At the University of California the phrase “melting pot” has been banned. It’s said to be culturally insensitive.
But we’re nothing here at YSDA if not culturally insensitive. Mix up the cheeses, put ’em on the stove, turn up the heat and get ready for some tasty fondue. It’s time to make cultural assimilation popular again.
But before I go too far with this (as if I haven’t already) let me acknowledge upfront that I’m not talking about “unity” here. America has seldom been united. For those who say that we’re more polarized than ever, I’m not sure about that. The Civil War and the years leading up to it were, you might say, pretty polarized. And the following half century was no picnic either. For more on that check out Jon Grinspan’s wonderful recent book The Age of Acrimony.
And, let’s face it, in those brief periods in which America was united some pretty awful things happened. We were united in the Great War — and civil liberties were trampled, free speech was curtailed and German Americans were harassed. We were united again during WW II — and we interred loyal Japanese Americans. We were united during the Cold War — and we had the witch hunts of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy. We were united most recently after 9/11 — and George W. Bush used it to invade Iraq.
So American unity is both rare and over-rated. That’s not what I’m advocating for here.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that it was a good thing to try to forge a positive national identity out of the diverse people coming to America. Now, we certainly took that too far in some instances. For example, schools for Native American children were often cruel and horrific — and, of course, Native Americans didn’t come here, we came to them.
But abuses like that aside, the idea that people should adopt some values that are quintessentially, if not uniquely, American is a good thing. I would suggest that those values are built around a set of ideas that could be loosely described as classically liberal and middle class. So, I’m talking about things like a reverence for free speech, reason, the rule of law, the presumption of innocence, pluralism, meritocracy, hard-work, personal responsibility, resilience and tolerance,
Many of those ideas are under attack from extremists on both the right and the left. Donald Trump and his hard-right quasi-fascist populism flouts reason, the rule of law, tolerance and pluralism. His personal incompetence and that of his cronies made a mockery of merit.
Meanwhile, woke ideologues on the left are quick to call for banning speech that they define as “harmful”, they would dispose with the presumption of innocence for those accused of sexual harassment or assault on campus, they would upend merit in favor of racial quotas, they value searching out micro-aggressions over resilience, and they would elevate emotional reactions above reason.
Now, to be sure, threats from the right and left are not equivalent. The left didn’t storm the Capitol and try to overthrow a freely elected government. They are not at work to this day trying to undermine the electoral process itself in order to keep themselves in power. They’re not threatening lives by denying the reality of climate change or the amazing effectiveness of COVID vaccines.
But, in the long-run, the hard-left is a very serious threat to liberal democracy because its ranks are made up of younger people and those in positions of power and influence in academia and the media. They’ll soon be even more influential in major businesses. Frontline workers who are protesting their older bosses for not being woke enough will soon be the bosses themselves. A cadre of young Democratic Party activists and strategists are woke to the bone.
That’s why I’m so concerned about things like the New York Times’ 1619 Project. It undermines the very narrative of America, and not in a way that is based in truth but simply in a quasi-Marxist interpretation of history. It’s one way to look at things and it makes some valid points, but it hardly deserves to replace the narrative of freedom.
So, it’s not polarization that bothers me so much. That’s nothing new. It’s the rejection of fundamental values that define us as Americans that I find troubling. The debates used to be about who was really standing up for free speech or the rule of law or merit-based advancement. Now, too many of us reject those values altogether.
And all of this is happening at a time when liberal democracy is threatened all over the world. Those threats come from anti-Enlightenment tribalism on the one hand (think the Taliban) and streamlined capitalist-authoritarianism on the other (China). America, for all its faults and all its inconsistencies and all of its practical alliances with the occasional dictator, has led the world in standing up for liberal democracy.
We haven’t been a perfect country in our fight for freedom, but we’ve been a hell of a lot better at it than anybody else. And here’s the really scary thing. If we lose our commitment to liberal values at home, what are the chances that we’ll stand up for those values any place else? In fact, to the extent that Trump had any coherent foreign policy at all, he made it clear that defending liberalism was not something he was interested in.
Saving liberal democracy (another word for freedom) both here and abroad starts with a recommitment by Americans to those very ideas. We don’t have to agree on everything, and diversity is a good thing. But we could do with more assimilation behind a positive American creed.
Welcome to the 253rd consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading.