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What does it mean to "be American"?

Ever since my friend Nick so eloquently raised the issue with me, I've been following the debates about our national identity, and the question of what it means to be an American.

Samuel Huntington's recent book, Who Are We?, is a book I'd like to read but, alas, haven't read yet. It's generated a lot of controversy, and I have read some of the reviews, such as this one by Tamar Jacoby.

Huntington's book is controversial because he identifies what a lot of us are afraid of: that waves of Mexicans are diluting our national identity by failing to assimilate to the American "Anglo-Protestant" identity.

I've always thought this idea was hogwash. Jacoby's review reflects many of my own views on the subject. I've never bought into the idea that there's anything particularly American about the "Anglo-Protestant" identity, whatever that might be. It's true that anglo-protestant culture was a strong influence upon early America. But as Jacoby puts it, those who confuse this sectarian identity with a general American identity are mistaking origins for essence.

This nation has welcomed waves of non-Anglo, non-Protestant immigrants for most of its history. The similarities between these prior waves of immigration and the current wave of Mexican immigration are, in my opinion, far more important than the differences. Mexicans are glad to be here. They see a land full of opportunities, and they seize them, often far more vigorously than today's Anglo-Protestants who've lived in the United States for several generations. Their children born in this country overwhelmingly learn to speak English.

We've benefitted as a nation far more than we've suffered from Mexican immigration. Suggestions like Huntington's, that we retreat behind an Anglo-Protestant "cultural fortress" (Jacoby's words) seem silly at best, and possibly pernicious.


It is my sense that acculturation is not happening as smoothly as you suggest. In the past the apparatus of assimilation was robust and Americans basically all celebrated the same holidays, revered the same cultural heroes, and had a basic sense of cultural commonality. Anglo-Protestantism was at the core of this cultural identity but it certainly was modified by waves of immigration, resulting in peculiarities like St. Patrick’s Day being celebrated as a national holiday. What has changed is the adoption of the cult of multiculturalism as one of the unifying principles in academia, business, and politics. The resulting cultural-Marxism has purged the old heroes (racists, genocidal maniacs, and male chauvinists) and the old holidays (offensively Christian), and undermined our basic shared commonality. Now vast numbers of immigrants come to work, not assimilate. The multiculturalists have taught them nothing but contempt for their new country. At current levels of immigration, the number of Mexicans in the US will equal the number of Mexicans in Mexico by 2050. Michael Barone, David Brooks, and the neo-con apparatchiks joined together in denouncing Huntington as a “nut, nativist, WASP, and Mayflower-snob.” A man with enemies like these must be on to something.

The Huntington crowd loves to point the finger at a conceptualized cultural "other" bearing a burden to assimilate and acculturate themselves to be like the Huntington crowd. In the Texas 1st grade classroom who has carries the burden of assimilation: the 2 white kids, the African American, the 10 Mexican American kids or the 10 Mexican kids? Should the teacher who immigrated from Mexico outlaw Spanish from his/her classroom and teach math in English to non-English speakers?

Now let's talk about the process of assimilation itself: well, on second thought, the literature is full of muddles so there's no telling what one person means using any of the hot-item terms.