The National Conversation
Why does it matter who we think we are, either indlvidually or collectively? What
difference does it make what image of America is shared by its citizens? The idea
of America, though always more rooted in aspiration than reality, has pulled this
experiment on democracy forward from the first toward its dream of "liberty and
justice for all." That dream, the same one Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so
eloquently about at the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington in 1963,
has powered one of the noble stories of America, the story of the expansion of
the promise of American life to embrace increasesing
proportions of its citizens. The idea is tutor to the act.
Archibald MacLeish, in an essay published in 1949 as a warning against the
mounting hysteria of anti-Communism, wrote, "the soul of a people is the image it
cherishes of itself; the aspect in which it sees itself against its past; the
attributes to which its future conduct must respond. To destroy that image is to
destroy, in a very real sense, the identity of the nation, for to destroy the
image is to destroy the means by which the nation recognizes what it is and what
it has to do. But the image a people holds of itself is created not by words
alone or myths but by its actions. Unless the actions are appropriate to the
image, the image is blurred. If the actions deny the image, the image is
destroyed.... A people who have been real to themselves because they were for
something cannot continue to be real to themselves when they find they are merely
The question I raise today is not so much about actions that are inconsistent
with our image of ourselves as about what we are going to be for now that we
don't have the "evil empire" to be against? Do we have a clear and an adequate
image of ourselves in the post-cold war world, given all the threats to political
stability and human welfare both foreign and domestic, given the dangerous
fragmentation of a world in which the closeness imposed by modern communications
and the global economy has reemphasized the differences within the human family?
What is the United States going to be for in the 21st century? What picture of
an ideal America is going to inform our struggles with current problems? What
notion of shared commitments, mutual obligations, civic virtues, will help us
come together to solve common problems?
Writing in the New York Times (March 27, 1994), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard
University put the challenge of Minister Louis Farrakhan and his hate mongering
disciple, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, in perspective by quoting Rabbi Yaacov Perrin's
eulogy for Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who massacred worshipping Palestinian
Muslims in Hebron: "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail."
But we have heard this voice before, Gates writes. "It is the voice of messianic
hatred. We hear it from the Balkans to the Bantustans; we hear it from Hezbollah
and from Kach. We hear it in the streets of Benson hurst. And of course, we hear
it from some who profess to be addressing the misery of black America. "
Professor Gates goes on to connect these and other examples of murderous
utopianism to the weaknesses of liberalism and less lethal forms of what he
calls identity politics.
"There has been much talk about the politics of identity," Gates writes, "a
politics that has a collective identity at its core. One is to assert oneself in
the political arena as a woman, a homosexual, a Jew, a person of color.... The
politics of identity starts with the assertion of a collective allegiance. It
says: this is who we are, make room for us, accommodate our special needs, recognition upon what is distinctive about us. It is about the priority of difference, and while it is not, by itself, undesirable, it is—by itself—dangerously
Glancing around our nation now does not give one much reassurance. Not only does
Khalid Abdul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam travel from campus to campus spewing
bigotry and leaving divisive squabbles in his wake, but a few weeks ago the
National Conference of Christians and Jews released the results of a survey of
race relations commissioned by them and done by Lou Harris. The results
revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that among Anglo-Americans, African Americans,
Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, disturbingly high percentages of each
group held negative stereotypes of each of the other groups. So much for the myth
of "the new majority," the idea that people of color are united against
Euro-Americans. No wonder the village square these days is full of sound and
As effective as the politics of difference have been in bringing previously
excluded groups into the mainstream of American life (one might, in fact, say
because the politics of difference have been so effective in giving formerly
silent groups access to the national public address system), rancorous debates
are Increasmgly occupying our attention. Take for example the angry debates in
state legislatures around bills to make English the official language of the
state, an act that is primarily symbolic and is emotionally resisted for the
very same reason (nineteen states have such laws; Maryland just turned down an
"official English" bill). The growing debate over immigration policy will be no
less clamorous. From South Central Los Angeles to Crown Heights, from Libertyville to the recent assassination on the Brooklyn Bridge, tensions among racial
and ethnic groups in the United States are in volatile condition.
That this is more than academic is clear if one recalls the hand-to-hand combat
within school boards involving such issues as bilingual education and
Afrocentric curricula, the dispute over the literary canon at the college level,
or the court decisions seeking to remedy past patterns of discrimination in
voting rights cases by requiring redistricting or changes in the form of local government so as to guarantee the minority community representation in the
legislative body. In most of these cases, and others you can probably think of,
public authorities are being asked to confer some sort of official status on a
particular cultural group. Large parts of the public sense that this form of
particularism is a problem in a system based on universal values of individual
rights. Simply saying that every one must respect everyone else's ethnic identity
therefore does not solve the problem.
Furthermore, how is one to embrace cultural equality when one is aware of so many
practices one does not admire: polygamy, genital mutilation, the subordination
of women in various other ways, the rejection of life-saving science,
authoritarian social structures, ethnocentric and racist beliefs, etc. On what
occasions and in what circumstances should the practices of cultural minorities
give way to the general society's rules, regulations, and expectations? At the
same time, how can an inclusive American identity be defined so as not to
obliterate the particular cultural identities that make America's diversity so enriching? These are complex matters that require careful thought.
America, of course, has always been diverse and its diversity has always been
problematic, which is the reason for our motto, "E Pluribus Unum."We take pride
in the fact that our nation rests upon a commitment to individual equality and
democracy rather than upon ethnicity, but we worry about cohesion, and we bounce
back and forth along the continuum between the assimilation implied by the
"melting pot" myth and the persistence of pre-American cultural identities assumed by the metaphor of the national quilt or the mosaic.
What is our image of the America of the 21st century? What kind of American do
we wish to be? Is America to become, as Arjun Appadurai worries (Public
Culture, Spring, 1993), a collection of exiled groups whose members have loyalties only to their own group or perhaps to their homeland rather than to the
United States? Are we to be a nation of exiles rather than a nation of
immigrants? Should our image be of an undifferentiated America of "melting pot"
individuals without any hy phenated identity? Can it be an America of shared
values and commitments that nonetheless retains the modulation of cultural
differences, an America in which we are all American and something else? Can we
define what Henry Louis Gates calls "humanism," which starts not with a particular identity "but with the capacity to identify with. It asks what we have
in common with others, while acknowledging the diversity among ourselves. It is
about the promise of shared humanity. "
Can we identify those values and commitments we need to share if we are to be a
successful society? Is a belief in the Constitution and our political system
enough to hold us together with out violent friction between members of different
groups? To what extent can any incluslve national identity enlist our loyalties
if it does not squarely face the issue of social justice? If equal opportunity
is to be part of the American ideal, shouldn't we talk about the extent to which
it does not exist and how to bridge the gap between ideal and reality?
There is not one of our considerable number of social ills that would not be
considerably im proved if each of us felt a sense of responsibility for the
whole. I was in Savannah, Georgia not long ago visiting some N.E.H. funded
projects and I learned about an oral history projecr that is reclaiming the past
of a residential community called Cuyler Brownsville. One of the people
interviewed remembered his childhood in that neighborhood. His memory was that it
was the kind of place where "everybody's momma could whip everybody's kid." I
can't think of a better definition of community or of civic virtue than that.
Everybody looks out for everyone else, feels responsible for everyone else. It
would be utopian to aspire to the same level of community spirit on a national
level, of course, but some analogous sense of identification with the whole is
Two things are required if each of us is to be willing to subordinate our
individual self-interests on occasion to the good of the whole: we must feel a
part of the whole, and we must see in that whole some moral purpose that is
greater than the individual. Our problem is our inadequate awareness of what
might be called the sacred order that underlies the social order and is the
source of legitimate authority in the social order.
At an earlier defining moment in the nation's history, on the eve of the outbreak
of the Civil War, Abraham L.incoln, speaking between his electlon and his inauguration, in Philadelphia in Independence Hall where the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution had been drafted, found the meaning of America
in itS mlssion of being the exemplar for the world of the ideals of human freedom
and equality set forth in those great documents. On that occasion, Lincoln said,
"I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept
this [Union] so long together. It was not the mere matter of rhe separation of
the colonies from the motherland; but hope to the world for all future time. It
was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from
the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." It was not
only about slavery but about slavery as a violation of the principles of
democracy and the sanctity of the Union because with the Union rested the world's
hope for democracy.
The Civil War thus became a test of whether democracy, with its promise of
liberty and equality, could survive, whether the last best hope on earth could
endure. Returning to this theme two and a half brutal years later at the
dedication of the military cemetery in Gettysburg, Lincoln declared that
defending the Union was worth the sacrifices exacted by that terrible struggle
because the sacrifices made possible "a new birth of freedom." The challenge
of our time is to revitalize our civic life in order to realize a new birth of
freedom. All of our people—left, right and center—have a responsibility to
examine and discuss what unites us as a country, about what we share as common
American values in a nation comprised of so many divergent groups and beliefs.
For too long, we have let what divides us capture the headlines and sound bites,
polarizing us rather than bringing us together.
The conversation that I envision will not be easy. Cornel West, for instance,
writes that "confused citizens now oscillate between tragic resignation and
vigorous attempts to hold at bay their feelings of impotence and powerlessness.
Public life seems barren and vacuous. And gallant efforts to reconstruct public
mindedness in a Balkanized society of proliferating identities and
constituencies seem farfetched, if not futile. Even the very art of public
conversation—the precious activity of communicating with fellow citizens in a
spirit of mutual respect and civility—appears to fade amid the backdrop of
name-calling and finger-point ing in flat sound-bites."
Despite the difficulties, the conversation must proceed. The objectives are too
important to abandon. What I envision is a national conversation open to all
Americans, a conversation in which all voices need to be heard and in which we
must struggle seriously to define the meaning of American pluralism. It is a conversation that is desperately needed, and the National Endowment for the
Humanities is in the process of encouraging that conversation through a special
program of grants, through a film intended for national broadcast on television
but which will also be repackaged for use in the nation's classrooms, through
the ongoing activities of the state humanities councils, and through creative
partnerships with organizations throughout the country that can help to
stimulate and facilitate the discussion among citizens from all walks of life.
This will be a risky enterprise, because the N.E.H. comes only with questions,
not answers. The outcome is therefore unpredictable, contingent as it is on the
course of the discussion and on what we learn from each other as we talk.
However large the challenge, I believe we must reconstruct pub like-mindedness in
America. Without a sense of shared values, individuals are not willing to subordinate personal self-interest to the common good. Our first step out of the
moral nihilism of our public and private lives is to define our common identity
and to find in it a moral purpose that is worthy of our loyalty.
Fortunately, there is some evidence of the continuing power of the idea of
America that has moved generations of our people to sacrifice in order to build a
better life not just for themselves and people like themselves but for others,
that has called forth the best in Americans in national crises, that has enlarged
our sense of ourselves so that we more nearly approximate the universal ideals
set forth in our founding documents. When the American Jewish Committee wanted to
rally public support against the sort of intolerance preached by the Nation of
Islam, it called upon familiar rhetoric that reveals a particular conception of
America and its civic values.
"We are Americans, whose diversity of faith, ethnicity and race unites us in a
common campalgn against bigotry," (read the copy of the advertisement that ran in
the New York Times [February 28, 1994] over an impressive and diverse array of
"We are Americans, who know the rights and dignity of all of us are jeopardized when those of any of us are challenged.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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