This is going to be an interesting book.
It is a history of the clash between racial nationalism and civic nationalism in 20th century America. I’ve really enjoyed tuning out of current events and politics to focus on history and culture. I don’t think that I missed out on anything by not paying as much attention to the news cycle.
The following excerpt comes from Gary Gerstle’s book American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century:
“America is God’s Crucible, where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” proclaims the protagonist in Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play, The Melting-Pot. “Germans, Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.” With these words, Zangwill articulated a central and enduring myth about the American nation – that the United States was a divine land where individuals from every part of the world could leave behind their troubles, start life anew, and forge a proud, accomplished, and unified people. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing eighty years later, endorsed the same myth, locating the transformative power of the United States not in God but in the nation’s core political ideals, in the American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent. These beliefs represent a kind of democratic universalism that can take root anywhere. But because they were enshrined in the American nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Schlesinger and others have argued that they marked something distinctive about the American people and their polity. In the 1940s Gunnar Myrdal bundled these civic rights and principles together into a political faith that he called the “American Creed.” Although I prefer to use the more generic term “civic nationalism,” which Michael Ignatieff and other students of the contemporary nation employ to denote these beliefs, it is clear that their role in promoting freedom and democracy in American history is indisputable.”
Israel Zangwill, of course, was Jewish.
The “Dickens of the Ghetto” was articulating a Jewish cosmopolitan vision of America. It wasn’t a vision that was shared by most Americans until the post-World War II era. As we have already seen, the “melting pot” mythology only entered American history textbooks in the 1940s and it was due to cosmopolitan modernists becoming historians in the 1930s. Previously, the national narrative had been that America was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation with liberal principles and a republican form of government. The idea that America is based on nothing but liberal abstractions only emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a universalist vision of America that suited the foreign policy needs of the Cold War era when the American Empire and the Soviet Union were competing in the Third World for global dominance. By the 1950s, the American intelligentsia was also half Jewish and this Jewish conception of national identity – America is a “Nation of Immigrants” – displaced the older WASP tradition.
“Throughout its history, however, American civic nationalism has contended with another potent ideological inheritance, a racial nationalism that conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government. This ideal, too, was inscribed in the Constitution (although not in the Declaration of Independence), which endorsed the enslavement of Africans in the southern states, and it was encoded in a key 1790 law limiting naturalization to “free white persons.” Although modified in 1870, this 1790 law remained in force until 1952, evidence that America’s yearning to be a white republic survived African American emancipation by almost 100 years. As late as the 1920s, members of the House of Representatives felt no shame in declaring on the House floor that the American “pioneer race” was being replaced by “a mongrel one,” or in admiring a scientist who told them that Americans “had been so imbued with the idea of democracy … that we have left out of the consideration the matter of blood [and] … heredity. No man who breeds pedigreed plants and animals can afford to neglect this thing, as you know.” From the perspective of this racialized ideal, Africans, Asians, nonwhite Latin Americans, and, in the 1920s, southern and eastern Europeans did not belong in the republic and could never be accepted as full-fledged members. They had to be expelled, segregated, or subordinated. The hold that this tradition exercised over the national imagination helps us to understand the conviction that periodically has surfaced among racial minorities, and especially among African Americans, that America would never accept them as the equals of whites, that they would never be included in the crucible celebrated by Zangwill, and that the economic and political opportunities identified by Schlesinger would never be theirs to enjoy. In the words of Malcolm X, America was not a dream; it was a nightmare.”
From the Naturalization Act of 1790 until the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, American nationalization law was based on whiteness. The federal courts repeatedly ruled on eligibility of non-Whites to become American citizens. Do Syrians qualify as Whites? How about the Japanese?
World War II was the pivotal turning point when America was transformed from being a nation that was anchored in race, culture and religion into a liberal universalist global empire that was competing with the Soviets. Civic nationalists assumed at the time that the “American Creed” would be sufficient to hold the country together. Racial differences would fade way. Racial harmony would replace racial discord. By the 1990s, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was lamenting The Disuniting of America.
None of these things happened. Instead, the civic nationalists created a slow moving racial, cultural and economic nightmare for future generations of White Americans.
“The label “American” was not a race-neutral one in the 1920s and 1930s, even within the ranks of workers. The postwar turmoil had hardened the division among workers between those labeled “Americans” and those deemed “foreigners.” As the labor economist David Saposs wrote in 1919, the term distinguished not native-born from foreign-born or patriots from traitors but rather “old” from “new” immigrant stock. This distinction was above all a racial one, separating the races capable of assimilating to American life from those that were not. Those races “belonging to old immigrant stock” (or “Nordic” stock, to use the term that would be favored by the framers of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act), wrote Saposs, “are considered Americans” regardless of where they were born. Anglo-Saxons and “persons of Teutonic descent who speak English are … placed in this category.” On the other hand, he continued, “those of the ‘new immigration’ whether born in this country and able to speak English fluently, or recent arrivals [,] are ipso facto terms ‘foreigners.'”
In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans were still trying wrap their heads around the idea that Southern and Eastern European Catholics were Americans. The experience of the Great Depression, World War II and the beginning of the Cold War changed this. Al Smith was defeated in the 1928 election. JFK was elected president in 1960. In the McCarthy era, Catholics were finally allowed into the White race to fight communism. The ethnic and religious tensions between rural Protestants and urban Catholics diminished during the big respite from mass immigration and the beginning of the Thirty Glorious Years.
While scrolling through Google this morning, I noticed that Yoram Hazony wrote an article a few years ago that was published in Time magazine retconning American history:
“White nationalism” is used to describe the small fringe of Americans who believe nationality is defined by the color of one’s skin. These groups promote the kind of loosely Darwinian thinking that motivated German Nazism: What’s decisive, they say, is the “quality” of one’s genes. So people should obsess about skin color and the shape of one’s facial features — traits that supposedly tell you who’s got the right genetic make-up.
But “white nationalism” is also misconceived because “whites” are not a nation: We’re familiar with the English, Dutch, French and Polish nations. They’re recognized by a common cultural inheritance, especially a distinctive language and religion, and by the bonds of mutual loyalty that come of centuries of joint struggle. The Polish nation, for example, is known by its Polish language, Catholicism and a long, painful history of striving for independence from Germany and Russia. By contrast, no “white” nation is found in any history book. There is no distinctive “white” language, religion or cultural inheritance. The idea that “whites” are a nation is just so much make-believe. Instead of deepening Americans’ pride in, and attachment to, the remarkable Anglo-American political and religious traditions that brought the United States into being, “white nationalists” conduct their parades under bizarre new flags they have invented for themselves: They prefer to replace the authentic American nationalist tradition with a concocted new racial identity that is just as much a break with the American past as the neo-Marxist revolution being proposed by the Left.
Most Americans aren’t attracted to white-racist politics or to the racialist identity politics of the neo-Marxist left. But the claim that America is just “an idea” hasn’t gotten much traction either. Most Americans remain attached to a more traditional way of understanding their nation — one that isn’t clearly articulated very often these days. …
American nationalists used to think of their nation in just this way: Neither as a race, nor as an abstract “idea” — but rather as a diversity of tribes sharing a heritage and a mutual loyalty born of a joint history. The original American states, while internally diverse, nonetheless largely shared the English language, Protestant religion and the common law, and had fought Britain together. The nation reflected in these characteristics was so strong that Americans were gradually able to adopt other “tribes” into the mix: Catholics, Jews and — with time — the African-Americans who had lived through the evils of enslavement and segregation. …”
This guy just brazenly lies about American history and the Anglo-American tradition. Hazony isn’t defending any “authentic American nationalist tradition” that never had anything to do with race. Victorians made sharp racial distinctions. He is just trying to shore up postwar center-right conservative liberalism because it has proven to be worthless and has lost credibility.