“Nationality, without race as a plea, is like the smoke of this narghile, a fragrant puff.”
Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred: Or the New Crusade (1847)
If America is, as some would have us believe, nothing but the idea that all men are equally endowed with a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, one wonders what need men have for laws, schools and opinion columnists in newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times. Apart, perhaps, from some stringent statutes against murder and negligent homicide, it seems that men governed by this bare idea could be left to exercise this liberty, and pursue this happiness, in the manner that seems best to each man. Indeed, claiming the summit of a journalistic dung heap and crowing like an overbearing cock seems like an affront to equality, especially when these barnyard busybodies have their own narrow and bigoted notions about how these bare ideas should be clothed.
The Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin has just been crowing about the declining percentage of white Americans, insisting in the same breath that this is no cause for alarm because white Americans are merely incidental to the American idea. Indeed Rubin celebrates this decline and declares that America becomes more American the fewer white Americans it has in it.
She does not say how few white Americans would be optimal, but one strongly suspects that the number zero is not off the table.
The swindle in Rubin’s argument is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are extremely abstract ideas that have no particular meaning until some particular people clothe them in some particular content. When white Americans think of life, for instance, they do not simply mean staying alive. They mean life as they wish to live it. Liberty means for them the particular freedoms they require to live that life. And the happiness they seek is not, as a rule, the happiness of a Buddhist sadhu, a Homeric hero, or splenetic editorialist at the Washington Post.
I am not here to defend white Americans’ particular ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as these seem to me in many respects degraded, juvenile and inane, but I do think white Americans are entitled to call these particular ideas American, and to ask that other peoples’ particular ideas be called by another name.
While the barnyard cocks are crowing over the decrease of white Americans in the latest census returns, you may have noticed that white Americans’ particular ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being unceremoniously swept from the dusty mountains and barren bolsons of Afghanistan. I daresay that the Taliban are just as enamored as we are with the abstract idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—only their ideas are Taliban life, Taliban liberty, and Taliban happiness.
While the barnyard cocks are crowing over the decrease of white Americans in the latest census returns, you may have noticed that white Americans’ ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are also being swept, somewhat more slowly and surreptitiously, from the fruited plains and templed hills of what was once America.
I was interested to see that Ms. Rubin specifies “White Christians” as the group that will be most alarmed by the recently reported census returns. She says “freaked out” to make clear that their alarm over the permanent loss of political power is for some reason insane. If there is no reason for alarm over the permanent loss of political power, one naturally wonders why there is any reason to crow about the permanent acquisition of political power. After all, the crux of her thesis is that it does not matter who is in charge.
But Ms. Rubin is a swindler, so we must expect such sleight of hand.
Evidently Ms. Rubin agrees with Disraeli’s character Sidona when he says, over cigars after a sumptuous dinner,
“all is race; there is no other truth.”
Ideas are just ideas until some particular people clothe them in a particular content and show us what they mean.
That line of Sidona’s is often reproduced in isolation, but it is worthwhile to place it in the context of the proposition to which it serves as the conclusion. The postprandial conversation is a debate of the abstract idea of universal human progress, or civilization, and Sidona is arguing that this abstract idea obscures the actual workings of the world. What actually happens, he says, is that certain subsets of humanity, which he calls races, progress and rise to dominance for a spell, but that they then invariably decay into obscurity and oblivion. Here is the whole passage.
“Is it what you call civilization that makes England flourish? Is it the universal development of the faculties of man that has rendered an island, almost unknown to the ancients, the arbiter of the world? Clearly not. It is her inhabitants that have done this; it is an affair of race. A Saxon race, protected by an insular position, has stamped its diligent and methodic character on the century. And when a superior race, with a superior idea to Work and Order, advances, its state will be progressive, and we shall, perhaps, follow the example of the desolate countries. All is race; there is no other truth.”
Sidona, who is usually taken as a mouthpiece for Disraeli’s own opinions, states that the land of a once “progressive race” decays into a “desolate country” because prosperity inevitably leads to biological and cultural miscegenation. In that same postprandial conversation, for instance, Sidona says,
“The decay of a race is an inevitable necessity, unless it lives in a desert and never mixes its blood.”
Disraeli was himself a baptized Jew who served as prime minister of Great Britain, and he evidently wrote his novel Tancred to work out some of the conflicts in his own complicated identity. There is an interesting line near the end of the novel in which he states that a desolated people can survive its time in the wilderness only through careful preservation of its memory and traditions. He puts these words in the mouth of Eva, daughter of a rich Jew sojourning in Damascus. She is explaining to Tancred, hero of the novel, the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles, in which that people commemorate their passage through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
“The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel to celebrate the vintage. A race that persists in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruit to gather, will regain their vineyards . . .”
It appears that the race that Jennifer Rubin rather sneeringly calls “White Christians” is headed for the wilderness, and that their particular ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will soon evaporate along with their political power. It therefore appears that they must prepare to “celebrate their vintage,” and do so in the catacombs, or that wilderness will swallow them up.