The University Bookman

 
 

Volume 39, Number 3 (Fall 1999)

Civilization in Davy Jones’s Locker

book cover imageThe Emerging Atlantic Culture
by Thomas Molnar.
Transaction Publishers, 1994.
110pp., $34.95 cloth.

Patrick Allitt

Thomas Molnar has never hesitated to say how horrible he finds America, and the razor edge of his dislike is as sharp here as in a dozen earlier books. It is more of a Jovian thunderbolt than a Jeremiad because he does not hold out the hope that the Americans will repent and reform; neither does he think they were ever in a stare of grace from which they have since fallen. They are, he says, the embodiment of all that is vulgar, pernicious, and ludicrous in the contemporary world and, what’s worse, they are spreading poison around the world. He writes as one who feels certain that he is on the losing side in a war for civilization. A lonely voice, indebted to the America where he has lived and worked almost all his adult life, he refuses to let gratitude blunt his aversion.

A title like The Emerging Atlantic Culture has an upbeat, progressive ring, and might lead unwary readers to expect news that the best of Europe and American cultures were blending in a higher synthesis. Molnar has never catered to optimistic tastes, however, and his thesis is entirely different. To call what goes on in America “culture” at all, he argues, is to insult the word. To him “culture” has a European provenance and signifies “the highest expression of intellectual and spiritual creation, [requiring] a quasi-religious devotion. It transcends individuals and classes, it is like a divine message to man.” But for Americans, culture is simply “what people do in the process of making their lives more livable, satisfying, and useful, and their leisure gamelike” and never contradicts utilitarian aims.

In the last few decades, American “cultural” objects, produced matter-of-factly by entertainment entrepreneurs, have poured into Europe and all but swamped its dignified, traditional way of life, creating a feeble ersatz Americanism which he calls “Atlantic Culture.” In effect “we have no culture today, but merely a multiple by-product of everyday objects, occurrences, habits, and attitudes.” American television, which has no greater foe than Molnar, leads the way. Architecture follows, and in a memorable image Molnar describes standing on hilltops which overlook Paris and Prague and observing the ancient cities like “jewel boxes” surrounded by “tragico-grotesque pseudo-Manhattans” of concrete skyscrapers, “as if the old city had been reduced to a laager, a minority on the defensive or a museum with hidden treasures, and around it, squeezing it, a cement army of besiegers in severe gray, ready to march.”

Molnar stresses that the Americans have learned nothing from this process and that the outcome of America’s contact with Europe is not a creative synthesis. Thinking of themselves as the end of history, the antidote to the Old World, the Americans, he says, remain sublimely indifferent to the degradation they have caused. “Americans do not, deep down, believe that anything worthwhile exists outside their borders—which are not merely geographical but ideological as well. The vocation of the human race, they believe, is fulfilled in America; the rest must be judged either as good or bad for America, its way of life, democracy, and free institutions, or as objects of curiosity, exotica, an enlarged Disneyland.”

Before 1945 America was to Europe no more than “a pleasant nuisance, not very different from adults discussing serious things and hearing childish noises from the nursery.” The Second World War changed all that. Molnar emphasizes that the American armies which moved into Western Europe and stayed on after the war were armies of occupation, even when they dwelt on “friendly” soil as ostensible protectors against the Soviet Union. The Europeans felt envious of the Americans’ wealth, their confidence, their clear-cut wartime victories, and their apparent world dominance. Shattered by strife, Europe lowered its defenses and in the ensuing decades accepted not only American films and corn flakes but also American ideas about politics, scholarship, science, and technology. One of many odious consequences was that, in the face of American democratic propaganda, the Europeans lost faith in their class-stratified societies and the cultural elitism which had given rise to the triumphs of Western civilization. Now that cultural elitism and class-stratification are in disgrace, a dull gray “monoclass” of undifferentiated individuals, voicing democratic and anti-elitist platitudes, spreads across the European landscape, nullifying the self-sacrificing and transcendental impulses which made the West great. Individual members of the “monoclass” are detached from one another, lost and spiritually bereft: Molnar’s “Atlantic” Europeans are a cross between the hapless citizens in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and the surging plebes in Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses.

Another consequence of 1945 was that the Americans, who had felt a nagging sense of cultural inferiority and dependence until then, now went through a period of “de-Europeanization” and lost, in the complacency of victory, what valuable lessons of European culture they had earlier learned. “At no point did [America] take over any feature or piece of legislation from the European society, and if anything, it liquidated its own European heritage.”

Molnar insists that the American intellectual orthodoxy of our times which has force-fed the emerging Atlantic culture, democratic, pluralist, multicultural, is intolerant—a mental army of occupation which has dominated Europe along with its military counterpart. Without descending to the gritty details of the “culture wars” debate he echoes much of the indictment made over the last few years by Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, and Allan Bloom, but unlike these other scourges of political correctness he seems to lack any hope in there being an “American mind,” open or closed, worthy of redemption. His target, rather, is the Europeans who have let themselves be cozened by American gimmicks into imitating what they ought to have resisted. Molnar is among those conservatives who take little comfort from the end of the Cold War and the defeat of communism, because it seems to him that American Materialism is almost as malignant as the Historical Materialism that finally ran out of steam in 1989. Marxists and American liberals, he says, are distressingly similar in their view of what the world is like and both base their view of society on a denial of mankind’s relationship with God.

The idea of a united Europe, he believes, is itself an American notion, even though it has fired the imagination of “Europeans” like Jacques Delors with all-but-evangelical intensity. Although I have my differences with him, this is a point where I find Molnar convincing: the idea of a united Europe is no more than an idle fantasy, contradicted at every point by history, and advocated at present only by businessmen and their political cronies who anticipate large profits. The European Community has homogenized, standardized, and centralized its affairs, chipping away at local traditions, undermining regional authorities, always advancing with its soothing rhetoric about peace, goodwill, and efficiency, and favoring the mild curiosity of tourism over the heroic self-discipline of cultural creation. But “Europe” has never been able to still ancient animosities, many of which still smolder beneath the civil surface. What’s more, it has only to glance a degree or two eastwards to remember some hard truths. Eastern Europe, though also prey to “Atlantic” delusions, is both literally and figuratively further from the great waters and a standing denial of “European” dreams. Swept first by the barbarian invasions, later by the Ottoman Empire, and more recently by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, fraught with fanatical hatreds of the sort which exploded the idea of Yugoslavia, let alone European unity, it promises to act the part of Banquo’s ghost at all Atlantic feasts.

In this short, uncompromising book, Molnar dispenses generalizations from an Olympian height and, rather than marshaling evidence in support of his claims, he relies on readers’ spontaneous assent. “America” and “Europe” are, as he often reminds us, abstractions, but he has a way of implying, when it suits his argument, that they are entities which act purposively. More details about exactly which European people and nations are submitting to the Atlantic culture, would surely strengthen the argument without miring the account in the statistics and pseudo-scientific jargon he abhors. Vast intra-European distinctions are scanted. And he makes many claims which I do not believe, such as that Americans are uninterested in history. There has never been a country which devoted so much attention to its historic monuments, paid the salaries of so many history professors, and read so avidly about their collective past. Molnar’s real objection is to the way in which the Americans interpret and venerate their history, but he overreaches when he claims that they hold history itself in universal contempt. Elsewhere he attributes to “America” an almost unstoppable power of cultural penetration, as though it was blindly self-sustaining. It was odd at such times to find Molnar reminiscent of Foucault, in whose work also a sinister form of “power” operates everywhere, without the reader ever learning who is wielding it.

Is the outlook hopeless? Not quite, because Molnar believes that the end of the Cold War will give Europe a chance to emerge from its fifty-year hypnotic sleep and recognize that America is a source of danger as well as goodies. Europe has a respect for history, long experience in tough political realities, and deep resources of anti-utopian culture and religion, however encysted and enfeebled they have become in the last five decades. “The immemorial structures have withstood the rush of modernity and reappear now under the new facade.” Alexis de Tocqueville could see the threats as well as the promise in American democracy a hundred and fifty years ago, and Molnar now takes up Tocqueville’s mantle. In these days of university speech codes and draconian “discriminatory harassment” policies, I find myself wondering whether Molnar would be allowed to set foot on the hallowed ground of an American campus if administrators read this book beforehand. He is a man of immense personal charm and erudition but here he is discriminating against everyone west of Cape Cod. In my opinion he is eminently worth listening to—whatever his exaggerations—because we need to be reminded from time to time that even America’s sacred cows sometimes look and act like oafish brutes. 

Patrick Allitt teaches history at Emory University. He is the author, among other books, of Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome (Cornell University Press).

Posted: December 7, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

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What’s Relevant? Roman History and Latin Literature
Russell Kirk
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