The Melting Pot, Part 2 - America's Cultural-Institutional Core
Wortham, Anne, The World and I
Anne Wortham is associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University.
In part 1 of this examination of the melting pot ideal ("The Melting Pot: Are We There Yet?" The World & I, September 2001, 261), I argued that the "melting" process, properly defined as biological and cultural amalgamation, has not occurred in America and is not likely to happen in the future. There has been considerable intermarriage and extensive cultural assimilation; however, ethnic groups have retained many aspects of their cultures of origin and have variously failed to attain full structural assimilation. Rather than universal melting of peoples and cultures, what has been occurring is the uneven intermingling of various cultural streams in the crucible of American life. As Martin Marger points out, contemporary ethnic relations involve a paradox: while groups pursue the retention of an ethnic culture, forces such as mass communication, mass transportation, and universal education continue to erode those cultural differences by compressing cultural singularities into common forms. The result is cultural homogeneity alongside extensive differentiation.1
American history clearly shows that the lack of universal melting is not in itself detrimental to social unity or cohesion. America's pattern of simultaneous assimilation and pluralism of ethnic groups results in a society wherein unity is continually joined with diversity. The sources of diversity are obvious enough, though social scientists tend to give greater emphasis to intergroup diversity than to intragroup socioeconomic and subcultural differentiation. But what of unity? What binds Americans together as a society? What accounts for their awareness of shared goals and a common fate? What motivates Americans to make sacrifices so that their society will survive? What enables them to weather a wide range of conflict without jeopardizing the basic institutional structure of the society?
This article offers a partial answer in the content of the metaphorical "pot" that is the nation's distinctive cultural-institutional core. Particular focus is given to American values and beliefs, the nation's political culture, American nationality, the mythical idea of America, and the foundational philosophical paradox that is the source of the cultural and political conflict that is as constant in American life as the consensus underlying its cohesiveness.
AMERICAN VALUES AND BELIEFS
The cultural-institutional core of the United States exists in a stable but ever-differentiating society. For over two centuries it has remained a federal republic that is politically democratic, capitalist in its economy, libertarian in its laws, and pluralistic in its culture; its social relations are shaped by the tension between individualistic and altruistic orientations. The cultural underpinning of this complex of characteristics consists of the prevailing beliefs people have about what is true, ideas about how reality can be effectively manipulated for human purposes, ethical judgments of what is good and right, and norms regarding how most people think they and others should behave. A culture's core beliefs, values, and norms, as expressed in everyday routines, make life meaningful and bind people together. They both derive from and sustain historical behavior; they are what make individuals into a people.
Sociologist Robin Williams has described American culture in terms of sixteen dominant values that influence the social, political, and economic behavior of Americans: achievement and success, activity and hard work, moral orientation, humanitarianism, efficiency and practicality, belief in progress, material comfort, equal rights and equality of opportunity, freedom, external conformity, science and rationality, nationalism, democracy, free enterprise, in-group (racial, ethnic, class, or religious) superiority, and individual development of self-reliance, independence, and self-respect.2
I list these values, without analysis, to indicate that, as aspirations and expectations, they are implicated in the dimensions of American cultural life that are dealt with below. However, before leaving this subject, it should be noted that while Williams' list of values remains basically valid today, indicating their stability over the years, the norms associated with them have changed. For instance, there is less overt racism and discrimination against minorities and women, even though many Americans still believe in group superiority. The norms associated with hard work have also changed. Americans still believe in hard work, but they tend to work as hard at their leisure as they do at their jobs. Such changes reflect the continually shifting and recombining configurations of these value positions.
The Enlightenment in Europe bequeathed to Americans the legitimation of reason, the necessary alliance of reason and freedom, the distinction between society and the state, and the liberation of individuals from the tyranny of medieval associations--from estate, guild, church, and the patriarchal family. The idea of individualism was the foundation of the economic theory of laissez-faire and the political theory of the social contract. Laissez-faire economics envisioned individuals, working in a free market without governmental interference, seeking to maximize their own profits on the basis of their efforts and intelligence. In political thought, the belief in the sanctity of individual liberty was translated into a call for government by popular sovereignty.
To impose the mutuality and accommodation of community on a world in which the individual was unencumbered by premodern beliefs and institutions, the framers of the Constitution institutionalized conflict in the national design. The "miracle at Philadelphia" was a governmental system designed to check the very forces of freedom and coercion it unleashed. That system was meant to reinforce not a melting pot but a large, regionally diverse, and everchanging pluralistic society consisting of many factions and interest groups.
In designing a political system meant to serve a voluntary pluralistic society, the framers were implementing the vision of Aristotle, who began the idea of the plural community in the West. In criticism of his teacher, Plato, who espoused the absolute unity of community, Aristotle argued that the best political community should consist of a plurality of communities so as to be consistent with the intellectual diversity of human nature. He also advocated the virtues of decentralized authority in society and the protection of as many distinct forms of association as are compatible with the demands of stability, individual ownership of property, and liberty.3
There is nothing automatic about the Constitution; it cannot generate its own effect. As James Q. Wilson points out, "If the republic ... had depended for its survival entirely on the constitutional machinery designed by the Founders, it probably would not have endured."4 Its endurance can be attributed to the shared assumptions about how politics and governing ought to be carried out. We know those assumptions as the American creed: the commitment to liberty, expressed in the recognition of individual rights and in the demand for freedom from government restraint; individualism, as expressed in the conviction that reward should depend on the abilities and efforts of individuals, not on family or class position; equality of opportunity, as the belief that everyone should have an equal chance but justice does not require that everyone attain the same rewards.5 These assumptions are not mere "glittering generalities" that have no relevance to practical life; the framers understood them to be basic social principles without which a civilized society is impossible.
The political culture also includes important norms required by the nation's civil society, the sphere of voluntary association and participation in the social life: civic duty, the obligation of citizens to participate in political or civic affairs; political efficacy, confidence that one can understand and influence government policies; and political tolerance, respect for the rights of individuals and groups one disapproves of.6 Connecting the assumptions of governance on the one hand and civic participation on the other is the expectation of democracy as the mechanism and process of collective governance, from the microlevel of committee meetings to the macrodrama of national elections and legislative deliberation. Just as significant is the expectation that citizens will take responsibility for their own self-enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson was a tireless advocate of public education because he believed the people's participation in political affairs required literacy, historical knowledge, and virtue. Their freedom and happiness were theirs to pursue and secure, he believed, but they could not be successful in a state of ignorance.
Americans are a people preoccupied with issues surrounding their national identity: Who are we? What holds us together? What are we becoming?7 During the Civil War, Northerners and Southerners alike asked: Are we worthy of our revolutionary forebears? Are we undoing all that they worked so hard to obtain?8 These are the perennial questions that frame American discourse as various groups carry on the struggle to bring the nation's social institutions in harmony with what competing groups claim are its underlying values.
That the struggle exists at all is due in part to the fact that America's national identity is grounded in the nation's unprecedented identification with an ideological system of beliefs and action. Samuel P. Huntington observes that "for most peoples, national identity is the product of a long process of historical evolution involving common ancestors, common experiences, common ethnic background, common language, common culture, and usually common religion. National identity is thus organic in character. Such, however, is not the case in the United States. American nationalism has been defined in political rather than organic terms. The political ideas of the American Creed have been the basis of national identity."9
The progenitors of the American cultural core were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but what began as an Anglo-Saxon core evolved into what is more accurately described as American. For as Seymour Martin Lipset shows, that core is "culturally, politically, and economically distinct from the European societies that spawned it."10 Colonial America had culturally separated from England long before its political separation, and it was the cultural separation that fueled the political separation. "The real American Revolution," wrote John Adams, was the "radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people" that began in the 1760s.11
The Americans went to war to secure "the rights of Englishmen." However, as patriots such as Thomas Paine argued, they were not Englishmen in America but Americans who had no cause to defer to Englishmen in England. America's process of "de-Europeanizing itself," as E.L. Doctorow called it, was explicitly evident in the Constitution.12 For instance, instead of emulating the British model of centralized, parliamentary government, as every other European democracy did, the framers of the American government deliberately designed a decentralized, congressional structure of divided power. The design reflects a conception of the state as characterized by what J.P. Nettl calls "relative statelessness."13 The extent of self-government that the Americans sought to establish was inconceivable to most Europeans.
Attaining American nationhood was no easy feat; the process took more than two hundred years. An early invocation of American nationality came from Patrick Henry, who told the first Continental Congress: "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."14 Henry was being hyperbolic and was perceived as such. Thomas Jefferson, voicing the provincialism of most eighteenth-century Americans, said, "Virginia, sir, is my country." Yet like so many Americans since, Jefferson encountered his Americanness while abroad serving as minister to France. In a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson wrote that one benefit of foreign travel was that "it will make you adore your own country, its soil, its climate, its equality, liberty, laws, people, and manners. My God! how little do my country men know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself."15
Like Jefferson, the black American writer James Baldwin was moved to give testimony of the experience of encountering one's Americanness abroad:
In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to that of others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African--they were no more at home in Europe than I was. The fact that I was the son of a slave and they were the sons of freemen meant less, by the time we confronted each other on European soil, than the fact that we were both searching for our separate [individual] identities. When we had found these, we seemed to be saying, why, then, we would no longer need to cling to the shame and bitterness [of racial identity] which had divided us so long.16
While European visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau could discern the exceptional ideological consensus in American life, Americans themselves were still in search of nationality well past two generations after the ratification of the Constitution. In 1854 George Templeton Strong, a young New Yorker, wrote in his diary: "We are so young a people that we feel the want of nationality, and delight in whatever asserts our national 'American' existence. We have not, like England and France, centuries of achievements and calamities to look back on; we have no record of Americanism and we feel its want."17
What the Americans did have at that point and what they celebrated was the birth and justification of the nation.18 They had what a century earlier George Washington felt compelled to remind his countrymen was in their possession:
"The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and political Principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint councils, and joint efforts--of common dangers, sufferings and successes."19
As Washington's assertions indicate, being an American is an ideological commitment. "American" cannot be equated with the identity of a particular group. It is not a perk or distinction that one qualifies for by virtue of possessing physical features like those of European settlers of North America. It is not a matter of birth. Philosopher George Santayana said that being American was a moral condition. So it is: the continual commitment to the ideas and values of individual liberty. An understanding of this is tragically lacking in ethnic nationalists whose disdain for the white majority is translated into rejection of the idea of America; neither is such understanding possessed by white supremacists, who see their defense of America as requiring the expulsion of Jews and nonwhites.
During the height of black nationalism, whose cultural expression was a forerunner to multiculturalism, Nathan Glazer insisted that black militants and "their too-complaisant white allies" failed to understand that "there is an American society with a tremendous power to incorporate and make part of itself new groups, to their advantage and not to the advantage of the larger society, and that this is not a white society." In response to the rhetoric of the black power movement that vindictively equated "American" with "white," Glazer wrote:
I find nothing so sad as hearing universities denounced as white racist enclaves, corporations denounced as white racist enterprises, the government denounced as a white racist establishment. A hundred years ago, it could have been easily said these were all "English institutions," and yet Germans and Irish became part of them. Fifty years ago it could have been said these were all "Christian institutions," and yet Jews became part of them. Today, it is contended that they are white institutions--and yet this too is not true. They will become and remain white institutions only if Negro Americans insist on some total separateness as a nation, only if they decide that the American pattern of group life cannot include them.20
Equating American with "white," and "white" with racist, makes it impossible for nonwhites to assert their American identity without the fear of being stigmatized as "Uncle Toms," "oreos," "twinkies," and basic sellouts to "the enemy." On the other hand, whites who assert the primacy of their American identity risk being accused of using their patriotism to cover up their racism and are seen as basically hostile opponents to the interests of minorities. The racialization of the idea of America particularizes it to the extent that even commemorative activities such as the Fourth of July parade are seen as celebrations of racial dominance and ritual weapons of class domination; their emphasis on national unity is seen as a means of suppressing feelings of class conflict and dissension, and therefore should be resisted. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are seen as blown-up images of "white" virtues.
A person can be a citizen of the United States, claim all the citizenship rights protected by the Constitution, and yet not be "American." That his rights are attached to his citizenship has everything to do with the expectation that his requirement of liberty, qua human being, will not be impinged upon by other citizens or the state. It has nothing to do with whether an individual inculcates the American national identity but merely the fact that he is human and happens to exist inside the territorial boundaries of this land.
The political system was designed neither to produce a homogeneous America nor to establish a nation of nationalities. Its raison d'?tre is to preserve and protect the equal right to variety; it was meant to preserve the plurality of individuals, not the plurality of groups. When it comes to being an American, one is ultimately on one's own. As James Baldwin put it, because "nothing is fixed" in American society, "the individual must fight for his identity."21
THE MYTH OF AMERICA
The endurance of America's federal republic can be attributed to a political culture that has survived the greatest of tests. But as the Civil War revealed, a deeper, more fundamental need had to be met, one that invested the political culture itself with moral authority. What Americans needed at the onset of the republic was, as Sacvan Bercovitch notes, some means of "consecrating their way of life ... a moral framework within which a certain complex of attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs can be taken for granted as being right," and can thereby provide the moral authority to sustain the norms of personal selfhood and social participation.22 That is, the enterprise of founding a new nation needed legitimacy. The Puritans met that need by fostering the cultural symbols and narratives of renewal and promise that constitute the myth of America. It is embodied in the ideology of errand, the Puritan jeremiad, and the myth's central symbol, "America."
As we consider these elements of the myth, it should be remembered that the founders' creation of a new government was but one dimension of the larger project of creating a new society that involved all Americans. Moreover, as sociologist Peter Berger puts it, "America constitutes a gigantic laboratory for the experiment of modernization."23 What was to prevent a failure of nerve during the early stages of the experiment? Whether one approves of the content of the myth or not, it is difficult to imagine invalidating its vital function: to give meaning to the enterprise and hold the society together. As Berger points out, human beings require a meaningful world, and ideologies can guide people through what Clifford Geertz called "problematic social reality" at times of stress when the normal "maps" provided by tradition are inadequate.24 It is an understatement to say that the American project began as a problematic social reality and remains so.
The myth is a profoundly significant component of the cultural- institutional core because it is the locus of America's metaphysical plausibility, the foundation of America's creedal identity. It is an old myth that existed even before accounts of Columbus and has persisted as a thread running through the nation's public discourse long after Europeans first settled the New World.25
Ideology of errand. In the wallets of most Americans is legal tender that carries the Great Seal of the United States, which certifies the nation's providential mission of errand: Annuit Coeptis, Novus Ordo Seclorum--"God prospered this undertaking; it shall be the new order of the ages." The rhetoric of errand was initiated by John Winthrop's vision in 1630 aboard the Arbella "that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us."26 This vision of the errand, writes Bercovitch, "gave the country a past and a future in sacred history, rendered its civic institutions a fulfillment of prophecy." In Bercovitch's view, "The ideology of the errand is what prevented revolution in America from being a threat to society, from inciting discord and the dysfunction of class structure. Rather, it made revolution the unfolding of a redemptive plan that would oversee the passage into nationhood that the Puritan fathers had begun. ..."27
The secular expression of the ideology of errand was the view that the Revolution and the new nation it created were the fulfillment of the Enlightenment ideas of reason and freedom. As Washington reminded Americans in his Farewell Address: "It will be worthy of a free, enlightened and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence."28 In this Washington expressed a common perception of the nation stated by Paine in Common Sense: "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind." James Madison, champion of the Bill of Rights, voiced the same hope: "Our Country, if it does justice to itself, will be the workshop of liberty to the Civilized World, and do more than any other for the civilized."32
In the nineteenth century, as the nation expanded its boundaries, as the momentum of its industrial and commercial development increased, and as waves of immigrants arrived in search of the American dream, the errand was elaborated further in the secular idea of progress and in the emphasis on self-improvement. Through the ideology of errand, Americans gave the institutions they created the transcendent meaningfulness that would be discerned by posterity. Indeed, it has been a persistent theme across the generations in the oratory of American statesmen. After the bitterly fought presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson defended the republican form of government championed by his new Democrat-Republican Party against the Federalists, because it was, he believed, "the world's best hope."30 Three generations later, Lincoln borrowed Jefferson's words to explain to Americans that the Civil War had to be fought and won to preserve the Union as the "last best hope of mankind on earth," which, he said, "we shall nobly save or meanly lose."31
In 1976, speaking to the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan reminded Americans that "a troubled and afflicted mankind look to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny, pleading that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and above all responsible liberty for every individual, that we will become a shining city upon the hill." In his farewell address, Reagan spoke of what he saw in his favorite vision of America as the shining city: "A tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind- swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there."32
The strength and persistence of the ideology of errand is apparent in the use to which it has been put not only by its mainstream articulators but by individuals and groups that challenge mainstream assumptions and behavior. For instance, as radical as the rhetoric of leaders of the women's rights and antislavery movements was, they nevertheless associated their critiques and demands with the American creed. At their 1848 meeting at Seneca Falls, the crusaders for women's rights simultaneously rebuked and endorsed the Declaration of Independence by producing a manifesto that declared: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."33 Frederick Douglass based his demands for the abolition of slavery on America's character, growth, and destiny, and on the genius of American institutions to fulfill the nation's sacred mission.34 In their use of patriotism for propaganda effect, critics like Douglass conformed to "a ritual of consensus" that, in Bercovitch's view, "defused all issues in debate by restricting the debate itself, symbolically and substantively, to the meaning of America."35
Like the debates during the antebellum period, contemporary debates over such issues as abortion, child care, values in public education, federal funding of the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, or multiculturalism are not merely about those particular issues. They are ultimately struggles over basic assumptions about truth, freedom, and the national identity, the definition of America's meaning and the terms on which Americans will live together.36 The debates are so intense because they are contests over who will control the ideological content and institutional forms of America's purpose.
Puritan jeremiad. The ideology of errand is often expressed using the rhetorical formula of the jeremiad. Derived from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, the term jeremiad refers to a sermon or another work that accounts for the misfortunes of an era as a just penalty for great social and moral evils but holds out hope for changes that will bring a happier future. Sam Girgus points out that as a political sermon or public ritual, the jeremiad functions "to permit the community to perpetually renew itself by grieving over its failure to live up to its heavenly inspired mission and by proclaiming again its allegiance and devotion to that mission."37 It involves what Jacques Barzun calls the "double movement pro and con" that he sees as a requirement of the American tradition and situation. Because Americans want a country of perfection and absolute justice, says Barzun, there are always occasions for their indignation. "It is our American pride that wants things fair and free; we growl or sputter when they aren't. Reform is our middle name and progress our sign manual." We criticize, reject, and condemn, "but we cannot pass sentence without appeal. ... To houseclean we do not burn down the house."38
We always hold out hope that a "solution" can be found to relieve our indignation. And that is why many Americans were not startled in 1980, when the country had descended into a funk of "malaise," to hear Reagan call for the nation's renewal with Thomas Paine's assertion that "we have the power to begin the world over again."39
Most commentators on American nationhood agree with Bercovitch that the rhetoric of mission and conscience that the jeremiad embodies has provided for the cohesion that made possible an ideological consensus in moral, religious, economic, social and intellectual matters. Even during the depths of civil war, Lincoln was able to keep mission and conscience alive by delivering the classic American jeremiad at Gettysburg.
Symbolic America. When Sacvan Bercovitch, a Canadian, first visited the United States in 1968, a year of assassinations, racial, generational, and general political conflict, he was shocked by the spectacle of the "bewildering mix of race and creed," and "a hundred sects and factions ... bound together by an ideological consensus unmatched by any other modern society." He found that the power of that consensus is "nowhere more evident than in the symbolic meaning that the jeremiads infused into the term America."40
The symbol of America is a taken-for-granted fact so embedded in the culture that Americans lack explicit awareness of its day-to-day hold on them. When President George W. Bush observed in his inaugural address that "sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country,"41 no doubt most Americans understood him to mean by country not the geopolitical entity that is the United States of America but the nation as symbol, as established faith, as common purpose and mission. It is symbolic America that, as Herbert Gans points out, "people can feel close to and identify with ... because it is neither Big Government nor 'the country,' both of which are associated with domestic politics."42 American politicians know this and present themselves as running against government and representing the country, the nation, or the American people instead.
Bercovitch's investigation of American culture led him to conclude that "of all the symbols of identity, only America has united nationality and universally, civic and spiritual selfhood, secular and redemptive history, the country's past and paradise to be, in a single synthetic ideal."43Gans observes that as a symbol with diverse meanings rather than an acting policy-making agency, America is a team for which people can cheer when fellow citizens score military victories and international athletic victories; on national holidays it becomes a revered symbol; in wartime and during other calamities it turns into a quasi-familial symbol.44 The success of Reagan's leadership derived in large part from the fact that he knew this about Americans and unambiguously spoke to it in such a way as to touch even his opponents. While not conceding an inch to him politically, they nevertheless could not resist his evocation of their Americanness, which he had been doing across the country for thirty years before running for president.
Roger Williams sees this conception of America as a type of national- patriotic orientation that he calls "pluralistic nationalism," the polar opposite of the quasi-religious "totalistic nationalism," which demands "total and unquestioning allegiance to national symbols and slogans and tends to make 'Americanism' a rigid orthodoxy." In contrast, pluralistic nationalism tends to place less emphasis on undifferentiated loyalty, rather conceiving of patriotism as loyalty to national institutions and symbols because and insofar as they represent values that are the primary objects of allegiance. Thus, "America" may be felt as worthy of loyalty because it is considered to embody or to stand for political democracy, respect for individual personality, a high standard of living, freedom of worship, or any other important value. This pluralistic patriotism usually presupposes basic acceptance of the nation-state as a framework of allegiance, but it does not preclude critical appraisal of men, events or policies in value terms broader than those of in-group loyalty as such.45
It is from the perspective of pluralistic patriotism that Americans have often issued their jeremiads of rebuke, yet are able to declare: "Of thee, I nevertheless sing."46
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt believes that because "the country is sort of a religion itself, ... we are always operating in a semi-mystical state of mind that includes belief and disbelief in ourselves, thoughts of heaven and hell, salvation and redemption, and the prayer of starting over again--cleansed, baptised, and reborn. ... The hopes people have in the country have to do with their souls. No wonder those old boys separated church and state on a technicality. They may have sensed that the country did not need an established faith. It was an established faith."47
Contrary to Rosenblatt's imagining, the founders' separation of church and state was no mere technicality; it was driven by the uncompromising conviction that the state, as a mechanism of coercion, must be prohibited from dictating the conscience of citizens. The founders tended to think of their project not in ecclesiastical terms but in practical secular terms, including the Declaration of Independence. It was not until the nineteenth century that the idea of America as providential and the Declaration as scripture became a prevalent orientation.48 The coincidental death of Adams and Jefferson within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was all that many Americans needed as evidence that, as one newspaper editorial said, "the Ruler of Events has chosen to manifest by a single act of his Providence, not only the value of the fame of the Fathers of the Revolution, but to impress upon the minds of all men the importance and verity of the Principles asserted by them."49
Mythical America is that "sweet land of liberty ... land where my fathers died / land of the Pilgrims' pride" that black soloist Marian Anderson sang of before seventy-five thousand people at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to book her concert in Constitution Hall. Unlike contemporary black nationalists and multiculturalists, for blacks like Anderson, America was not "white." It is the America that Kate Smith hailed on the radio broadcast of Armistice Day 1938, when she introduced the anthem that became her trademark, "God Bless America," composed by the Russian immigrant Israel Baline, whom we know as songwriter Irving Berlin.
It is the America of spacious skies and amber waves of grain, whose good would be crowned by God with brotherhood from sea to shining sea, that rhythm and blues singer Ray Charles embraces in his soulful performance of "America, the Beautiful."50 It is the America in Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A" that causes the backs of audiences to stiffen, their shoulders to arch, and their heads to lift as they exuberantly sing along, declaring, "I'm proud to be an American / Where at least I know I'm free. ..."51
It is the America that was John Wayne's first love, which he reverently celebrates in his poem, "America Why I Love Her:" "You ask me why I love her? ... I've a million reasons why / My beautiful America ... beneath God's wide, wide sky."52
It is the America that Frank Sinatra serenades with gratitude in "The House I Live In:" "What is America to me? / A name, a map or a plan I see? / A certain word: democracy? / What is America to me? ... The children in the playground / The faces that I see / All races and religions / That's America to me. / ... The church, the school, the clubhouse / The million lights I see / And especially the people / That's America to me."53
The previous discussion of elements of the myth of America is not meant to be celebratory but, rather, to illuminate a very important dimension of the American cultural-institutional core. However, as important as its function is as a carrier of meaning and legitimation, it can also have the dysfunctional effect of diverting attention from the many problems in the problematic situation that is the United States of America. As Baldwin discovered in his quest for the meaning of his American identity, the only way "to find out what is really happening here" is "to free ourselves of the myth of America."54 In my agreement with Baldwin, I do not mean to denigrate or diminish the functional value of the myth as the adhesive that binds Americans when nothing else can. Rather, I mean to insist that heuristic and emotional liberation is necessary if we are to fully comprehend the complexity of our problematic situation.
This is not easy; indeed, for an American in love with the idea of America (whether the religious or secularized vision), it can be very painful. Once detached from the comfort of the myth, one sees contradictions everywhere and aches from the knowledge that they are not marginal but unnecessary central marks of national identity. That is why a portrait of America's "pot"--its cultural-institutional core-- would be incomplete without the inclusion of another crucial element, the paradoxical nature of the American experience: the discrepancies between principles professed and actual practices, as well as what Michael Kammen calls the "ironic contrasts between noble purposes and sordid results" that account for so much of the dynamics of the American way of life.55
A PARADOXICAL PEOPLE
The composite of cultural ideology and symbols that makes up the American myth functions as the lubricant of the nation's political culture, but it also establishes the boundaries of political discourse and social participation. It has been tested repeatedly but has remained relatively stable for over two centuries. However, the political culture itself continues to be tense with contradictions, albeit contradictions that, for the most part, do not extend outside the boundaries of the myth, even when they are clear threats to it.
In this context, the metaphor "a house divided against itself" means more than the sectional split of the nation over states' rights and slavery to which the phrase originally referred. Rather, it refers to the divided soul of the nation--divided not so much over specific issues in such areas as family life, education, art and the popular media, trade and commerce, law and politics but divided more fundamentally over bringing the nation's social institutions in harmony with its dominant values and beliefs. However, the many conflicts between ideals and institutional practices are themselves derivative of a more fundamental contradiction that was present at the nation's birth and has become more manifest with every passing decade.
The United States was conceived in the paradox of fighting for liberty for some people while holding other people in slavery. That profound paradox was derivative of the fundamental paradox, as identified by Leonard Peikoff, of "an impassioned politics presupposing the ethics [of individualism], within a cultural atmosphere professing the sublimity of an opposing kind of ethics, that of altruism," whose political-economic corollary is collectivism.56 Alan Waterman illustrates the paradox as it is embodied in contemporary social institutions:
Ethical individualism places a value on self-realization achieved through submitting to rigorous demands necessary for the full development and utilization of one's talents. In contrast, the message in our media is one of short-run hedonism, of happiness through material consumption, of success without hard work. Ethical individualism involves the values of personal freedom and personal responsibility expressed through individual decision-making and accountability. In contrast, our society has established a network of social service bureaucracies that, while intended to be helpful, actually serve to limit both freedom and responsibility and relieve people from the expectable consequences of their actions. Ethical individualism implies the universal value that each person is an end in himself or herself (rather than the means to fulfill the interests of someone else), a value that constrains manipulative and coercive social relationships. In contrast, the practices of our political system foster competition among special interests for governmental favors at taxpayer expense and provide opportunities for imposing on everyone the social preferences of the politically influential.57
The limitation of space does not permit an analysis of these dichotomies. Waterman's list is a useful indication of the wide range of sectors of American life wherein there are taken-for-granted betrayals of the American creed. It is the unresolved paradox between individualism and altruism/collectivism that has made possible our current bizarre situation in which the very idea of America is questioned. Romanticized though it is, symbolic America is a deeply engrained element of American self-image. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, however, multiculturalists have perversely characterized its universalism as an attempt to deny diversity. In the face of such opposition, writes Andrew Burstein, "one naturally wonders whether the primal commitment of the American nation has remained strong in the age of multiculturalism." Burstein believes that "few Americans would go so far as to say the idea of America is dead, not still fundamentally a constructive vision expressing the enterprising humanism of a creative people."58
"The genius of America is the joining of unity with diversity," says John Higham.59 As I have shown, maintaining unity has required a shared political culture and a shared vision of the nation's purpose. To create a nation out of a heterogeneous population, the American founders established a political framework that would ultimately be conducive to a pattern of group relations in which cultural differences of citizens are mutually tolerated and voluntarily preserved within the framework of a larger set of shared principles that legitimize a society's social, political, and economic institutions. Such a society requires the protection of the individual rights of citizens qua human beings. It requires a "body of ideas," because free institutions are not enough. In such a society, one cannot be American by virtue of ethnicity, or even citizenship. To be American is to be preoccupied with national purpose and mission--to be committed, as Washington phrased our legacy, to "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government."60
When many of us worry that the nation's cultural mainstream is becoming less American, our concern is not that it is becoming less white but that it is becoming less representative of the purpose and mission that has made the United States unique among nations.n
1.Martin N. Marger, Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1985), 78.
2.Robin M. Williams Jr., American Society: A Sociological Interpretation, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1970), 372--442.
3.Aristotle, Politics, in Basic Writings, book 2, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), chs. 2--5.
4.James Q. Wilson, American Government: Institutions and Politics, 3rd ed. (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, 1986), 76.
5.Wilson, American Government, 76.
6.Wilson, American Government, 90--93.
7.Rupert Wilkinson, The Pursuit of American Character (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 11--12.
8.Michael Kammen, "The American Revolution in the National Tradition," in Tradition, Conflict, and Modernization: Perspectives on the American Revolution, ed. Richard Maxwell Brown and Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Academic Press, 1977), 24.
9.Samuel P. Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 23.
10.Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 31.
11.John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 13 Feb. 1818, Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1850--56), 288.
12.E.L. Doctorow, "A Citizen Reads the Constitution," in American in Theory, ed. Leslie Berlowitz, Denis Donoghue, and Louis Menand (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 289.
13.J.P. Nettl, "The State as a Conceptual Variable," World Politics, 20 July 1968, 561.
14.Works of John Adams, vol. 2, 366--67.
15.Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 17 June 1785, in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Patterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 808.
16.James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dell, 1963), 17--18.
17.As quoted in Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Vintage, 1965), 376.
18.Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience, 377.
19.George Washington, "Farewell Address to the People of the United States," The Writings of George Washington, vol. 35, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934-- 1940), 214--38.
20.Nathan Glazer, "America's Race Paradox," Encounter, October 1968.
21.Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, 22.
22.Sacvan Bercovitch, "The Rites of Assent: Rhetoric, Ritual, and the Ideology of American Consensus" in The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture, ed. Sam B. Girgus (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 15.
23.Peter L. Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1976), 234--35.
24.Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 207--10.
25.Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World: American Culture, The Formative Years (New York: Viking Press, 1964), 33.
26.John Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity" (1630), reprinted in An American Primer, vol. 1, ed. Daniel Boorstin (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966), 22.
27.Bercovitch, "The Rites of Assent," 13, 16.
28.George Washington, "Farewell Address to the People of the United States," Writings.
29.James Madison to W.T. Barry, 4 Aug. 1822, Madison Papers 1723--1859 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1965).
30.Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, Writings, 491.
31.Abraham Lincoln, annual message to Congress, December 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859--1865 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 415.
32.Ronald Reagan, Speaking My Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 296--300, 417.
33.Of course, their translation of men to mean male distorted the universalism of its original meaning and has unnecessarily polluted the national discourse on equal rights ever since.
34.Frederick Douglass, "Hope and Despair in These Cowardly Times," The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 3, ed. John E. Blassingame (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), 425. "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" July 5, 1852, The Frederick Douglass Papers, vol. 2, 387.
35.Bercovitch, "The Rites of Assent," 21.
36.James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 51.
37.Sam B. Girgus, "The New Covenant: The Jews and the Myth of America," in The American Self, 105.
38.Jacques Barzun, God's Country and Mine (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1954), 336, 337.
39.Ronald Reagan, presidential campaign speech, reported in the New York Times, June 13, 1980. Paine was the first to call the country the "United States of America."
40.Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 178.
41.George W. Bush, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2001.
42.Herbert Gans, Middle American Individualism (New York: Free Press, 1988), 61--64. See also Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
43.Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 178.
44.Gans, Middle American Individualism, 61--64.
45.Williams, American Society, 429--30.
46.This quotation is suggested by William Lee Miller's title, Of Thee, Nevertheless I Sing: An Essay on American Political Values (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).
47.Roger Rosenblatt, "One Nation Under God," Newshour with Jim Lehrer, March 11, 2001.
48.Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making of the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
49.Quoted in Andrew Burstein, America's Jubilee (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2001), 276.
50.The hymn was composed by Katherine Lee Bates, a Massachusetts educator and author, in 1893. Bates was inspired by her experience atop Pike's Peak.
51.Lee Greenwood, "God Bless the U.S.A.," [composed in 1985] MCA Records, 1991.
52.John Wayne with Billy Liebert and John Mitchum, "America, Why I Love Her" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977). Words by John Mitchum, music arranged and adapted by Billy Liebert. Recorded by Devere Music Company and Batjac Music Company, 1976. Wayne's recording of the poem was released on March 1, 1973, and sold more than 100,000 copies in the first two weeks at the same time that the Watergate scandal began to unfold.
53.The song, written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allen, was performed by Sinatra in a 1945 Academy Award--winning film short on tolerance. He reprises the song on the album The Voice.
54.Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, 23.
55.Michael Kammen, People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).
56.Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1982), 117.
57.Alan Waterman, The Psychology of Individualism (New York: Praeger, 1984), 165--66.
58.Andrew Burstein, Sentimental Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), 338.
59.John Higham, "Symbolizing the U.S.," New York Times, 18 Dec. 1975.
60.George Washington, First Inaugural Address, Writings, vol. 30, 291-- 96.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Melting Pot, Part 2 - America's Cultural-Institutional Core. Contributors: Wortham, Anne - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 16. Issue: 11 Publication date: November 2001. Page number: 269. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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