One of the lines you hear a lot in the immigration debate goes something like “we need to strengthen the idea of assimilation to immigrants. Keep your heritage, but you are now Americans. If you want to live in America, you are Americans first.”
I don’t know exactly what that is supposed to mean. I certainly have a sense of what being American means to me, but it has relatively little with what our correspondent above (Ned Ryun, former congressman Jim Ryun’s baby boy) would think. In fact, without getting overly “meta,” I’d have to say that being American means being able to define yourself in exactly that way, without some jackass telling you that your way is sucky and foreign. I’m left wondering if there is a truly non-xenophobic sense in which that comment (and millions like it) can be interpreted.
Ryun’s jag on “Americans first” has unfortunate resonances with Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. Lindbergh, in addition to his historic flight across the Atlantic, was awarded a Service Cross of the German Eagle by Hermann Göring and “by order of the Fuhrer.” His diary includes the comment that “There are too many Jews in places like New York already. A few Jews of the right type add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos. And we are getting too many.”
In The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (which I finally finished reading), Lindbergh runs for president and beats FDR before we entered the war. His fictional administration creates a program called the Office of American Assimilation, in which the Jews of America are sent to places like Kentucky in order to become “real Americans.” These were not immigrants, but the children and grandchildren of immigrants, people happily ensconced in urban and suburban cultures reminiscent, but distinct from, shtetls of eastern Europe.
The setting is not wholly unfamiliar to me; it reminds me of the neighborhood where my mother’s parents lived in Brooklyn. They kept a kosher house, and my mother’s grandmother got by just fine with Yiddish, and never picked up much English. She did fine. As far as I know, she voted, read the papers (my grandfather was a typesetter for Yiddish newspapers, and a member of a union founded by Horace Greeley). My mother and her sisters played stoopball and hopscotch with other kids from the neighborhood, mostly other Jewish kids, but with other nationalities and ethnicities, too.
Nothing seems more American to me than that.
On the other hand, my father grew up in rural Indiana. His father was an accountant for an oil refinery and an Allis Chalmers plant, his mother kept the house. I believe he had some relatives who only spoke German. I doubt he played stoopball (not a lot of stoops in Indiana), but he did spear frogs and snag fish in the local lakes. He picked corn on the cob and apples, he got cider fresh from the press.
Nothing seems more American than that, either.
To people like the fictional Lindbergh, stoopball and Yiddish and separate sets of plates for meat and dairy all seem a little foreign. Sending adolescent Jews, or indeed whole families, out to farm country to learn about tobacco and cows was meant to destroy that foreignness, that Jewish echt, and replace it with something more – I can’t help it – Aryan.
Of course, this conflict can partly be traced to the divide between the Hamiltonian vision of America and the Jeffersonian. Jefferson was a country boy, and believed in a pastoral nation that would look roughly like my dad’s home town in Indiana, or (more likely) like Monticello. He promoted that view through the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, and writings like this, from Notes on Virginia:
Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breast he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. … While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe.
Hamilton saw things differently. Born a bastard in the Caribbean, and through pluck and genius rose to the peak of power in America. Even in 1785, as Jefferson set his defense of agrarian populism to print in rural Virginia, Hamilton sat in urban New York, drafting the plans for a federal government with the power to create a national bank, promote industry, regulate international trade and grow urban America.
From the birth of this nation, then, views have diverged on what the essential character and heritage of the nation is and ought to be. The fatal duel between Hamilton and Jefferson’s vice-president stands was an early result of that divergence, Roth’s fictional (but disturbingly plausible) Office of American Assimilation and the anti-immigrant right’s nonfictional rhetoric (today and throughout history) show that little has changed on that front.
When people say that we are a nation of immigrants, it is not just talk, and not just a tu quoque argument. The fact that my grandfather only managed to enter this country by gaming the immigration system of the day is not an argument for or against the system we have now. It does, however, nicely demonstrate what America’s heritage is. America is not about compulsory assimilation. We have a heritage of diversity, and of assimilating diversity. That assimilation has gone both ways, thankfully.
Bagels, pizza, pad thai, burritos. Rock, jazz, rap, salsa. Gene Wilder, Martin Scorsese, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Lopez. Our immigrants change the country, and the country changes them. Assimilation has never just meant that new immigrants became like us, but that we became more like them. We are a better nation for it, and a better people.