The surrender of the Wasp nation

The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America
June 3, 2005

In the spring of 2004, the veteran Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington published Who Are We? , an alarmist account of the crisis in contemporary American national identity. Huntington claimed that the values of the Anglo-Saxon founders of the Republic are today challenged by an "invasion" of immigrants from an alien Latino culture. Eric Kaufmann, a lecturer in politics and sociology at Birkbeck, University of London, covers much of the same ground in this compelling study. Whereas Huntington wrote as a self-proclaimed "patriot" and pointed swiftly to guilty hombres , Kaufmann writes with admirable detachment and objectivity, and reveals the mechanism by which the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders of the US lost their political and cultural dominance. Kaufmann shows how a long-standing cosmopolitan element within Wasp ideology shifted from a symbolic role to the core of national life, and the Wasp population recast their own role accordingly. In other words, they did it to themselves.

Kaufmann opens with an account of the creation of the Wasp culture, showing how American intellectuals, from Thomas Jefferson through to Henry Adams, seized on Dark-Age Anglo-Saxon culture as a mythic point of origin. He portrays the "double consciousness" of the 19th century in which Wasp Americans saw no contradiction between preserving their dominance and their rhetoric of equality. Kaufmann attributes the change to the Progressive social reformers of the turn of the century, who argued for a more inclusive vision of America. He relates the career of the Goodwill movement among American churches in the 1920s, reaching out to Jewish leaders and building a sense of shared "Judaeo-Christian" values. He also emphasises the role of bohemian intellectuals and artists as an alternative nation within the nation. The cosmopolitan avant-garde captured America from the top down, Kaufmann says, leaving Anglo-Saxon identity for the less educated. The Second World War brought these multicultural values into government propaganda - Hitler had given racism a bad name - then the Cold War gave a fresh imperative to their pursuit in peace. It only remained for the 1960s to complete the shift to a new America of Catholic presidents and black Supreme Court justices. By the 1980s, Wasps were actually underrepresented in the boardrooms of America's corporations. Today, only 20 per cent of Americans claim British ancestry, and the ethnicity of choice for those shopping around for a grandparent to define the totality of one's identity is Italian-American.

In his final chapter, Kaufmann introduces his own background: a Canadian born in Hong Kong with Jewish, Chinese and Hispanic ancestry but who is, in effect, just another North American Anglo in most social situations. With this mixed heritage established, he proposes a cultural regeneration of America based around what he terms "liberal ethnicity". He suggests that Wasp identity be accepted as just another ethnic option within the range of identities available for American people. He looks to a future in which the state is culturally neutral and all ethnic identities are expressed in cultural rather than racial terms, and are hence open to anyone who wishes to participate in them, on the understanding that those buying into a new culture do not expect it to change to suit them. He even postulates a future mixed-American identity, blending Anglo, African and Indian, akin to the fusion of Aztec and Spanish in Mexico. It is so refreshing to read a generous, open and positive book on this subject - what a pity that it is Huntington who has attracted the attention.

Nicholas J. Cull is professor of American studies, Leicester University.

The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America

Author - Eric P. Kaufmann
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 374
Price - £32.95
ISBN - 0 674 01303 4

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