This piece is part one of “Luke’s Musings”
The term “melting pot” hasn’t been received too kindly these days, particularly with the ascendancy of multiculturalism in the Western academe and its explosion into the political and social worlds. I’d say that’s a shame—it remains a particularly useful metaphor, more unifying and ennobling than the “salad bowl” or the “mosaic.” In standing against the nativism of rightist quasi-racist populists, while shunning the relativistic multiculturalism of lofty lefty elites, “melting pot nationalism” provides a march forward along the path that has forever defined the best possible American identity—an ever-more inclusive mix of diverse cultures, ethnicities and philosophies, each contributing something unique to the American tradition, unified by a shared commitment to particular social, cultural and political ideals and an untarnished loyalty to the star-spangled banner.
In a highly celebrated quote located within a very underrated and under-published address to the Knights of Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.” He was referring to ethnic factions within the United States – German-Americans, Italian-Americans, etc. – who in the coming international crisis might side with their ancestral homelands and strive to influence US foreign policy in favor of foreign aims at the expense of American interests and unity. While this concern may or may not have been valid in 1915, and its validity was quite contestable in 1941, it certainly appears to be outdated in 2014 and was a prime source of national embarrassment in 2001. Millions of Americans today identify themselves as Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Arab-Americans, and any mix of prefixed-American combinations. And those without a blatant prefix are always Anglo-Americans or Euro-Americans of some type or other. Yet there is no risk that hyphenated-American citizens would betray the United States if a war broke out tomorrow, or even side with the foreign nation in their blood sympathies. When it comes to political identity, there’s basically no question about it—hyphenated Americans en masse swear no allegiance or fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty. In their loyalties they are citizens of the United States and the United States alone. Why, then, is there any problem inherent to multiculturalism, provided that it is strictly a question of cultural identity rather than political identity?
Indeed, there has never been a truly unified American nation throughout the entire course of our history. (The same could probably be said about just about every nation in the history of the world.) As David Hackett Fischer illustrates in his anthropological history of early America, Albion’s Seed, the English settlers who populated the thirteen colonies were already diverse in their habits and identities, and that doesn’t even account for the multitude of German, Dutch and French immigrants, African slaves, and multitudinous Native American tribes with whom our Anglo forebears shared the continent. Regional identities took precedence over any national identity for much of the antebellum period and still make themselves known today, if somewhat less blatantly. Various subcultures within America, from religious groups to ethnic groups to, perhaps most pervasively, political and social factions, have often been a primary source of identity for the vast majority of Americans. Vast influxes of immigrants brought thousands, millions of newcomers from foreign lands to our shores, newcomers who clung to their identities as justly as Northerners and Southerners, urbanites and yeoman farmers, clung to theirs. That has been the case outside the great periods of immigration, and that has been the case within every great period of immigration. It seems, too, that whatever thin veil of national identity we have ever had has tended to be almost entirely a political construction, encouraged by nationalist politicians and authors whenever they had the chance, and particularly upped whenever severe disunion or crisis appeared imminent. It’s not that there’s no organic “fellow feeling” among Americans—rather, that organic fellow feeling has always been a cultural bottom line rather than a cultural touchstone, amidst a sea of diverse identities and groups. One could nearly conclude, with some justice, that multiculturalism is merely a slightly broader continuation of the state of affairs we have known throughout our history, one that allows more leeway and freedom for groups that have been historically oppressed.
This is a tempting fantasy. There is much truth to it, as well as much truth to the proposition that cultural diversity, like nature, is worth preserving in and of itself.
But I would propose that diversity does not, in fact, need help to be perpetuated—it does that on its own already, since humans and human groups possess culture within themselves. We run no real risk of losing diversity. We may run the risk of losing the particular traditions of certain groups, which may or may not be unfortunate (polygamy and slavery happened to be the traditions of particular cultural groups in this country) but in the long run, culture evolves in a capitalist society, and we’ll most likely wind up keeping most of the best traditions.
Indeed, the waters are muddied and bloodied when it comes to persecution of a people and their culture – as it was in the cases of the Native Americans and the African-American slaves – but these questions arise in cases when groups are actively excluded from society, which is not so much a question of identity as a question of justice. These are questions that are linked intrinsically; but here we will focus on questions of identity within the broader American polity. For all intents and purposes, Native Americans and African-Americans have been expressly part of the unified American polity since the 1960s, and, to a lesser degree, since the end of slavery and the closing of the frontier.
We do, however, run the risk of losing unity, and therefore it is incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to preserve and enhance it, lest the next crisis break us asunder. Every school-kid knows what the lack of a strong, common American identity did to the nation in 1861, and what it threatened to do in the social upheavals of the 1870s, 1930s, 1960s, and what it may well threaten to do in the coming decade. Even worse, there are those alive who have witnessed three times or more in their lifetimes what happens when war frenzy drives the briefly united American people to seek out enemies in their midst. The Japanese internment of 1941-45 weighs heavily on our conscience as a nation, the Red Scare McCarthyism of the 1950s is a stain upon our national soul and the harassment of Arab and Muslim-Americans in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, testifies to the fact that we are still not above accusing our innocent fellow Americans of treason simply for the color of their skin and their profession of faith.
It is a blessing that we indeed have a long tradition of promoting national unity to draw upon. The Federalists and the Whigs most clearly represented this in early American history, though even their deadly foe Thomas Jefferson preached that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Daniel Webster’s immortal line, “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable!” continues to ring as one of the most beautiful statements on national unity made before the Civil War.
But it was during the Civil War, when the Union split, that true unity was first articulated and then realized. Abraham Lincoln might be considered the first great nationalist President, for it was he who first re-united and then presided over an America that, for all its mix of cultural identities, possessed a single political identity. The economic and social programs that he and most of his successors put in place were the foundations of the 20th Century progressive state that did not create, but did enhance and enable, the flourishing and dominance of the American middle class, and thus narrowed the culture gap and encouraged a broad middle-class American culture. This progressive state was advanced further by such great 20th Century lights as Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, and for whatever excess and unsustainability might have been inherent to it, the progressive state certainly did much to unify a broad stratum of Americans around a shared higher standard of living. Clearly there were those who did not reap the benefits the system conferred on this privileged middle class; nonetheless, it was a start.
The social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s and the revolution in social and political thought that took place then shattered the unity of the nation, and the neoconservative and neoliberal reactions of the 1980s and 90s did not do much to heal the wounds in the long term. This series of upheavals does much to explain the contemporary situation of American politics, a landscape of polarized identities of political, ethnic, religious and cultural stripes. I view multiculturalism in this context—not primarily a social ideology standing on its own, but at least in part a result of and reaction to the intensely divided nature of American politics that has gotten particularly worse since the 1960s. And, looking into the future, it seems that absent a major crisis or a major push towards the political reform and cultural reunification of the nation, we have nothing else to look forward to but a continuation of the same. This bodes dangerously for the future of the nation, and particularly for the future of the minorities most vulnerable to the wrath of Middle America.
Because of all this, I view it as absolutely critical that as Americans, we cultivate a national culture that transcends the culture of any subgroup or minority and goes past even the hallowed traditions of national civic culture (which is in deadly decay now, too, and needs a revitalization of its own.)
In terms of national culture, there’s really not too much to worry about. So long as we get back on the road to political reform, and reinvent a great progressive state that will support the proliferation of a wider and wider middle class (something the last two presidential administrations have, at the very least, attempted to do through legislative reforms), I believe the natural forces synthesizing a genuine American culture will continue to integrate minorities into the greater American system, taking what is “best” and abandoning what is “worst” of these minority cultures and the dominant “native” WASP-ish culture. This has been the trend of the last 100 years at the very least, and very likely of the whole of American history. It is the vision the likes of Michael Lind, a columnist at Slate and a major proponent of American nationalism, and Joel Kotkin, an urban policy thinker and professor at Chatham University, prognosticate, and which I believe most nativists and multiculturalists would be quite content having (though they would not necessarily admit it.)
There’s no need to impose government policy to integrate minorities and make everyone feel good—gradually, as minority cultures make a foothold, their imprint upon American culture will grow and grow, and their younger members will gradually transition from being only Irish-Americans and Chinese-Americans to being mainly Americans who are also Irish-Americans and Chinese-Americans. Look at St. Patrick’s Day becoming a national American celebration and “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” becoming a popular saying, and compare it to the steady proliferation of Chinese take-out and martial arts. Every other American minority has slowly integrated this way – with the unfortunate exceptions of African-Americans and Native Americans, whose general isolation is the result of entrenched, institutionalized policies against them for generations – and there is no reason to expect that today’s influx of immigrants (and the proliferation of their children) from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere will not similarly be as Americanized in a generation or two as the descendants of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Polish-Americans currently are. Indeed, most Americans who identify today as Asian-American, Latino-American, or Muslim-American are as American as you can get, and the multicultural impulse to set aside heritage weeks and months for them will one day look like having heritage months for Irish and German-Americans: nice to have so you can remember where your ancestors came from, but not a defining source of political identity. I think the gradual integration of these various traditions into the broader American tapestry, and the subsequent decline of “__________-American” as a serious political identity and into a series of proud and interesting parochial and secondary cultural identities no more important than “Scottish-American” or “Canadian-American” are today, is the ultimate fate of multiculturalism.
Moreover, the future richness and unity of American national culture is not the only fruit of this vision; I sincerely believe that as “American” becomes the general term, and as various iterations “________-American” recede, the likelihood of racially and culturally-based prejudices – particularly in times of war – will go down with it. May this future come quickly.
So there’s the general American social culture, the general tone of society which it appears no one (save the people working on fixing the entitlement system) has much control over, though the people on the microphone and in the blogosphere certainly have the loudest opinions. What of civic culture?
It has been observed for quite some time that national civic culture is approaching an all-time low, as the most politically-active people are also the most radical, as the percentage share of voters declines with every election, and as knowledge of our history and national philosophy declines among our young people. This is unfortunate, and I believe a series of social trends are the primary culprits here, as well as the general tendency of a liberal society to view rights as more valuable and important than duties. I am firmly of the belief that a rejuvenation of national civic culture is vital to our health as a democracy and our unity as a nation. I believe that, particularly as we re-reform our system of political economy to something more sustainable and yet more prosperous than we have known in recent years, it will be important to re-instill ideals of selfless civic service and patriotism among our populace, if we are to see a real resurgence of national unity.
I’m biased, as I received my civic education from three mighty institutions of civic pride: the United States Navy (my Dad’s a Captain and he imbued all of us kids with nationalist sentiments, and gave us copies of “The Warrior Ethos” and similar oaths when he was serving in Iraq), the American Legion (I was honored to be given the opportunity to attend Boys State the summer after my Junior Year in high school, and it really did transform my civic views), and the Boy Scouts of America (all the way from Tiger Cubs—this most of all.)
All of these organizations place a premium on American citizenship—not based on any ethnicity, on any region, on any class, but on an ideal of Americanism in general. They stress that being a good citizen, participating in civic life, and being willing to give one’s life and career to the service of that nation are critical pillars of citizenship in a republic. This in a broader American culture that generally promotes entitlement and material well-being as the greatest goods. Theodore Roosevelt said that there are no hyphenated Americans. I have heard it said that no hyphenated-American ever died in our wars overseas, only Americans did. There’s a certain nobility to this ideal, that it is not your origins or your blood that matters, but your choices. This rugged realism, of not bothering with anyone’s identity save what is deferential to the race-less flag, is perhaps untenable and controversial in civilian life, but appears to be a necessity in the warzones and certainly is a value stressed by these organizations in peacetime. More than once in our history, prominent Americans have advocated replacing the virtues of Main Street, Wall Street, and Hollywood Boulevard with the virtues of West Point. Pretend for a moment that I’m a prominent American and count me in on that list. Now more than ever seems like a time for unity.
There are of course various ways such virtues can be promoted, not least a re-emphasis on American history and American politics in our primary education, higher rates of investment in voting accessibility, greater support for civic organizations, mandated or incentivized youth national service, and most critically of all, significant reform of our decadent and crumbling political establishment in Washington. I will go into that later; for now, suffice it to say that we can do better as a nation in being a nation.
I am an unabashed American nationalist and proponent of higher standards of citizenship, and greater links of national unity. To this end, though I am ethnically an Asian-American and an Anglo-American, I am an American first, and a hyphenated-American second. The salad bowl and mosaic celebrate diversity, and what truly must be celebrated is our unity- for the word ‘American’ is too noble to be a suffix, too important to be prefixed with any disclaimers. Let every individual American take pride in their personal identity, be it regional, ethnic, religious, ideological, cultural, or whatever else there is to name. Diversity is the hallmark of a flourishing, burgeoning, pluralistic society.
But when the day comes to vote, when the draft comes to each town, when the seventh inning comes around and the informal anthem is sung, when the fireworks light up the sky, when the world asks the American: “What are you?” let them answer with firmness in the right as they are given to see the right, “I am an American, and I am proud.”
The views expressed by these authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.