Monday, May 15, 2006

You Will Be Assimilated!

In his latest commentary, Mark Hyman asks, “whatever happened to the great American melting pot?” Claiming that “multicultural diversity” has taken the place of the proverbial melting pot, Hyman blames (guess who) the “Angry Left” and its bigotry for dividing America.

Let’s do a brief two-tier analysis of Hyman’s commentary, first focusing on issues of form, the second on content.

To begin, Hyman invokes his usual devil-term, “The Angry Left,” without giving us any idea who this comprises. Nor does he suggest how it is that “The Angry Left” is able to force people into identifying with their cultural heritage. He says they “seek to divide Americans,” but how do they do this? Then there’s the loaded definition of “multicultural diversity.” The term sounds too acceptable as it is, so Hyman defines it in a way that loads the term with negative connotations: “a practice of dividing Americans into smaller and smaller groups of people.” Again, there’s no suggestion of how this is done, or by whom (other than it involves those evildoers, the “Angry Left”). Finally there’s the misuse of the term “bigot.” Hyman claims the divisiveness of the Left is “more bigoted” than any other attitude. But as it applies to ethnic and religious groups, “bigot” means having intolerance or hatred for such groups. Even if one grants every preceding point in Hyman’s argument, he makes no claim that the divisiveness he lays at the Left’s feet is based on intolerance or hatred of the groups involved. As he is wont to do, Hyman simply juxtaposes terms to create an association rather than offering any logical reason for it.

As to the content, it’s nearly too silly to bother with. Of course, “the melting pot” has never existed in the way Hyman conjures it up. From colonial days onward, different ethnic and religious groups have grouped themselves together and held on to parts of their heritage while still embracing the idea of being “American.” Hyman’s argument, and the “melting pot” metaphor it draws on, are based on a false dilemma: you can identify yourself as American, or you can identify as something else.

That’s simply wrong. There’s no logical reason why one cannot identify oneself equally as a member of a particular ethnic or religious group and as an “American.” The belief in this false dilemma has been behind much of the true bigotry in our collective history. The mechanism for constructing this false dilemma has been to equate certain groups or traits with generic “Americanism,” and therefore deviations from these defaults (and particularly the emphasis or identification with these traits) is non-American.

So, the traits of European ancestry (more specifically, northern and western European ancestry), Protestantism, speaking English, and (more recently) heterosexuality are erased as specific traits and simply seen to be “generic” aspects of American identity. Groups that not only possess other traits but “flaunt” them are identifying themselves as something other than “American” and therefore suspicious.

Take the example of the paranoia about John Kennedy’s Catholicism when he ran for president. While most people now recognize the fear that Kennedy would turn America over to the Pope was unbelievably dopey (and truly bigoted), it was very real at the time. JFK hadn’t “melted.” He was still identifiably a member of a group that didn’t fit in with the default categories of what constituted the prototypical “American.”

But, of course, this dilemma is false. One very specific but (for me, at least) touching example of this is the makeup of a number of regiments in the Civil War. While many units in both Union and Confederate armies were a mishmash of different ethnicities, there were a number of units that specifically segregated themselves into units sharing a particular heritage. Irish units were particularly numerous. When regiments went into battle, they generally carried two flags (at least in the Union army), an American flag, and a regimental flag. For units comprised of men of a common ethnicity, the regimental banner often carried some sort of reference to this. So, for example, you have Irish regiments marching into battle carrying both the Stars and Stripes and a flag filled with Irish iconography. Keep in mind that these were often soldiers who weren’t simply descended from immigrants, but were immigrants themselves, often fresh off the boat. They enlisted in the army and marched into battle, dying in horrific numbers, identifying themselves as both Irishmen and as Americans, with no sense that these were in any way competing or contradictory.

Nor should they be. After all, what makes America unique is that it is the only nation founded on ideas, not a common ethnicity, language, religious belief, or geographical entity (which is one of the many reasons that the moniker “Homeland Security” always grates on me).

And it is the very unwillingness to simply accept assimilation into preexisting generic identifications of what an “American” is that is responsible for much of the most dynamic and authentically American cultural achievements. Jazz music doesn’t happen unless you have a mix of European and African musical styles come together. The particular liveliness and color of American English doesn’t develop if speakers of different languages simply adopt the King’s English from the moment they step on to American soil (what would we do without wonderful words like “schmuck” or “putz”?). Heck, our most popular food product, pizza, is the result of Italian cuisine developing within an American setting.

So, Hyman doesn’t tell us who the “Angry Left” is or suggest how they could manage to divide America. He uses slanted definitions and misused terms. He conjures up a mythic history that never existed and bases his whole argument on a dilemma that is not only false, but runs precisely counter to the American experience.

But just to put the tin lid on it, Hyman ends with the imbecilic statement that “Come to think of it, there's probably no attitude more bigoted than the Angry Left's practice of separating Americans into groups based on their ethnic, racial and national origins.”

This statement captures all of the faults we’ve identified thus far in the commentary, but adds the additional bit of idiocy that multiculturalism (even if one reads it as negatively as Hyman does) is more bigoted than any other attitude.

Really, Mark?

I can think of a few more bigoted attitudes. How about the attitude that people who risk their lives to come to America to work are in fact lazy and shiftless bums who want to sponge off the American people?

What about using the term “riff raff” to describe people who enter the country illegally?

How about the attitude that people from Mexico who come to America illegally in order to find a better life are “terrorists”?

How about the attitude that civil rights leaders are “race hustlers”?

How about throwing around phrases like “New York liberal” that carry strong connotations of anti-Semitism?

These are all attitudes you’ve expressed in your commentaries

For that matter, what about attitudes that are mainstream ideas among today’s conservatives, such as that “The Star Spangled Banner” is somehow less meaningful when sung in Spanish (despite the fact that the president himself has sung it in Spanish), that gays and lesbians don’t deserve the right to be part of a legally recognized union, or that programs that address the effects of longstanding racism and sexism are cases of groups asking for “special treatment”?

Yes, it might be nice in some ways if we could just look at each other and except everyone as simply an American without singling them out on the basis of their skin color, gender, native language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.—if we could just do as Hyman suggests we should and “celebrate inclusiveness.”

I just wish Hyman and his fellow ideological travelers would start by doing so themselves.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 6.10


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