Competing narratives that can’t be bridged?

John O’Sullivan responds to this column by Ross Douthat in which the latter posits that there is a “struggle for dominance between the two American nations — not the rich and the poor, but the old and the new.”

The first nation is “the uncontested America of the day before yesterday [which sees itself] more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders.”

The second nation is “a left-wing narrative that stands in judgment on the racist–misogynist–robber baron past.”

Much of today’s political polarization can be reduced to a choice between competing narratives,” O’Sullivan writes before turning to Douthat’s column:

Douthat is understandably uncertain as to whether there can be an agreed resolution at all. His final paragraph concedes this sadly:

Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.

Still, he judges that of the two possible resolutions, the Trumpian “particularist” and “restorationist” narrative of the old America is unlikely to prevail over the “universalist” narrative of a new America, rooted as it is in the civil-rights revolution, the “propositionalist” concept of nationhood, and the recent realities of mass immigration. Take a closer look at both visions, however, and the picture looks much messier.

The universalist vision of new America is weakened by flaws that its dominance of America’s cultural institutions concealed until the election. Its roots in American history before the 1960s are unrelievedly negative, for instance, and it has not dominated the main currents of history since then. It is steadily removing earlier American heroes from their pedestals, but it can boast only one certified American hero in its own pantheon, namely Martin Luther King Jr.

Whites, Hispanics, and Asians all rightly admire King, but the only group of Americans for whom he is a hero on the scale of Lincoln is black America. He is probably not up to the task of sustaining an entire national identity on his shoulders alone. Barack Obama might have provided a second hero for this new America — one appealing powerfully to a rainbow coalition that included whites — but he governed as a sectional and partisan leader who largely failed as president. His personal charisma, which explains his enduring popularity, will inevitably fade as he grows older and departs the scene. That’s our tragedy as well as his.

A second weakness of the new America is that its supporting rainbow coalition is divided far too deeply by ethnicity and ideology to last. Muslims and feminists, Hispanics and Asians, gays and black Christians may be united in the vision but they are often at odds in reality, and that is likely to become clearer as they all get to know each other better.

If the memory of slavery is to continue to cement the coalition, for instance, black Americans cannot ignore the fact that Muslim participation in the slave trade has a longer history (with less resistance from within Muslim culture) than that of Europe and America. Asians already diverge from Hispanics, blacks, and white feminists over affirmative action, which inevitably imposes negative quotas on them. And Martin Luther King’s devout religious faith makes him a “problematic” hero for gays, feminists, and aggressively secular liberals of all races in the long run.

It sometimes seems that the only cause that unites all these groups is hostility to white America.

And that’s the third weakness: The “universalist” narrative has no real place in it for white Americans, especially white males, except perhaps as permanent penitents for everything that happened before, say, 1968. They are the only group expected to make sacrifices under affirmative action — sacrifices that grow heavier because the protected classes grow steadily through immigration. They are the only permitted butts of ethnic humor. And they are regularly called upon to confess “white privilege” (or be written out of debate) in academic courses hard to distinguish from Communist re-education classes under Mao. As usually happens, moreover, theory limps along after practice to embrace expressions of simple, unqualified anti-white racism (and, in discussions of foreign policy, anti-Americanism too).

This anti-white sentiment disables the new America vision in two ways.

First, it runs up against the demographic fact that many people classed by the census as minority Americans, notably many Hispanics, think of themselves as white and are thought to be white by their neighbors. Many others, notably many Asians, have entered the white/Hispanic/Asian/black/mixed-race mainstream in which racial and ethnic differences lose their sharpness. Official, academic, and cultural authorities do their best to sharpen them again; they sometimes succeed. But the pull of intermarriage and soft social inclusion overrides many of these pressures, with the result that “whites” are a larger and less declining percentage of the population than the census suggests and therefore much harder to demonize or write out of the national story.

Second, a vision of America in which whites are simply environmental despoilers, racial oppressors, capitalist rent-seekers, or masochistic liberals is not only historically absurd but also morally deficient. It clashes with the experience of everyday life and with the decent feelings that ordinary Americans have toward their neighbors. Unless the new America can find a place for the descendants of the original settlers, it will either founder or impose itself uneasily through intimidation, reverse discrimination, and endless propaganda — in short, what was happening until last year and what is now being fiercely contested across the country.

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