YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 2, 2011

The Mass Culture Problem

There is a Humanities-Net list devoted to the period between 1918-1945 that has been discussing modernity, mass culture, and assimilation. For some, “nativists” are viewed as perpetrators of racism.  I started a glossary to see if we could come to agreement on the terms we used in debating this premise.

Public library luring readers with Captain Ahab "sea food"

Modernity: some  scholars start it with the age of expansion. I see modernity as starting with the Reformation, nascent capitalism in England on the land and then in finance, the invention of the printing press and growing mass literacy and numeracy, the Scientific Revolution, then the  speedup in industrialization, long distance transportation, and the settling of great cities in the West. Other scholars prefer to start with expansionism/imperialism alone. When the postmodernists seemingly burst upon the scene, I noted that there was little agreement about when modernism began or ended. Some seemed to be irrationalists echoing the
widespread horror at the casualties of the Great War.

Racism: Recent scholars have frequently erased “class” by collapsing it into “race” or “ethnicity.” Scientific racism and the intertwined notion of national character is best traced to the German Romantics of the late 18th century, following Herder. I blogged about the latter and others here:

also https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/.

Race” as a concept that predicts mental and other psychological characteristics was challenged in the mid-1930s, as was “ethnicity” insofar as these were held to be predictors of character, as opposed to physical variations within one species. It is my view that “antiracists”today use a racialist discourse while disavowing “racism.”

Assimilation:  the Left in general interprets this as adjusting to ugly nativism, and the nativists are supposedly chauvinistic believers in “American exceptionalism” by which they supposedly agree that America is the greatest country in the history of the world, based upon American military power. It is my view that assimilation in America requires no more than learning the customary language and obeying the laws of the land, by which I mean internalizing the novel idea of equality before the law and limited government. (It is true that the quietism of immigrant ancestors may cause rifts in families.)  As for “American exceptionalism” it once referred to “careers open to the talents” as opposed to a rigid class and caste society. America, lacking a hereditary aristocracy, was the land of upward mobility for all, and after the civil rights movement and the laws that followed, such mobility was offered to the descendants of slaves and even women.

Secularism: many cultural historians characterize the modern world as primarily “secular”.  This term is hotly contested in the culture wars.  “Traditionalists” abhor “secularists” who, they believe, have opened the flood gates of diabolism, degeneracy and every type of “unrest.”  The traditionalists insist that no separation between Church and State was intended by the Founding Fathers, who believed in America’s Providential mission. It is my position that religious and intellectual pluralism were institutionalized in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The culture war positions point to the unfinished revolutions, about which I wrote here:  https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.

Organic conservatives:  These persons tend to reject the “anomie” of the modern world, also the notion of irreconcilable conflicts between persons,  nation-states, religions, and so on. They prefer social models, either state-imposed or religious, that unite warring factions or individuals through mystical bonds, not congruent material interests. Examples are the Catholic essayists de Maistre and  Bonald after the French Revolution.  But many of the corporatist liberals (i.e., conservative reformers of the New Deal) also posit mystical bonds of blood and soil. Here are to be found the ethnic nationalists and some regionalists.

Organic conservatives may be found throughout the political spectrum. They are not to be confused with libertarians, who tend to be materialists, and expect competing (free) markets to produce social well-being and a rising standard of living for all. The dread homo economicus is described here: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/.

Mass Culture: This is a term much used by the Frankfurt School critical theorists, who, as I have shown elsewhere on this website, attribute Hitler’s appeal to “the revolt of the masses” in tandem with the one-sidedness of an increasingly technological society and a Kafka-esque bureaucracy. They blame the Enlightenment for the Holocaust. I reject both their counter-Enlightenment views and their explanation for the rise of Hitler, which is a culturalist one only, and is historically inadequate to explain such a multi-faceted phenomenon. Modernity and “consumerism” are seen by the critical theorists (Frankfurters) as bourgeoisifying a social class that should be transcending capitalism and bringing in a form of libertarian socialism. These refugees from Germany were linked to left-liberals who themselves did sykewar for the Roosevelt administration and its social psychologist allies. There is a related category: mass politics, which signifies the type of log cabin politics initiated by the administration of Andrew Jackson. Mass politics are said by left-wing academics to have replaced “the politics of deference” and the rule of the best families. Hence the novel catering to “public opinion” in our political culture, and the fascination with propaganda as the primary mover of political choice.

[Added 6-3-11:] Don’t miss the two interesting comments by CatoRenasci below. Read #3 first, then #1.



  1. Another way to look at “American exceptionalism” would be to note that the United States is a society in which membership was based on choice, rather than tribal/ethnic descent. Aside from the mythic origins of Rome as a haven for outcasts from from other Latin cities, and the Swiss confederation, this was an unusual, if not unique characteristic of America, especially in contrast to the growing nationalism in 19th century Europe.

    Consider how important choice is in America: the first settlers (for various reasons religious and secular) chose to settle in the new land, those who fought the revolution chose to seek independence from the British Crown (and many who did not want the revolution chose to return to England or go to English-ruled Canada after the revolutions), and the states chose to formulate and implement the present Constitution. Immigrants choose to come to this day. What other nation can one become a part of without regard to ethnic background? Canada? Australia? New Zealand? Maybe, but only in more recent times, and Australia has had distinctly ethnic limitations until quite recently.

    This focus on choice is not intended to detract from analyses that focus on the various social, economic and other factors which may have necessitated making choices, or even shaped the choices. Rather, the point is that out of the various choices made (for whatever reasons), the United States emerged as a country in which the principle that anyone could become an American through a free choice to accept the social contract represented by the Constitution.

    Comment by CatoRenasci — June 3, 2011 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

  2. Interesting. Let me suggest that your are conflating the real consequences, or the expression, of “American exceptionalism” — “careers open to the talents” as opposed to a rigid class and caste society with the underlying philosophical grounding of the concept in the notion of a society in which membership is based on a shared vision of the rule of law (which comes out the English tradition from Magna Charta, via the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the English Bill of Rights) combined with Lockean ideas about civil society, with a sense of divine guidance and election based on the low church Protestantism of the English Reformation (especially the tradition of the Westminster Confession). All tempered with the critical eye cast by the Founders on the history of the Roman republic. However, as we are not a philosophical people, most of this is intuitively felt rather than explicitly understood – though much of it can be found in the Federalist and the writings of the Founders. My sense is that intellectuals who understand the Enlightenment, even those who understand the distinctions among the continental Enlightenments, and between them and the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, are often not well acquainted with the Founders and their educations which grounded them in ancient history, with emphasis on the Roman republic, and exposed them to then current British letters and the French Enlightenment.

    I would further suggest that “assimilation” is more than just learning English and obeying the law – rather it includes internalizing the values underlying American exceptionalism, especially the rule of law, equality before the law, and the notions of the limited nature of governmental authority. Not necessarily on any express or deep philosophical basis, but in the warp and woof of life.

    Comment by CatoRenasci — June 3, 2011 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

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