This Is Important (Part III)

Frederick Douglass


Editor’s Note: On Monday, Jay Nordlinger began a series about Roger Kimball’s book The Fortunes of Permanence. For Parts I and II, go here and here.

I have written about the term “African-American” many times, and so does Kimball. In fact, he writes about a larger ball of wax:

A favorite weapon in the armory of multiculturalism is the lowly hyphen. When we speak of an African-American or Mexican-American or Asian-American these days, the aim is not descriptive but deconstructive. There is a polemical edge to it, a provocation. The hyphen does not mean “American, but hailing at some point in the past from someplace else.” It means “only provisionally American: my allegiance is divided at best.”

That is putting it very sharply, and truly, I think. I thought of a little girl I know — the daughter of a friend of mine. I think she’s about seven. She had just learned the term “African-American” at school. (She is white.) And she was indignant: “Why can’t they be just American, like me? Why do they have a separate name?”

She sensed the harm, I think, to the social fabric. To the concept of E pluribus unum.

One nice thing about children is that they have the capacity for indignation. (Maybe too much capacity!) They are not yet worn down — not yet resigned. The sense of justice still burns.

Kimball quotes Frederick Douglass: “No one idea has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward the colored people of this country, than that which makes Africa, not America, their home.”

Douglass ought to be a bigger deal than he is in our schools and in our national thinking at large. Personally, I could use less X and more Douglass.

Kimball reproduces an exchange between a New York Times reporter and our friend Ward Connerly, a civil-rights leader for our time. The exchange took place by telephone, in 1997:

Reporter: What are you?
Connerly: I am an American.
Reporter: No, no, no! What are you?
Connerly: Yes, yes, yes! I am an American.
Reporter: That is not what I mean. I was told that you are African-American. Are you ashamed to be African-American?
Connerly: No, I’m just proud to be an American.

Dusty Rhodes, the former president and CEO of National Review, worked closely with Connerly for some years. He says Ward is the bravest person he has ever known. He has not only faced verbal and psychological abuse of an awful kind; he has faced threats to his very life.

You know my favorite moment in Campaign 2012, or one of them? Our illustrious vice president, Joe Biden, encountered a man on the campaign trail in Florida. He said, “Are you Indian?” The man said, “American!”

He’s my kind of fellow citizen (and I don’t mean Biden).

Kimball notes something that is not often enough thought about: In one breath, institutions such as colleges say they don’t discriminate; in the next breath, they invite you to identify yourself racially and ethnically, so that they may discriminate.

This is a big hypocrisy at the core of American life.

Here is a quotation from Samuel Huntington: “Throughout American history, people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefited them and the country.”

In today’s environment, what Huntington said is “hate speech.” This is an indictment of our environment, not of Huntington.

I remember an editorial dinner we had when Huntington’s book came out. By “book,” I mean his Who Are We? By “editorial dinner,” I mean the biweekly gathering we at National Review had at Bill Buckley’s place.

One of his guests was a Democratic foreign-policy official. In the course of conversation, someone mentioned the new Huntington book — and the official said, “Isn’t it racist?”

To a mind warped by today’s ideological fashions, yes.

Kimball has taught me a useful phrase: “value vacuum.” It comes from an Austrian novelist, Hermann Broch (1886-1951). “By removing the obligation to adopt American values,” writes Kimball, multiculturalism “fosters what [Broch] calls a ‘value vacuum,’ a sense of existential emptiness that breeds anomie and the pathologies of nihilism.”

One of Kimball’s best, and most fun, passages is about “the movement for bilingualism.” Enjoy:

Whatever it intended in theory, in practice it means not mastering English. It has notoriously left its supposed beneficiaries essentially monolingual, often semi-lingual. The only “bi” involved is a passion for bifurcation, which is fed by the accumulated resentments instilled by the anti-American multicultural orthodoxy.

Fun, but grimly fun, if you know what I mean.

Care for some James Burnham? “Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.” Yikes.

Care for some Jean-François Revel? “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it.” Oh, yes.