Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is an interesting book. The author identifies as a liberal, mostly because of being middle class, but largely argues for conservative ideas and against liberal ones. Back in the 19th century, the United States of America was held up by the progressive faction as a model of an intelligently ordered society. Arnold retorts that it is surprising then that America has produced so little impressive in the way of culture, the intellect’s distinctive output. This is part of his larger argument that a healthy culture needs a balance between what Arnold calls “Hebraism” (single-minded pursuit of moral purity) and “Hellenism” (pursuit of well-rounded excellence). Religious establishments serve the important role of bringing to the religious life of a nation an appreciation for the nation’s cultural and intellectual life. Religious dissenters and Americans, by contrast, display a one-sided Hebraism.
I’ve also found American cultural output anomalously unimpressive. The natural comparison to the USA would be Great Britain, the mother country, and it’s remarkable how, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, England enormously, overwhelmingly outperformed America in literature, science, and the intellectual life generally. It’s true that in the second half of the 20th century America wrested leadership from England and Germany in the physical sciences, music, philosophy, and other such cultural pursuits. Notice though that very soon after America gains leadership in a field, it becomes less interesting and less innovative; in sum, it undergoes a sort of sclerosis and rapidly declines.
About a month ago, I was in the mood to give myself a treat, so I bought an album on iTunes of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. (I guess in this post I’m continuing my theme on 19th century composers.) This primed me to be interested in an an article I ran across a week later on Dvorak’s “school” of American music. Dvorak’s own inspiration had been the Czech folk music of his homeland, so not surprisingly his suggestion to America was to cultivate a distinctive style of music inspired by the sub-cultures America has but Europeans don’t: blacks and Native Americans. The article’s author goes even farther, suggesting that refusing to take inspiration from African-American music has contributed greatly to classical music’s decline, a mistake which the more vital and world-popular musical types didn’t make. The author suggests that the way for classical music to save itself from disdain and obscurity is by highlighting the works of African Americans. Let me return to this topic later.
Once one realizes that it is not American creativity but lack of American creativity that needs explaining, that America is underperforming given its population and wealth, several explanations suggest themselves. I once read a perceptive article on some Leftist website that argued American corporatism and hierarchical big science explain why American led science and technology is less innovative, and I do think there is something to this. I also think there is something to the Leftist claim that American intellectual life is hamstrung by excluding large swaths of the population, although the excluded groups are not the ones the Leftists suppose.
Another notable difference between England and America is that Christians and Christianity have historically been less absent from English intellectual and political life than in America, a difference going all the way back to America’s Deist/Freemason-led War of Independence. When Arnold decided to give an example of an important cultural movement and its leader, he chose the Oxford Movement and John Henry Newman. Something like this would be unimaginable in the United States, which was dominated by Deists until the Jews joined the intellectual ruling class. (Adding the Jews had some benefits: American musical theatre, one of our culture’s only true bright spots, was an overwhelmingly Jewish creation.) America has never produced a scientist of the caliber of Michael Faraday (English) or James Clerk Maxwell (Scottish), but it would have been more unusual for two pious Protestants like Faraday and Maxwell to become prominent in American intellectual life.
My claim of Christian non-participation may sound surprising, given what we have all learned from Tocqueville about the importance of the Christian religion in the functioning of American democracy (although it is perhaps significant that we needed a French Catholic aristocrat to point it out to us), but that is at the lower, sociological level rather than at the high-cultural level.
If one considers only non-Christians to be Americans, America’s cultural output probably is proportionate to its population.
The reasons that the American Christian majority has remained culturally and intellectually passive is as hard to disentangle as the reasons for black underrepresentation in various fields. Maybe Christians are just much stupider than Deists and Jews, but how then do we account for the brilliance of European Christians which was not reproduced in the New World? Maybe Christians are discriminated against, but this was never done in a formal way. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, an American Christian anti-intellectualism, the Christian equivalent of some blacks’ desire to avoid “acting white”.
I think one key reason is status. Cultural products are judged as much by the status of their creator groups as by their intrinsic worth. The decline of prominence of classical music, noted in the linked Dvorak article, is an example of this. The prestige of what we call classical music rose and fell with that of the European peoples. The popularity of American black-derived music has more to do with the worldwide stratospherically-high status of African Americans than it does with any supposed intrinsic superiority of their music. (To be fair, we should then also not assume that the former popularity of European music necessarily reflected any innate superiority.) Regardless of formal or informal discrimination, Christianity is definitely low status and has been for a very long time. Any cultural products that too visibly come from a Christian sub-culture–especially a white Christian subculture!–will be tainted by this.
In Dvorak’s day, European culture was the default, and it made sense to look to other groups to inspire innovation. For the foreseeable future, black culture will be ascendent throughout the world due to the adulation for its creators. Perhaps some great art and literature will come out of it; clearly blacks are today the most vital and confident of the world’s races. Classical music will join the classics (ancient Greece and Rome) and medieval studies as backwater pursuits tainted by association with low-status white Christendom. These pursuits will try to avoid this fate by frantically signaling wokeness and recruiting nonwhites, but let us hope that these efforts will fail. Then someday the scorned remains of our lost culture may provide resources for the growth of a positive identity for white Christians. We have our own particular history, our own musical and literary styles, as worthy of remembrance and continuation as others’.