Monday, September 13, 2010

Melting Pot Meltdown

With anti-Muslim sentiment joining anti-Mexican immigrant bias and undisguised racism against the first black President, the American dream of assimilation seems to be falling apart.

Why is all this happening now when an even worse Depression and a wider war in the past century brought the country together, leading to the breakdown of discriminatory barriers in the decades that followed?

Blame it on Tea Party rage that elevates Boomer self-entitlement to patriotic fervor. Blame it on Republican surrender to corporate power that preys on the poor and middle-class and calls it free enterprise. Blame it on the 24/7 media and the Internet, which magnify the mindless at the expense of the meaningful.

Yet, for someone who has lived through both eras and spent a lifetime in journalistic search for understanding, those easy targets fail to explain all the differences.

From the start, America gloried in diversity. Emerson in his journals predicted that "the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes--of the Africans, and of the Polynesians--will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages."

Emerson's smelting pot became "The Melting Pot" a century ago, incorporating each wave of immigrants into its promise of freedom and equality. As a child in the 1930s, I was part of a generation who expected to hoist ourselves into that Pot and splash around in its splendors. And so we did. Not without having to overcome prejudice and exclusion, but with a patriotic certainty in that American promise.

Those who excuse today's poisonous atmosphere point to hatred of "the Huns" in the first World War and internment of Japanese in the second, but those were true wars against nations of enemies unlike today's War on Terror, fighting ragtag collections of zealots who represent no country and certainly no religion but their own destructive madness.

In the second half of the last century, the Melting Pot metaphor morphed into a Salad Bowl of multiculturalism, but that was an attempt to preserve the best of old cultures as part of the new American ethos of inclusion and acceptance.

After living through all that hope and promise, it's painful to see so much being swept away by new generations who profited from that history but can't seem to understand how precious and fragile it is.

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