As we clear away all the wrapping paper and wonder how long to leave up the decorations, the deeper meaning of the season easily eludes us. So it’s good that Friday’s New York Times addressed the question that nags at the back our minds this time each year: Could “over-commercialization spoil Kwanzaa?”
It’s best not to read such a sentence with your mouth full, lest you spend the new few minutes scraping tapenade off your tapestries. Like most people outside the Upper West Side, I can’t keep a straight face while reading about the pseudo-African holiday that the tenured black separatist and FBI informer Maulana (Ron) Karenga pulled out of his orifice. The Times, with constipated politeness, reports that Karenga “developed the concept for the holiday in 1965.” What kind of holiday is “developed” as a “concept”? I’ll tell you what kind: Administrative Assistants’ Day.
And it’s all too easy to scoff at the crappy Kente trappings, the kinarah (a pseudo-menorah), the vaporous “principles” millions of church-going black Americans are expected to mark alongside Christmas. As the Times recounts them soberly, the “Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, of Kwanzaa [are]: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).” All this flubjub sounds like it’s lifted straight out of one of Evelyn Waugh’s less charitable novels. You expect that in the next paragraph you’ll hear about principles 8 & 9: “bobongo (polygamy) and oyumyum (cannibalism).”
It’s okay to laugh. In His inscrutable Providence, God created different ethnicities mainly to enable ethnic jokes. While you’re at it, save some spleen for the drunken idiocies surrounding St. Patrick’s Day; for the wannabe Mafia cafones who preen every Columbus Day as if they had personally discovered Puerto Rico; for the aggressive celebrations of a minor Jewish holiday (outside the U.S., Hannukah means as much to Jews as the Feast of the Ascension does to Christians) by guys like Larry David who couldn’t tell a Maccabee from a macaroon; and for every jot and tilda of the racist nationalism associated with “La Raza.” (To make things easier, let’s call it “razism.”)
Such nonsense pervaded Europe throughout the 19th century in the form of romantic nationalism. For an afternoon of laughs, read up some time about the German Völkish activist Father Jahn, who went about wearing bearskins, encouraging youthful Bavarians, Hessians, and Rhinelanders to take up gymnastics so they could fight someday for a united Germany. His slogan: “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei” (Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free) really should be incorporated into Kwanzaa.
French nationalism could be even more absurd, since it tried to meld the particularities for which Frenchmen really loved their nation with the universalist principles of the Revolution that destroyed it. What they ended up with was a kind of Gallic pseudo-Zionism: These principles are for everyone, everywhere—and if you resist, we have a few divisions of Zouaves who’ll force you to be free. But the French are unique for discovering them, and the French nation is somehow the sacred bearer of these eternal truths—as the Jews were of the Law. Now every year, Frenchmen on Bastille Day celebrate the event that wrecked their system of government (they haven’t yet come up with a durable replacement); persecuted their religion; got millions of their citizens executed, starved, or killed in useless wars; and rendered the nation helpless against colonization by Mohammedans, who will in a few generations rule it. Vive le Roi!
Russian Panslavism was an even more curious creature. If you’ve come across phrases like the “Russian Christ” in Dostoevsky novels and crossed your eyes, you’re not alone. Panslavist writers, as Hannah Arendt admits in the course of her yeoman’s attempt to make sense of them, were enthusiastically irrational. The closest I can come to a sensible summary is this: Christianity boils down to suffering. The more you suffer, the more Christ-like you are. Russia has been ill-governed, oppressive, and poor for longer than any other country. Hence, its people are the most profoundly Christian. So the Russians are meant to redeem Europe from its secularist errors—by spreading the Tsarist system of government all across it.
Appropriately enough, the best expression of absurdist Italian nationalism appears not in words but in marble. Any visitor to Rome should set aside an hour or so to visit the Victor Emmanuel Memorial, universally regarded as a monument to bad taste. In a city full of the most exquisite sculpture and architecture, it looms like a soiled wedding cake. (Some Romans call it “Mussolini’s Typewriter”—which is unfair, since its planning predates him.) Like the Nguzo Saba of Kwanzaa, the monument is rife with allegorical depictions of vaguely uplifting concepts. The only part of the monument that rises to seriousness is the altar, deep within, that honors an Unknown Soldier. There the marble statuary silliness all dries up, a stark Christian mosaic looms over a simple Catholic altar, and a brave man without a name lies in state, the representative of hundreds of thousands like him who died for their country—in a war that was totally needless (World War I).
And this brings me back to why Kwanzaa isn’t all that funny. If you think about it too long, it may even break your heart. These people celebrating it are Americans—more American than I am, that’s for sure. Their ancestors were here, speaking English and picking cotton, while mine were planting potatoes and fishing the Adriatic. They’ve been Christians for almost as long as the Filipinos. They’re a part of Western culture, albeit a sad footnote. We dragged them here, kicking and screaming. We didn’t set them entirely free until the 60s—inviting them into the “mainstream” at the same time we filled it with cultural poison. They moved from farms into the cities to work in the factories which closed within a generation. They’re in America, but not quite of America, and none of us knows quite what to do to help them. Poor people cannot afford the bohemian dabblings of the upper middle class; with no access to the Betty Ford Clinic, they get addicted, arrested, and die. Millions of them languish in our prisons, and we replace them with (temporarily) more compliant immigrants. Now they get to have a president, for all the good he will do them. Probably as much good as Jimmy Carter did for the South.
And the government isn’t the answer. Nor are bureaucracies devoted to micromanaging the attitudes of every American, serving the new religion of Antiracism as its Holy Inquisition. The problems in the black community could once be traced to discrimination and exclusion. But that’s not true any more, and deep down, thinking black people know it. Some may rant and rave about slavery in past centuries, and lynchings that happened a lifetime ago—but they sound like a Boston Irishman blaming his cirrhosis on the Potato Famine. And when they suit up in African costumes and mark imaginary holidays, they look about as dignified as I would dressed as a leprechaun, searching for Brigadoon. (I’m half-Irish, folks.)
But the fact that these old Americans have to cast about for an identity other than ours is very sad. And the racialism which our society encourages them to indulge is very dangerous—if only because it enables the wider acceptance of multiculturalism. That ideology is something much more serious than Kwanzaa; it asserts that members of every race and ethnicity have the right, almost the duty, to think and act as separatists—except for descendants of Europe. Those people, those nations, lie under the mark of Cain. They have no right to self-preservation, but only the “duty to die.” Hence Flemish who fight against massive Islamic immigration into Brussels aren’t patriots but “racists,” and so on and so on. Fill in the blanks. This kind of double standard can’t survive forever, and when it breaks down it’s going to break hard and break ugly. The outcome may be as nasty and futile as what happened in Kosovo and Kashmir. Or maybe as simple and sad as what’s happening in Zimbabwe.
If we somehow, by means of some divine blessing of the sort our country hasn’t deserved since Jan. 22, 1973, could close the borders to further immigration, none of this would matter. We can tolerate separatism in very small doses, the way we accommodate the Amish. Maybe, without all the pressure of ever-increasing doses of ever more demanding “diversity,” we could work out some common ground between all the old Americans, black and white. We could rectify remaining injustices, and learn to forgive each other.
But if we keep stirring the soup and turning up the heat, the melting pot will boil over, and everything we care about will burn. The America all our ancestors worked for, fought for, even slaved for, will be lost. The Mexo-Sino-Islamo Confederation of North America won’t feel guilty about slavery, and won’t give a damn about its descendants. It will have a new constitution every 17 years, and each junta will hand out ministries according to a rigid ethnic quota. We’ll be living in a new Yugoslavia, and we’ll be grateful if we get a Tito.