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Remembering America’s Uniqueness This Thanksgiving
November 23, 2016
by Allan C. Brownfeld WE CELEBRATE THANKSGIVING this year in a time of political turmoil. We have just had a divisive political campaign in which one side called for jailing the candidate they opposed, while the other side, after the election results were clear, said of the winner, “Not my president.” This is a time for real reflection about the uniqueness of the American society, one in which wiser and calmer voices should make themselves heard amid the clamor of division. Several years ago, this writer visited the U.S. military cemetery at Nettuno, Italy, down the road from Anzio, with my son and grandson. The Sicily/Rome American Cemetery – established as a temporary wartime cemetery on January 24, 1944, two days after the landing at Nettuno/Anzio – covers 77 acres. The total number interred is 7,861 which represents only 35 percent of those who died in combat from the invasion of Sicily to the liberation of Rome. The Wall of the Missing located in the chapel has 3,095 names inscribed. Twenty-three sets of brothers are buried side by side, as well as two sets of twins. The U.S. maintains 24 permanent military burial grounds on foreign soil for the 124,914 U.S. war dead interred. Headstones of pristine marble with stylized Latin crosses mark the gravestones. Headstones of those of the Jewish faith are tapered marble shafts surmounted by a Star of David. Reading the names of the dead and their hometowns tells us much about the uniqueness of the American society. Virtually all nationalities and ethnic groups are represented. In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote that, “We are the heirs of all time and with all nations we divide our inheritance.” If you kill an American, he said, “you shed the blood of the whole world.” Sadly, those on today’s left and right wings of our political life, with their different versions of “identity politics,” seem to understand little of the American story. AMERICA IS MORE than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his “Letters From An American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782: “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” During another period of turmoil and division, the 1960s, author Mario Puzo wrote: “What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries ... whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.” As a young man growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Puzo was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded that, “For a thousand years in Italy no one in our family was even able to read.” But in America everything was possible – in a single generation. Puzo writes: “It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her own dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself, and looking back she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her.” The U.S. has been an ethnically diverse society from the very beginning. By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were actually already a slight minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants made up 20 percent of the population, and there were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, Scottish, German and Dutch settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Huguenots and Sephardic Jews. THE PROCESS OF MELTING POT – which has come into disrepute in recent days among some who seek to celebrate ethnic differences rather than the development of a new American nationality combining all of its constituent elements – was at work from the start. Although some non-English-speaking groups sought to preserve their native language in the new land, none succeeded over the generations. In general, the second generation chose not to transmit German, Swedish, Dutch or another language to their children when they began to raise a family. Similarly, occupations changed and expanded, as did residential patterns. Most important in the process of assimilation has been intermarriage. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of the members of the immigrant generation married someone from the same homeland, but a distinctly lower proportion of their grandchildren did so. The first comprehensive national portrait of ethnic intermarriage in America, which was published in 1980, reveals that marriage across ethnic lines is so common that only one out of four American-born whites of non-Hispanic origin was married to someone with an undivided ethnic heritage identical to his or her own. Today, America is still in the progress of becoming – with immigrants attracted to our shores from countries around the world. In 1904, the British author Israel Zangwill wrote a now-famous passage – as relevant to our new immigrants of 2016 as to those of more than a hundred years earlier – and a prophetic commentary about why so many people, in so many ways, will be celebrating Thanksgiving: “America is God’s Crucible, the Great Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are reforming. Here you stand good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your 50 groups and your 50 languages and histories and your 50 blood-hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t long be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas. Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians. Into the crucible with you all. God is making the American.” In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from “the millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon with the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West?” AMERICA HAS BEEN a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany. Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. But America has been beloved not only by native Americans, but by men and women throughout the world who have yearned for freedom. America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in the history of man. The dream remains very much alive despite the efforts of those who would diminish it. It will survive even the presidential campaign of 2016. Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University writes that, “It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.” But, Lilla laments, “identity politics” threatens our unique American story: “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny ... We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism ... It would concentrate on ... appealing to Americans as Americans ... It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another...” Whether it is from the “identity politics” of American liberals, or the emergence of a divisive “alt-right” white nationalism, the American idea of diversity, inclusiveness and individual freedom is being challenged. The American political tradition is something quite different. In his letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, George Washington wrote: “Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” As if speaking to our diverse society of today, Washington concluded: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.” This is the American tradition which all of us, liberals and conservatives, should celebrate. Those who would divide our society into warring groups are rejecting that tradition. As Shirley Chisholm, the first African American to run for president once said, “We came over on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Happy Thanksgiving. Allan C. Brownfeld is publications editor for the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, and a nationally syndicated columnist.