That Older, Other America Has Passed On

WILLIAM PFAFF

November 09, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- In the 1920s, one of my aunts, Catherine Burke, wrote a charming and subsequently much-anthologized story about a Boy Scout unhappily kept home from the Memorial Day parade to look after an elderly neighbor. The neighbor proves to have been a drummer present at Gettysburg when Lincoln gave his great address, and he gives the Scout a button from Lincoln's coat which the president had given to him.

My aunt and her sisters were only a little more distant from the Civil War than we are today from World War II. They experienced the Great War as adolescents or young adults. The man Catherine married had been gassed at the Argonne, and suffered from it for the rest of his brief life.

I write about this because the United States in which they lived, and into which I was born, now passes from the effective memory of Americans. It was George Bush's America, but it is not that of Bill Clinton or Al Gore. The significance of this change is not yet, I think, fully appreciated, for all that has been made of the country's new leaders' having been born after World War II.

The America of the 1930s and 1940s was white, provincial in its attitudes, Protestant, and closely attached to a rural past. The frontier had closed only a few years before: Apache resistance to what then proudly was called the westward march of empire lasted until early in this century.

The country's black population lived in ghettos and was generally prevented from voting, either by poll taxes, social pressure or threat. Lynchings were not uncommon. The Ku Klux Klan by the 1920s was more important in states like Indiana and Illinois than in the Deep South, and was anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-''foreign,'' as well as anti-black.

Catholics, mostly German, were solidly installed in much of the Midwest, where they had no doubt of their full citizenship, but the Irish, Italians and East European Catholics of the big cities and the old industrial centers still suffered discrimination. Everywhere was anti-Semitism, sometimes overt, sometimes genteel, pervasively institutionalized in real-estate covenants, university quotas, social barriers.

The norms of society were Protestant, and this was taken for granted by the rest, who usually tried to assimilate themselves to the majority, internalizing the discrimination, proudly putting forward their successes -- their ballplayers, boxers, Medal of Honor winners, etc., as evidence that Catholics and Jews could be ''good'' Americans, too. Blacks were congratulated for their heavyweight champion Joe Louis, a ''gentleman,'' a splendid ''representative of his race'' because he knew his place.

The public and parochial schools were machines of acculturation and assimilation, producing young Americans according to the dominant model. And of course assimilation, ''Americanization,'' was what every immigrant child and parent wanted.

But it was a white America without doubts. Even the Great Depression had only produced populists, ''bonus marchers,'' union organizers and New Deal voters, rather than revolutionaries. There was at the same time nothing resembling the blinding displays of flags and martial music, the incessant patriotic proclamation and annexation of God to the republic that marked this year's presidential campaign. Nobody then had any doubt about their patriotism, or about the values of the country. New or old Americans, they all felt, like Henry Adams of Boston and Washington, that the United States would soon ''be saying in its turn the last word of civilization.'' Like him, they enjoyed ''the expectation of the coming day.''

The United States in which Bill Clinton came of age was by contrast one of the deepest doubts: about a particular war, and foreign relationships and threats in general; about the credibility of the nation's democracy, the justice of relations between races and classes at home -- despite the transformation produced by the civil rights movement.

One does not have to rehearse Vietnam and all that followed to affirm that these controversies of value and identity have subsequently dominated the American debate, to the present day. The ''cultural war'' announced at the Republican National Convention was meant to exploit exactly these issues, more than 30 years after they first arose. (That this declaration of war proved a political mistake is a hopeful sign.)

The old identity of the country has during the same period been deliberately renounced in the most practical way possible, by encouraging a vast new immigration composed of exactly the Asian and Latin peoples and religions pre-war immigration policy had excluded from the United States. This has happened with the support both of Republican and Democratic administrations.

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