Thursday, January 3, 2013

America the Hyphenated

An old essay of mine, written in 1993, reprinted here so my students will have access to it.


I am a white (partially Native-American, partially African-American), middle-class (originally poverty-class), Southern, Piedmont, rural (recently become urban, more recently become small-town), Pantheist-Deist (partially Reformed Jewish, partially atheist, raised fundamental Baptist), Independent (sometimes Democrat, sometimes Republican), Existentialist, heterosexual, Kennedy-era, male American. My family is Welsh, Creek, German, Cherokee, Black, English, Scots, middle-class, lower-middle-class, lower-class, urban, rural, agrarian, industrial, military, Fundamentalist, Baptist, Agnostic, Republican, Democrat, Socialist, and Anarchist. I have never allowed myself to feel like the victim (and I do think the image would victimize each of us if we allowed it) of a “melting pot.” I embrace those parts of my Celtic heritage with which I have been able to identify. I embrace those parts of my Native-American heritage with which I have been able to identify, as I do those parts of my Southern, rural, African-American, and Judeo-Christian heritage with which I have been able to identify. I value those parts of my personality which are commonly seen as “masculine,” though I also value those parts of my personality which are commonly seen as “feminine,” and those parts which seem neither masculine nor feminine or both masculine and feminine. I embrace those parts of my American heritage with which I have been able to identify. I have never let any of these influences “melt” away. I embrace, in short, all of my contraries.

America is a multi-national society. As African-American poet, Ishmael Reed, says, “The world is here.” It has been arriving since long before the middle-European “discovery” of the continent in 1492 and hasn’t slowed down since. America is a multi-religious society. Freedom of religion, after all, was one of the primary reasons for the European migration to the Americas. America is a society of many economies. Such diversity of economic investment has always kept us strong while other, more monolithic economies have weakened or collapsed. America is a society of many political units. As a Republic, the country was founded on the idea that one could be part of both a smaller and larger political unit simultaneously. America is a society of various sexual orientations, as has been every society in every location in every period of humanity’s existence on Earth. America is a society of hyphenated people.

There are those who say that such insistence upon separate cultural identities within a single political unit must inevitably lead to conflict, that it is our inability to “come together” (euphemism for “become alike”) that has led to incidents like the L.A. riots, to continued tensions between the races, the sexes, and those of various sexual orientations. Not only does such belief ignore the nature of a democracy (rule by all the people, for all the people, not just by and for some constantly shifting majority), but it also ignores the very nature of the word “difference.” In its simplest conception, “difference” is defined as “the state of being unalike or distinct in nature or form.” It connotes only states of description. There is no reason to believe that any possible descriptive difference would be inherently inflammatory, would lead of its own to conflict. It is only when differences are seen judgmentally rather than descriptively that they become harmful. It is only when difference is seen as encoding some measure of quality that differences become factious. It is only when difference is viewed judgmentally rather than descriptively that tensions, fear, and feelings of inferiority and superiority arise. It is only when cultural differences are socially and politically institutionalized as inequalities in freedom, opportunity, and self-determination that violence becomes the only foreseeable result.

All Americans share a number of ideals, goals, and traditions in common. But to hearken back to some time of homogeneous American identity is to hearken back to a myth. The image of the melting pot has always been faulty, requiring the dissolution of one’s various cultural influences in order to allow one’s resolution into some generic American ideal. When J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur spoke of America as a melting pot, he included only European-Americans. He excluded Native-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and non-Christian-Americans, all of whom, even by the end of the 18th century, had played significant roles in the development of America. De Crevecoeur also mistakenly characterized Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and a wide range of other European-Americans as willingly surrendering their inherited cultural traditions in order to assume a new cloak of American identity. One need only visit any of the numerous “Little Italys” or Polish sectors or Highland organizations still flourishing in America today to see just how inaccurate this picture was and still is.

Some say that it is more important, more unifying, and perhaps even more accurate to see ourselves as primarily American, to focus, in other words, upon our similarities, our common ground. Perhaps this is true; perhaps it is important that we appreciate how much we have in common. After all, the fact that we are all more similar than we are different is mathematically irrefutable. Working backward from 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 8 great grandparents, and assuming a fairly conservative estimate of 4 generations in each century, one need only go back to around the year 1200 CE before the number of one’s direct ancestors in a single generation would be greater than the total world population at the time of that generation, indicating that the idea that we are all brothers and sisters beneath the skin is not only a romantic ideal but an inevitable conclusion. Nevertheless, achieving this conclusion, that we all already share a great deal in common, that we are all already multi-cultural, that we are all finally American, and ultimately, human, through exploring and embracing the diversity of our own more immediate and recognizable cultural heritages will enrich our identities as Americans and as human beings. Whether we choose to focus on similarity or diversity, we will arrive at the same place, but by bringing with us our own still present cultural heritages, we will have so much more to give to that place.

America has never been a homogeneous society. America has always been a hyphenated society. We need not now remove these hyphenizations but only remove the judgments, the intolerances, and the misunderstanding that have been attached to them in our own minds. Cultural differences should be appreciated by those who possess them and respected by those who believe they do not. In truth, all Americans possess their own variety of cultural influences. Each of us should strive to appreciate and understand what those influences offer us and mean to us; and whether we are aware of it or not, inasmuch as we hope our individual personality will be respected, we each already hope the differences those cultural influences grant us will be respected. As with our various economies, the diversity of our cultures is our strength as a nation. This unity in diversity, this strength from difference, this variety in interests, abilities, and perspectives is what makes us strong as a nation. It is what makes us the most adaptable society in the world. It is what is most American about us.

1 comment:

  1. If only this could be "viral" in all the places where it would do the most good! To make us all eschew the regard of others "...judgmentally rather than descriptively..."! At the heart of the most profound disagreements that have rent civilization from the beginning of time (or at least from the time of the classical period in Greece) is hubris.
    Which of us has the chutzpah to feel empowered to rank others on any scale but the universal moral one? (Some would deny there is such a thing, but I do think broadmindedness requires, like almost everything else, some limits. Bravo, Scott--again!
    Forgive me, but if yo have time, look at this link: