It is hard to believe that thirty-five years have gone by since the long summer of 1971, when I was writing the first edition of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (published in April 1972). The world has changed a great deal since then. Some of the goals I set out to promote in that book came to pass. For example, my subtitle announced “The new political force of the seventies.” It can surely be said that the word ethnic (used of white ethnic Catholics, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe) entered public speech at that time, and that by their voting power, the newly identified “ethnics” reached out and grabbed the attention of politicians as seldom before. Moreover, reporters slowly began to pay unaccustomed attention to these “ethnic” voters and to the leaders who were rising from their ranks, such as Mario Cuomo in New York, Richard Celeste and George V. Voinovich in Ohio, Dennis DeConcini in Arizona, Pete Domenici in New Mexico, and Barbara Mikulski in Maryland. In 1974, President Gerald Ford initiated an office of ethnic affairs at the White House under Ukrainian-American Myron Kuropas. Jimmy Carter opened his September 1976 campaign celebrating “family days” in white ethnic neighborhoods of Newark and Pittsburgh, flanked by Joseph Califano and Msgr. Geno Baroni. In 1980, I was both surprised and pleased when the sunny Californian Ronald Reagan showed an unerring instinct in speaking the language of those who, after his two unrivalled landslides, came to be called Reagan Democrats, and also when he chose as his campaign slogan symbols that could have been taken directly from the last pages of my book: “Work, family, neighborhood, peace, strength.”
In fact, I learned much later, Reagan’s pollster Dick Wirthlin picked up those symbols from an article of mine addressed as a challenge to both Democrats and Republicans, tested them in his polling, and recommended them to the future president. Like many other “ethnics” (if on these grounds I may so include him), Ronald Reagan had started his political life as a labor-oriented Democrat and then, feeling more and more abandoned by the cultural Left of his own party, became increasingly conservative. Much of the rest of the country, including that other stout pillar of the Roosevelt coalition, Southern and Western evangelicals, began to do likewise. Reagan had the capacity to cast this “revolution” as a re + volvere (a revolving back) to this nation’s founding principles. He portrayed a new progressive vision–not a socialist or statist vision, but one based on limited government and self-rule. It inspired many of us, and it infuriated the cultural Left.
The publication of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in 1972 marked my own declaration of independence from the cultural Left, at that time the preeminent force watching over what could be said and what couldn’t in American culture. As readers will see firsthand in the 1996 edition (which leaves unchanged most of the original text), I was still writing as a man of the Left, certainly a man of the anticapitalist Left. But I was, in truth, departing from left-wing orthodoxy in singling out cultural issues, rather than economic issues, as the primary neuralgic point in American (and not only American) life. I was defending—no, calling into political and cultural self-consciousness, and trying to inspire—those whom the elites liked to picture as paunchy fascists in undershirts, bigoted and unwashed. I was repelled by “the bigotry of the intellectuals” and the unworthy prejudices of the cultural Left. At a time when intellectuals were celebrating the “liberation” of the swinging singles, I thought they ought to be stressing the importance of family, even the psychological differences between “family people” and those who find the unencumbered self a more fundamental reality. They ought to admire the latent strengths of traditional values and ethnic neighborhoods (even ethnic suburbs). To say the least, these ideas were premature. At the time, they were regarded as reactionary. They were said to be the insult our elites hurl when they are being unmasked—"spreading hate.”
Secretly, of course, I wanted very badly in those days to be accepted by the cultural Left, the gatekeepers all aspiring young writers must pass if they are to be allowed into the national dialogue. I wanted to be seen as offering a necessary and helpful corrective to mistakes being made in progressive politics, mistakes that were alienating the Democratic party from its base and even from its traditional tacit commitments. Naively, I thought this difficult analytic effort would be greeted with gratitude. I did not then know the fury of the Left when it marks someone down as beyond the pale of acceptability. I had never before understood how secular excommunication works: how effectively one can be banished from the innocent banter of old circles of trust, how even old friends change the flow and tone of a conversation when one approaches, signaling with a certain chill that one’s presence is no longer desired. All this is a good thing to go through when one is young. One will need the toughness later.
I have to confess here, however, that the many vivid anticapitalist sentiments I sincerely expressed in this book saved me from the full fury of rejection that was to be my lot when, a decade later, I published The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. In the circles in which I traveled in the late seventies, not to be sympathetic to the motives and spirit of socialism, at least democratic socialism, was a very great sin. To be positively in favor of capitalism was a sacrilege so great that to seek forgiveness was useless. Even friends who continued to agree with me, I couldn’t help noticing, would in their writings distance themselves from me even when taking positions close to mine. I would have been alone except for the fact that, at about the same time, a handful of other former leftists was beginning to agree that the death of the socialist idea, at least in economics, was the most underreported fact of the late twentieth century. After 1989, many more began to concede the point. And the problem for the “progressive” Left became, as a poster on Manhattan’s West Side put it in 1991, What’s Left of the Left?
Culture was left. The Left occupied most of the commanding heights of American culture by that time, in Hollywood, in the chief national television and newspaper news departments, in the most influential national magazines, in the universities, in the prestigious publishing houses (one or two excepted), in the great foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, Pew, Mellon, and others, and even among most corporate executives who were likely to sit on the boards of symphonies, museums, operas, and theaters. Dinner table conversations in elite circles of American culture were likely to be in the grip of the latest animosities, enthusiasms, and hygienic speech codes of the Left. What not to say lest a dinner party be thrown into an uproar was always somehow clear.
I had begun noting in 1971 that people on the Left increasingly lived in one culture, people on the Right in another. (This process only got worse in the 1980s, and still deteriorates.) Certain exceptions are made for persons of proven social graces. A few on each side are allowed on certain polite conditions to penetrate the circles of the other. A few mischievous persons, knowing exactly where the limits are, could always light fuses by saying with feigned innocence in a left-wing crowd something kind about Reagan, the Religious Right, Jesse Helms, or pro-life demonstrators; or, at a right-wing table, about Teddy Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, feminists, and how this country is taxed too little. In the circles of the Left during this period, guests from the Right would feel like social climbers admitted to the inner sancta of this culture’s movers and shakers.
In the circles of the Right, guests from the Left would usually feel as though they were slumming. Reagan with his Hollywood glamour changed that a bit, but not much. The contempt for him at the heights was wonderful to behold. (Not that this really mattered. Clare Boothe Luce once explained that a movie star who became president had an occupational advantage: Early in his career, a Hollywood veteran like Reagan had learned the difference between box office and the critics, and being secure in the former he could cheerfully be kind to the latter.)
And yet something funny happened to The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics on the way from its basic thesis about the “new ethnicity” of the 1970s to the “multiculturalism” and “diversity” of the late 1980s. My friends in the university began to send menacing dispatches from the front saying that I had to do something, my book was being cited in favor of some of the absurdities they were now witnessing on campus in the name of “multiculturalism.” From having been excoriated in 1972 for daring to divert attention from “blacks, women, and the poor” to such forbidden subjects as cultural diversity and “ethnics,” by about 1992 I was being quoted in roughly the same quarters in support of that new beast called “multiculturalism.” Setting aside the “honor” of the attribution, I abhor the new thing and disavow the allegation of paternity. A few important distinctions should not have been missed.
This is adapted from the Introduction to the 1996 Transaction edition of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics.
Published in First Things September 1, 2006