Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I started a new book yesterday - Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, by Gordon S. Wood. I was drawn to it partly because of my general interest in American history, and partly because it contains a chapter on Aaron Burr, the first famous American traitor. As it happens, if you follow my maternal family tree back far enough, you will find Aaron Burr sitting out on one of the branches...it's not an especially good thing to have a traitor as one's ancestor, but it does give me a personal connection to early American history that makes me want to learn more about those days.

A mere four pages into the book the author writes that, "The United States was founded on a set of beliefs and not, as were other nations, on a common ethnicity, language, or religion." This is a very simple, but very profound statement that's worth thinking about for a minute.

Arab Muslims and Jews are fighting each other in Lebanon and Gaza. In Iraq, Sunni and Shia Muslims are murdering each other at a rapid pace. Muslims and Hindus don't get along in South Asia. Catholics and Protestants coexist warily in Northern Ireland. Hutus and Tutsis massacre each other regularly in Rwanda. Serbs and Croats need NATO troops to keep them apart in Bosnia. Blacks and whites in southern Africa struggle to overcome a legacy of colonialism and racism, not always successfully. And so on.

And yet, somehow, all of these groups and many more live together in America in relative peace and tranquility. In spite of a historical legacy of slavery and institutional racism, blacks and whites in this country manage to live and work together. In any town of any size, you can find numerous churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in which people of every religion you can think of can worship as they want. And while you can find Little Italy, Little Saigon, Little Ethiopia, Little Havana, or Chinatown in many large cities, the members of all these national and ethnic groups mix and mingle with a minimum of rancor.

Why is it so different here?

As Gordon Wood writes, America was founded on set of beliefs - in equality of opportunity and freedom of religious belief, among others - not as a haven for a particular religion or ethnic group or nationality. As a result, Americans tend to have a historical tolerance for each other's identities that has allowed us to build the most powerful and dynamic nation in history. Perfect? No. But ask yourself this question: which other country, anywhere in the world, has a problem with a vast number of people who try every means, legal and illegal, to get in?

It's not fashionable any more to talk about America as the "melting pot," where new immigrants of all types were melted down and re-formed as Americans. The new idea seems to be America as the "tossed salad," in which we are all tossed together to make a salad of many ingredients, each providing its own flavor to the whole. Whichever view you take, you have to admit that we've got a pretty good thing going here. Perfect, no. The envy (admitted or not) of the world, yes. But in spite of our problems, I can't think of anyplace in the world better to live.

This is why we need to avoid the trap of ethnic background or religious belief as the primary focus of our identity. I don't want to live in a place where my next door neighbor may want to kill me because of my name, my religion, or my skin color, and I don't think you do, either. Understand and protect what we have. Most of the rest of the world would give anything to live in the way we take for granted.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


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