Posted: July 4, 2011
ith his new book, Made in America, Claude Fischer is quietly but unmistakably walking away from one of the contemporary American historical profession's most ingrained assumptions-a belief in the inadequacy and perniciousness of the concept of "national character." This assumption is drilled into the head of every graduate student in history at every respectable university, and violated only under pain of derision and loss of professional standing and intellectual reputation. Fischer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, disavows this assumption so smoothly and intelligently that one could almost miss the significance of what he is doing. In order to fully appreciate Made in America, then, one has to consider the larger context of recent American historical writing.
As with so many dogmas, the regnant orthodoxy Fischer is dismissing needs to be understood as itself a form of reaction, a sweeping rejection of what had been put forward by a previous generation of scholars. That earlier generation, arising in the wake of World War II, was preoccupied with the ascent of the United States to unquestioned leadership of the Western world, and felt compelled to ask large questions about the meaning of America, including whether there was such a thing as a distinctive American culture, and if so, what its defining characteristics might be, and how these might be expressed and embodied in individual character. Stimulated partly by the work of cultural anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead and other social scientists with an interest in culture and personality, and partly by a burst of postwar scholarly interest in Tocqueville's Democracy in America, an influential group of writers including Richard Hofstadter, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., David Riesman, David Potter, Perry Miller, Daniel Boorstin, and Louis Hartz argued for a fresh view of American history and society, one in which a unifying framework of ideas, myths, symbols, and values was thought to have created and sustained a distinctively American people and culture.
Contrary to the claims of their successors, these mid-century writers didn't always approve of the American "consensus" they described; indeed, Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) was more a sustained dirge than a celebration, and the principal thrust of many of the "consensus" writers was deeply critical. But their work did have the intellectual self-confidence and energy—or if you like, audacity—to entertain such large generalizations as "the American mind" or such unifying national "symbols" as the idea of the virgin land or the persona of Andrew Jackson. They believed, as the historian John Lukacs once put it, that a generalization is like a broom: it is made to sweep.
This vogue did not last long, however. With the political and cultural conflicts of the 1960s came an unraveling of the whole idea that Americans were in agreement about much of anything, least of all their shared ideas and values, or that the "nation" could ever be able to express any such agreements. The concept of "national character" found itself rejected and rudely cast aside, a casualty of waning confidence in the nation itself. In a time of such visible national dissensus, it no longer seemed tenable to claim that nation-states were genuinely unified communities, grounded in freely granted political consent and a broadly shared culture, capable of shaping individual personalities in a particular mold.
Instead, the unity of nation-states was increasingly regarded as something entirely invented or imagined or imposed by force, and such elements of national culture as there were, when not fiction altogether, were likely to be manufactured products of hegemonic elites, even instruments of social control. Hence the national population was less worthy of attention than its ethnic or racial or sexual subgroups, established political institutions were less important than amorphous social movements, leaders were less important than rebels, high culture less interesting than popular culture, and intellectual or constitutional or political history less worthwhile than social history, particularly the social history of oppressed and marginalized subgroups.
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Clearly whatever sins the consensus writers committed, they have been more than surpassed by those of the opposition, which is still going strong some half-century after the academic rout of what the late historian John Higham derided, in a 1959 Commentary article, as "The Cult of the ‘American Consensus.'" That's 50 years and hundreds of monographs for the "cult of the anti-consensus," compared with 15 years and a handful of books for the original "cult"—a startling disproportionality that somehow escapes mention.
And in the American academy, such disproportionality generally translates into intolerance, because several generations of careers are now invested in the deconstruction of American history. This means that the soil has been salted with prohibitions against certain kinds of generalizations, and all too many subjects, even screamingly pertinent ones, are simply off limits. In the telling words of historian Joseph Ellis, who is certainly no conservative, "the currently hegemonic narrative within the groves of academe [makes George] Washington complicitous in creating a nation that was imperialistic, racist, elitist, and patriarchal," and "the reigning orthodoxy in the academy regards Washington as either a taboo or an inappropriate subject, and any aspiring doctoral candidate who declares an interest in, say, Washington's career as commander-in-chief, or president, has inadvertently confessed intellectual bankruptcy." Needless to say, a similar cashiering also awaits the young scholar who proposes to undertake a serious examination of the question of American "national character."
It is a shame. John Higham himself was a wise and exemplary man and a distinguished historian, a gentleman liberal of an older type who wanted to point his profession toward a more generous, inclusive view of American life. And in fact he was quite right to criticize the consensus historians for their flattening and homogenizing of the American social landscape, and for saying so little about the astonishing ethnic, religious, and racial diversity of a nation that had been made and remade by successive waves of immigration. But the critique's influence ended up extending vastly beyond his intentions, losing all sense of proportion, and finally becoming institutionalized in the structure of the contemporary academy, leaving us with a busy historiographical industry that produces many interesting and often subtle things, but is flatly unable to render a compelling story of the American nation.
The obstacle to this is not merely the complexity of the task, but the fact that the task itself has been largely proscribed. Instead, the nation has become, in Higham's own later, rueful phrase, "the villain in other people's stories," the indispensable negative precondition for the only heroic tales that are still legitimate to tell: those of marginalized individuals and certifiably victimized groups. That this presents a particularly acute problem for the American Left is only one of the many interesting outgrowths of Barack Obama's rise to power. The disavowal of American exceptionalism is always warmly appreciated inside the seminar room, and is a plausible position to take when one is far away from political power. But it ends up being rather unhelpful as a basis for coherent, effective action in the real world, just as a president who is accustomed to apologizing for his nation's past villainies finds it very difficult to know how to act plausibly and effectively in that nation's name and on its behalf in the wider world.
But there has always been something patently absurd and campus-provincial about the prohibition against all discussion of "national character." Anyone who has spent time outside the United States knows perfectly well that there is such a thing as national character, however difficult it may be to define or demarcate with exacting precision, particularly in an age of migration and porous boundaries. Who would be so absurd as to deny that Italians are Italians, and are possessed of many common characteristics of speech, gesture, personality, taste, and custom, even along with their still fiercely contested regional differences? And who could deny that Italians are remarkably good at identifying Americans as Americans, black or white, Northern or Southern, even before we open our mouths, just by the way we move, the way we hold ourselves? Who could deny that the conduct of our respective nations' politics and diplomacy owes much to our distinctive and identifiable characteristics? All that the prohibition against speaking of national character has accomplished is to diminish the number of things we can talk about, and the meaningfulness with which we can talk about them.
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All of which background is necessary, I believe, in order to understand what is going on in Claude Fischer's fascinating book. In it, Fischer makes the astonishing but entirely plausible argument that there is an essential continuity between the American national character of two centuries ago—let us say, of Tocqueville's day—and that of America today. And the way he goes about sustaining the claim is even more astonishing. Rather than simply ignoring the vast accumulation of specialized work in American social history as a hopeless muddle, a pudding without a theme, a pile of rocks in search of a cathedral, Fischer has plunged into it all with admirable energy, seeking to discover the congruencies and thematic resonances that the individual scholars themselves have been unable, and sometimes unwilling, to tease out.
Fischer has, one might say, undertaken to do the work that American historians have declined to do. Perhaps best known for his work on the social history of the telephone (America Calling, 1992), he has until now not been particularly well-known among American historians, who have in any event found other social sciences, such as anthropology, of greater interest in recent years. But they will have to contend with him now. The sheer volume of Fischer's reading, indicated by the book's more than 200 pages of Notes and Bibliography, is staggering, as is the discernment with which he sifts through the various works from which he draws material. But most admirable of all is the book's sharp clarity of organization and the jargon-free unpretentiousness with which the author puts forward his findings. Out of the massive volume of recent American social-history scholarship, Fischer finds clear, consistent themes emerging, pointing toward a clear and reasonably consistent "American character" that has endured over centuries, and has even, he argues, made Americans "more American" over the years. His is a story of a nation that has been steadily becoming more fully what it was from the beginning.
In the process, Fischer dispels a number of myths and misconceptions about American social history. Americans are not becoming more mobile; on the contrary, the trend has been moving in the opposite direction. Americans are not becoming less religious; on the contrary, religious affiliation stands at higher levels than in most past periods of American history. Nor are Americans becoming more violent, or more alienated from their work, or less concerned about the needy. The contrary proposition is true in each case.
But far more important than these debunkings are the striking continuities over the centuries that Fischer finds in the American national character. Needless to say, these continuities won't be startling to anyone acquainted with the pre-1960s scholarship; but even so, he makes them freshly plausible by grounding them in the newer scholarship. To begin with, he finds Americans from the beginning to have been largely a "people of plenty," in David Potter's famous term, which means that the "consumerism" so lamented in the present day is nothing new. Steady improvements in material security and economic prosperity have always been eagerly and confidently expected by Americans, serving to underwrite the expansion of a distinctive middle-class American culture, which has become over time more and more inclusive.
He also finds America to have been, from the start, a highly voluntaristic society—a better word than individualistic—meaning that Americans' relationships, organizational affiliations, and living circumstances were, to a great and steadily increasing extent, a product of their own choices rather than of necessity or external compulsion. Americans have always had an extraordinarily powerful belief in the possibilities of self-improvement or self-culture, and an unwillingness to accept the hand they were dealt in life as the hand they would be constrained to play. Similarly, they have tended to regard participation in public life as optional, and tended (with some exceptions) to favor cultivation of the private sphere of life.
Fischer is of course fully aware of the multitudinous prohibitions against speaking of "national character," but he brushes them aside. "While many scholars emphasize the survival of ethnic diversity into the twenty-first century," he acknowledges, "what is sociologically striking is the extent to which the American mainstream has overflowed and washed away that diversity, leaving behind little but food variety and self-conscious celebrations of multiculturalism." The concept of a distinctive national character "does make sense," he states, with the impatience of one who knows he is stating the obvious. Even though early America, like most societies, was "complex, pluralistic, and often conflicting," it is nevertheless clear that "out of this variety emerged a dominant social character" which "spread and gained power over time."
Fischer is even entirely comfortable using the "e" word—exceptionalism—to describe American culture, although he prefers to confine the word's meaning to "uniqueness" rather than superiority. Nevertheless, he asserts confidently that "there isan American cultural center; its assimilative pull is powerful; and it is distinctive—or ‘exceptional'. The historical record speaks." Lest the significance of this be lost, let me underscore it: he is saying that American culture is exceptional, and not merely (as President Obama tried to finesse the point) that we believe it to be. And that historical record, as Fischer hears it, speaks far more of a vast, enduring continuity in the American character than of change and fragmentation.
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As this summary implies, Fischer has very little use for narratives of decline or nostalgia about the past. He frequently enjoins the reader to be careful in distinguishing actual cultural change from changes in the ways intellectuals talk about culture, a skepticism that seems to me entirely prudent and well-justified. But neither is he a Pollyanna for whom everything is steadily getting better in every way, and the only ones doing the complaining are the toad-like "enemies of the future." He acknowledges the possibility of profoundly ironic results arising even out of the most straightforward and incontestable of improvements, such as the progress made in rendering our lives more predictable and less precarious.
To make this last point vivid, he cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, "the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere" in early 1865—and yet a man who had lost his grandfather (killed by Indians), lost his mother when he was ten, lost his older sister when 19, lost his special friend Ann Rutledge to typhoid, buried two of his four sons before they were 12, and a third at 18—not to mention having an emotionally unstable wife, suffering from depression himself, and coming to a violent end. Lincoln's entire life was enveloped in a sense of fragility and danger that we would find almost inconceivable today. And yet, Fischer acknowledges, our much greater security today has not translated into an equivalent loss of anxiety. As he observes, it may be that "reducing the mundane risks of life made the remaining risks or emerging ones more fearsome."
Similarly, "the volume and magnificence of goods" produced by the modern American economy and made available to even the most common person surpass the wildest dreams of the wealthiest Americans of a century ago; and this plenty served to "expand the culture of American voluntarism," creating a national economy in which everyone could participate. Yet this same lavish productivity has led at times to a condition in which Americans are "possessed by their possessions," caught up not only in a spiral of acquisitive or emulative desire, but in the role played by such possessions in common social practices. Think of how the refusal of a middle-class person to own a cell phone is likely to bring down upon him the wrath of his friends, who regard such refusal as an act of self-indulgence.
What's more, the voluntarism that Fischer regards as the most important defining feature of American life had to be braced and moderated by other essential commitments whose source was less well defined. Hence a too-relentless expansion of voluntarism, he admits, could have "problematic consequences." How for example could families succeed in their principal tasks if marriages are regarded as provisional in character, a matter of "until inconvenience do us part" rather than "until death do us part"?
The same concerns apply to the making voluntary of all other social associations: congregations, neighborhoods, and friendships alike. A world of the most rich, enduring relationships may also be a world with limited choices, while a world of unlimited choices may leave all human associations impoverished. Fischer allows for that possibility. "The expansion of choices, from the mundane like foods to the profound like spouses, both enriched and taxed modern Americans." Indeed, it is possible that Americans "paid a psychic or emotional price" for the freedom to be more or less "entirely responsible" for their lives and associations. Yet Fischer is cautiously inclined to see "growing joy" in the long run.
Claude Fischer has a social-historian's skepticism about the role of ideas as agents in history, and insists that the sheer inertia generated by culture and character is far more powerful than the putative effects of any manifesto or theory. This, he argues, is why the American character of today is essentially the same as that of Tocqueville's time. There is something to be said for this view; just think of Fischer's refreshingly skeptical take on the importance of intellectuals' "talk." (How, he asks at one point, can we "take seriously the claim made by one author that quantum theory unsettled Americans' sense of security, given that most Americans do not believe in evolution, much less invisible quanta?") And his caution stands as a useful antidote to the increasingly influential view that America is only an idea, a country yet to be achieved, as the late Richard Rorty famously put it, an entity whose only claims on our loyalties are ideal ones, rather than the real claims of a real nation, existing in time, with its own history, and its own binding memories of shared sacrifice.
Fischer seems confident—far more confident than Tocqueville was—that social atomization, the breaking down of all those involuntary or semi-involuntary bonds (marriage, family, neighborhood, and other forms of intermediate private and civil association) that serve to support the voluntary ones, will never occur. I think he is far too casual about that, particularly given the powerful role that the state itself can play (and has played) in hastening that breakdown. "The more [the state] stands in the place of associations," Tocqueville wrote, "the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: these are causes and effects that unceasingly create each other." Think of the unintended (if entirely predictable) corrupting effects of the post-1960s social-welfare system on individual character; and the dramatic restorative effects since the welfare reforms of the 1990s dismantled much of that system. As that example suggests, the state's actions are likely to be driven, as we have seen so vividly in recent months, not by the processes of popular consent but by the bright ideas of an intellectual-political class that is supremely confident of its rectitude and its specialized knowledge. One has no choice but to take their ideas seriously, if only for one's own protection.
But ideas are not merely the clumsy or menacing tools of the powerful. They also can be the animating fire in the minds of a free people—and the basis by which those people can learn how it is possible to reconcile the yearning for liberty with the equally profound need for order. A system of ordered liberty doesn't just happen, though, and can't be sustained without explicit and focused attention, or without reference to a sturdy structure of ideas and institutions that support it. The belief that there is a healthy inertia in the American character that renders it relatively immune to bad ideas, a notion that one associates with Daniel Boorstin's classic book, The Genius of American Politics (1953), seems far less plausible today than it might have then. What we've learned in the interim is that bad ideas need to be replaced, not by commonsensical muddling through, but by good ones.
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In that sense, Fischer comes very close to hitting the right note in his concluding words. He cites the raging controversies in our own time over "originalism" in the interpretation of the Constitution, and takes the very existence of that controversy as evidence of his central thesis: that there is "sufficient continuity in American culture and character to argue about how best to apply today either the explicit words or the implicit principles of men now two centuries dead." This continuity is, he emphasizes, "a striking feature of American culture." This is true enough, and yet not quite adequate as a description of the nature of the controversies. For the two sides (if one may speak roughly) in these debates aren't really quarreling over "how best to apply" those centuries-old words and principles. Instead, they are quarreling over whether the words and principles are still applicable at all. The partisans of a living Constitution have, for more than a century now, been firmly convinced that the written Constitution is irrelevant to the structure of modern American life and the ever-expanding list of problems that our national government is expected to solve.
This is not a question about which Fischer can remain neutral. It is a change that can have profound consequences for the elements of American continuity that the author rightly identifies and prizes. Let me put it in a very direct and concrete way. Surely one of the elements at the core of American voluntarism—the central American characterological trait, according to Fischer—is a constitutional structure in which every man can say with confidence to those in authority, "I know my rights."
Voluntarism requires a structure of laws and mores and institutions in which the individual is accorded a high degree of negative liberty, a liberty that he knows he has, and that the government knows he has, and that he knows the government knows he has. It requires the highest possible degree of directness, simplicity, accountability, and transparency. And it requires the right kind of ideas about human agency and human responsibility, in order to support those laws. Take those away, and put in their place a regime of arbitrary laws administered by large, unaccountable bureaucracies, undergirded by mores stating that the individual is powerless to know his rights and responsibilities, and you soon have a very different American social character, and certainly one in which voluntarism becomes either irresponsible or extinct. Ideas do have social consequences.
So Claude Fischer's fine and salutary book could be even better. But these reservations shouldn't take anything away from what is thoroughly refreshing and stimulating about Made in America. If Fischer has made it permissible once again to speak of national character without the use of scare quotes, then his book will be a very significant achievement in its own right. And this brief review hardly begins to do justice to his thoughtful and imaginative use of American social historians' "trove of detailed yet evocative studies of ordinary people's everyday lives in times long ago," particularly as those studies bear on the meaning of modern American life. This is a scholar who is interested in broad generalizations but who also has a genuine, affectionate interest in understanding the particularities and oddities of the lives he examines, and who renders it all with an engaging sense of modesty and humor. The book is a pleasure to read, and I hope it will have a wide influence. It deserves it.