Postmodern Conservative

Globally Conscious Americanism That Ain’t Globalist: Thoughts on Bayles, Tocqueville, Whitman, and Manent

This post is an essay.  I dedicate it to my foreign-yet-partly-American friends who love their homelands, and America too.

What I tout in this essay is a sympathy and mindset that has some relation to what is talked about as a “globalist” perspective, but which is different.  “Globally Conscious Americanism” is for the time being the best I can do terminology-wise to describe it, although what I mean will be better understood by noticing how it is exhibited by a particular person, namely by Martha Bayles in her new book Through a Screen Darkly:  Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. 

While America’s foreign policy in the short-term sense is not the primary subject here, know from the outset that the phrase that best encapsulates my foreign policy thinking is self-limitation.  (It comes from the title of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.”)  America needs to limit itself, and that means reminding itself that even if it is the most unusual and important of nations, it still is a nation.  It means that America’s long-term goal cannot be either the one of nudging more and more of the world’s nations to adopt constitutional democracy until tyranny is no more, nor the one of working with international organizations to progressively develop and entrench a system of liberal world governance.  Nor can America’s goal be a combination of the two. 

Some readers, rightly concerned by the way the present relative retreat of American geo-strategic power and purpose is making the world less secure, might regard this word in favor of self-limitation as an untimely one.  Others, who have gathered from other posts that I largely defend America’s decision made under George W. Bush’s leadership to overthrow Saddam Hussein, might regard it as one I have not earned the right to say.  Well, they can say what they like in comments, and I’ll do my best to respond.  But herein my eyes are straining to see past the refracted glare of present debates.

Regular Carl’s Rock Songbook readers know that Martha Bayles is not just anyone to me.  I have the highest regard for her other book, Hole in our Soul:  The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, published back in 1994.  Indeed, I judge it to be our best single-volume work of pop-music criticism.  I’m going to largely praise Through a Screen Darkly here, but it cannot touch Hole in Our Soul in terms of overall importance and brilliance.  Here is a review from The Weekly Standard, and here is how Bayles herself summarizes the book’s main arguments:

The main argument of Part Two is that the culture war played a significant role in the decline of US public diplomacy, even before the end of the Cold War, and that it continues to hamper our intermittent efforts to revive public diplomacy for the twenty-first century.  This is related to the argument of Part One, which is that the entertainment industry is not an adequate substitute for a robust and effective public diplomacy. 

The book does present itself as speaking to an American audience about the way our public diplomacy, both of the intentional and unintentional kind, impacts our foreign policy interests, and in particular, our interest in the organic spread and maintenance of democracy.  But the above summary doesn’t convey what I think is particularly distinctive and fascinating about her accomplishment here, which is the way Bayles exhibits a sympathetic awareness of and concern for the current development of globalized culture.  The TWS reviewer Sam Schulman is tuned to this side of the book:

Bayles is sore about what’s happened to American entertainment and our government’s inability to restart public diplomacy, and she has interesting ideas about what has gone wrong. But the emotional focus of Through a Screen Darkly is not public diplomacy’s message or medium; it’s the audience that fascinates her. Broadly, she defines the t­arget audience as consisting of “restive populations under authoritarian governments.” They are largely, but not completely, non-Christian. And what distinguishes this audience from its Cold War predecessors is not any specific religious difference, but the nature of its relationship to religion as part of a traditional way of life that is all-encompassing.

A slight interjection.  Bayles’s argument extends to non-Western populations not under authoritarian governments, and more broadly applies to populations everywhere outside the older democracies.  To take one example, she discusses India’s responses to our cultural imports at length.   In any case, Schulman continues, with reference to her writing about the international popularity of the television series Friends in the chapter “The American Way of Sex,” as follows:

Our fellow Friends-viewers abroad are bound by ties of kinship, custom, and belief closer to those of continental Europe during the ancien régime than to those of the world of the Founders—or even our fathers. Our devout neighbors may be offended by Friends’s treatment of casual sex and immodesty, but the shock of a traditionalist family viewing it is of another order. People bound up in family and clan relationships, who feel duties to parents, siblings, and spouses, and who have regional, tribal, and sectarian loyalties, see a world they can hardly believe, but which they believe to be ours: a grouping of utterly unmoored individuals with no human affections they can recognize, no religion, no sense of honor, and free of any social or family expectations.

Bayles tells us about an Egyptian exchange student who “was astonished to see how much time Americans spend with their families,” because in the American entertainments she was familiar with, there were “no families, just individuals.”  You can take that as a public diplomacy problem, in which we fail to communicate to the world that we are living better than we show, but you can also take it as a sign of how the sexual revolution (not to mention the freedom from arranged marriage it presumes), might reorder life around the world, particularly when its hold is exaggerated by pop culture.  If it is unfair to say about our pop culture that it “is filth,” as John Derbyshire once categorically put it, it might be correct enough to say that it “is individualism.” 


The world-wide cult of Friends, and of similar “urban single comedies” such as Sex and the City is pretty astounding.  Bayles tells us the number of viewings for the first approaches 17 billion, and I can report that, sure enough, among my handful of younger international friends, one of them lists those two shows as her favorites.  Bayles, who confesses she had zero desire or intention to dig into the significance of Friends prior to conducting the interviews she did overseas, reports the following:

Burdened by the demands of their own extended families, my young overseas interlocutors were fascinated by urban singles comedies.  Some likened them to a drug, alluring but enervating.  In Egypt, where educated youth have trouble finding jobs, a recent graduate of Cairo University told me that most of her classmates were “just living at home, doing nothing but watching Friends.” 

This was just before not a few of them joined the protests at the heart of what we once called the Arab Spring.  I recall an article from those heady days, only a few years ago, which recounted the reverential treatment given the 80s punk rocker Henry Rollins when he visited a Cairo music store.  It wasn’t just the “urban singles” model of modern freedom that, as Bayles says, puts off generativity and distances one from family, which young Cairenes were picking up on.  The cynical lessons about power–political and sexual–and the general shamelessness about manner that one could learn from cultural currents like punk rock, which we’ll symbolize here with Rollins’ band Black Flag, were also in air. 

Through a Screen Darkly talks about many pop-culture subjects.  Bayles considers the development of block-buster films, soap-operas, talk-shows, and reality shows, and how these largely American-originated forms have been adopted and adjusted by other nations.  You learn why Bollywood’s greater sensitivity to what we might call “extended family values” has allowed it to win favor with foreign audiences across the developing world, about the association of the West with a “plague of porn” in places like Indonesia, and about how China’s rulers manage democratic longings manifested in the popularity of things like the imported King Fu Panda movie and the home-grown Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Female Voice Concert television show.

Bayles also has a particularly interesting chapter on the experience of foreign-exchange students here, and the current development of international branch campuses by a number of American universities.  She even takes time to consider patterns of American missionary work, criticizing the growing trend towards short-term mission trips that seem to have a touristic spirit.  And then there’s the chapters focused on actual American public diplomacy programs and agencies.

Obviously, it’s something of a mixed-bag.  But what I appreciate is the way she treats cultural and political developments as interconnected, and as thus revealing the larger, beyond-the-economics, story of globalization.  To the extent this fits into the narrower story of America’s policy perspective, she describes her basic belief as follows:

It would be folly for Americans to think we could graft an exact blueprint of our Constitution and political arrangements on very different societies.  But a greater truth is that we can, and should, share with others our distinctive ethos and the hard-won political wisdom that goes with it.  Fundamentally, that ethos and that wisdom are about human nature:  tyranny cannot be cured, because human beings will always abuse power.  But it can be curbed by institutions designed to address this reality. 

For most of the past century, the task of sharing this wisdom, and the ethos that supports it, has been assumed by the government…But only recently has the entire task been shifted onto the commercials entertainment industry.  …this is a serious mistake.  In its current form, American popular culture projects countless images of personal freedom, but it says next to nothing about political liberty.   …[our popular culture products] highlight in vivid detail the human propensity to abuse freedom and power, but they rarely show how the country’s institutions were designed to mitigate that propensity. 

Wise words.  And I hope you caught the implicit praise of The Federalist Papers and the implicit rebuke of George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural in there.  I will say, however, that in this passage she puts a bit too much weight on the wonderfulness of our institutions.   Part of the hard-won political wisdom circa 2014 that Americans must share with the world are a number of warnings about mistakes we’ve made, and about democratic socio-cultural tendencies, often ones first noted by Tocqueville, that can exceed the ability of merely institutional arrangements to contain.  Similarly, to usefully share our political heritage requires us to recognize and communicate the fundamental character of its unresolved divisions, such as those about the idea of liberty.  This is a “chastened Americanism” I’m recommending.  Perhaps it doesn’t square with Bayles’s saying that the distinctive American ethos is a can-do optimism, tempered by prudence.  But I don’t see how else we can be true to The Federalist Papers’ admonition to heed that “best oracle of wisdom, experience.”   

Having seen Bayles’s example, let us turn to the way a lot of Postmodern Conservative readers encounter the broader issue here about being globally-conscious, namely, through battles over college curricula.  Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars co-sponsored a conference with the pointed title, “Global Illusions: Bowdoin’s Post-Citizens and the Future of American Higher Education.”   Speakers included John Fonte, Susan Shell, and Peter Wood.  Wood’s address you can see here; you might recall his related NRO editorial against the idea of teaching “global citizenship.”  

It’s true that what our colleges typically convey when purporting to educate in a globalist spirit is either something fairly shallow, or, it is a set of beliefs that logically require the world state for their fulfillment.  That’s reason enough to oppose such education–for reasons I once elaborated with a little help from John Lennon and a lot from Chantal Delsol, the nation-state won’t be fading away anytime soon, nor should any true friend of liberal democracy want it to.

More specifically, while I acknowledge that there are persons who wind up in difficult situations of divided loyalties, who understandably seek out dual or even multiple citizenship as a temporary solution, I agree with those who argue that such ought not to serve as a permanent status, and I join Wood in opposing the idea of education for global citizenship.  I’m always against selling people things that don’t, in fact, exist.   Moreover, as an educator it would be against my own interests and deepest convictions not to oppose such curricular “reform.”  One of the happiest days of my life was arriving at St. John’s College to study the Great Books of the Western world, and another was arriving at the University of Virginia to teach the American political tradition.  I remain an unapologetic champion of genuine Great Books education, which must remain mostly Western (for a small sense what it really takes to learn the comparable canons of India, China, etc., you might consult this other St. John’s book list), and for American colleges, of serious civics education in all things American.  The way a globalist curriculum would be implemented in most of our colleges would be through questionable course requirements that would necessarily, given the typical decision-dynamics of faculty bodies these days, cut back upon the already very inadequate or non-existent core requirements that I judge to be the most important. 

However, the current push for a global-minded education is tuned to a number of emerging realities of the 21st century situation that cannot be ignored, and it reflects a thirst for understanding them that is entirely appropriate.  Conservative educators in America must not react simply negatively to this.  Rather, they need to show why what they offer, even some of the Americo-centric studies they offer, are essential for arriving at a coherent and non-trivial attunement to our increasing globalization. 

Consider the big questions about our future.  What will be the fate of democracy 200 years from now?  How about of the sexual revolution?  How about modernity, and one of its key aspects, corporate capitalism?  Christianity?  Liberal education?  The prospects for world government, or at least, confederation?  Leftism?  Feminism?  And what about Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam?  To think about such, one must think globally.  And just as inevitably, you’ll find yourself, regardless of your homeland, thinking in terms of how quite a few of the strands of “globalist” culture or phenomena connected to these questions trace back to America–Bayles shows you some of the p’s and q’s of this with respect to pop culture.

Now the questions about modern democratic society, whether it is desirable, whether it is in decline or advance, whether it can be adjusted to work with non-Western national or religious ways, and whether it can even work with the religion and the nation-states it emerged from, are perhaps the most pressing and important, and such questions, we Strauss-influenced ones at Postmodern Conservative say, take you back to the great conversations of real liberal education, i.e., to the likes of Socrates, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, to the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, to the divide between classical philosophers and the modern ones, and to the conflict between the Christians and the moderns.  A grand European battle of ideas, that. 

But we are just as Tocqueville-influenced hereabouts.  That is, we think Tocqueville was right that America matters in a big way to nearly everything these days.  We hold that thinkers everywhere need to look to how those classic conflicts, and the newer one between conservatism and leftism, played out in the course of modern democracy’s development, whose main features were first seen with clarity in America.  Susan McWilliams was onto something, when she recently argued that the apparently borderless and all-connected life that we are all said to be experiencing now as globalization, had a precursor in the democratic life first lived within the borders of America itself, and especially when seen through Tocquevillian eyes.  

A simpler way of saying all this is that America is the nation most wed to the modernity and democracy that all peoples are now having to grapple with.  It is the nation that by a number of yardsticks, including but not limited to the material and military ones, has had the most undeniable successes in handling democratic modernity, and this is in part due to its discovering ways of mitigating or re-channeling many of the negative tendencies of pure modernity and pure democracy.  The world can learn from that relative success even if the long American Moment ends in our lifetimes, that is if, God forbid, our growing class divisions, festering racial divisions, and our particularly dangerous creedal divisions (about the very meaning of Liberty, Rights, Democracy, and Freedom of Religion) take us into a drawn-out era of civil dissolution.  For the foreigner, the American experience can show you some of where you’re going, and some of where you don’t want to go.

That’s the map from the first edition of Democracy in America.  And here’s another “map,” for the Whit Stillman fans:

So we pomocons think the greatest book on modern democracy, and perhaps on modern society in totality, remains Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  And I say it is quite telling that this book was not called Democracy, nor Modernity, nor Democracy in Modernity.  That is, its very title reveals that to understand what is modern and what is democratic requires special reflection about America, namely, about how modern democracy works, for good and for ill, in it. 

Contrast this with the statement made by Walt Whitman, who might be considered modern democracy’s greatest poetic champion, that he used “democracy” and “America” as interchangeable terms.  And in that light consider the conclusion of a recent essay in the journal American Political Thought, by Carl Najdek, titled “The Earth to be Spann’d, Connected by Net-Work”:  Walt Whitman’s Industrial Internationalism.”  While you should note that the Whitman revealed by Najdek is, contrary to our usual image of him, no more rigorously devoted to “back-to-nature” than were the hippie-influenced Founders of Silicon Valley, I want you to concentrate particularly on his near-equation of America and democracy:

Whitman would suggest that while industrialization has created these challenges [of inequality and environmental degradation], it also has provided the tools to solve them… The lesson of his internationalism does not rest in his support of a specific form of political architecture or the expression of citizenship in any particular form but in the understanding of politics in the modern world as a decidedly international phenomenon.  The nations of the world increasingly are connected and in constant interaction, and through these connections, Whitman believed a community capable of global action could be born.  When “all these separations and gaps shall be taken up, and hook’d and link’d together,” he predicted in “Passage to India,”  “the whole Earth—this cold, impassive, voiceless Earth, shall be completely justified.”

Nor should we forget that Whitman’s internationalism requires America to be a leader, a cosmopolitan force in the world.  As the first modern nation, it is the vanguard to a world where inequality, subjugation, and violence has been transcended, and the true potential of humankind fulfilled.  He describes its role in his preface to the 1872 edition of Leaves of Grass:  “not to become a conqueror nation, or to achieve the glory of mere military, or diplomatic, or commercial superiority…to become the most friendly nation, (the United States indeed)—the modern composite nation.” 

Nearly the only difference between this vision of a world-to-be-united and that held by today’s  globalists, is that the latter often see the EU, or a jointly EU-and-US directed project of International Law, as the key leader of unification.  Whitman’s global consciousness is “Americanist,” all right, but it is lacking all grounds for national self-limitation.  He would have America be a new form of Empire.  The most friendly, modern, and composite empire ever. 

Now I take a second and skeptical look at anyone these days who speaks of America’s or the West’s present “imperialism.”  I think it is usually a waste of time to talk yet again about empire or imperialism understood through the lenses of Marx, Lenin, and their dismal Theory-breeding followers.  But I am much readier to pay heed to what Pierre Manent says about such.  Consider this quote, from perhaps the best single-volume guide to the overall situation of our times and what political philosophy can teach us about it, A World Beyond Politics?, written in 2001:

In the present day, real empire is obviously the American empire.  The United States not only holds the throne but it is the insurer, consumer, and guardian of last resort in the world as was Great Britaian in the nineteenth century.  It exercises a truly imperial government, much more than Great Britain ever did, not only by its direct financial, diplomatic, or military interventions, but because it sets the rules by which most citizens of the planet consent to live:  American jurisprudence, rating agencies, and accounting procedures are considered by Americans and by others as the standard of universal norms.  One of the signs of the imperial reality is that the boundary between internal and external tends to disappear.  Every non-American is a potential citizen of the United States, and American jurisdiction tends implicitly and sometimes explicitly to the entire world. 

This is more the case than when he wrote this, because if it is especially the likes of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple that are doing the “hooking” and “linking” of the globe, then that is something even more tangible than other the America-originated practices Manent lists, and something largely controlled by Americans for the time being, even if someday the world’s nations could agree to construct a world regulatory body over these companies that would enforce some set of Internet Rights for every human on the planet.

That is, who rules the world-connecting web and how they do, will increasingly become primary political questions.  And as to the “who” question, it sure looks like there will be, for at least a good while, no substitute for the mostly America-based companies, which whatever they may say ultimately are beholden to the American government.  That is going to increase the desire everywhere for world government, without question.  But whether Americans come to rule the world through “their” internet companies, or whether a world government comes to rule even Americans through their initially agreeing to let world bodies run those companies, Whitman will turn out to have been right that it would be America, through its democratic-industrial passion for connection, that drove the world to become one.  

There is more we could clarify about Manent’s thought, but I mainly want us to consider is his impression of America’s reach.  He is very right that we, and a growing class of America-oriented foreigners, need to be wary of a tendency to “increasingly identify American democracy with the universal as such.”(viii)  And he says the same about the EU project. He provides convincing reasons for supporting the nation in our time, that is, for being a good (i.e., self-limiting) “nationalist” of whatever nation you belong to.  

Running with that, I say each people should develop a globally conscious education and mindset that works in tandem with the necessarily greater attention they pay to their nation’s story.  However, I cannot refrain from saying that a key part of that global awareness will be a greater attention to the books, institutions, and cultural trends of the West and of America, than to those of other foreign places.  As my brief appreciation of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire:  The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia suggested, a key aspect of that “attention” for non-Westerners would likely be exploring how similar non-Western peoples reacted against those or tried to adjust them for their purposes.  That sort of study is not the same sort of thing as the reductionism you typically get from the world history scholars, at least when in their typical survey modes; nor does it support the vague impression given by many champions of “globalism,” that they regard all cultural traditions as equally worthy of common educational exploration.

But back to Manent.  Understood by his thought, America is some strange combination of Empire and Nation.  For those of us who are Americans, that means our natural patriotism has got to be more self-limiting, and yet strangely enough, simultaneously heightened for the very purpose of such self-limitation.  For American thinkers, that means what is needed is an inevitably somewhat Whitmanian, but yet far more Tocquevillian and Manentian, awareness of global democratic prospects.  America still has a mission, and it still is the most important mission compared to that of any other nation, but a key part of that mission is its need to limit itself.  We must deny that we are, or will become, the world, even if we admit and celebrate the fact that we are the most culturally connected, melted, and composite nation in the world.  A certain American provincialism, which includes an appropriate attention to our own national interests, and a non-racist desire to maintain the broad outlines of our peculiar ethnic/cultural mix and miscegenation, has got be tapped into and cultivated, politically and culturally, to keep the balance right. 

Martha Bayles’ informed worries about the clash of our pop culture with our public diplomacy, Ralph Ketcham’s defense of Founders-focused U.S. History alongside his own musings about whether East Asians might build a better form of democracy, Jeff Sessions’ eloquent denunciation of Mark Zuckerberg’s self-interested and unpatriotic (go to 3:40) promotion of Big Amnesty immigration policy, and finally, Ralph Ellison’s patriotic, not a little Whitmanian, and yet still toughly sober defense of the melting pot metaphor/ideal in the face of its rejection by “multi-culturalists,” these are the sorts of models we need.  And which, for its own purposes, the world does also.

What is needed, in sum, is an Americanist way of being globally conscious, without allowing either of those terms to swallow the other.  

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