Image by © Dreamstime
by Sydney Williams
E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) is the phrase on the Great Seal of the United States. It was adopted (appropriately), by Congress in 1782 as the fledgling nation’s de facto motto. It held that position until 1956 when Congress enacted a law that designated “In God We Trust” to be the official motto for the U.S.
While we are a God-trusting people, in my opinion E Pluribus Unum more accurately reflects our citizens.
We are a nation of immigrants – a pluralistic country – a people that have arrived from all over the world. In 1664, when the British acquired Manhattan from the Dutch, there were 18 languages spoken on the Island. In 1776, when colonists first met in Philadelphia, there were over 40 languages spoken in Pennsylvania. The Founders, all of whom spoke English, avoided any reference to language in the Constitution. It was only in 1906 that English-speaking ability became a requirement for naturalization. (It still is, unless one gets an exemption or waiver.) Nevertheless, immigrants continue to arrive. At the Julian Curtis Magnet School in Greenwich, which four of my grandchildren either attend or have attended, over 50 languages are spoken. More than 200 languages are spoken in New York City today, and half the households in the City speak a language other than English. Collectively we are a polyglot nation.
Yet, despite these ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences the United States became a melting pot. Importantly, it was civil society, not government that made that determination. The term “melting pot” derived from the concept that, as a heterogeneous people, we were to be dumped into a giant crucible, to be stirred and then fused until we reappeared as homogeneous, with a distinctive American character.
Multiculturalism emerged for a number of reasons. There are those who felt we had surrendered too much individuality. Instead of a melting pot, the preferred metaphor became a salad bowl or a mosaic. In part, this emergence reflects a natural desire for people to hang onto the customs, heritage and language of the country of their birth – a healthy habit, within reason. But it also allows politicians to use identity politics, in which differing sectors – African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Italian-Americans, etc. – become compartmentalized, classifying them as minorities, so eligible for benefits and preferences. Multiculturalism is favored by the sanctimonious who believe in relativism – rather than a universal moral sense – that it is wrong for society to impose on new Americans values that could be alien to those they had known in their home countries. The consequences, intended or otherwise, include a loss of patriotism, a return to a segregated “separate but equal” system, an increase in divisiveness, dependency, and a (generally) growing distrust of government. Not only are we divided by ethnicity, but also by race, religion, age and sexual orientation. We are no longer “unum;” we have become “pluribus.”
What prompted these musings was an article in the March/April edition of “Foreign Affairs,” entitled, “The Failure of Multiculturalism.” While the author Kenan Malik of The International New York Times focused principally on Europe, some of what he wrote had applicability to the United States. “An ideal policy,” Mr. Malik writes, would be to “marry multiculturalism’s embrace of actual diversity, [with] assimilation’s resolve to treat everyone as citizens…” The “guiding assumption throughout Europe” (as it is in the United States), Mr. Malik wrote, is that “immigration and integration must be managed through state policies.” Yet, he noted: “Integration is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form.”
As a nation, diversity has strengthened us. Most of us are ethnically diversified. We have ancestors that go back to multiple countries. Our integration, as Mr. Malik observed, has been a function of civil society, not a consequence of government mandate. We should acknowledge with pride the strength of our common heritage – not only the genetic portion, but the forces of history that have helped mold us all. Our language is English. Not knowing English usually condemns one to destitution. New arrivals need understand we are a nation of laws, based on English law but ones which are dynamic and evolving. Our legal system has served us well for over two hundred years. There are other legal systems, and it is not to say that ours is perfect. But it would be a serious mistake to incorporate Sharia Law into ours. When people come to this country they do so in large part because of our system of justice, not despite it.
It is important that all citizens understand our government: the Constitution, federalism, our system of checks and balances, and the responsibilities of citizenship. They should know the names of our nation’s institutions, the Founders and their roles. I weep when I see interviews with college students who are clueless about civic affairs and know little of our nation’s history. As Americans, that history is all our history, regardless of when we or our ancestors arrived.
Metaphors can be limiting. America is not a crucible that spits out robots, and we wouldn’t want it to be. However, we are a melting pot in the sense that we are a place where a German may marry a Scot, a Muslim a Buddhist, a Vietnamese an Italian, a Jew a Catholic or an African-American a Dane. America is also a mosaic, but one where the emphasis should be on the whole, not the parts. While we should respect our myriad cultures, multiculturalism can be socially disruptive, as can be seen in the ascendancy of radical Islam around the world. At home, multiculturalism can be narcissistic, and it does promote politics of identity, rather than ones of ideas. Our diversities are important, but they should not be used to divide us, as politicians and elitists are wont to do, but should serve to unite.
As one who enjoys history and is interested in genealogy, I believe we should have knowledge of whence we came. Knowing our origins, while speaking and reading the language of our ancestors, allows us to better understand ourselves. Education informs; thus making us more productive citizens. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are, at the same time, Americans, most by birth, but some by choice and others because of their parents. We should all understand that part of being an American means knowing the laws, customs, culture, history and language of our mutual heritage. The Country is not well served by those who are indifferent to its past, or who come with the intent of radically changing what has worked so well for so long. That does not mean that our customs are immutable. They have and they do adapt. While we are a melting pot, we are also a dynamic people. But any change should be thoughtful and glacial.