American identity revisited

As Mexican immigrants take to the streets, a debate at the New York Public Library examined the fraught question of what it means to be American.

Alan Miller

Topics Identity Politics Politics

On the day that the New York Public Library (NYPL) staged its event on multiculturalism, ‘Nuestro Himno’, the new Spanish version of the American national anthem, was released as part of the growing immigrants’
rights movement. When President George W Bush was asked whether he thought the anthem would have the same value in Spanish as in English, he answered firmly, ‘No I do not’ (1).

The NYPL has been running a debate series – called LIVE – with PEN, the association of writers, which reflects on issues of the day. The question of identity and what it means to be an American has been fought over and discussed for several decades. Kwame Anthony Appiah, author most recently of Cosmopolitanism and a professor at Princeton, sat as chair for the evening and kicked off the debate by reminding us that in Europe there is now a significant Muslim population – collectively there are more Muslims in France and Germany than in Libya.

Pascal Bruckner, whose influential Tears of the White Man made a significant impression upon me as an undergraduate, pointed out that the obsession with culture came about as a reaction against the
Enlightenment. Romanticism was an attack on the Enlightenment notion that evil came in the form of ignorance and fanaticism. Bruckner posed the question as to whether culture was a door that can be opened to reveal more about oneself, or really a jail with a window looking outwards. Is American society perhaps not a ‘melting pot’ or a ‘salad bowl’, but rather composed of each one of us as separate beings?

Necla Kelek argued that the Turkish immigrant experience in Germany was a 40-year ‘full circle’ that has not yet truly arrived. Turkish immigrants live in ‘particular circles’, and the oppression of Muslim
women in some communities ensures the continuation of such conditions. However, she went on, if we consider multiculturalism as a kind of interculturalism, this could improve matters.

Richard Rodriguez, author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America as well as contributor to Harper’s and the LA Times, discussed the way in which Mexicans are seen as ‘dirty’, who are always ‘violating straight lines’ and are incapable of staying within borders. Rodriguez suggests that with 36 million Hispanics in the USA, and 12 million ‘illegals’ (85 per cent of whom are Mexican), they still generally refer to America as ‘El Norte’, the North. He concluded by saying that the recent demonstrations to change US immigration policy were more like a ‘meeting of the clans’, or a ‘family reunion’. He argued that the Indians, who according to US folklore were got rid of (or left on a few gambling reserves) are actually coming back ‘home’ – and a language needs to be developed to understand this.

While working on a TV project recently on identity, I found it difficult to get people to talk about what it means to be American. In the past, American was a fluid notion: Mencken and Hemingway knew that American English was in large part to do with immigrants and appropriation of Yiddish, Irish, German, Polish to create a hybrid of a language. It does seem, however, that the loss of certainty about what America stands for is part of a broader sense of despair and loss of confidence in belief and values.

I put it to the panel that multiculturalism often ends up making us all divided into narrow categories, and can be restrictive. I wondered whether the debate about Dead White Males and the rape and pillage of Western society has not lead to a despondent view of what America is about. The fact that it could no longer be defined against the ‘Red Threat’ of Moscow served to expose its cracks even further.

The panel did not agree. Rodriguez argued that Wal Mart has certainly not lost its nerve, even if US foreign policy seems to be in confusion. American enterprise is dominating globally, he went on, with none of the concerns we are discussing.

Still, while some now disassociate themselves from the tag of multiculturalism, many of the underlying assumptions seem to remain. A common sentiment of being American is difficult to obtain when difference is promoted with such gusto. Today, even filmmakers prefer to define themselves by their roots, rather than where they currently are and what they are doing (2).

All in all, this was a provocative and lively discussion. It was timely too. On my way out, I received a flyer about ‘The Great American Boycott’ on 1 May to support full amnesty for all immigrant workers, which is an interesting and potentially inspiring movement (3). The LIVE series has certainly brought some much-needed discussion with some influential speakers. I left thinking how much more we need to do in order to challenge the cynicism that currently pervades public life.

Alan Miller is director of The NY Salon. ‘The limits of tolerance? Multiculturalism Now’ was held at the New York Public Library on Friday 28 April.

(1) Bush enters anthem fight on language, New York Times, 29 April 2006

(2) Thinking Globally and Acting Globally too, New York Times, 29 April 2006

(3) On the 1 May strike, Indymedia

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Topics Identity Politics Politics


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