Note: this is the first post here by Triple Sphinctered Wombat. Be sure to give him a good welcome. -Thales
I remember a summer evening in June 1968 at a modest house in northeastern New Jersey when I was a snot-nosed lad of 5. The extended family had gathered at the home of my father’s aunt Millie for dinner. My great aunt was a wonderful woman, a very devout Catholic and extremely kind hearted. Her one fault was that….well, her spaghetti sauce was runny. But nobody really cared – we were a large, multigenerational Italian family whose American roots began with ancestors who cycled thru Ellis Island at the very beginning of the 20th century, and we hardly needed an excuse to be together.
After dinner, everyone decided to take some of the cool evening air in Uncle Louie’s tiny but well tended back yard. With a few fireflies zipping about, the adults all began chatting with each other in random groups while us kids immediately began working off dinner by running around like banshees. These were days where children were expected to play outdoors and weren’t immediately diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder and given medication.
I remember how wonderfully happy I was. We were all together – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins. I felt safe, secure, loved and protected on a cool early summer’s eve.
The grown-ups were gabbing away happily about the daily trivia of their lives until someone mentioned the TV news and……Vietnam. A wave seemed to pass over the adults as they all expressed agitation and dismay over the images they were seeing on the nightly news. The conversations became anxious as their faces registered confusion, horror and even a dose of fear.
Please understand – these were people who had come thru the Great Depression and the Second World War. Some of the younger men had served in that war. My mother had emigrated to the United States 10 years earlier and had experienced the war in Italy as a civilian – seeing family members lose their lives, family friends taken away by “Le Fascie Nere” or Wehrmacht troops to never be seen again, being buried alive in a bombing raid and quite nearly dying under the rubble, starving a little more day by day as food got ever scarcer and the Allied advance stalled in the Appenines – you get the picture.
When she arrived in America in 1958, she experienced what America’s Greatest Generation had built in the post-War years – a nation brimming with civic duty and pride, whose freedom, prosperity and peace seemed miraculous compared to the trials all of them had experienced in their lives. Yet just as the nation they had helped build was about to plant its flag on the moon a full half dozen times, they were being presented with video clips of men who could have been their friends, neighbors, cousins and in some cases even sons or nephews who were fighting and dying in a foreign land they knew nothing about for reasons that they could not decipher – and they couldn’t understand why such a thing could be happening.
As young as I was, I perceived the profound unease and bewilderment enveloping the adults in that backyard and felt something shift in my soul. The bedrock of my stable, protected and nurtured existence cracked as I recognized their profound disquiet, a result of the unexpected and wrenching change in their world. The need to understand what could have affected them so – men and women who shepherded me, taught me, cared for me, encouraged and guided me, people who never left the house without putting on a suit, shirt and tie or a proper dress, who created the order and tranquility into which I had been born – started that night, and evolved into a yearning to discover the underlying truths of the course of human history. It’s been a lifelong and serious hobby of mine to understand not only who we are as a people and how we got where we are, but to delve into the lives of individuals, creeds, tribes and societies across the span of mankind’s recorded past, so that I might learn enough to have an inkling of what the future might have in store.
In the following series of essays I will apply, as best I can, all that I have learned and deduced (rightly or wrongly) on the topic of human history to delineate where I perceive America to be today not just as a people but as a culture/civilization, as well as where it may be headed. I will refer as needed to the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe and their Generational Cycle of history, and will depend even more on the exhaustive 12 volume treatise of the history of mankind composed by former University of London professor Arnold J. Toynbee which he called, with stunning modesty, “A Study of History.” I believe it necessary to employ both theories and their methodologies in this discussion as I have come to the conclusion they are concurrently manifesting themselves in American culture in an accidental yet nevertheless near perfect synchronization.
With this in mind, I will begin by immediately borrowing a page from Toynbee and specifically define the “Object of our Inquiry.”
Is America a country or a civilization?
Per Toynbee, America can be classified as one amongst a relatively large set of European ‘parochial states’ which constitute a Western Civilization birthed by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, these events being the product of a 1,000 year medieval ‘interregnum’ following the demise of the Roman Empire, itself the last manifestation of a Hellenic civilization which is the direct ancestor of Western culture.
Such a categorization of America has historical precedent per Toynbee’s thesis. Among his examples: from the collapse of the Sumeric civilization there arose Achaemenid Persian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Babylonian and Judaic states, all considered part of a ‘Syriac’ civilization with shared roots for their languages, political structures, social norms, customs and religious beliefs (though the Persians broke from this last factor thru Zoroastrianism, as did the Hebrews thru Judaism.) Toynbee cites other examples with which historians broadly agree, and the USA is considered by most people in modern times to be a European ‘spawn’ under a Western civilization’s ‘aegis.’
However, with the greatest respect to Toynbee, for whom I have profound admiration, I must dissent.
Consider the following factors:
- The first colonists to arrive on American shores were Dutch and English. (Yes, the Vikings beat them by 400 years, but they didn’t stay.)
- The single largest group of immigrants to America came from Germany in the early to mid-19th century. The third largest group was from Scandinavia (Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Finns), arriving nearly the same time (more or less) as the Germans.
- If we mark the official establishment of the United States of America from the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, we can legitimately state that America’s beginning coincided almost exactly with the start of the Industrial Revolution.
From #1 we see which groups poured the foundation for American culture, and from #2 we can identify the groups that both preserved and greatly reinforced this foundation. Crediting the creation of America to Europe in a collective sense is thus grossly imprecise. It is far more accurate to attribute America’s early formation specifically to Northern European Protestants.
Allow me to explain my thesis in detail.
Europe’s protestant nations were predominantly or overwhelmingly populated by invading (and homicidally competing) Germanic tribes during Rome’s republican and Imperial eras, sharing cultural characteristics between one another that sharply differentiated them from their Celtic neighbors/enemies. Among these attributes were a respect for the individual over the group; the combined use of statutory and common law; respect for private property; personal responsibility; and the recognition of equal or near equal rights for women. Notice how these aspects influenced even religious choices. After all, there are very fundamental reasons why the Germanic areas of Europe are protestant, whereas the Gallic regions are catholic and the Slavic ones orthodox.
A surprising number of people – most especially on the left – seem to have forgotten that this Germanic cultural foundation, combined with the explosive growth of the industrial economy, was the key to integrating successive and massive waves of immigrants in the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. The fresh influxes of migrants during that period were mostly from non-germanic nations – primarily Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Poland and Russia (if I skipped anybody, please don’t take it personally.) These were people who for the most part were fleeing the grinding poverty of permanent lower class status in their home countries. Feudal customs pertaining to social class and status, along with the tradition of ingrained resistance to social advancement, persisted with significant vigor across Europe (and still do, albeit in reduced form and varying by country in this day and age. NOTE: from personal experience, it’s noticeably more evident in Gallic countries than Germanic ones.)
People with the courage to leave all that they had ever known in exchange for a chance to start fresh had the necessary mindset to embrace a new life. The factory environment – with its respect for rules and regulations applicable equally to all employees, rewards for efficiency, productivity and extraordinary contribution, and opportunity for financial and social advancement – not only vaulted these non-Germanic immigrants into a middle class existence, but proved to be the perfect training ground for helping them join the American melting pot. People from non-German nations and cultures learned thru their factory jobs that the Rule of Law trumps the Rule of Man; that what you earn belongs to you; that you are responsible for your own success or lack thereof; and that what you gain from your hard work and achievements cannot be denied you either by archaic custom or by someone with inherited privilege and position, as there was no multi-generational hereditary aristocracy to lord over you and deprive you by ‘divine right’ or medieval tradition of what you had earned from the sweat of your brow.
It was these same Germanic cultural traits that most readily embraced the organizational and social principles necessary for the rapid growth of industrialization, both in America and Europe. One can readily observe, for instance, that it was in the Germanic states where the Industrial Revolution advanced most rapidly and successfully, while the non-Germanic regions struggled much more with industrialization and lagged quite far behind.
But concluding that America is essentially a Germanic parochial state within broader Western Civilization would be a mistake. To understand why, we need to examine factor #3 .
It wasn’t just the non-Germanic European peoples who left a dead-end social and economic status in their home countries, but the Germanic ones as well. When they came to America – a country whose birth occurred at the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution – all of them made a conscious decision to join something new, young, fresh and growing and, most importantly, to leave their roots behind.
Toynbee observed in his travels to America that immigrants to their new land – the 1st generation migrants – clung to their original country’s language and traditions rather strongly. However, their children – the 2nd generation of migrants – while using their parent’s language at home, would almost invariably use their adopted country’s language and traditions as a first choice, and that their own children – the 3rd generation – would almost always forget their grandparent’s tongue and customs. We have all seen and experienced this ourselves and can observe it in today’s descendants of more contemporary immigrations from Cuba, India, Vietnam, Japan, Iran, China, Puerto Rico and Haiti, where the second generation is already quite thoroughly Americanized. The 1st generation is almost always the driving force behind this, even if they tend to cling to many of the old ways and their original language.
What benefits and losses have we and our ancestors incurred for this?
Granted, the Germans and British make better beer than we do. The Irish and Scots have better whiskey (though I am a big fan of Jack Daniels – within reason, folks; I’m not a lush. 😉 ) The French, Spanish and Italians have better wine. The Swiss, Italians and Belgians have delicious chocolate – truly like nothing we have here. And there are uniquely beautiful things that Europeans have inherited from their history and traditions – castles, cathedrals, ancient cities and towns, art, sculpture, literature, music…we could go on with these comparisons for quite a while. Yet for the purposes of this discussion, none of it matters in the slightest.
We are, in summary, the product of borrowing features from Europe’s civilization (such as statutory codes and common law practices, individualism and natural rights, early democratic and republican governing concepts from the Greeks and Romans passed down and gradually refined over the centuries), deliberately discarding everything else and modifying, enhancing and improving on what we took to make it our own. America is a BREAKAWAY culture that has become a civilization in its own right, separate from Western civilization – which is more appropriately defined as Europe west of the Elbe.
This is why Europeans find us rather alien, incomprehensible and even frightening. We have become so different from them in so many ways that we can no longer be said to share a common culture. And, truth be told, though we have lost some genuinely beautiful things by discarding the past of our ancestors, we have gained quite a bit in return. After all – it was not Europe that split the atom, invented the transistor or laser or personal computer, just to name a few of this civilization’s achievements. To make the contrast as stark as it can be: America started in 1789 as a strip of coastal forest and alluvial plain on the northeast edge of the continent, with 3-4 million people plowing a few acres of rocky New England ground to raise a crop, riding horses or carriages to get around and carrying muskets to defend themselves. 180 years later – the lives of two long-lived men – this same country planted six flags on the moon. (SUCK IT, EUROCOMMIES!)
It should be obvious at this point why I will be using not just Toynbee but also Strauss & Howe’s Generational Cycle in this series of commentaries, as their theory is so well suited in application to dynamic societies – ones where there is no rigid social structure or hierarchy supported by hidebound tradition to confine a culture’s citizenry to predetermined lifestyles and associations.
And now that we have fully defined the ‘Object of our Inquiry’, we will be able to proceed to the point of the discussion – assessing where American civilization stands at this point in its history. The situation is one worth examining in depth, as there are more and more people – not just pundits and talking heads in the MSM, but among an already large and continually increasing number of the regular citizenry – who are openly discussing the possibility of a breakup of America into separate states and the likelihood of civil insurrection or even war.
I, for one, thought that things could never again be as bad in my lifetime as they were in the 1970’s. However, nobody back then was talking about ‘echoes of 1860’ in our daily civil and political discourse, whereas nowadays it’s become a genuine and widespread concern.
America has had crises, tumult and upheaval before. We have found a way to survive and recover from them all. But it seems fair to ask nowadays: is this time different from any of the last ones? And we should also ask ourselves more broadly:
- Where are we going as a civilization?
- How did we get to this point?
- Is our civilization still growing and evolving, or is it dying?
- Organized religion is clearly waning as a rallying point for a growing plurality of citizens. We are also losing confidence in our political and spiritual leadership. Have we reached a point of no return? If yes, what happens next? If no, how do we move forward?
We’ll begin this discussion in depth in the next essay.
“Ships Running Aground”, Ludolf Backhuysen, 1694 (source: Wikimedia)