In 1920, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, two journalist-critics with little patience for fools, published a list they called The American Credo, which Nathan enlarged in 1927 as The New American Credo. The books enshrined scores of unexamined beliefs, bromides, and shibboleths held by the Babbitts of their time. Samples:
That the average New Yorker, under his sophisticated and sinful exterior, is really an innocent, sentimental sucker.
That French women use great quantities of perfume in lieu of taking a bath.
That a negro's vote may always be readily bought for a dollar.
That the accumulation of great wealth always brings with it great unhappiness.
That Jules Verne anticipated all the great modern inventions.That the mistresses of monarchs in the old days always dictated the policies of the country.
That a Sunday School superintendent is always carrying on an intrigue with one of the girls in the choir.
Three-quarters of a century have passed since then, and the Credo badly needs updating. Babbittry has changed its character and location. In the twenties, Mencken and Nathan were railing at the Booboisie. On their gazetteer, this large, bland, self-satisfied group dominated the American South and Midwest. These were the people mocked by a fresh-faced magazine called The New Yorker, which proudly announced in its 1925 prospectus that the publication would not be edited for the Old Lady in Peoria. There, and in hundreds of places like it, the members of the Booboisie carefully insulated themselves from any ideas that might puncture their smug complacency—so much so that Mencken and Nathan's barbs left them unscathed. "The Credo is a failure," Mencken wrote to a friend. "All the notices are favorable. It would have been made by bitter patriotic attacks. As it is, everyone thinks it is sweet and harmless stuff."
The provinces, alas, are not the first place to look for the Babbitts of our day—and don't look for them in the Booboisie, but in the elites. Beltway Babbittry is on display every night, smugly spoken by the talking heads of the news industry. Campus clichés and the received ideas of New York journalism continually bubble to the surface, floating serenely past any ideas that might burst their complacent certitude.
So the Credo needs some modernization. Aside from the obvious revision (the Sunday School superintendent would now be replaced by the Chief Executive), hundreds of new items suggest themselves. Samples of received wisdom for the nineties (with thanks to City Journal's contributing editors):
That forces, not men, govern history.
That the fuss over the Clinton sex scandals has made us the laughingstock of France.
That the Constitution is a "living" document that needs to stretch and grow.
That, deep down, the mainland Chinese are all merchants.
That we will never make a lasting dent in crime until we find the root causes.
That what the relatives of terrorist bombing victims seek is not justice but "closure."
That the public Al Sharpton is a loudmouthed clown, but when he's not on camera he's a serious guy with a lot of progressive ideas.
That Eastern religions have a lot to teach us, but Western religions are narrow, superstitious, and dangerous.
That sexual misconduct is a disease.
That Belfast could solve all its problems if the English soldiers would just go home.
That the U.S. and the Soviet Union were equally responsible for the cold war.
That we need to study the problem—any problem—further before we can judge it.
That women in combat will humanize military service.
That The New Yorker is cheesier than it used to be, but there's something worthy in every issue.
That the functioning nuclear family is an outmoded fiction created by the writers of Ozzie and Harriet.
That television has made children "visually literate."
That leniency = justice.
That the most dangerous chemical weapon in the world is testosterone.
That "rap artists" articulate a cri de coeur from the streets and we ignore it at our peril.
That the U.S. can't be the world's policeman.
That the best way of combating AIDS is through education.
That statistics showing crime is down and jails full are unrelated.
That the public's glowing memory of Princess Diana is all that keeps the British royal family on the throne.
That since kids are going to do it anyway, we ought to show them the right way to do it in sex education classes.
That inequality = inequity.
That law schools discriminate against females.
That welfare reform will force babies to sleep on grates.
That public schools are the most powerful democratizing force in the country.
That this time Kenneth Starr has really gone too far.
That this time Rudy Giuliani has really gone too far.
That it's better for children to be raised by a forthright single mother than to grow up in an imperfect but intact family.
That gangs are just another way of defining "family."
That everything is relative.
That the peace process is a process leading to peace.
That the U.S. government has more information about unidentified flying objects than we will ever know.
That tradition is wrong.
That emotion must always be expressed.
That homelessness is caused by a lack of affordable housing.
That more women are brutalized by their significant others on Superbowl Sunday than on any other day of the year.
That courses in Western Civ. promote the pernicious ideas of dead white males.
That the system should be blamed, not the individual.
That exhaling secondhand smoke is an assault, whereas broadcasting music from a portable radio is free expression.
That working for "chump change" is no way to getahead.
That standards are racist.
That everyone benefits when the poor are shoehorned into middle-class neighborhoods.
That one in ten Americans is homosexual.
That the Scandinavians do it better than we do.
That while Fidel Castro has oppressed his people, he has given Cuba an admirable literacy rate.
That America is a racist society.
That because of a changing world, students should learn to learn, rather than memorize musty old facts.
That children will only learn when they are computer-literate.
That children need unrestricted freedom in order to fulfill their potential.
That boosting students' self-esteem is far more important than giving them subjects to study and memorize.
That the more money spent per capita on those students, the higher the rate of learning.
That the Christian Right is taking over our schools.
That the Internet is rendering books obsolete.
That standards are sexist.
That it's not innocence or guilt that matters, it's what can be proved in court.
That alcoholism is a disease.
That legalizing drugs will solve most of the crime problem.
That pornography is protected by the First Amendment.
That minors commit crime because they have nowhere to go.
That criticizing judges undermines the independence of the judiciary.
That standards are ageist.
That every violent criminal was a victim of child sexual abuse.
That you never hear a really good joke anymore.
That patriotism is as outmoded as the dial tone and unfiltered water.
That "elitist," "judgmental," and "illegitimate" are the most obscene words in the dictionary.
That the generation that came of age in the sixties was the best in American history.
That standards discriminate against the differently abled.
That the UN keeps the lid on conflicts around the globe.
That the audience for serious films is dying out.
That the most salient biographical fact about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington is that they were slave owners.
That if Chaplin and Keaton were alive today they would be writing for Frasier.
That gambling is a disease.
That the lower middle class pays most of the taxes in the U.S.
That when someone gets richer, someone else gets poorer.
That liberals, with their redistributionist generosity, are fundamentally moral, while conservatives, because of their belief in capitalism and markets, are basically greedy and selfish.
That it's wrong to make generalizations about race and sex unless the race is white and the sex is male.
That Los Angeles is now the way the rest of the world will be someday.
That Hate Radio is taking over the airwaves.
That it isn't Paula Jones, it's Dow Jones.
And that, anyway, everybody does it.