The Melting Pot

“America is more diverse now than it has ever been.”  I was told recently, in a tone of pedagogical infallibility.  The subject under discussion was multi-culturalism and I was being beaten up by a lady friend for my Neanderthal lack of appreciation of the idea.  I would probably have forgotten that line, had it not resonated a few days later when I heard a radio panelist say (in that same ‘everybody knows’ tone), “America is growing more diverse every day.”

Diversity, that current buzz term, is always talked about in terms of our origins.  We are diverse, we are told, because of all the races and cultures who arrived to make their place in America.  We must become aware of our differences, celebrate them even, and recognize the multi-cultural nature of our society.

Yeah, but….

The pattern for immigrants to this country has repeated over and over.  Newcomers:  Speak their native language, stay together in neighborhoods, patronize shops, restaurants, etc. that try to duplicate the culture they came from.   First generation:  Understand and may speak their parent’s language.  Second generation:  Neither speak nor really understand their grandparent’s language.  Their culture American, spiced with older traditions.

If immigration is the source of our ‘diversity’ then the two should track together.  America would be most diverse (in our modern sense) at whatever period it has/had the largest proportion of foreign born and first generation immigrants.  But immigration peaked as a percentage of our population between 1890 and 1920.  Even taking into account the accumulation of arrivals, our percentage of foreign born hit its peak in 1910.  Percentage of foreign and first generation is not kept as such, but it couldn’t have peaked any later than 1930, one generation later.

If we immigrants are diverse in terms of our nearness to our origins, then that diversity has been dropping pretty steadily.  The only way America could be ,”More diverse now than it has ever been,” or ,”Growing more diverse every day,” would be if we were artificially producing diversity by separating ourselves into exclusive groups.

Which is precisely what I think we have been doing.

“The Melting Pot was a bad idea.”  I was informed in the same conversation about multi-culturalism, “America never should  have tried to make everyone the same, and anyway, it didn’t work.”

This is another of those ‘everybody knows’ that is supposed to be beyond challenge.  In this case, ‘everybody knows’ that the Melting Pot really meant that everyone was to be stripped of their differences and become nice little whitebread Americans.

The problem is that it is based upon the idea that the generations of people who espoused that metaphor were somehow too stupid to notice all those Jews, Irish, Polish, Koreans, etc. around them and somehow convinced themselves that we had all magically turned onto WASPs.

The phrase “Melting Pot” originated with Israel Zangwill in Children Of The Ghetto in 1892.  At the time, there was considerable writing about on aspect of America that people here and in Europe both found astonishing:  Its ability to receive people from many (frequently mutually hostile) ethnic groups and somehow produce a nation of people who saw themselves primarily as Americans.

Our cultural mother, Europe, had produced no such thing.  There, people could live side by side for generation after generation and not merely see themselves as still  separate, but see their primary loyalty and duty as due to their ethnic group, not the larger community where they happened to reside.

It was this unique historical miracle that Zangwill and others were trying to understand.  The Melting Pot metaphor never meant that people were somehow supposed to become WASPs in order to become American.  It meant that people here somehow stayed wildly different but saw themselves as a part of a whole, with their primary loyalty and duty due to that whole.

Which is precisely what I think we are losing.

Once upon a time, to be an isolated minority in American politics was pretty well useless.  In our winner-take-all system, the only way for a minority to become powerful was to ally itself with the majority.  As one of the unintended consequences of the 1963 Civil Rights Act (& ff), that is no longer true.

Minorities, which used to be at best ignored and at worst discriminated against, have become political power centers.  Naturally, these power centers have attracted/produced leaders.   Their interest was (and is) to emphasize the differences that made their constituents minorities in the first place.

Externally, they wished to be recognized as leaders of distinct, separate minorities.  Internally, the more differences that were perceived by their constituents, the greater the sense of alienation, injury and victimization that was produced…and hence the greater need for their leaders.

One of the lessons Dr. Goebbels taught is the power of separation on ignorance and faith.  If you can block your people from most sources of information and discredit those you cannot block, you can convince your followers of almost anything without fear of contradiction.  You can demonize your enemies, expand upon their sins, exaggerate your grievances, and generally breed the sort of paranoia that makes for true believers.

America has become a patchwork of isolated enclaves where ignorance flourishes and bizarre ideas seem credible.  We have an African-American culture where the idea that AIDs was invented by the Jews (or the CIA) to kill the Blacks is a “commonly held” belief.  We have a religious sub-culture that believes that abortions are hugely profitable and that those who perform them are simply murdering for money.  We have a Neo-Nazi/Skin-Head that believes that it was their white ancestors who built this country and the liberals who have stolen it and given it away to those dirty Mexicans/Vietnamese/Blacks/(etc….Pick as many as you like) who all live on Welfare, breed like rabbits, use dope, etc., etc.  We have Ditto-Heads who know with mutually reinforcing certainty that the Liberals control the news media.  Many of the same people believe and the Jews (again!) use their control the entertainment industry to promote a climate of sex and violence.

It goes on and on.  Once you have become so isolated and so insulated as to believe garbage like that, anything is possible.  Once you have come to accept that those “others” are horrible monsters who have done great harm and who are conspiring against everything you hold dear, then there is no libel that is not righteous, no crime that cannot be justified, no murder that deserves the name.

Worst of all, our defenses against polarization have been shattered by our good intentions.  We are so afraid of sounding bigoted that we are afraid to denounce anyone who seems to have any kind of grievance to justify their hatred.  Even our academics, who should be first in manning the ramparts to protest each act of separation and mourn the losses, are trapped in the rhetoric of multi-culturalism and diversity.  They actually find themselves defending the indefensible because it wraps itself in the jargon they coined with their own good intentions.

Our inheritance, the wonder of the world, was a miraculous loyalty that transcended our little neighborhoods, religions and ethnicities.  Today, we see more and more fragments whose loyalty to their own little shard far outweighs their loyalty to the whole.

It seems to me that we have acted like spoiled, rich children, so sure that our inheritance was inexhaustible that we thought no profligacy of ours could harm it.

For once, we underestimated our power.

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