In the aftermath of this past weekend’s sordid displays in Virginia and New Jersey, it may be reassuring to recognize that our country has been through this kind of thing before.
A hundred years ago as America contemplated the Great War in Europe, questions arose publicly about whether recent waves of immigrants and others were truly ‘American.’ No less a leader than former President Teddy Roosevelt inveighed against ‘hyphenated Americans’- the implication being that the loyalty to This nation of folks who identified as such might be compromised, or at least presumptively doubted.
A ‘melting pot’ of assimilation into the dominant patriotic paradigm (read: Anglo-Saxon heritage) was the popular associated image; there were concerns that newer Americans were insufficiently dissolved.
Against this tide of xenophobia stood Randolph Bourne, a young American writer who was native-born but whose physical abnormalities rendered him an outsider, by perspective. In 1916, he penned a long essay in The Atlantic titled “Transnational America.” It resonates today, not only regarding immigrants, but any other ‘others’ beyond the mainstream of the popular culture.
The essay is synopsized here; great liberties have been taken with normal quotation conventions, to try to maintain the flow of ideas in the original. *
Bourne starts by noting the near-panic among immigrants-of-prior-generations who are “stunned by the evidence of vigorous nationalistic and cultural movements in this country among Germans, Scandinavians, Bohemians, and Poles,” and “insist that (those newer comers) be forcibly assimilated to that Anglo-Saxon tradition, which they unquestioningly label 'American.'”
He continues that his purpose is “to urge us to an investigation of what Americanism may rightly mean. It is to ask ourselves whether our ideal has been broad or narrow—whether perhaps the time has come to assert a higher ideal than the 'melting- pot.' Surely, we cannot be certain of our spiritual democracy when, claiming to melt the nations within us to a comprehension of our free and democratic institutions, we fly into panic at the first sign of their own will and tendency. We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place only on our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed.”
He notes that no immigrant group has clung so tenaciously to its cultural roots as the descendants of the English. But he identifies “the distinctively American spirit – pioneer, as distinguished from the reminiscently English,” and found in the writings of Whitman and Emerson and James. We are not, as some English might have us be, “a self-governing dominion of the British Empire.”
As an example of the difference, Bourne presents his view of regional contrasts: “the South still remains an English colony, stagnant and complacent, having progressed culturally scarcely beyond the early Victorian era. It is culturally sterile because it has had no advantage of cross- fertilization like the Northern states. What has happened in states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota is that strong foreign cultures have struck root in a new and fertile soil. America has meant liberation, and German and Scandinavian political ideas and social energies have expanded to a new potency. The foreign cultures have not been melted down or run together, made into some homogeneous Americanism, but have remained distinct but cooperating to the greater glory and benefit not only of themselves but of all the native 'Americanism' around them.”
He notes the Great War as evidence of the folly of European nationalism and disconnected identities. America of the day may be a “transplanted Europe,” but “its colonies live here inextricably mingled, and yet not homogenous. They merge, but they do not fuse.”
“America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks a poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men. To seek no other goal than the weary old nationalism — belligerent, exclusive, inbreeding, the poison of which we are witnessing now in Europe — is to make patriotism a hollow sham.”
So then, what IS the distinctly American culture? Bourne continues: “Just as our American genius has expressed the pioneer spirit, the adventurous, forward- looking drive of a colonial empire, it is representative of that whole America, of the many races and peoples, and not of any partial or traditional enthusiasm. And only as that pioneer note is sounded can we really speak of the American culture. As long as we thought of Americanism in terms of the 'melting- pot,' our American cultural tradition lay in the past. Rather, we must embrace the paradox that our American cultural tradition lies in the future. It will be what we, all together, make out of this incomparable opportunity of unlocking the future with a new key.”
“The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun. Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed. We find that we have been building up the first international nation. For the first time in history, it is that miracle of hope, the peaceful living side by side, with character substantially preserved, of the most heterogeneous peoples under the sun.”
This “wholeness and soundness of enthusiasm and purpose can only come when no national colony within our America feels that it is being discriminated against, or that its cultural case is being prejudged. This strength of cooperation, this feeling that all who are here may have a hand in the destiny of America, will make for a finer spirit of integration than any narrow 'Americanism' or forced chauvinism.”
“America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans- nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision. Our question is, What shall we do with our America? How are we likely to get the more creative America—by confining our imaginations to the ideal of the melting- pot, or broadening them to some such cosmopolitan conception as I have been vaguely sketching?”
“We cannot Americanize America worthily by sentimentalizing and moralizing history. All our idealisms must be those of future social goals in which all can participate, the good life of personality lived in the environment of the Beloved Community. No mere doubtful triumphs of the past, which redound to the glory of only one of our transnationalities, can satisfy us. It must be a future America, on which all can unite, which pulls us irresistibly toward it, as we understand each other more warmly.”
“Here is an enterprise of integration into which we can all pour ourselves, of a spiritual welding which should make us, not weaker, but infinitely strong.”
The Bourne article, like America’s statements of principles embodied in the US Constitution and elsewhere, is timeless. We may substitute immigrants from other places, and other kinds of ‘others’ for those identified in the piece, but the principles remain the same.
America, then, is an Idea – history’s best idea. It is founded on a loyalty to an inclusive future, to possibilities that we cannot now know, and which we should never arrogantly prejudge in the present. It is in our very differences of background and thinking, united and liberated around that American Idea, that our unique strength and “Exceptionalism” are found.
The forces of exclusion, of hearkening to some perception of an idealized past, toxically oppose the American Idea. They are fundamentally anti-patriotic and must be resisted for America to fulfill its promise.
E pluribus unum – out of many, one. It’s on our money. It is our truest lodestar. Never has it been more important to re-commit to that truest Americanism.
* I am also indebted to this article in the New Yorker, for both direction and alerting me to Bourne’s essay. The italics in the blog are mine.