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Q: How did America become cosmopolitan?
A: By cosmopolitanism, I mean the process by which America lost its White Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity and developed a hyper alienated, modernist liberal ruling class whose origin story and myth is the notion that America is an “idea” based on nothing but liberal values and has no racial, cultural, ethnic or religious foundation and that provincials who disagree are “racists” and bad people.
The origins of American cosmopolitanism trace back to the turn of the century pragmatists William James and John Dewey who valued pluralism and relativism, the Liberal Progressives like John Dewey and Jane Addams, Horace Kallen, ecumenical Protestant leaders and the Young Intellectuals before World War I. In particular, John Dewey’s influence stands out as “America’s philosopher” in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Lost Generation of artists and novelists who went to Europe and rejected American culture in the 1920s played a major role in this. New York becoming the cultural capital of the United States in the 1920s was equally important. In the 1930s, the New York Intellectuals reimagined America’s identity as a cosmopolitan nation, which became part of the postwar consensus after World War II. The influx of European refugees from fascism who were planted throughout American academia by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s pushed the country in this direction. Finally, the internationalist minded elites who prioritized foreign policy and maintaining the American Empire after World War II sealed it.
Jews moved into the American intelligentsia in the interwar period and quickly became the predominant, tone setting element. The country has never been the same since.
Q: How did America become modernist?
A: By modernism, I mean a sensibility or aesthetic like Romanticism, not a political ideology. In the late 19th century, European Romanticism turned inward and began exalting the interior world of the inner self. The self and its exploration, expression, realization and liberation was elevated by modernists above religion, morality, society, the divine, nature and even the limits of reality. Modernists believe in art for art’s sake which is the autonomy of aesthetics from ethics. Art shouldn’t have a moral or didactic purpose. It is about the self-expression of the artist and technique. The audience is other elites.
Effectively, modernism turns into a hyper individualistic, elitist and narcissistic cult of the artist, which is at odds with tradition and any form of collective restraint. Culturally speaking, the modernist love of experiment and exaltation of “experience” in art is typically accompanied by a strong sense of alienation from society, rejection of traditional bourgeois culture with its emphasis on work, religion and morals and a bohemian culture of “outsiders” that relishes transgression and experimentation in sex and drugs. Modernists tend to be socially irresponsible bohemians who “burn their candle at both ends.” They believe in things like “living for today” or “in the moment” and above all for themselves. Modernists are people who are constantly falling for fashionable trends or accumulating and consuming products because “new” always means “better” and who follow the imperative of clichés like “finding my true self.”
Modernism arrived in the United States from Europe in the 1910s and influenced small groups of young Losters in Chicago and New York City before World War I. Greenwich Village became the Mecca of modernism and a bohemian counter-culture took shape there in the years before World War I. Through the Young Intellectuals, modernism infected progressive liberalism and created modern liberalism, which unlike its Victorian predecessor, values cultural liberation and egalitarianism above all else. Americans should be “liberated” from “puritanical” morality to live out aesthetic lifestyles.
After World War I discredited the Victorian mainstream, young Losters rebelled against the Victorian values of their parents. Modernism went mainstream in American popular culture through taste setting “smart” magazines and the new Hollywood movies. The Losters were the first Modern generation although the first wave of Modernism in the 1920s only changed the values of rising elites and some urbanites. In the 1960s, the second wave of Modernism which we call the counter-culture was the demographic tipping point when a majority of the Baby Boomer generation adopted modernist values. The Baby Boomers grew up in the Thirty Glorious Years of the postwar era and were the first generation to be raised on the television and to attend college en masse. They are the products of mass culture.
Americans are now Late Moderns. Since the 1920s, we have been living through a historical epoch with values, assumptions and beliefs as distinct as the Victorian era which preceded it. We value cultural liberation and cultural egalitarianism. We value self-expression and the pursuit of aesthetic lifestyles above a common national identity, religion and morality. Whereas the Victorians were sexually repressed racists, the Moderns are sexually liberated antiracists. The Moderns turned Victorian values upside down. The Victorian ideal of childhood innocence, male devotion and female purity bound together in Romantic love has been taken to the opposite extreme which is the Modern ideal of sexualizing children and total adult sexual liberation. The result is an atomized culture that has lost coherence and shared purpose, shattered families and massive, sustained decline in social trust and societal well-being.
Q: How did America become antiracist?
In the social sciences, Boasian anthropology which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation eclipsed race realism in the 1920s. American anthropology was a tiny field and the politicized views of women and immigrants about race in New York became conflated with “science.”
While the exact origins of the term “racism” are opaque, it definitely emerged in its modern form as a critique of race relations in Far Left circles in the 1920s where “racism” was perceived as being a major obstacle to a class-based Marxist revolution. “Racism” was first used as a pejorative in the English language in the United States in the 1930s. In 1938, “racism” was officially condemned by the American Anthropological Association, which was founded by Franz Boas. In 1931, Boas was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and his prestige as a “scientist” lent credibility to his views as an activist. In these days, the social sciences were still held in high esteem.
Unquestionably, the reason “racism” became taboo in the United States and racial attitudes changed so dramatically in such a short period of time is due to World War II. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany were associated with “racism” in World War II propaganda and “antiracism” became a badge of liberal identity in the years between 1938 and 1945. Negative images of non-Whites disappeared in the mass media in this period and were replaced by positive depictions. The American liberal establishment has been “antiracist” since the 1940s and more stridently so since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
In the 1920s and 1930s, racial science fell into disrepute because of politics and because its enemies were better funded and networked, not because any new evidence was discovered which decisively refuted the older view that racial differences are largely hereditary in origin.
Q: How was American liberalism changed by this in the 20th century?
In the 19th century, America was liberal and republican in the Victorian era, but it was not cosmopolitan, modernist or antiracist as it would later become in the early 20th century.
By liberal, I mean that American liberalism was about the protection of natural rights in politics – life, liberty and property – and laissez-faire in economics. The great contentious disputes of Victorian America, most famously the abolition of slavery, an agrarian vs. an industrial economy and the War Between the States, were motivated by liberalism. Did the blacks have a natural right to liberty and property? Was slavery a violation of their natural rights? What are the rights of women?
The Victorian generations were fond of making sharp distinctions. They ranked the races and different nationalities in a hierarchy. They separated the sexes into spheres. They sharply distinguished between the civilized and the savage. They disdained the primitive. In their view, there was spiritual equality (equality of souls before the creator), natural equality, civil equality, political equality, social equality and so forth. Unlike Moderns, Victorians could believe things like the equality of all souls before their creator in a spiritual sense and not conflate that with literal physical equality or social and political equality. The idea that children were the equals of adults or that all cultures are equal or that anyone should be free to life any kind of immoral lifestyle they want would have struck them as preposterous.
In sum, Americans were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants with liberal principles and a republican form of government. There was a national consensus on identity, morality and culture. Not every American was a Protestant, but it was hoped at the time that Catholic immigrants would learn English and convert to Protestantism and if not they were free by the Constitution to exercise their religion. Morality was assumed to be true, universal and obvious and no one disputed its primacy or importance. By morality, Americans meant Christianity and the practice of the moral virtues which collectively formed the “character” of a person. The home was a school in which Victorian children were taught the moral virtues.
Between 1914 and the 1945, American liberalism was transformed and became modernist, cosmopolitan and antiracist. It took a more secular, elitist, condescending, libertarian turn. The backward boobs and bigots out in flyover country in places like Zenith, Ohio, Gopher Prairie, MN or the Fundamentalist hillbillies in Appalachia needed to be liberated from morality and their traditional culture. They needed to be liberated from sexual repression in order to savor “experience.” Americans ought to be free to cultivate their own lifestyles. This was the modernist view and it stems from the elevation of the self and aesthetics above religion, morality and the interests of society. The Young Intellectuals absorbed it from Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, William James, H.G. Wells and various socialist and anarchist influences like Karl Marx and Emma Goldman. This was something new.
Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx were all materialists who were fundamentally in agreement about the unimportance of metaphysics. William James wasn’t as dismissive of religion, but pragmatism was also hostile to metaphysics. James was a relativist who believed that religions were true insofar as they made a practical differences in the lives of people. No religion was absolutely true. From Nietzsche, Bergson and Wells, the Young Intellectuals absorbed vitalism, which exalted “life” or the “life force” as they called it. The common modernist view that the masses aren’t really “alive” because they lacked “life force” by finding satisfaction with pursuing ordinary traditional lives in their communities comes from Nietzsche who insisted the masses were herd animals before he went insane and became Dionysus.
In the 21st century, if you asked a typical American progressive liberal to describe morality for you, what you would probably get in response to this question is the laundry list of -isms and -phobias derived from Freudian psychology, critical theory and postmodernism. This is because progressive liberals in the interwar period in the early 20th century under the spell of Sigmund Freud jettisoned morality and became obsessed with psychology and what they called the “transformation of consciousness,” which is the idea of identifying various “repressions” in the mind through psychoanalysis, bringing them to the surface and rejecting them. Once the patient was liberated from the repressions, he or she would heal.
In reality, modernist liberals exist in a state of detachment: severed from the transcendent and anything above them, severed from their traditional culture which they are alienated from and have “progressed” beyond, severed from the dead and unborn generations due to their self-absorbed nihilism, severed from anything resembling morality which they have discarded in favor of the -isms and -phobias, severed from their own kin in their ethnic group and often severed from their own families or a spouse or children and the most basic things of life – except maybe a cat or a dog – which their “backward” ancestors took for granted. They do, however, own the iPhone 12 and while social science indicates that they are succumbing to mental illness and despair of their miserable lives which they express through their millenarian leftwing politics … well, at least they aren’t racist bigots like all of you fascists!