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Weekend Perspectives: What makes us Americans?

We must rise above hyphenations for a mature understanding

Saturday, November 20, 1999

By Sam Hazo

A few years ago, I was discussing with a class of college seniors how important it was to be accurate in both their spoken and written words. "Suppose," I asked, "that someone wanted to know your nationality. How would you answer?" One by one the answers came: Slovak, Croatian, German-Irish, Italian-Lebanese, Greek, Jewish, English-Swiss and so on.

  Sam Hazo, Pennsylvania's state poet, is director of the International Poetry Forum and McAnulty Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Duquesne University. 

Only one student (the only black student in the class, by the way) said, "American," which in fact was what everyone in the class was. When I pointed out that only he was accurate in his answer, the rest of the class said I had loaded the question since I asked them to identify themselves by nationality. My response was that nationality meant and means only one thing - the nation to which a person owes allegiance and of which he or she is a citizen.

They persisted by equating nationality with ethnic heritage, eventually settling for hyphenations like Italo-American, Polish-American, Irish-American and the like.

Finally, I asked them what they would write in the space marked nationality on a passport or how would they respond if they were in France or China and had to identify themselves by nationality? Silence prevailed at that point, and the discussion ended.

One of the latent residuals in American life has always been the persistence of ethnic identity that exists as the numerator to the denominator of political allegiance. In what the multiculturalists among us are content to call our multicultural society, this strain of various ethnicities and, of course, races has been made to appear equivalent to citizenship itself.

The result has been the aforementioned tendency to hyphenate - Hispanic-American, Afro-American, etc. The contradicting fact of the matter is that our country has never had nor can have a blood base. There are some pessimists who say the American experiment will finally fail because of that "lack."

But what differentiates ethnicity and citizenship is clear. Ethnic identity is one thing. Constitutional allegiance is another. One is sociological. The other is political. Equating them is a step in the wrong democratic direction.

Who, for example, refers to Thomas Jefferson as our great Welsh-American president? Or to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as Dutch-American presidents? Or to Lincoln as our English-Scottish-and-possibly-American Indian president?

Or, in unpresidential terms, who would, in the inevitable intermarriage patterns that are mathematically possible in American society, identify themselves as a Greek-Scandinavian-Cherokee-Finnish-Lithuanian-Creole American?

Suffice it to say that ethnic and racial identities will continue to be part of the woof of American life, and, to the extent that they do not translate into chauvinism or mindless tribalism, this is to be expected.

Nonetheless, the only thing that can prevent ethnicity or race from chauvinism or tribalism is a transcendent political identity. In the United States, this has always been equated with constitutional allegiance.

Contrarily, Russia (formerly known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) attempted to unify the multiple ethnicities and races on its huge land mass (11 time zones wide) by the glue of communist ideology. Obedience to this ideology was enforced by the KGB, threats of internal exile, imprisonment in Siberia or the gulags. When the center no longer held, the USSR disintegrated, and many of the varied components became loyal only to themselves.

The same disintegration happened in what commentators euphoniously call "the former Yugoslavia." The component parts that Tito forcibly "united" crawled back into themselves (Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, etc.), then became in some cases defiantly and aggressively tribal and even began to war on one another. Identity was defined by blood-lines, by religious beliefs, by village or by womb. The shift from animosity and aggression to ethnic cleansing was only a demagogue away.

As much as ethnicity has contributed to the quilting of America and a unique and wholesome multiplicity of customs and cuisines that we can rightly enjoy and even brag about, it assumes, as does religion, a different character when it becomes politicized. It becomes estranged from its true nature.

When politicians and pollsters begin addressing themselves to blocs of voters defined only by heritage or race of whatever stripe, they are not doing the political process a favor. And voters who respond to such pandering merely aid and abet this regression.

Although the Anglo-Saxon origins of the United States are responsible for our language, laws, much of our architecture, our political structures and numerous city and state names, a country as diverse as ours is held together not by who came here first any more than it is by threats of government reprisal, big-brotherism or punishment. It gains its unity through the consent of the governed and the indispensable bonds of public trust.

Such public trust is never measured in fractions. It is total, or, as in friendships or marriages, it does not exist at all. This is essentially America's social contract. Where consent and public trust are discounted, life reverts to less desirable consequences. Witness the Aryan nation where Americanism is defined by genes. Witness the intolerable claims of private gangs over public streets and neighborhoods on the basis of gang membership alone. Witness the ghetto-ization - even in universities - of "minority" groups on the basis of sex, race, ethnic origins or vegetarianism.

It's small wonder why we Americans see more in sports than mere sports, and more in education than education itself. Sports and education seem to be democratic in the most definitive sense since in each case the athletes or the students can go as far as their talents or brains can take them.

If the social order of American life is ever weakened or rent so that public trust degenerates or vanishes entirely (is the proliferation and ownership of guns but one symptomatic defense mechanism in the minds of those who expect an unraveling?), then it's not farfetched to assume that many people might fall back on what differentiates them and not what unites them.

Archibald MacLeish once wrote that being an American is difficult, and he was right. Being an American is never equatable with George C. Scott as Gen. Patton hectoring in front of a flag the size of the Bronx. It implies a mature understanding of constitutional principles, the Bill of Rights and other charters upon which the civility of our public life is based. It implies a poetic vision like Whitman's or Hart Crane's or Robert Frost's of the country's real destiny.

These are not matters that can be reduced to cheerleading hyphenations of any kind. Nor can they flourish without being given our total attention and allegiance in theory and, above all, defiantly in practice. The office of citizen requires no less.

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