Is Western Civilization Un-American?

by Jerry Salyer on February 14, 2011 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Writers & Poets

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While I certainly sympathize with rightwing concerns about “p.c.” in academia, the fact is that the American conservative’s attitude toward education is often even worse than that of his counterpart.  After all, is it typically the liberal who complains about Macbeth eating up precious college classroom time that could be better spent on practical, real-world studies, such as Business Leadership Theory or Organizational Management Administration?  Ask a certain type of red-blooded red-state student why he’s at school and he will reply point-blank that the true idea-of-a-university is to provide goods and services to consumers of education, that the withering of the liberal arts curriculum represents increased efficiency.

Meanwhile cultural standards as such are regularly denounced as elitist by sycophantic cyber-voyeurs who swoon on command for celebrity superstars like Glenn Beck.  It seems that at best the Old World is the fertile muck from which the American lotus sprang up toward the sunshine of freedom.  At worst, Europe’s traditions of style, art, and class are seen as pretentious or even sinister — hence in many cases the villain of an action movie may be most quickly identified by his aristocratic bearing, good taste, and refined manners.  (All-American good guys are, in contrast, regular-joe mavericks who only drink Budweiser and gallantly refuse to salute their foes with anything other than the middle finger.)

So does this Oedipal attitude reflect something about America’s essence?  Is America a rebellion against Western culture rather than a particular branch of it?  Does the “American Way” signify a negation of Europe?

Maybe so.  Consider Richard Weaver’s observations:

The American frontiersman was a type who emancipated himself from culture by abandoning the settled institutions of the seaboard and the European motherland.  Reveling in the new absence of restraint, he associated all kinds of forms with the machinery of oppression he had fled and was now preparing to oppose politically.  His emancipation left him impatient of symbolism, of indirect methods, and even of those inclosures of privacy which all civilized communities respect.

According to Weaver, the typical pioneer rejected “the more formal European way of doing things,” and came to view “the formal [as] the outmoded or at least un-American.”   It is as if Nietzsche’s diagnosis should be turned on its head, and the real disease of modernity is the Dionysian spirit vice the Apollonian.  Maybe to the frontiersman’s search for “a solvent of forms” we owe the publicly-professed creed of Tea Party champion Rand Paul:  “We believe in the creative-destruction of the marketplace.”

Those more optimistic about America’s place in Western civilization may observe that Weaver’s commentary on frontier life is an oversimplification.  Whatever desire the pioneer may have had to escape from “the settled institutions of the seaboard and the European motherland” was undoubtedly mingled with nostalgia, with cherished family history, with a memory of and yearning for an ancestral culture.  Deliberately or no, the trailblazer bore something of the Western tradition with him to his new land.

And it is also worth pointing out that Weaver hardly offered unqualified praise for cultural forms:  He was as aware as anyone that the traditions and institutions embodying the forms can degenerate and ossify, thereby becoming suffocating and dehumanizing.  Nonetheless such forms, traditions, and institutions are a precondition for human community, and some affirmation of them is needed for a human mode of existence.  To be “impatient of symbolism” is, ultimately, to be impatient with thought, ideas, and language itself.

Weaver knew well that literature can illuminate in ways that other lights of the psyche cannot, so in exploring the issue he raises it is appropriate to turn to The Great Meadow, Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ 1930 novel about Kentucky’s settlement.  A writer of critically-acclaimed poetry as well as prose, Roberts composed a lyrical narrative in which woodsmen like Daniel Boone and Benjamin Logan are envisioned as iconic figures in a classically-patterned (albeit distinctly modern) mythology.  Yet Roberts’ story of “Caintuck” is realistic as well as epic; the historical details, events, and character psychologies are based upon meticulous research – and upon oral history relayed to Roberts by elder kinfolk such as her grandmother.

To be sure, the restless drive described by Weaver is an essential element of the The Great Meadow — good fiction rarely fits fully into a one-sided reading – but the characters’ inescapable need for tradition and form is no less clear.  Of all these characters the most vividly depicted is Diony Hall, a young woman seeking to make sense of the world while accompanying her new husband on the trek from Virginia to Caintuck by way of the Cumberland Gap.  In one early chapter the prospective colonization program is imaginatively fused with the founding of Rome, as Diony listens meditatively to her studious father’s reading from Vergil: “Arma virumque cano…”  In another scene, she reflects upon her own self’s embodiment of the classical heritage:

Diony knew what name she bore, knew that Dione was a great goddess, taking rank with Rhea, and that she was the mother of Venus by Jupiter, in the lore of Homer, an older report than that of the legendary birth through the foam of the sea.  She knew that Dione was one of the Titan sisters, the Titans being earth-men, children of Uranus and Terra.  She had a scattered account of this as it came from between her father’s ragged teeth as he bit at his quid and spat into the ashes, an elegant blending of tobacco and lore and the scattered dust of burnt wood, the man who limped about before the hearth arising superior to his decay.

She could scarcely piece the truths together to make them yield a thread of a story, but she held all in a chaotic sense of grandeur, being grateful for a name of such dignity.  Her brothers called her Diny, and they were indeed earth-men, delving in the soil to make it yield bread and ridding the fields of stumps, plowing and burning the brush.

As mother of the love-goddess and grandmother of Aeneas, the Titan Dione was a symbol of the Latin order which transmitted Greek philosophy and Christian faith throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.  Thus thematically The Great Meadow focuses on propagation of Western culture, not flight from it.  In Roberts’ presentation the frontiersman is not a refugee from civilization; rather, he is civilization’s “herald to chaos.”

Perhaps this presentations is correct, perhaps not.  In any case those tempted to play the “un-American” card against Europhiles ought to keep in mind that a weightier counter-question is thereby invited:  Is America un-Western?

That is, can we only be “authentically” American by jettisoning the better part of the European experience?  By blotting from our consciousness every trace of non-liberal political thought, the classical notion of leisure, and feudal ideals?  Am I less American for regarding De Regno more sensical than the atheist’s Common Sense?  For finding more piety in a single line of The Aeneid than in the entire Jefferson Bible?

Hopefully not; but if “America” means anything like what Republicans suggest it means, even the gloomiest doomsayers underestimate the stickiness of the American predicament.  For in that case “America” would represent the most appalling filial impiety.  If the creative-destructionists are right, then to be an American is to be an ingrate — and not accidentally, but as a matter of principle.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Gorentz February 15, 2011 at 5:53 am

“After all, is it typically the liberal who complains about Macbeth eating up precious college classroom time that could be better spent on practical, real-world studies, such as Business Leadership Theory or Organizational Management Administration?”

Not exactly that, but in K-12 school politics, yes, I think it is typically both liberals (so-called) and conservatives who favor career education in its many forms at the expense of actually learning stuff. In local school politics, leftists are every bit as anti-intellectual as anyone else, if not more so. These leftists include most of the educational statement, and are aided and abetted by parents of both red and blue varieties. And the people who actually value education (a small minority) include both blue and red people. I and some of my friends of various shades of red and blue have scars from fighting these battles over many years. You think academic politics is rough? You ought to see what local K-12 politics is like.

BTW, I think your Richard Weaver would do well to actually read what historians have written about Frederick Turner’s frontier thesis over the past hundred years. It sounds like Weaver is several decades out of date and has a lot of catching up to do.

avatar G. Koefoed February 15, 2011 at 11:53 am

One of the pioneers of American education, James Marsh (UVM President and Coleridgean Philosopher, 1820s and 30s), theorized that the American frontier was a place that helped to cultivate reflective habits of mind for ordinary people. This was the frontier not entirely cut off from civilization – populated, but sparsely so. This was the place where excess land empowered more people to participate in the political life of the nation (thereby thinking at least a bit about themselves as political animals), and the frontier required a flexibility of mind to successfully settle it and also an implicit notion of the good life to keep one at it. It was not that they read Homer or saw themselves as explicitly carrying on Western learning, but the empowerment of being voting freeholders (under-girded in Marsh’s vision by religion) prepared many people to value further education in the Western tradition. In the early 19th century education meant precisely this – classics, modern languages and literature, moral philosophy, and scripture.

Marsh’s greatest concern was that the emerging commercial and industrial system would kill both individual reflective impulses through the rote mechanization of labor and would therefore kill education. Education would come to be defined as training for specific tasks, with little to no reflective content. He greatly worried about the impact this would have on the moral and political life of the nation. It seems to me that he was quite visionary in his concerns.

avatar John Gorentz February 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm

G. Koefoed, I did not know about James Marsh. I did a quick search on JSTOR for “James Marsh Frederick Jackson Turner frontier” to look for something that addressed both of these frontier concepts, but didn’t come up with anything that was immediately obvious. I also did a search for plain old “James Marsh frontier” with the same result. I’m not saying there was nothing good in those results for someone who’d look deeper than the titles, but if you have any suggestions of your own as to where to start reading, I’m interested.

Most historians who write about these things will tell you that the settlers who moved to the frontier of the Old Northwest intended very much not to escape their old cultures, but to bring their old cultures with them and plant them in a new country. This was especially true of the settlers from New England, possibly a bit less true of the settlers who came from Virginia by way of Kentucky. The settlers who went to Indiana, for example, were very much aware that there was a contest between two different cultures that were being planted there. The New England types were determined that it would be their culture and not that of the southern, Virginia/Kentucky types that would prevail. And vice versa for those from south, to some extent. (Those from the north tended to write more letters back and forth between the “frontier” and the folks back home, so it’s easier to get an idea of what they were thinking.)

I am also confirmed by my reading Jerry Salyer’s essay of my policy NOT to read historical position. If it’s bad historical fiction, it’s merely a waste of time. The real problem is with good historical fiction. It puts ideas in my head that I then have to go to great lengths to eradicate so as not to contaminate the actual historical record as it can be learned. There is some historical fiction, well researched and well written, that I read 20 years ago, which inspired me to start reading the real stuff. But it put mistaken ideas into my head that are still there and are still interfering with my efforts to get inside the minds of people who lived back in the days of the early American republic.

I should also point out that as an amateur historian who reads the works of professionals who write about the early American republic, that I get the impression that it is obligatory for historians to state somewhere in their publications that they do not subscribe to the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner. It is a way of establishing their bona fides, much like a young woman in a clique of junior high girls needs to establish that she doesn’t like whichever people the group doesn’t like, or like the way writers at the Front Porch Republic feel obliged to sneer at the American Right. I presume it’s necessary for them to say such things even if they aren’t relevant to the topic, so as to establish their social position among their peers. They want to be allowed to socialize and interbreed, and what would they do if they were cast out?

avatar Anonymous February 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I think that you can make an argument that at least some degree of disregard for Western traditions IS the Western tradition. Dante didn’t write epic poems like Homer. In fact, the very idea of “writing” the poems was counter to the original presentation. And the very idea of writing in the vernacular! Which was of course one step removed from the more formal Latin. Which was of course quite far removed from the still more formal Greek. Kids these days! Until the new kids came along and we had Ariosto. And then novels. Novels! Because if the kids start reading NOVELS… I mean… watching movies. I mean… listening to jazz. I mean playing video games…

Add in the marijuana cigarettes (intoxicants!) and it’s a perfect disaster for humanity.

avatar Rob G February 15, 2011 at 5:21 pm

“It sounds like Weaver is several decades out of date and has a lot of catching up to do.”

Gonna be kind of hard for him, considering that he died in 1963.

No offense, but if you call yourself a conservative and have not read Weaver, I’d say you’re the one that has the catching up to do.

avatar ZT February 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

The problem with tradition is that it precludes invention.

avatar ZT February 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

The problem with tradition is that it precludes invention.

avatar ZT February 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

The problem with tradition is that it precludes invention.

avatar snydster February 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Poor John Wayne. Liberals don’t like him and now it looks like true conservatives shouldn’t either.

I’m still a fan John!

avatar Anonymous February 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Not necessarily, especially if your particular brand of tradition lauds people for overturning tradition. This is a tenuous game, of course. But I think Eliot addressed it quite well in Tradition and the Individual Talent.

avatar John Gorentz February 16, 2011 at 12:26 am

Rob, all three are true:

— I call myself a conservative.
— I have not read Weaver. Never even heard of him.
— I have a lot of catching up to do.

The catching up that I am trying to do, though, is in areas like history and anthropology where there is so much good stuff to learn, and more coming out every year. The empiricist in me wants to know how cultures actually work under various pressures and influences. Why would I want to read Richard Weaver when he talks about the frontier without having very good knowledge of the concept of the frontier in American history? Note that Jerry Salyer had to use some of his words to correct some of Weaver’s misconceptions.

I am not denying that Weaver may have said some things worth saying, just that so far nobody has shown me why he ought to be high on my list of things to do.

avatar John Gorentz February 16, 2011 at 12:35 am

BTW, I hope that the Front Porch Republic will someday be treated to an essay on the question, “Is Americanism Un-American.” (If I were inclined to spend my time on such topics I would argue that yes, it is. And I would also argue just the opposite. And I would be right both ways.)

avatar Ulandpons February 16, 2011 at 2:27 am

I think you take Rand Pauls’ comments out of context. It seems to me that he is suggesting that in order for a viable marketplace— One based on honest assessments of risk and value– the current marketplace must first fall.
Or are you suggesting that attempting to refill various bubbles with mountains of freshly printed currency/debt is somehow a refined and civilized notion?

avatar Rob G February 16, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Weaver is generally considered one of the “big three” theorists/shapers of modern (i.e., post-war) American conservatism, along with Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. His book ‘Ideas Have Consequences’ is essential reading — no thoughtful conservative should miss it.

Contemporary American conservatism’s collective memory seems to go back only as far as Reagan, which is unfortunate. Modern conservatives often exhibit a love of and respect for history, but ironically they tend to be rather uninformed about the history of their own movement and the intellectual ideas underlying it. This was driven home to me a few years back when Rod Dreher published ‘Crunchy Cons.’ There was a rather vocal outcry against the book among some conservatives, but it seemed to me that any reader familiar with Kirk’s work would not have found the book outlandish at all.

avatar John Gorentz February 16, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Thanks for the explanation. I have been familiar with Kirk from long before Reagan was president. I was considerably influenced by Edmund Burke back when I was in high school in the early 60s, which may be why I find it so important to have an understanding that is grounded in actual historical knowledge of how people behave — hence history and anthropology. Other than that I have listened to a lot of the intellectual ideas and arguments without paying a lot of attention to whose ideas they were. The ideas are definitely important, and I’m glad some people try to keep track of which ideas came from which armchair intellectuals, but it’s not something I find necessary or useful. And in fact, I’m glad to be a data point representing lack of such knowledge. Somebody has to do it, so it may as well be me. On the other hand, I am VERY interested in which ideas come out of which cultures, historically, and try to learn as much as I can about that.

When Dreher’s book came out and was being talked about, I immediately thought he had stolen my own positions from the days in the early 80s when I would call myself a right-wing, conservative environmentalist. BTW I am old enough to remember the days of Rachel Carson’s book, when environmentalists tended to be right-wing kooks rather than left-wing kooks. I had some of those in my family, among people I loved and still miss terribly. A few of the old publications are still lying around the house.

My self-description used to annoy my left-leaning pastor. It may have been on election day 1982 or 1984 when we both found ourselves at the township hall in the long lines snaking back and forth through the room, waiting to vote. Everyone was quiet, as is befitting such a sacred and solemn occasion. Besides, it was early morning, and people weren’t fully awake yet. But our pastor saw me and stepped out of line. He came back to where my wife and I were standing and announced in a stage whisper, “John, I’ve looked over the ballot and there are no right-wing, conservative environmentalists on it. So YOU can go HOME.” People turned and stared while I tried my best to ignore it. (Back in those days I used to say the only good conservative was an environmentalist conservative, and vice versa.)

avatar Rob G February 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I got interested in Kirk and Burke during the early years of the Reagan presidency. I was just out of college had gotten a subscription to National Review — along with it came a free subscription to The University Bookman. That was my intro to Kirk.

Surprising, given your history, that you missed Weaver altogether.

avatar Red Phillips February 17, 2011 at 5:39 am

OK. Could someone please explain to me the “‘Andrew Jackson versus Mr. Peanut’ debate” reference. A link or something. Since Mr. Peanut has been used in the past to describe John Medaille, I clicked on the story expecting to read something about another battle he had managed to get himself into. Not that I didn’t like the article, it’s just not quite as scintillating as reading about internecine paleo blood-letting. Sorry Jerry.

avatar John E. February 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

“After all, is it typically the liberal who complains about Macbeth eating up precious college classroom time that could be better spent on practical, real-world studies, such as Business Leadership Theory or Organizational Management Administration?”

No, but is typically the liberal who complains about Macbeth eating up precious college classroom time that could be better spent studying the work of fourth- or fifth-rate poets selected on the basis of skin color, reproductive anatomy, and/or sexual preference rather than literary merit.

The conservative is much more likely to argue that familiarity with the traditional Western canon is indispensable in a complete education.

avatar Sean Blevins February 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

I am still making my way through my first reading of Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, but I think he has something valuable to add to this conversation and am surprised no one else has mentioned him. His preface directly addresses the lack of culture in America and attributes our deficiency to our rampant individualism, religious non-conformity, and commercialism.

“Because to enable and stir up people to rad their Bible and the newspapers, and to get a practical knowledge of their business, does not serve to the higher spiritual life of a nation so much as culture, truly conceived, serves; and a true conception of culture is…just what America fails in.”

Insofar as Western Civilization is a bearer of culture, I believe we do chose to reject a large part of that culture. My sense is that we generally look down on all older civilizations and cultures as backwards and inferior and see sweetness and light as the products of progress and modernity, not as heirlooms of the past and history. Older cultures are much more likely to be scorned than venerated. Hence our emphasis on religious non-conformity (i.e., Protestantism), monoligualism, and rugged individualism.

As such, it may be more appropriate for me to invert the original question and assert that America is anti-Western Civilization.

avatar Gene Callahan February 27, 2011 at 12:00 am

This is like someone saying “The problem with writing is it precludes literature.”

avatar Albert March 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm

In so far as there is an American strain that suspects and opposes tradition, authority and cultural standards, I think “civilization” is anti-American, not just Western civilization. But this American strain is not the only nor the best one.

There is another factor that is a bit obscured. Even those who accept and delight in the cultural inheritance of Western civilization via European culture ought to recognize that a different place requires a different–if not discontinuous–culture. Sometimes a “Mr. Peanut” criticism is appropriate, if only as a reminder to be patient with both Americans and their culture… and even to embody a kind of solidarity that removes the us/them division.

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