Christopher Lasch on progressive imperialism

[New Republic co-founder Herbert] Croly’s confidence in public opinion and “virtuous social actors” struck most liberals by this time as old-fashioned and unsophisticated. They were more impressed by Walter Lippmann’s analysis of the irrationality of public opinion and by H. L. Mencken’s ridicule of democracy as the reign of the “booboisie.” Mencken taught liberal intellectuals to think of themselves as a “civilized minority” and to wear unpopularity as a badge of honor. A man of intelligence and taste would always find himself “in active revolt against the culture that surrounds him.” Praising Sinclair Lewis, Mencken laid it down as a dogma that “the artist is … a public enemy; vox populi, to him, is the bray of an ass.” The best thinking was always carried out in “conscious revolt” against the majority.

The postwar reaction made it easy for liberals to accept Mencken’s low opinion of the average American. Not only liberalism but civilization itself, it seemed, had no future in America: such was the conclusion reached by most of the contributors to Harold Stearns’ celebrated symposium, civilization in the United States (1912). Another collaborative project, a state-by-state survey conducted by the nation in the early twenties, conveyed the same impression, on the whole; even more than the Stearns collection, “these United States” revealed liberals’ deep revulsion from American politics and popular culture.

In launching the series, the editors of the nation expressed the hope that “variety and experiment” in the United States would prevail over the forces making for “centralization and regimentation.” The picture of America that emerged from most of the articles, however, looked more like the one made familiar by Mencken and Stearns. Mencken himself contributed the piece on Maryland: “no light, no color, no sound!” several articles were written by authors well known for savage satires of provincial life: Sinclair Lewis on Minnesota (“Scandinavians Americanize only too quickly”); Sherwood Anderson on Ohio (“Have you a city that smells worse than Akron, that is a worse junk-heap of ugliness than Youngstown, that is more smugly self-satisfied than Cleveland?”); and Theodore Dreiser on Indiana (“dogmatic religion,” “political somnolence,” “pharisaical restfulness in its assumed enlightenment”). At least two articles (“Michigan: the Fordizing of a pleasant peninsula” and “West Virginia: a mine-field melodrama”) were written by proteges of Mencken on the Baltimore Sun; another (“Arkansas, a native proletariat” referred to him repeatedly; and several others, including Ludwig Lewisohn’s scathing piece on South Carolina (“appalling and intolerant ignorance and meanness of spirit”), were done in the Mencken manner. Evidently the editors of the Nation saw no contradiction between a celebration of regional diversity and a satire of local customs bound to leave the impression that the United States was populated largely by rednecks, fundamentalists, and militant adherents of the Ku Klux Klan. They conceived of the series as a “contribution to the new literature of national self-analysis”; but they did not distinguish between self­-analysis founded on a writer’s identification with his community and a social criticism that reflected an impregnable sense of superiority to the surrounding culture.

The South in particular—condemned as much for the backwardness of its provincial culture as for its deplorable race relations—elicited this second type of criticism. In Alabama, a state “saturated with provincialism,” the ideas of the arch-reactionary G. K. Chesterton “would be considered advanced,” according to Clement Wood. The state’s “mental and spiritual sterility” had been analyzed “with devastating impertinence” in Mencken’s well-known diatribe against the South, “the Sahara of the Bozart,” and Wood found it difficult to add anything to the indictment. He could only ask, once again, what Alabama had contributed “to music, to drama, to sculpture, to painting, to literature, or to the world of science, that handmaiden of man in his progress from beasthood.” Only Virginia and North Carolina, among southern states, came in for mildly favorable comment. According to Douglas Southall Freeman, the “new educational movement” was the “hope of every progressive Virginian.” Robert Watson Winston took comfort from the existence of an “active, forward-looking element” in North Carolina, a state that no longer proclaimed herself “provincial and proud of it.”

Condemnation of Southern backwardness, in a liberal weekly, might have been expected. More surprising was that a series conceived as an exploration of diversity so often ended by holding up a uniform standard of cultural progress, one measured by great works of art and notable achievements in science and technology. None of the contributors asked whether a new order in the South would not have to rest on traditions indigenous to the region. None showed much interest in the requirements for a vigorous civic life, as opposed to the number of orchestras, art galleries, libraries, and universities. The implication was that “civilization,” if it was ever to come to the south, would have to come from outside. The only hope for Mississippi, according to Beulah Amidon Ratliff, was an invasion of “missionaries” from the North. Like the rest of the South, Mississippi needed “educational missionaries, to bring both white and colored schools up to modern standards; medical missionaries, to teach hygiene and sanitation; … agricultural missionaries, to teach modern methods of farming.” Only in the wake of a second Reconstruction would the “light of civilization penetrate the uttermost parts” of Dixie. …

Even Kansas and Iowa, states that prided themselves on their spirit of improvement, remained culturally backward. William Allen White described Kansas as a “Puritan survival.” Although he conceded her civic spirit, her elimination of poverty and crime, and her rising standards of health and education, his account stressed the negative side of “Puritanism.” The “dour deadly desire to fight what was deemed wrong” had grunted the sense of beauty. Kansas had produced “no great poet, no great painter, no great musician, no great writer or philosopher,” only the “dead level of economic and political democracy.” Johan J. Smertenko used the same kind of language in his account of Iowa, a “cautious, prosaic, industrious, and mediocre” place in which the prospects for “cultural expression” were “bleak indeed.” Lacking any “generous purpose” or “spiritual background,” Iowa was a “dull, gray monotone.” “Seldom has a people been less interested in spiritual self-expression and more concerned with hog nutrition.”

John Macy, the Nation’s literary editor, painted an equally unflattering portrait of Massachusetts, where Yankee traditions had been modified by Catholic immigration without producing anything more than a “complaisant and insignificant conformism.” If Catholics “mistakenly and stupidly” abused their “new-found strength” by banning works on the spanish inquisition or the novels of Zola from public libraries, their attempt to impose intellectual uniformity marked only a “slight transformation of Puritan zealotry.” The “more enlightened citizens of Massachusetts” could take pride in Holmes and Brandeis, but mediocre politicians like Henry Cabot Lodge, David Walsh, and the “yokel” Calvin Coolidge more accurately represented the electorate. The people of Massachusetts got the politicians and the newspapers they deserved. Except for the Christian Science Monitor—a national rather than a local paper—the press exhibited the “dress and cultivation of a boom mining-town.”

That states as different as Iowa and Massachusetts could prompt the same kind of disparagement suggests that the conventions underlying this disparagement had acquired a life of their own. …

Taken as a whole, these reports conveyed an unmistakable impression of liberal intellectuals’ sense of alienation from America.

— Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven


4 responses to “Christopher Lasch on progressive imperialism

  1. Pingback: Christopher Lasch on progressive imperialism | Reaction Times

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