So, I used to work as a flak in politics, and here’s something I learned. If a candidate wanted to get a controversial opinion out there—say a racially marked dig at an opponent—here is how they might do it: get an unpaid advisor to make the remark for print but not attribution and then deny that the advisor either got it right or even exists. (And, no, my former boss would never stoop that low. That would not reflect her values, and, besides, it wasn’t her style.) Of course, the news outlet will never trust you again, but if you care so little for their opinion that you have (impeccably non-Anglo) surrogates willing to say for attribution that the foreign press just doesn’t count, then you can deny, deny and amplify the original message at the same time.
Yes, of course I mean Romney and the Anglo-Saxon thing. And, no, I have no inside info to offer, just an educated guess as to what might have happened. I bring it up, the ensuing discussion about Romney’s comments highlights an old struggle for the meaning and soul of our country. There at least two competing visions of what the United States is and ought to be.
For some of us, our country is knit together by our Constitution, our secular brit. It offers itself as the first and last stop for people, like the ancestors of most American Jews, who seek a new start and are willing to work for it. In this USA, there is no right way to ‘look American’, bagels are as all-American as pizza and egg rolls, and the government is obliged to respect all religions while promoting none. It is a country whose first president, in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport Rhode Island, wrote that, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” This USA gains the depth of its culture from waves of immigration that revitalize our economy and our daily life. It is not an ethnic state or a religious one, but a polity bound by a social contract.
For others of our compatriots, the United States is a white Anglo-Saxon Christian country, meaning that preserving the (current) ethnic and religious majority is the same as preserving our way of life. Some people who believe that also think that ‘minorities’ ought to, while deferring culturally without making a fuss about it, be granted legal equality with regard to employment and other opportunities, and others think that such guarantees represent an intolerable intrusion of government into the marketplace. Some, like the notorious Pat Buchanan, are pretty flat-footed about their irritation at Jews and others who fail to be sufficiently grateful for “toleration”. Others won’t go that far, but they do not see our country’s astonishing diversity as a gift. They see it as a threat to what they understand the essence of the USA to be.
I adhere to the first position, but I don’t want to romanticize it. Our vision for the future requires honesty about the past.
The reason that any Anglo-Saxon ‘nativist’ vision of the United States is bound to be incoherent is that the founding of our nation rendered those Natives who survived the expansion a minority in what had been their land. (Re: the Bering Strait migration and whose bones are oldest—so not the point.) It’s also the case that those slaves from Africa whose labor was essential to building the American cotton industry were brought by force. They were always as much a part of this country as any Anglo-Saxon (or Americans of French, German, Irish or Jewish descent), but their condition was made different by law and custom. Let’s not forget that the narrative of an Anglo-Saxon country arose out of that difference. Or that it was the creative—dare I say Talmudic—reading of our Constitution by great Americans like Frederick Douglass who discerned possibilities for freedom and equality in the document that had ratified slavery—and pushed that vision into national consciousness and practice.
Jews and other willing immigrants have found great opportunity here. One reason for that is has been their willingness to earn it. Another reason is that the lowest rungs on the social ladder were always already taken. How can we not identify with those whose situation is the one our ancestors escaped? We don’t vote like Puerto Ricans (unless we are, like a significant number of us, actually from Puerto Rico). We vote like Jews. History puts us on the side of side of those who are expanding the American narrative; be they Muslims who wish to build a place of worship or students who wish only to contribute their excellence to the life we are building together.