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The Twenties are still Roaring

From international relations to art and culture, the 1920s made the world of today

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When did wokeness become a cultural reflex in western high culture? Was it 2015, when Nicholas Christakis was surrounded by screaming Yale students and Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote their seminal article on the “Coddling of the American Mind”? Was it 2019, when Matthew Yglesias popularised the term “Great Awokening”? Nope. Try the 1920s.

The habit of mind I term “asymmetrical multiculturalism”, which combines white intellectuals’ hostility to their own group with a romantic celebration of minorities, began not in the 2010s, but in the years following the First World War. Likewise what we call wokeness is a sensibility rooted in a set of ideas I term “Left-modernism”, a hybrid ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism and cultural egalitarianism. This blend crystallised before the War, but spread within US high culture in response to nativist populism in America and nationalism in Europe.

Then, as now, ethno-demographic change had been the catalyst for a populist cultural nationalism. The prohibition of the selling of alcohol, per the 1920 Volstead Act, was motivated by the animus of the country’s “dry” rural Protestant majority against the “wet” Catholic immigrant-descended populations — who formed a majority of most northern cities — and their “smart set” allies among the urban, often Episcopalian, elite.

Anglo-Protestant populism had helped curtail immigration from southern and eastern Europe through the Literacy Test of 1917, and National Origins (Johnson-Reed) Act of 1924 which established immigration quotas for countries based on their share of the 1890 immigration population. The year was deliberately chosen to skew the numbers in favour of north-west Europeans, although it was later adjusted to the 1920 share.

Concurrently, a revived Ku Klux Klan, focused this time in northern states, and anti-Catholic rather than anti-black in focus, enrolled six million members, and controlled several relatively Protestant northern cities such as Indianapolis. As in our time, the radical cultural Left had developed ideological innovations before the rise of Right-wing populism, but was energised by the populist surge.

Meanwhile, the genocidal excesses of Stalinism in the 1930s produced a breakaway anti-communist Left which influenced the post-1945 cultural order. In the 1960s, Left-modernism achieved mass penetration with the expansion of television and the universities, influencing the ambitious members of the new Baby Boom generation and steadily capturing society’s elite institutions in the 80s, 90s, 2000s and today.

The story begins in the 19th century, when nations were still considered an instrument of liberal progress. Cosmopolitanism prior to 1900 was typically yoked with admiration for the nation. Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, founded both the nationalistic Young Italy and supranational Young Europe, seeing little in the way of contradiction.

American liberals like Ralph Waldo Emerson crowed, in 1846, about the US as “The asylum of all nations . . . the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Cossacks, and all the European tribes, of the Africans and Polynesians, will construct a new race.” Yet Emerson was equally adamant about the Anglo-Saxon ethnic basis of America, suggesting that the free population of America was of British stock, and that the “foreign element, however considerable, is rapidly assimilated… [into] a population of English descent and language.”

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In the 1900s, the national-cosmopolitan intellectual synthesis of liberals like Emerson began to decay into its warring components: a universalist cosmopolitanism and a closed ethnic nationalism. In America the former steadily gained ground after 1905; the progressive movement, coalescing around liberal Protestant figures such as John Dewey, William James and Jane Addams, began to spurn the idea that immigrants should assimilate into the Anglo-Saxon Protestant matrix which had defined the melting pot to that point.

Universalist cosmopolitanism was adopted by the country’s liberal Protestant elites of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) in the 1910s, with the ecumenist New Testament idea that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in Christ replacing anti-Catholicism and temperance as the organisation’s guiding ethos.

Into this brew came a wholly secular new force in American life: bohemian modernism. Taking root among a small cadre of highly-educated radical WASPs in Greenwich Village, New York, the “Village Renaissance” gave birth to the first fully-formed Left-modernist cénacle, the so-called Young Intellectuals. Among the innovations pioneered by this group in the 1912-17 period were modern art and theatre, “slumming” tours of ethnic ghettoes like the Jewish Lower East Side, and, thanks to Carl Van Vechten, the habit of travelling to Harlem to hear black jazz.

Expressive and interesting ethnics were contrasted with the stale Anglo-Protestant majority. Randolph Bourne, a prominent Young Intellectual, distilled the new ethos into a powerful oikophobia in his seminal 1916 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Trans-National America”:

“It is not uncommon for the eager Anglo-Saxon who goes to a vivid American university to-day to find his true friends not among his own race but among the acclimatized German or Austrian, the acclimatized Jew, the acclimatized Scandinavian or Italian. In them he finds the cosmopolitan note. In these youths, foreign- born or the children of foreign- born parents, he is likely to find many of his old inbred morbid problems washed away. These friends are oblivious to the repressions of that tight little society in which he so provincially grew up. He has a pleasurable sense of liberation from the stale and familiar attitudes of those whose ingrowing culture has scarcely created anything vital for his America of to-day.”

Remarking upon New York Times writer Sarah Jeong’s tweets against white people, Reihan Salam wrote in the Atlantic in 2018:

“A lot of them [anti-white intellectuals] have been whites who pride themselves on their diverse social circles and their enlightened views, and who indulge in their own half-ironic white-bashing to underscore that it is their achieved identity as intelligent, worldly people that counts most, not their ascribed identity as being of recognizably European descent.”

Bourne, an old-stock New Englander like most New York writers of his day, established the template for angry Left-modernists of the 1920s, who watched helplessly as Anglo-Protestant populism won the day. Consider H.L. Mencken, who parroted Bourne’s oikophobia in more strident tones in 1923:

“The Anglo-Saxon American[‘s] is a history of… blind rage against peoples who have begun to worst him… The normal American of the ‘pure-blooded’ majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar [ethnic minorities] under the bed… His political ideas are crude and shallow. He is almost wholly devoid of esthetic feeling. The most elementary facts about the visible universe alarm him, and incite him to put them down. Educate him… and he still remains palpably third-rate. He fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men.”

The Anglo-American majority was dehumanised as an automaton subservient to authority. Mencken called them “serfs and goose-steppers” or the “booboisie”. Van Wyck Brooks dubbed them “the apotheosis of the average” while Matthew Josephson scorned the “well-fed, indifferent masses”.

In Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, protagonist Carol is trapped in the monochrome confining world of Gopher Prairie, a town in Minnesota. Yearning for cosmopolitan New York, she appreciates the local Scandinavian immigrants for injecting a dose of culture into a town whose Anglo-Saxon element was of “standardized background… scornful of the living…. A savourless people, gulping tasteless food… and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.” The thought of the Scandinavians being assimilated filled Carol with horror.

In Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the villain is Tom Buchanan, an old-stock New Yorker who is suspicious of Jay (Gatz) Gatsby’s ethnic provenance and approvingly cites tracts which are thinly disguised versions of the work of restrictionist intellectuals Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard. The sense that Prohibition-era America was a cultural wasteland helped produce the “Lost Generation” of American Left-liberal intellectuals, many of whom left for Europe in disgust.

The difference between the culture wars of the 1920s and now is that the Left is far stronger today. After the Second World War university education exploded, more than doubling between 1950 and 1970 and eventually reaching nearly half the US population. Television sets could be found in just 9% of American homes in 1950, but by 1965, 93% had one. This spread the sensibility of relatively liberal New York, Los Angeles and Washington across the entire nation.

In 1976, Daniel Bell wrote that “the life-style once practiced by a small cenacle . . . is now copied by many . . . [and] this change of scale gave the culture of the 1960s its special surge, coupled with the fact that a bohemian life-style once limited to a tiny elite is now acted out on the giant screen of the mass media.”

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In 1924, ecumenical Protestant clerics and liberal progressives had vigorously opposed immigration restriction but had almost no political clout: the Johnson-Reed Act passed 323-71 in the House and 62-6 in the Senate. Unions like Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labour led the battle to limit immigration. Today, by contrast, progressives are powerful in the media, Hollywood, unions, large corporations, government agencies and the universities. So much so that they are now in control of social norms and institutional sanctions.

Where communists, atheists and Elvis alike once felt the sting of conservative moral panic, today’s Inquisition is progressive, enforcing panics over racism and sexism, and concocting such faux-racist notions as cultural appropriation. Indeed, Left-modernists influence the direction of the Democrats to the extent that the party cannot speak of “illegal” immigration, deportation or assimilation, while most primary candidates feel compelled to endorse reparations for slavery.

The populism and polarisation of the 1920s faded in large part because the new immigration laws constricted the flow of newcomers, allowing for assimilation. First, Protestant immigrant groups like the Scandinavians and Germans married into the WASP majority, then, after the 1960s, Catholics and Jews began marrying Protestants, creating a new “white” majority. By that time, the rising influence of 60s liberalism reopened the country’s gates, which has produced a level of diversity that rivals that of the 1920s.

Trump is a response to the ethnic shifts which followed the liberalising 1965 Hart-Celler immigration Act, but will today’s culture war repeat the cycle? Will restriction and assimilation calm passions and heal divides? The power of today’s Left-modernism places that outcome in doubt.

Regardless of what happens in 2020, the Left may eventually prevail at the presidential level as Democratic-leaning Hispanic and Asian voters form an ever larger part of the electorate. These groups have not yet melted into the majority the way white Catholics did after Kennedy’s election, and until they do, they are unlikely to lean Republican.

The outcome in America may therefore be one in which a provincial populist minority bitterly resents a liberal urban majority, obstructing Democratic legislation in the Senate. In Europe, restrictionists are more likely to prevail, but a significant group of disgruntled “Anywheres” will continue to revolt, fomenting cultural division. History repeats itself, but never in quite the same way.