Problems of Foundational Myths – Part 2
(Context shaping American myths)
Franklin W. Knight, PhD
(9 April 2021) — All American societies represent the continual immigration of people from every continent and nation all over the globe. American societies are quintessential migration societies. The modern immigration began with the adventure – or some world say, misadventure, of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) in 1492.These immigrants came with a variety of skills and represented a plethora of occupations. Their impact on the continent from Alaska to Argentina has been undeniably phenomenal.
Not surprising, the coming together of those immigrants contributed to the construction of a hybrid or plural society. In the United States the consequence has been described as a melting pot.
The Myth of America as a melting pot
The third foundational myth about the United States of America may be found in the widely held belief that the country has, over the past centuries, produced a veritable melting pot for immigrants and their cultures. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
America has been a magnet for new immigrants since 1492, long before the establishment of the USA. But with the invention of steamships immigration assumed a phenomenal global dimension.
The attraction for an American aspiration of open-handedness to would-be immigrants to the USA was reflected in the poem of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), quoted in part at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor;
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched of your teeming shores.
Send these: the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Despite that proclamation on the Statue of Liberty, not all immigrants were accepted with equally enthusiastic welcome to the USA.
Throughout the long history of immigration, would-be immigrants to the USA were always ranked hierarchically and accepted differentially. Those of European ancestry were always given preference. Africans and Asians found themselves consistently at the bottom of the hierarchy.
It is very hard, therefore, to believe that with such a diverse attitude to the peoples of the wider world that the United States would really become a “melting pot.”
As a student once told me, a far better metaphor would be a pizza. A melting pot thoroughly integrates the ingredients making it almost impossible to recover the original components. With a pizza, however, all the ingredients are easily recognized and fully recoverable before consumption.
So, the United States identifies and maintains a separation between its immigrants, illustrated by the assignation of hyphens suggestive of place of origin or skin pigmentation. The use of hyphens and other invidious distinctions for immigrant groups undermines the construction of a viable plural society. Besides, it denies the irrefutable realty of the United States as a plural and multicultural society. Hence, no melting pot here.
The Myth of America as the Paragon of democracy
The fourth foundational myth, of America as the paragon of democracy, has more reason for being.
It is fashionable to describe the USA as a democracy and that description certainly has considerable merit. The ideals and the institutions set up by the founding fathers were as original as they were superb. They set the basis for a functional, democratic society with equality before the law, and a balancing of responsibilities between legislative, executive and judiciary that boded well for social and political stability.
But excellent as they were for their times, building a democratic society is not like building a house. Democracy is a process; and the quest for the democratic society remains an endless pursuit.
The origin of the term, democracy, derives from the way early Greek city states organized and conducted their government. Over time the system evolved. Essential to any democracy is the right of the people to select their government and to have regular opportunities to change the members of that government.
From 1788 the USA has had regular presidential elections every four years. After two terms in office, George Washington gracefully retired, establishing the long precedent of a graceful succession – until Donald Trump violated the tradition in 2021. Considering that some of these elections were tumultuous, the tradition of a predictable peaceful transition of power did much to enhance the reputation of the USA as a standard-bearer for democracy – despite the fact that a large proportion of its inhabitants were prohibited from voting.
The institutional division of power and the general acceptance of the results of elections projected the impression of political stability. Moreover, until recently the mistaken impression that the rule of law was inviolable in the USA further reinforced the general impression that the USA was a model of democratic government. It had political stability, strong legal institutions, and mandated elections to political office. On paper it looked a state in which everyone was equal before the law; and government was by the people and for the people. In the United States democracy seemed to work.
It was easy to support the myth of that democracy when the USA was also an unrivalled global economic power. And such it was after the Second World War when the USA controlled about sixty percent of the world’s manufacturing capacity.
But times have changed.
The USA may still be the world’s supreme military power. It remains the foremost economic power. And the attraction of its general support of law and order remains. Nevertheless, its imperial era draws inevitably to an end and the signs of an inexorable, internal disintegration are manifest everywhere. Even law and order are disputed.
As politicians shamefully try to exclude voters from electoral participation and shamelessly manipulate electoral districts, it becomes progressively more difficult to assert that the USA remains an admired democracy where every individual vote matters – notwithstanding that that was never the case.
The Congress has become an exclusive club of selected wealthy plutocrats whose narrow pursuit appears to be more the quest of personal gain rather than the prosecution of the common good. They no longer try to represent the people. Their opulent offices, flamboyant lifestyles, extensive privileges and excessive retirement benefits distinguish them as a special group set far apart from the rest of the population.
Even as the congress refuses to legislate a minimum living wage for the majority of the population at large they give themselves an automatic annual wage increase that often significantly surpasses the cost-of-living index. Yet they never consider how difficult it must be for the lower orders of society to make do on wages that often fall below the poverty line of $40,000 per year.
While the members of congress enjoy ample health benefits for life, the citizens of the country are forced to put up with an uneven patchwork of inadequate private insurance and public policies. Indeed, the pandemic has exposed the poor general state of the USA health delivery system.
Democracy requires a strong sense of public service and a constant sensibility to the welfare of the general public. But both sense and sensibility appear to be diminishing rapidly these days. The country seems to be slowly dissolving into a state, described by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his Leviatan (published 1651) where “life is nasty, brutish and short.”
Having lived through the English civil war, Hobbes knew something about chaotic politics and short and nasty human lives.
The USA emerged as a strong model for the forging of political democracy in the late eighteenth century. In the early twentieth century, according to an index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the USA does not rank among the top twenty democratic states in the world. That the USA should rank below European states such as Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland or Denmark is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that it should be considered less democratic than New Zealand or Australia.
Yet it is most surprising to consider the USA as being less democratic than hemispheric neighbors such as Canada, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile.
The United States has been a country of immigrants from its inception. Today it is a plural and multicultural society. And it is constantly becoming more diverse. That is an inevitable changing reality that has not yet penetrated the political power system. Nor is that fact widely accepted by the general public. But it will. As that realty inevitably changes, the need to re-examine the relationship between the foundational myths and contemporary problems becomes increasingly more urgent.
About that there can be no dispute.
[Franklin W. Knight is currently Leonard and Helen R Stulman Professor Emeritus and Academy Professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore where he taught for 43 years. Born in Jamaica, he attended Calabar High School, the University of the West Indies, Mona (BA Hons., 1964), and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (MA (1965), PhD. (1969). He has published widely on the social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as slave systems in a global perspective. His publications include 13 books, 108 professional articles, and 184 refereed reviews in professional journals.]
© 2021 The Ward Post/Franklin W. Knight