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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Americans Without Americanness

Culture, Culture Culture & Society, Race

I will never forget a conversation I had with two twentysomething Muslims not long after 9/11. One had been born and raised in the United States, the other had come here at a young age. It was clear from our conversation, though they gingerly avoided putting it explicitly, that neither of them entirely disapproved of what Osama bin Laden had done. There were, of course, multiple recitations of “I think what he did was terrible"—but delivered with a certain lack of emotional commitment. What came through was a sentiment that, in the end, something terrible had been necessary for bin Laden to get across a valuable message. I did not find it hard to imagine that the two young Muslims would have been more explicit about this with each other had I not been present.

The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is reported to have said that he could not walk down Fifth Avenue without wondering what it and the people on it would have looked like a century before. I share that type of historical curiosity—and it occurs to me that this conversation with the Muslims would have been very unlikely before about 30 years ago. There was a time when immigrants, if residing in America permanently, unhesitatingly embraced becoming Americans. Any sentiment that, say, Pearl Harbor was “understandable” would have been kept very, very quiet.

These two Muslims, however, thought of America as an opportunity, but not as an identity. Orientations like theirs are, in today’s America, perfectly normal — even among the unhyphenated, as I have learned in assorted conversations since 9/11. Among a vast proportion of Americans, one of the very defining traits of being an American is to lack pride in being one. One either has no conscious sense of American identity or, if one is given to lending the issue more attention, is ashamed of being American. To celebrate America, meanwhile, is considered naive and peculiar; one gets a pass by defining America as the sum of competing “diversities” — witness claims that Barack Obama represents “what America is” — which means that America is no one thing, and thus nothing, finally, but an address.


One thing that an American sent back in time to 1907 would have to get used to is how much prouder the American identity was among people of all walks of life. The term American carried a warmth and a swagger. People often referred to English spoken in our country as “American,” and were not always joking: H. L. Mencken titled his scholarly masterpiece The American Language, a highly unlikely title for a similar work today. The American Beauty Rose was named in 1875; today one imagines a new rose being given a name like Suri. The Gershwin brothers titled an early hit “The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag” in a spirit of jolly celebration. A series of revues called Americana — unironically — ran on Broadway starting in the late Twenties.


There was, to be sure, an element of parochialism in this apple-pie patriotism, and too often it shaded into an unreflective George M. Cohan–style jingoism. A century from now, though, what will appear equally unreflective is the opposite sentiment now held up as a sign of enlightenment: active contempt for the American experiment.

Nowhere is this contempt more explicit than among our intelligentsia. The humanities and social sciences enshrine the examination of power relations (or, more specifically, injustice) obsessively. The endless explorations of the subordination of the subaltern, and the possibilities of contesting and transgression, are a stark abbreviation of human curiosity. Legions of scholars nevertheless devote careers to this narrow conception of scholarship, out of a fundamental commitment to revealing our Powers That Be as frauds. There is little room for love of country in this view of the world.

Obviously, it is old news for intellectuals to be gadflies. In the 1922 anthology Civilization in the United States, editor Harold Stearns blasted “emotional and aesthetic starvation,” “the mania for petty regulation,” “the driving, regimentating, and drilling” of society. Strong drink, but these scholars were mostly opposed to how the lesser sides of human nature gum up the works in a country that could do better. One searches this book in vain for the kind of bone-deep, utterly dismissive contempt for all that America stands for that is now common coin in academia.

For example, a cherished observation on a certain circuit is that “America was founded upon racism from its very beginnings,” which regularly cops vigorous applause from white as well as black audience members. There’s some truth to this, to be sure — but in that we cannot change it, the charge implies that it would have been better if Jamestown and Plymouth had never been settled and Africans had remained in their villages. Patriotism, obviously, does not apply here.

Certainly one would not expect scholarly people to devote careers to mere celebration. But one might imagine them fashioning a nuanced but vigorous brand of patriotism, calling America on its weaknesses with a basic pride in what we do right. A model would be typical intellectuals in France. Instead, we are taught that the enlightened orientation to our native land ought be more like the one that reigns in Germany, so deeply embarrassed about the Holocaust as to recoil at any prideful view of their Vaterland. The enlightened soul must therefore sneer at such notions as a U.S. policy titled Homeland Security.

The extreme nature of modern leftist academics’ writings suggests that empirical engagement with reality is not the driving force in such ideology. For example, most of this work, while presented as advocacy for the downtrodden, reveals a curious lack of genuine commitment to change. The tacit assumption is that nothing could make America a worthy project short of a seismic transformation in its operating procedures and in the fundamental psychologies of its inhabitants. No reasonable person could have any hope that this could actually happen, and this can only mean that people who think this way maintain their opinions for reasons other than practical ones.

Those reasons are emotional rather than political — a desire to wear alienation from the Establishment as a badge of insight and sophistication. It reaffirms that the wearers are good people, good in a way unavailable to those less learned and aware. This cynicism is calisthenic: It benefits its bearer rather than the people it purports to be concerned about. It is something I have elsewhere termed therapeutic alienation.

Therapeutic alienation is not, however, confined to the ivory tower. Beyond the campus, explicit, acrid contempt for the Establishment is a fringe taste — but the therapeutic alienation at the roots of this contempt is now widespread, and has equally dire consequences for proud American identity. Existential alienation and oppositional sentiment for their own sake have a way of discouraging people from saluting a flag.


In 1964, 76 percent of Americans reported trust in the government; by 2000 — long before the Iraq War — only 44 percent, fewer than half, did. The dishonesty of the Johnson and Nixon administrations about the Vietnam War and the awakening of the country to the unjust treatment of blacks sparked this change. But that was a long time ago, and alienation has come to reign even among people too young to recall that era. The alienation has raged unchecked even as blacks have become steadily more central to even the highest realms of American life, and even under a Clinton administration that liberals did not consider arrantly mendacious about policy. It is no longer a response, but a self-standing gesture. Initiated by an external stimulus, this alienated posture has settled in as what one is born to and inhales as a norm, one readily embraced because of its self-congratulatory appeal.

An example is the howling antiestablishment despair typical of heavy-metal music, embraced even by the mild-mannered as “cool.” Similar is the “gangsta” strain of hip-hop, full of excoriations of the police and celebrations of black people as “niggers” engaged in eternal battle against a racist AmeriKKKa, now a staff of life among legions of blacks under 50 and supported by a 70 percent white buyership. The modern American, having never known a time when music like this was not a norm, is given to assuming that it is, in the first case, a natural reflection of the rebelliousness inherent to youth, and, in the second, the inevitable reaction of blacks who have suffered the abuse of racism. Yet hungry Okie migrants knew no such music, nor did the black sharecroppers watching lynchings year by year. No, music like this is the product of an attitudinal tic specific to our times.

The American Beauty: Would they call it that today?

Therapeutic alienation sends ripples throughout the culture. The late comedian Sam Kinison built a career in the Eighties on delighting audiences with tirades capped by open-throated screaming about The Man. Barbie is now fighting for her life against Bratz dolls, provocatively clad with smirky facial expressions hinting that they are not unfamiliar with sex. This is alienation and oppositionalism as fetish, posture, performance.

Alienation as performance, to be sure, began the first time an early Homo sapiens child had a tantrum. But under ordinary conditions of human society, this behavior, while more typical of some individuals than others, does not become a zeitgeist. It is treated as an emotional indulgence that real-life exigencies must keep in check. Societies living on the land, ever in fear that weather or warfare will leave them in danger of starvation, do not know of alienation as sport. Modern America, however, is a wealthy society where few are hungry, and where there has not been a war on our own soil in 150 years (and not one that all able-bodied men were required to participate in in 40 years). Under these conditions, the tantrum no longer constitutes a threat to survival. Enter, then, alienation embraced as a cathartic pose. It is no accident that America saw a preview of the same in the prosperous Twenties, when the Smart Set went about with their copies of the studiously cynical American Mercury, whose editor, Mencken, was devoted more to the rhetorical sonority of trashing the powers that be than fashioning a coherent political alternative.


The reign of therapeutic alienation has also upended black America’s orientation to being American. A time traveler to 1907 would find peculiar how openly the black people, just a decade past Plessy v. Ferguson, were striving toward being “American.” At all-black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., students were learning Latin. W. E. B. Du Bois taught Greek, and those who cherish his Marxist tilt later in life are often unaware that he could have conversed with Marx in German.

In their smash-hit musical Shuffle Along (1921), Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle included a ballad with language straight out of the operettas popular at the time: “Love will find a way / though now skies are gray / Love like ours can never be ruled / Cupid’s not schooled that way.” A photograph of black women protesting lynching in front of the White House in the Thirties includes a placard reading “Kentucky women demand justice for all American citizens” — as opposed to the more likely version in our own times, which would demand justice for “Black People.”

Since the Sixties, black Americans are much more concerned with maintaining a “black identity” — a term unknown to Victorian-era Du Bois — than with being “American.” Many would claim that this is because being black in America is to experience an ongoing assault from racist actions. But striving for Americanness was typical among a great many blacks in an era starkly racist to a degree we are blissfully past, when, as Richard Wright once put it, successful blacks were rare “single fishes that leap and flash for a split second above the surface of the sea,” “fleeting exceptions to that vast, tragic school that swims below in the depths.”

Of course, quite a few blacks and white fellow-travelers insist that little has changed since Wright wrote; they willfully neglect the fact that today there are more middle-class blacks than poor ones. Ideology also trumps empiricism in the insistences that (a) it’s school underfunding that keeps black grades and test scores down (when many black students are amply documented as thinking of doing well in school as a “white” characteristic) and (b) the reason black men are overrepresented in the prison population must be “the prison-industrial complex” (when black men also commit violent crimes in vast disproportion to their percentage of the population).

The dogged insistence on chronicling “racism” — when the larger problem today is so clearly cultural, and not caused by racism — only makes sense as another manifestation of therapeutic alienation. Again, improved prospects ironically pave the way for staged grievance. When barriers to black advancement were concrete and pitiless, there was no room for poses about an all-too-real injustice. Only now can such routines thrive, lending passing pleasure to a people otherwise rising by the year. The result is that amidst musings on what black identity should be, Africa plays a large part while being “American” is considered beside the point — even though America is the only homeland black Americans have known for centuries, or ever will.


There certainly exist people in the United States who have a self-conscious and positive sense of their identity as Americans. They are more likely to be military than civilian, conservative rather than liberal, working-class rather than upper-middle. They are on the defensive, regularly dismissed as maudlin and uninformed.

Could there ever again be in the U.S. a widespread sense of pride in a single culture, as has been typical of Greece, China, Thailand, or most other nations in human history? Sadly, I can think of nothing that could create such an America other than a sustained violent attack upon our country. Apparently, the single one that already happened has left the self-medicating oppositional impulse intact. Leftist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag were fashioning 9/11 as our just deserts for imperialism even while Ground Zero was still aglow. Chomsky’s pamphlet on the issue sold like hotcakes. Good-thinking people have been taught to view al-Qaeda as freedom fighters sticking a thumb in our eye for our government’s support of Israel.

Yet if we suffered a string of brutal nuclear bombings of several American cities à la television’s 24, in which it became a typical American experience to lose a relative or friend in carnage wrought by fundamentalist Arabs reviling America as the Great Satan, we would suddenly be back to the old days. Tragic, mercilessly concrete reality — maimed corpses, attending funerals as a monthly ritual — would make self-medicating iPod theatrics seem instantly trivial. The urgency of defending the life we know, American life, against murderous barbarians would instantly wake us up to the value of what America, its flaws acknowledged, is, and what it has achieved.

I regret to say that short of that, to be American will continue to be, for most who bother to think about it, what one might term a postmodern position: nurturing a sense of personal legitimacy upon a willful, bitter ambivalence toward a land one has no intention of leaving.