pundits who voice opinions in the various forums of ideas — might help out here but they are actually quite hostile to America's ideals and, in any case, favor an insidious cultural diversity that sees all cultures as equally valid. In courses on multiculturalism — a rather ambitious title for courses that tend to touch only minimally on the content of the various cultures from which people populate the USA — there is hardly any reference to America's political culture of individual freedom except as one that's no better than the rest. Groups, groups and more groups are the focus and individualism is treated, in large measure, as but one additional — and rather feeble and suspect — voice within all these.

Naturally. When individual rights are at issue, there is no reasonably homogeneous group from outside the country that can claim it as its own heritage. Indeed, since it is widely professed by the intelligentsia that Americans have mistreated most of the groups with such homogeneous cultural heritage from elsewhere, the championing of individualism tends to sound like an attempt to whitewash the sins of American history. So most intellectuals think of it as no more than nostalgia for a historical fiction. Never mind that individualism has indeed done the most for members of all of these diverse ethnic, religious, national and even racial groups. (As some have noted, among them quite a few blacks, African Americans in the USA are far better off than nearly anywhere else, despite the unjust methods involved in their becoming Americans.)

Now why would all these intellectuals be hostile to the very country in which intellectual expression is secured the greatest degree of freedom? Well, for many reasons, not the least of which that many of these intellectuals work for state supported universities in which the dominant ideology is anti-individualist, anti-capitalist and, thus, largely anti-American. But the reason that is even more fundamental is that American individualism has never had a full, rich cultural heritage behind it, the kind that so many people around the globe find essential to personal identity. Even on the political front, America had from the start a faction, lead by Alexander Hamilton, that advocated centralized statism as against decentralized individualism.

At most the American individualist tradition has been a somewhat fragmented political one. Other cultures that have been exported here by their members, however, are more robust than America's mere political individualism. Indeed, in most places politics experiences frequent changes, even revolutions, while the rest of culture remains fairly stable. (Notice how the Soviet Union's and its colonies' efforts to change its various cultures via politics never succeeded and that now that the politics has collapsed, all the cultural differences, including the enmities, have come right back to embroil the various regions in violence and mayhem.)

Furthermore, American individualism is a uniquely intellectual heritage, not so much one that people can just inherit and absorb vicariously. It has to be learned, understood, in order to become loyal to it. But, ironically, the dominant intellectual trend in our time tends to demean the human intellect and raise above it sentiment, feeling, emotion and so forth. Many of the most important theorists in philosophy, literature, history and other disciplines regard rationality as a kind of handmaiden of the emotions, a rationalization, not itself the vital force in human life.

In such a climate it is very difficult to provide America's individualist cultural heritage its needed ammunition, namely, solid arguments and theories. What matters most, it is said by many community leaders, is what you feel, not what you think. I have noticed myself, in over 30 years of teaching, how often students talk about how they feel when they write papers, not what they think and why!

In this kind of climate the main element of American culture — indeed the reason for America as a sanctuary for millions who left cultures where life was hopeless and dangerous because of class systems and social rankings — seems to be fading into the background. What we are left with, in its stead, are culture wars. Hispanics, blacks, Native Americans, Irish Americans, and so forth are often vying for political and economic power by means of state redistribution of wealth, seeing wealth as a big pie, parts of which can be captured only with some having to be left wanting.

And those who are identified as the most despised possessors of large pieces of the pie are the essentially cultureless folks, the mainstream, middle-class Americans who have no clearly identifiable, distinct heritage other than the ideal of individual liberty, an ideal largely dismissed by the verbalist class as a mere façade for power.

What is needed is a resurgence of a movement to reestablish America's individualist culture, the only one that is reasonably hospitable to all others.

Tibor Machan is advisor to Freedom Communications, Inc., teaches at Chapman University and is research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
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Rational Review was conceived as an answer to the conventional "conservative" and "liberal" commentary that dominates the American political scene. Building on the considerable intellectual strength of a growing freedom movement in the United States, their desire is to manifest the libertarian idea in an institutional manner.
© 2002 by Tibor Machan

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2 feb 2002