America’s British Culture

I have recently accepted an invitation to write for What’s Wrong With the World, a group blog whose contributors have more talent and erudition than I could ever hope to obtain. My latest entry is a review of Russell Kirk’s “America’s British Culture”, which is reproduced here.


The Anglosphere is in trouble. It is all at once the first “world culture” and no culture at all; a culture that assimilates everything and dissolves into nothing; a culture powerful enough to obliterate whatever lies in its path, and a blank slate upon which everyone is invited to leave his own cultural graffiti. All but the most backwards nations (excluding France, so I am told) have made English an honorary second language, while English is simultaneously dessicated and neutered here at home. American-style entertainment is sweeping the globe, but its appeal is severed from anything specifically Anglo-American in form or content. American-style democracy is envied and imitated around the world, while it ruthlessly erodes the traditions and culture of the American people. McDonald’s golden arches are planted on every continent, but they belong to the world and not to us.

All of this is cultural suicide masked as triumph. Certainly the turmoil of the 16th century unleashed many complex forces resulting in the present crisis. The question of what went wrong, when, and how – though it must be addressed – is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that I am not yet convinced that Protestantism, Whiggery, Democracy or Englishness must lead inevitably to cultural oblivion (though I’m keeping an open mind). Those of us who want to rebuild are wondering whether there is anything left to save.

The late Russell Kirk was not known for his sunny optimism. Nevertheless, in 1994 he published a program for restoration titled “America’s British Culture”, aimed at persuading beleaguered Americans than their country is not a blank cultural slate after all. Between the ubiquitous lies of official multiculturalism and the unchallenged hegemony of popular anti-culture, it was and remains easy to believe that American culture, if it ever really existed at all, is completely finished. To many traditionalists, there seem only two possible courses of action: drop out entirely and adopt a 100% reactionary posture, or capitulate and run with the neo-conservatives. Kirk could do neither. He argues that America still has an identifiable and redeemable culture, and that this culture is British in form and substance.

If true, the idea is liberating … and sobering. For centuries Americans have taken a peculiar pride in not being British. That may have been part of the problem. But if we are going to save what’s left of our civilization, Kirk argues that we have no choice but to embrace, defend and promulgate that which is uniquely English in American culture.

“America’s British Culture” documents for the non-scholar the overwhelming influence of English literature, law, government, religion, mores, customs, and folkways on American life, from its colonial beginnings to the present generation. In one sense it is a condensed version of his more ambitious and academic work, “The Roots of American Order”. Fortunately for us, this influence is still present, though it grows weaker by the hour and is largely unconscious and unacknowledged.

Kirk is at his polemical best when he attacks the regime of multiculturalism. Several passages are worth quoting in this space:

Today the radical multiculturalists complain, or rather shout, that African, Asian and Latin American cultures have been shamefully neglected in North America’s schools. In that they are correct enough … Sixty years ago, most school pupils were taught a good deal about the people and the past of Bolivia, Morocco, China, India, Egypt, Guatemala, and other lands. They even learnt about Eskimo and Aleut cultures. Nowadays pupils are instructed in the disciplines of home economics, driver education, sex education, and the sterile abstractions of Social Stu. Formerly all pupils studied for several years the principal British and American poets, essayists, novelists, and dramatists – this with the purpose of developing their moral imagination. Nowadays they are assigned the prose of “relevance” and “current awareness” at most schools. Indeed a great deal of alleged “education”, either side of the Ocean Sea, requires medication or surgery …Multiculturalism is animated by envy and hatred. Some innocent persons have assumed that a multicultural program in schools would consist of discussing the latest number of National Geographic in a classroom. That is not at all what multiculturalists intend. Detesting the achievements of Anglo-American culture, they propose to substitute for real history and real literature – and even for real natural science – an invented myth that all things good came out of Africa and Asia (chiefly Africa).

Intellectually, multiculturalism is puny – and anticultural. Such power as the multiculturalist ideologues possess is derived from political manipulation: that is, claiming to speak for America’s militant “minorities”. These ideologues take advantage of the sentimentality of American liberals, eager to placate such “minorities” by granting them whatever they demand. But what fanatic ideologues demand commonly is bad for the class of persons they claim to represent, as it is bad, too, for everybody else. To deny “minorities” the benefits of America’s established culture would work their ruin …

“Culture, with us, ends in heartache”, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of Americans in 1841. Should the multiculturalists have their way, culture, with us Americans a century and a half later, would end in heartache – and in anarchy. But to this challenge of multiculturalism, presumably the established American culture, with its British roots, still can respond with vigor – a life renewing response. Love of an inherited culture has the power to cast out the envy and hatred of that culture’s adversaries.

Readers should note that Russell Kirk in no way meant to suggest that British culture is suitable only for members of the ancient race of the British Isles. He repeatedly notes the success of non-English and non-European immigrants and their descendants in assimilating, when possessed of the right attitudes and dispositions.

For my part, this book was a life-changer. After reading it I began to notice for the first time the “Britishness” in my own life and the lives of my neighbors. Even the barbarians among us still know how to wait in line patiently, for example. They still unknowingly quote Shakespeare, the King James Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer in their everyday speech. Most Americans still have a fundamentally British understanding of law and order, of fair-dealing in commerce, and of civility in public life, however diminished by ignorance and neglect.

Having said all of that, I am not as sanguine as Kirk at the prospects for recovery. The book was written sixteen years ago: since that time multiculturalism has only tightened its stranglehold on government, the academy, the media and the workplace. The reaction against multiculturalism, insofar as it exists, has been weak and unfocused. For the most part it has not been a defense of American traditions and mores, but of political incorrectness for its own sake, of consumerism and materialism, and of the same kinds of “rights” that ignited 1960s radicalism – “free speech” and so forth. Think Michael Savage and the diabolical “music” with which he introduces his radio show.

There was a fly in the ointment of American culture from the beginning that may well prove to be its undoing: religious indifferentism. I have a hard time imagining that any sort of cultural restoration is possible without correcting this flaw. Paradoxically, when there is a sufficient level of religious cohesion, society can afford a high measure of religious tolerance and official indifference … for a time. But religious indifference did not build the culture, and it cannot rebuild the culture. Barring a miracle of mass conversions, the only restoration possible will be small, local restorations, in little pockets here and there, where culture is sustained – and sometimes even changed – by the common and public worship of the Triune God.