We Need More Melting Pot

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.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “We Need More Melting Pot

  1. The hard-left is not a serious threat to liberal democracy and the 1619 project is not a pile of “Marxist” lies.

    I interpret this post’s line of thought as that an honest and truthful accounting of the USA and it’s history is itself a threat to our country. I agree that the dominant myths that are indoctrinated into US citizens are fundamental to our national identity, and challenging those myths does undermine our current national identity. I disagree that this is a bad thing. They are myths – not truths. Let’s create an identity built on truth. If liberal democracy is indeed to be our fundamental value we have to openly critique the failures of the past’s (and current) implementation and dream of what it would really mean to live by that ideal.

    Perhaps rather than a conservative approach, where we strive to keep our national identity static and ask the additions to the pot to not add too much flavor, we could become comfortable with a dynamic approach where we allow our national identity’s evolution, enjoying the new flavors in the melting pot.

    Our constitution itself is supposed to be a dynamic document that changes over time. Trying too hard to stay in the past is a stressor, I think we’d be better off if we could let go of the past and make today and the future what we want it to be.

    Assimilation behind a positive American creed requires current leadership. We can’t unite behind the past – it can inform us but it is not us – we are now. I have ideas for how that could happen but I only see it through shared sacrifice, where a leader challenges us to live up to our ideals and reject the comforts that we’ve gained through bypassing our ideals. For instance – stop all trade with non-liberal-democracies. If our system is so stagnant and corrupted that such a simple idea is impossible, perhaps the system needs some serious reforms before we have a hope to live our ideals.

    Aside1: the “hard-left” has always been made up of more younger people. When they get older they don’t recreate our institutions in that image. Just look at the people who protested in the 1960’s – how have they made modern American institutions more liberal? Not in any impactful way, in my opinion.

    Aside2: Please don’t perpetuate the myth of the “liberal media”. Mass media is funded and managed by mainstream corporate America and any semblance of left/right within it is confined by the breadth that they are willing to tolerate. There are actual “liberal” news outlets (Democracy Now comes to mind) but those will never be widely read by average Americans. On the contrary, outright conservative news is far more accepted into the average American news diet. We have centrist mass-media, conservative mass-media, but liberal micro-media.

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    1. Thoughtful as ever, Rollie. My argument isn’t with the truth. My point is that there are facts and reason that can be employed in different narratives. It’s not a question of denying anything. it’s a question of how to use the very same facts to construct a different narrative. You can view America as based on freedom and be justified by the facts or you can view America as based on slavery and use facts to bolster your argument. It’s a choice based on perspective and political ends.

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      1. Ok, I think I see what you mean. I guess this is why people are so upset about teachers deciding to present facts that were not typically presented previously. Considering the system as an indoctrination tool for producing “model citizens” a teacher/district/state can select facts that bolster particular narratives. And like you say, that is an inherently political choice. Viewed as a conservative the past is seen as wonderful, a time to return to. Viewed as a progressive the past is seen as flawed, a time we can improve upon.

        But in todays day and age I think it’s harder to filter everyone into those mental lanes. The communications and technology developments make it so easy to question the dominant narratives that I don’t think that this path can produce a unified American identity like it once could.

        I guess I come back to the present. What can we do right now that will demonstrate (not just talk about) our shared values, values that transcend party? Is it even possible to find a shared value that transcends party at this time?

        Thanks,

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