What's Wrong with America?
Robert Asch


"I have come to feel that it is in this country that the fate of Christendom will be decided... There is a great opportunity in America today that may never be repeated."
– Dawson, Harvard University, 12.10.1959
"A New York journalist said to me in all seriousness: there are three great organisations in world history: the Catholic Church, the German army and the American Oil-Trust Company."
– Busoni to Egon Petri, Chicago, 29.03.1915.

The most pressing issues today – religious, cultural and political – depend on the nature and extent of the continuities and discontinuities which both bind and divide Europe and the United States of America. Certainly the discontinuities are tangible, and there is much in his habit of thought, pattern of life, and experience of history that the Englishman has in common with the Czech or the Spaniard which he cannot share with the American. That this is often underestimated by the Englishman is part of the problem. Perhaps the most striking differences have been bound up with America's sense of her own identity; an ideological factor relatively absent from the European tradition taken as a whole.

The American, for his part, is often unconscious of (and when roused, reluctant to concede) the continuities binding America to Europe: America's Constitution, language, institutions and – with the important active exception of the Black community – very population, are all European, by birth or extraction. Of course, the changes and developments these have undergone on American soil have been decisive.

In any case, whatever the ontological connection between America and Europe may be, sufficient continuity exists for most of us to subscribe to the concept of a "Western" civilisation extending (with allowances) from Russia to the Americas, including the Jews but excluding Islam.

This continuity, or – in conscious terms – relationship, is presently more fragile than at any time since the middle of the nineteenth century. If my words should appear unduly critical to our American readers, I assure them that it is because I suspect that the burden of responsibility for the future of Western Civilisation is now on their shoulders. It is a high and terrible privilege. As England increasingly takes on the manners and morals of a lower-middle class massage parlour, much of what keeps me from proximate temporal despair is to be found in America – the defence of such norms as family, private property and freedom of worship; vigorous Church reform; a strong, sane constitution; confidence in national tradition; religious conviction; gracious manners; enthusiasm; and energy: this is the seraphic face of America. But America has a second face. Which of these shall prove to be the true face and which the mask? It is the great drama of our time, for those who have the eyes to see it.

Not long after the Second World War had brought the curtain down on Europe with what appeared to be brutal finality, Evelyn Waugh, that inveterate Americanophobe, fled west, to the United States, on a lecture tour which was to furnish him not only with the material for The Loved One (which remains, with Martin Chuzzlewit, the definitive critique of America from a modern English point of view), but also for an essay, of a very different character, "The American Epoch in the Catholic Church". In this prophetic article, published simultaneously in Life and The Month in 1949, Waugh posited two Americas:

"'Americanism' is the complex of what all Americans consider the good life and... in this complex Christianity, and pre-eminently Catholicism, is the redeeming part.... The peoples of other continents look to America half in hope and half in alarm. They see that their own future is inextricably involved with it and their judgment is based on what they see in the cinema, what they read in the popular magazines, what they hear from the loudest advertiser. Gratitude for the enormous material benefits received is tempered with distaste for what they believe is the spiritual poverty of the benefactor."

Thus Waugh acknowledged that spiritual and temporal leadership in the West would pass to America, with two provisos: the triumph of the Christian over the materialist tradition, and the reassurance of the nations of the West that America is fit to lead.

I believe that Waugh was right. At best, the European can respond to the battle for the soul of America with a desperate, but impotent, sympathy. The fitness of the United States to lead the nations of the West, however, has not been vindicated; nor is it merely a matter of "P. R.", though the first step in persuading Europe will be taken when America decides that Europe (or indeed anyone) is worth persuading. The second, when the United States develops an authentic diplomatic tradition, which means acquiring the barest rudiments of competence in international affairs; a development which will never occur so long as Americans persist in regarding foreign cultures with indifference, amused condescension or contempt. The high art of diplomacy is accessible only to high civilisations; and a gulf yawns between the civilisation of Woodrow Wilson and the civilisation of Metternich.

Certainly Europe wants persuading. I wonder how many Americans are aware of the intensity of the European fear and hatred of the United States which, even in many Catholic circles, is beginning to rival that felt for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, thanks in part – but only in part – to the leftist domination of our media.

Is Europe worth persuading? If Europe falls, can America survive, or retain her Western identity? European opposition can at the very least frustrate and embarrass American policy: in the nineteenth century, had it not been for Queen Victoria's personal intervention, Britain would probably have sided with the Confederacy in the American Civil War. At any rate, only poor diplomats make powerful enemies where allies are to be had. To date, the moral issues that divide Americans to the extent of realigning most practising Catholics, however uneasily, with the Republican Party have been almost imperceptible to the United Kingdom and to Europe, largely because Americans have not taken the trouble to explain themselves to us.

If America is to assume the mantle of Western leadership, we must be persuaded, not of her power, but of her authority to lead. If we are to be persuaded, it is vital that the United States be credible. Perhaps the primary impediment to American credibility is her leadership: American Presidents have been figures of popular derision in Europe for over twenty years. In a country fierce and devout in its democratic republicanism, this reflects ill on the electorate and the populace. I am not altogether alone in accepting both that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are essentially honest and decent men, and that a simple man may head a sophisticated cabinet. If intellect were more desirable than character we should be obliged to pay our respects to Dr. Goebbels. Nevertheless, in an age of propaganda, Caesar's wife must be above suspicion: is it so difficult for an "advanced" nation of two hundred and fifty millions to propose a strong candidate who is not a simpleton? The disadvantages should be evident, for, as Bolingbroke observed, "A knave may be an artful hypocrite, whereas a silly fellow can never impose himself for a man of sense."

However, there are genuine American problems that impede not only American credibility but bring into question the intrinsic worth of American leadership. In the limited space I have at my disposal, I should like to deal with them under the headings "Manifest Destiny", "Democratism" and "The American Way of Life."

Manifest Destiny – a Mormonish notion many Americans have that their country enjoys a peculiar celestial dispensation – is perhaps the premier object of European incredulity and ridicule. It is a heady treat for hard-nosed Europeans to find Founding Puritan Fathers fleeing and abjuring the Divine Right of Kings ...to found the divinely sanctioned republic! What the "Old World" sees as a delirious and sanctimonious enterprise is constantly vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. From the very beginning, the United States has vociferously presented herself as a morally superior alternative to European society. The great slogan of "no taxation without representation", with which American children are still indoctrinated by Saturday morning cartoons, did not find an advocate in Edmund Burke, one of the few English champions of the American cause in the years preceding the War of Independence, who objected on the grounds of institutionalised American slavery. According to Burke, "common sense, nay self-preservation, seems to forbid, that those who allow themselves unlimited right over the liberties and lives of others, should have any share in making laws for those who have long renounced such unjust and cruel distinctions." The hypocrisy of a bogus – or at least chronically inconsistent – championing of "liberty" also outraged Charles Dickens, who visited America full of hopes for a better order of society for mankind. This is illustrated in Martin Chuzzlewit, chapters of which are set in the America of the 1840s:

– "Oh! The depressing institutions of that British Empire, colonel!" said Jefferson Brick. "Master!"
– "What's the matter with the word?"
– "There are no masters here."
– "All 'owners' are they?" said Martin.

In an account of his American tour, Dickens related the following, telling, anecdote of his discussion of the American copyright laws with leading American authors, among them Washington Irving:

"I believe there is no country on the face of the earth where there is less freedom of opinion on any subject in reference to which there is a broad difference of opinion than in this. There! I write the words with reluctance, disappointment and sorrow; but I believe it from the bottom of my soul. The notion that I, a man alone by myself in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point on which they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us actually struck the boldest dumb!"

"In one of his gloomier moments [Dickens] wrote down his fear that the greatest blow ever struck at liberty would be struck by America in the failure of her mission upon earth." For those of us with a taste for gallows humour, there is delicious irony in the historical and ideological ties linking the United States with her leading contemporary European antagonist, France: ideological absolutism, militant republicanism and secularism under the ambiguous torch of "liberty".

In a sense, Democratism is of a piece with Manifest Destiny. In any event, most Americans who believe in Manifest Destiny would probably justify it by way of Democratism. "Democratism" is the conviction that democracy, in its present American form, enjoys a quasi-divine sanction. "[M]any American Prelates", observed Waugh, "speak as though they believed that representative, majority government were of divine institution" (as – in a more left-wing version – do many of our current crop of English Bishops, it seems). This is already a major source of international anti-American sentiment; unsurprisingly, for, as Russell Kirk remarked, "There is one sure way to make a deadly enemy, and that is to propose to anybody, 'Submit yourself to me, and I will improve your condition by relieving you from the burden of your own identity and by reconstituting your substance in my image.'" Kirk – a seer among modern political scientists – has dealt with this abuse justly:

"Some years ago I lectured at the University of Oklahoma on the prescribed subject, "What Is the Best Form of Government for the Happiness of Mankind?".... [F]or my part, I heretically denied that dogma of ideological Democratism,... asserting to the contrary that there exists no single best form of government for the happiness of all mankind. The most suitable form of government necessarily depends upon the historic experience, the customs, the beliefs, the state of culture, the ancient laws, and the material circumstances of a people, and all these things vary from land to land and age to age. Monarchy may defend the highest possible degree of order, justice and freedom for a people – as, despite shortcomings, the Abyssinian monarchy did in Ethiopia until the Marxist revolution there. Aristocracy, under other circumstances, may be found most advantageous for the general welfare. The Swiss form of democracy may work very well in twentieth century Switzerland; yet it does not follow that the Swiss pattern, imposed abruptly upon Brazil, say, would function at all."

In addition, the Catholic is faced with the problem that Democratism is a pseudo-religion, whose creed is Vox populi vox dei. One of the most grievous casualties (and proofs) of the accelerated decline of the West has been the loss of that hard-won historical sensitivity first achieved in the late Victorian era. History now finds herself apprenticed to the contortionist, the conjuror, and the quack, as Democratism's votaries are obliged to explain away the inexplicable; every New Year they unveil a gift of oriental ingenuity, interpreting for us anew the aberrations of The People: the proscription of Socrates, the altars of the guillotine, the coming of the Nazis.... Vox populi vox dei? Let us say, rather, with Seneca, non rem publicam suam esse, sed se rei publicae.

Finally, there is "The American Way of Life", or vulgar materialism; not a happy subject. It has become a stereotype of Americans that they equate technology (and especially "creature" comforts) with civilisation. In Progress and Religion, Christopher Dawson described the American idea of progress as "more cinemas, motor-cars for all, wireless installations, more elaborate methods of killing people, purchase on the hire system, preserved foods, and picture papers." A good and gracious American lady of my acquaintance, a Catholic and an admirer of Jane Austen's novels, visited me in November and expressed her astonishment that so recently as the nineteenth century people were still living in savagery: without cars, central heating and shopping malls. It was my turn to be astonished. Just how far standards can be warped in this kind of environment is on display in even a cursory perusal of popular American culture: in the (splendid) 1930s musical, Strike up the Band, for example, Mickey Rooney calls Gershwin's music "as good as Beethoven or Bach – better maybe: it's American."

There is much that is wrong with England – Hawthorne once recommended the occasional exchange of half a million English and American citizens for our mutual benefit – but the future of the West has largely passed from her influence. There are indeed two Americas. We need America, but only if the right America gains the upper hand; only if America can mature (a hard and bitter experience), and be equal to the task of leadership and government. I am no Americanophobe. It seems to me that the next fifty-to-one hundred years may indeed witness the American epoch of the Catholic Church, and I pray with all my heart that it may be so; but only if these concerns are addressed. Otherwise I – and all traditional Englishmen with me – would sooner go down singing "God Save the Queen" than "My Country 'Tis of Thee":

"There is a purely American 'way of life' led by every good American Christian that is point-for-point opposed to the publicized and largely fictitious 'way of life' dreaded in Europe and Asia. And that, by the Grace of God, is the 'way of life' that will prevail."

First published in Saint Austin Review.