The National Prospect

A Symposium


To commemorate COMMENTARY‘s 50th anniversary, the editors addressed the following statement and questions to Irving Kristol:



In the eyes of many observers, the United States, which in 1945 entered upon the postwar era confident in its democratic purposes and serene in the possession of a common culture, is now, fifty years later, moving toward balkanization or even breakdown. Pointing to different sorts of evidence-multiculturalism and/or racial polarization; the effects of unchecked immigration; increased economic and social stratification; distrust of authority; the dissolution of shared moral and religious values-such observers conclude in their various ways that our national project is unraveling.

Do you agree with this conclusion, in whole or in part? Has your own thinking changed in recent years on the question of the basic stability of American institutions?

We are now in the midst of a conservative resurgence, social and cultural as much as political, which arguably arose in response to the trends described above. In your view, is it making any headway toward arresting or reversing them? How would you assess its promise, in both the near and the longer term?


I do not for a moment believe that the United States is headed toward balkanization or breakdown, despite all the twaddle about multiculturalism and diversity-and despite, too, all the government money that now actively sponsors such ideas. The key group is the Hispanics, whose numbers are now just about equal to the blacks. They are assimilating into the American mainstream, though more slowly, for all sorts of reasons, than immigrant groups in the past. Most Latin American immigrants have had little connection with Latin American culture, about which they know nothing-in this respect, they resemble the Italian immigrants ofyesteryear. In any case, Latin American culture, in both its literary and religious traditions, is part and parcel of Western civilization. It is interesting to note that "Hispanic studies" in our universities almost never require that the students read any books in Spanish. Those courses are political, not cultural. The self-appointed "Chicano" leaders are blowing into the wind, and their financial support is almost entirely governmental. Such support is a major obstacle to the process of assimilation.

About the blacks, I have to admit, I have no certain convictions-except that the notion that American blacks constitute some kind of multicultural entity is obviously absurd. Black writers and black musicians are, for better or worse, as American as apple pie. On the other hand, what can only be called black racism does seem to have a powerful grip on the black popular imagination. One can hope that the emerging black middle class will gradually mollify this poisonous passion. This racism, together with multicultural fantasies, offers no future for American blacks. Sooner or later, common sense should prevail, though not, I fear, before considerable damage has been done.

As for the fastest growing minority in the United States, the Asians, they are succeeding economically while disappearing as a racial-ethnic group at the same time-and at a rate unprecedented in American history. American-born Asians intermarry with those of European stock at a 30-percent rate, and we no longer think of such marriages as in any sense "mixed." Most then become—many already are—Christians. Our best universities are concerned that Asians may, without restrictive (if informal) quotas, become a majority of the student population. Nor is there anything multicultural about this group. Very few Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Thai youngsters can read-or wish to read-a newspaper in their parents’ or grandparents’ native language. The melting pot works here with a quite stunning rapidity. We are on the verge of seeing these Asians, and their offspring, as just another "European" ethnic group.

What I do find most perplexing and bothersome about the American condition is neither racial nor multicultural but generational. The observable trends among our young are so complex, so much at odds with one another, that they obscure any vision of the American future.

As best I can determine, there are three main cultural trends among the young: countercultural, libertarian-in radical, liberal, and conservative versions, depending on attitudes toward the free market-and what might be called traditional conservative. But these currents overlap, merge sometimes, become distinct again, and originate minor rivulets in the most bewildering way. In the Jewish community, for example, we see this process visibly at work. What are we to make of a gay synagogue that is, in many respects, more observant and traditional than most Reform synagogues? I do not know what to make of it. I am always pleased to see younger Jews become more observant; on the other hand, I wish they were not gay. Similarly, I am delighted at the presence of Jewish feminists who wish to participate, on a more equal basis, in rituals and observances, and who study Hebrew and the Talmud. These feminists are breathing new life and vigor into what otherwise threatens to become a moribund religious community. But I simply do not know how to cope with a learned (by my standards, anyway), observant (again by my standards), lesbian rabbi. It is all very confusing.

In the same way, I do not know how to feel about young men and women who go off to study in Israeli yeshivas. I am simultaneously both approving and worried. I do not wish to see Jews cut themselves off from our Christian-secular Western civilization-my civilization-and become little more than a parochial sect. But I am pleased that they are involving themselves in a rediscovery of traditional Judaism. My own religious leanings are toward some version of modern Orthodoxy. But can such a movement resist all the centrifugal forces that are pulling the Jewish community apart?

And not only the Jewish community, but all the Christian denominations as well. I have Catholic friends who simply do not know what to think about their "charismatic" brethren, growing in numbers. And the secularists, as well, are feeling the stresses and the strains. Our culture, both "high" and "low," is still overwhelmingly secular, to the point of frequently verging on a hedonistic paganism. But while the young are thrilled by this culture-young people are hedonists and pagans by nature-their parents, themselves raised in that culture, are becoming more dubious about it. As for the powerful and still emerging movements of religious evangelicals, one does wonder about their children. Do they never go to rock concerts? Are their sexual habits so wildly at variance with their secular contemporaries? Do they turn their eyes away from the near omnipresence of soft porn on all those youthful television programs? In the absence of any credible studies, I cannot even begin to guess.

I am persuaded that a serious religious revival is under way in this country. But just how this revival will make out when it confronts the hedonism of our popular culture and the libertarianism of so many of even our politically conservative young people remains to be seen. What we call the culture war is still only in the skirmishing stage. Anything like a Kulturkampfis not yet visible. For my part, I would welcome it, if uneasily. In any war, one’s allies can be as troublesome as one’s enemies.




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