One criticism leveled at democratic societies is that their people have neither memory nor foresight; ignoring Burke’s admonitions, they are populated with men who care not for those before or after. I am not completely convinced that a democratic regime necessarily silences its ancestors and neglects the care of its progeny, but from classical Athens to the present, these characteristics tend to appear alongside democracy.
What, then, are we to make of the American fascination with genealogy? Perhaps one could say that merely a small eccentric group of antiquarian souls immerse themselves in dusty records due to their own psychological disposition. Perchance enthusiasm for family trees might be due to the deracinated condition of a colonial people who thereby obsess over their roots, having been sown so far from their indigenous soil. Colonial populations tend to be more conservative linguistically; maybe an inter-generational interest grows from displacement, as well. It could also just be the Mormons in our midst.
I wonder if some academic has studied the level of Americans’ genealogical interest and research over the last two centuries. For I have another explanation, and such research could support or refute it.
I suspect that the level of genealogical interest and activity rises as Americans perceive the weakening of American nationality. I do not use “nationality” in the strictly political way to refer to the residents of a state but rather in the more tribal understanding of nation. From the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, it seems that there was an effort by many Americans to forge a new American nation from the diverse populations in the country. From anti-immigration nativist movements to the assimilation projects of the late nineteenth century, it appears that many Americans considered American nationhood a desired goal—such that one could be American, eventually, in the same sense that another is Irish or Mongolian. I remember reading that Jefferson thought that the American Indian and European peoples would blend into a cohesive nation, but he had misgivings about the ability of blacks to be incorporated so.
From the Latin American examples, we see mixed results in nation forming. After five centuries of miscegenation, one still sees a racially stratified society south of the Rio Grande, with the folks of more European ancestry generally higher on the social ladder. When there is a chance at capitalist enterprise, an ambitious fellow of pre-Columbian stock may amass wealth, move up the social hierarchy, and marry a girl from a respectable Spanish colonial dynasty. This has created a hierarchical system with some possible class mobility, but social unrest, liberation theology, and Marxism have found a permanent home in Latin America’s browner strata. Social cohesion only occurs when most accept their lot, and the revolutionary Left is quite determined to force the plantation landowning plutocrats to “spread the wealth around.” Unfortunately but unavoidably, that wealth usually makes its way into the coffers of a new political elite rather than in the manos of coffee and banana pickers. ¡Qué lástima!
Anyway, according to my proposed theory, whenever there are great demographic pressures on the project of forming an American nation—as when there is a significant influx of foreigners—confidence in the possibility of an American nation wanes and folks resort to their ancestral tribal affiliations or to an earlier American presence of one’s ancestors. When the Irish and Germans came in large numbers, there was an anti-immigrant outcry. I wonder, too, if there was a surge in genealogical interest. Did Plymouth and Jamestown receive renewed attention at that time? Certainly, when the waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came during the industrial era, there was such a movement. In my own travels around the United States, I have noticed a large number of memorials that date from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The Daughters of the American Revolution seem to have been in their heyday then. Rockefeller’s investment in Williamsburg, Virginia is another example from that era of American interest in the past. Could it be that the hordes of immigrants from very different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds caused an existential panic among Americans, thereby causing them to get in touch with their roots?
It is difficult to say, as industrialization itself, without any immigration concerns, would have been enough to spur an interest in the pre-industrial. The Romantic movement does not seem to have any immigration-induced causes; the nineteenth century appears as a fading ode to the disappearing ancient regime. For radical social change is enough to make people look back to the past. Disruptive demographic transformation is just another momentous change that would trigger mass nostalgia.
From the restrictions put in place in the 1920’s until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States began to homogenize its white population. Social cohesion, even during a frightful economic and wartime era, appeared at an all time high among the majority population. According to my theory, then, we would expect a decline in genealogical interest and activity during this period, though we would obviously have to account for other factors such as wealth (and leisure) fluctuations as well as the war period. Given the wars and the Red scare, it would not be surprising to see people fixate on the immediate present as survival, in people’s perception, at least, was at stake.
After Ted Kennedy’s 1965 immigration act, the population of the United States drastically changed. In A.D. 1960, 84.7% of the American population was white. Now in A.D. 2008, 66% of the population is white. The percentage of whites is expected to fall as current immigration and population policies continue. There seems to be no hope left for American nationhood; we have become a multiethnic, multicultural society where the possibility of nationhood is not only seen as impossible but even offensive to many Americans. That there could be a “standard” American clashes with the ideal of relativistic multiculturalism and with the facts of an ever more diverse population. Recent nativists cries, as you can see on VDARE, warn that the United States is headed toward Balkanization. I fear that they may be correct, but I’ll save those thoughts for other posts.
Anyway, I wonder if the current surge in genealogical interest is due to this “Balkanization.” It could simply be that when differences in ancestry are more apparent, as would happen with Laotians and Swedes living next to each other, people think about origins more. This increase of ethnic awareness could result in more folks’ looking up their ancestors. The ease of researching family history has obviously influenced genealogical interest, as well. With Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, you do not even have to leave your house to access information that would have been inaccessible two decades ago without months of global travel and significant archival research. Just about anyone can be Alex Haley now. Speaking of whom, the multicultural drift of American education has increased interest among minority groups to reconnect with their ancestral traditions, and it is possible that such activity has interested white Americans in their heritage, as well. In the flyover America that the Michelle Obamas of the world despise, only so many “X History Months” can occur until some folks start to ask, “Why not us?” If the prospect of an American nation has ended, ethnic hyphenation among whites will surely increase. The leafy base of the American salad bowl wishes to reclaim its romaine, iceberg, arugula, radicchio, and butterhead distinctions.
For one cannot be proud to be lettuce simply—that would incur charges of racism. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial, “The ‘Real’ America, Really,” in which the writer accuses the McCain campaign of portraying the United States as an America of small towns and old fashioned values . . . in other words, a white America. The writer correctly notes that this is a dying America . . . and the campaign is channeling a nostalgia for a past that is slipping away with each passing year. The writer condemns McCain’s plea to “real America” as “divisive rhetoric,” presumably because she does not value the diminishing old way and thinks that the American cultural values of the past have no place in today’s progessive cosmopolitan society. She is, however, compassionately concerned about the anxieties felt by the displaced white people, but she reiterates the multicultural mantra that our diversity is our strength.
I have yet to see any evidence that such is true. Consider Leftist Robert Putnam’s recent work: here are the Boston Globe article, “The Downside of Diversity,” on Putnam’s study, along with John Leo’s “Bowling with Our Own” in the City Journal. Similarly, John Derbyshire frequently points out (for example, here, here, and here) that diversity often destroys the political community, which you can see in the nation carving of the modern democratic age, as I wrote earlier this week. A loss of unity in the political body is its worst condition; it sets the stage for what the Greeks called stasis, or civil war. The diversity of contemporary Palestine, Yugoslavia, and Parisian banlieux tell a very different story . . . What common sense, personal experience, and even a cursory look at human history tell us mean nothing, I suppose, when they blaspheme one of sacred doctrines of current American ideology. As with Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s Bell Curve, some questions are not pious to ask; for the fruit plucked may lead to knowledge unbearable for men who prefer to dwell in the cave of their tribe’s taboos.