Second Chance for 'Western Civ'; Walt Whitman Meets the Bloggers

Article excerpt

Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

We once celebrated the melting pot as the alchemy that created the common culture. The metaphor was peculiarly American. The term was coined in 1908 by a London-born playwright, who speculated that the American would eventually be produced by a fusion of all the races, and for a long time no one could argue with him.

America not only changed and absorbed its immigrants, but was itself changed by them. The melting pot was not about the leveling of experience, as we think today, but an enriching experience synthesizing politics, art, folkways, jazz, modern dance, folk music, abstract expressionism, the contributions of many philosophers, all drawing on various cultures to forge the unique American idiom. The melting pot was big enough to accommodate both the traditional wisdom of our ancestors and the creative innovation of tradition breakers.

The cultural critic Terry Teachout suggests now that the melting pot is battered beyond repair and the metaphor is obsolete. "The common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped unite Americans of all creeds, colors and classes no longer exists," he laments in Commentary magazine. "In its place, we now have a 'balkanized' group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways." Internet bloggers, who post opinions on everything and are the focus of his essay, have been the prime movers of this balkanized cultural change. But they get a lot of help from the purveyors of identity politics. A watershed moment took place at Stanford University in 1988 when minority students and faculty demanded that the long-established introductory course in Western civilization be thrown out. I happened to be on the campus that day and recall how puzzled I was, watching the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading the chorus: "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go!" At the time I thought this was merely a mindless expression of identity idiocy by kids trying to get attention by being outrageous, but we soon saw that it ran much deeper than that.

The movement coincided with the dumbing down of American education, reflecting a new form of anti-Americanism that spread quickly to the faculty lounges of our best universities, where the politics of resentment thrives. Even a year earlier the First National Assessment of History and Literature found that 60 percent of 11th graders couldn't name the author of "Leaves of Grass. …