On that extraordinarily revolutionary – but not, as it turns out, especially straightforward – premise we have built a great nation. There are those, though, that identify the greatness of the nation in its Anglo-Saxon and Judeo-Christian heritages, and who are concerned that this greatness is weakened as the demographics of the country reduce the influence of those heritages. Others argue that we can safely put our faith in the totality of the people, who are attracted to and activated by this premise, who are now of the citizenry, possessed of and expressing this fundamental sovereignty.
But can we really do that? Is not that premise – together with the legal, national, cultural institutions built upon it – itself the product of that decidedly unique and rare Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian heritage? Can the philosophies and structures spawned by it be borne, be maintained, by people from decidedly different lineages?
After all, the “people” envisioned by the Founding Fathers are individuals who have their own various aims in life, and who hold themselves specifically empowered to and responsible for attaining them. But there are vast stretches of the globe populated by cultures with ancient traditions of viewing the “people” as collectives in service to an unquestioned patriarchic authority. The individuals in societies like this see themselves less as discrete entities charting their own paths through life than as interconnected elements of a whole in which they are fully bound, with respect to virtually every aspect of their lives.
Can people from cultures which view individuality as fundamentally meaningful only in its connection with a family, clan, or larger community participate in furthering the American experiment alongside those who see individuality as intrinsically meaningful in and of itself?
Think of it this way: people from (and, generally, living traditionally in the homelands of) collectivist cultures often implicitly, unconsciously perceive themselves as involuntary emanations of the group. People from individualistic cultures tend to think of the group as a voluntary creation of wholly independent individuals who conceive of and choose to build the group. It is in this latter sense, it is worth noting, that the “people” were envisioned in our founding documents.
The question quickly becomes, then, given such differences at the starting point, should we aim for assimilation, or for European-style “diversity” (and it should be frankly acknowledged how much that latter phenomenon tends to express itself as ghettoization)? Can we rely on the continuation of our historical experience of assimilation triumphing over the generations in immigrant populations at great distances from their origins? With that latter point in mind, does the proximity of our Hispanic immigrants to their lands of origin refute, extend, or have no unique effect on this process? Does anything suggested by such questions offer any challenges to our culture that it hasn’t confronted and dealt with before?
And, as long as we’re on that subject, what, actually, does assimilation mean? We clearly don’t live in the culture that obtained at our founding. But we nevertheless retain our sense of uniqueness, exceptionalism, and, largely, of our responsibility for our own destiny – that is, of our sovereignty. What, about our society, has changed, then? And how has it done so while maintaining the vital, core element of the American identity? Is it the natural evolution of our ideas and culture? Is it the introduction to and enrichment of it by the ideas and approaches to life of immigrant populations from other cultures? How is it that we – however else we change – retain this fundamental aspect of our national character: that the individual is the sovereign?
It is often said that democracy is no way to run a railroad. It is messy and inefficient, it is argued. But the alternative is one or another degree of despotism. And we aren’t having that, are we? Similarly, we have argued over the generations who the “people” are that have the sovereignty and enjoy the right and responsibility of exercising it. White, male, property owners – or all of us? Natural inheritors of the cultural and historical tradition that gave rise to the revolutionary concepts upon which our nation is built – or assimilators of those concepts who inevitably enrich while internalizing them?
There is an old Marine Corps admonishment about military bearing and presence. If someone accused you of being a Marine, it challenges ironically, would you be found guilty? If you travel around the world you will see people of wondrously diverse national and ethnic origins. But I’ve noticed something in my own travels: for all the lack of national or ethnic cues, you can nevertheless, with surprising but satisfying frequency and accuracy, identify the Americans. It’s an ineffable element of their carriage, their attitude, their approach to everything – it’s in the quietly implicit awareness that they are – innately and with an unstated intimacy with the fact – sovereign.
If it can be so easy to be sure of our profound Americanness overseas, we ought to be confident of it at home, as well.