American International Dissociation and the Melting Pot


Cartoon by O’Farrell

One of my readers asked me a while ago to give my take on the apparent ambiguity between the American “melting pot” diversity and America’s dissociation from the rest of the world.  Well, here it is.  My take. I’m fully aware that I’m generalizing the heck out of this, but the question itself is generalizing, so that makes it totally okay.

To begin with, I think that diversity and the melting pot are not necessarily the same thing. Diversity implies that there are differences, while a melting pot implies that differences dissolve into one big soup. There is a bit of both going on. Immigrants want to hold on to their culture, which creates the diversity. At the same time there are aspects of their culture that they will have to drop or soften in order to be accepted in American society, which is the melting-pot effect.

Ellis Island, where immigrants’ names were often Americanized (Photo: constitutioncenter.org)

The elements of their culture that  immigrants have to drop are often things Americans don’t find convenient.

For instance, Americans have been taught pretty much from birth that America is the best country in the world. Being Dutch, I get the heebie-jeebies when I hear anyone talk about any country being the best in the world, and I absolutely refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag. (If you want to know why, read my posts on the Netherlands in World War Two, starting here.)

And not pledging allegiance is fine, as long as my kids are in private school. But if they were in public school, or if I wanted to work in public school (and keep my job), and if we didn’t want to be frowned upon, we would have to give up that principle and pledge allegiance to the American flag. Or at least pretend to.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

So the melting-pot effect doesn’t mean Americans learn anything about my country, my culture or the lessons we learned from our history. The few times that I have tried to explain to people why I refuse to pledge allegiance to a flag, they stop listening at the words “Hitler Youth” and stomp off and/or shun me from then on. So I think that the melting pot effect is in part the result of intolerance toward differences and toward hearing things they don’t want to hear.

(Only in part, though, because in order for a country to function, there have to be certain things that everyone adapts to. The law of the land has to stand, so Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands should expect to be prosecuted if they commit honor killings, for example. And in my opinion it’s just common sense that a country has a common language that everyone is expected to learn. Amazingly, this is still being debated in America.)

I guess my point is that the whole melting-pot phenomenon is the result of people having to leave (part of) their identity at the door when they come to America. So the dissociation is already there and it prevents too much information coming in with immigrants.

Americans could, in theory, go out and learn about the world firsthand, and diminish the national dissociation from the world in that way. But they don’t travel abroad often enough and in large enough numbers. Geographically it’s harder to travel to too many countries; it takes so damn long just to get to the ocean if you live in, say, Wyoming. And then you still have to cross the ocean. Combine that with the lack of money and time Americans have to spend on vacations, and travel abroad is just not viable for most.

When Americans do travel abroad, it’s often to Europe. They have one, two, or if they’re very lucky, all of three measly weeks for the trip of their lifetime. It probably won’t happen again. They will only see Europe once, so they have to see as much as possible. Meaning, of course, that they end up seeing not much more than the bus that takes them from the Eiffel Tower to the tulips in Holland, etc.

No Dutch person would be seen dead in these tourist clogs (Photo tripsite.com)

They take pictures of one another in front of the Eiffel Tower and the tulips as proof that they were there, and then it’s on to the next thing. Traveling that way is not conducive to getting a feel for a place, because there’s no time to just look around and look closely, let alone to talk to anyone for any length of time. So how would you learn anything about the countries you visit and the people who live there?

Years ago, a couple at one of the kids’ schools told me they had been to Europe on vacation over the summer. These were relatively wealthy Americans: a lawyer and his wife. I asked them how they liked it and they said they enjoyed it, but they were shocked at the fact that there was no middle class.

WHAT?! (I made the mistake of thinking that out loud, which took them aback, to say the least.)

Europe’s middle class is much larger than that of America, and much more stable. But no one ever told them that; on the contrary, people like Glenn Beck tell them over and over that Europe doesn’t have a middle class. They are not there long enough to realize that what they think are rich people are actually mostly middle class people to European standards. Americans have their ingrained belief in what America is and what the rest of the world is, and even when they venture outside the country, their visit is so short that they learn nothing.

Then there is the (often seeming) lack of curiosity on Americans’ part. When Dutch friends visited us years ago, we took them to dinner to meet some of our American friends. After dinner, one of my Dutch friends commented on the fact that none of our American friends asked them a single thing about Holland. Whenever someone from another country comes to Holland, they get asked 1001 questions, and she was just flabbergasted at the lack of curiosity.

I have now lived here long enough to know that it’s not necessarily a lack of curiosity, although that can definitely be the case. Americans, for all their talk, are quite aware of their ignorance concerning the rest of the world, and they’re afraid it will show if they ask questions. And so it’s a vicious cycle; the dissociation remains, but in this case not necessarily because of a sense of national superiority.

Now to undo some of my blatant generalizations.

NPR had an item in July about the increasing number of young Americans who go abroad. This will gradually change Americans’ outlook, as it changed Australians’ outlook when, decades ago, it became an accepted rite of passage for young Australians to spend a year traveling the world, or at least Europe.

Image: advis.nl

And I do think that it’s beginning to show. In 1981, there was a mass demonstration in Amsterdam. Reagan wanted to put more short-range nuclear missiles on Dutch soil, which made us a prime target in his cold war with Russia. People from all walks of life and all political parties came together to tell our government to kick those American missiles out.

Around that time an American relative, whose existence was news to us, visited while he was touring Europe after college, and he asked what all the hoopla was about. When we explained to him that it was easy for Reagan to up the ante when it was us Europeans who ran the risk of getting bombed, and that we’d had enough, his jaw dropped.

He said that he had never put two and two together. There was the Europe that was just a spot on the map behind the news anchor when the Soviet-American relations were discussed on TV and then there was the Europe of the Eiffel Tower and the tulips. He had never realized that actual flesh-and-blood people lived in these “geopolitical regions”. And  now here he was, amongst them, and they were scared and angry. It was the eye-opener of his young American life.

Unless you actively stick your head in the sand, squeeze your eyes shut, put your fingers in your ears and yell “Lalalalala,” or if you turn on Fox “News” and have them do it for you, I think the level of dissociation of that eighties college graduate is hard to maintain nowadays, what with Internet and Facebook. And Twitter feeds from war zones–not just by journalists, but by students, housewives and other regular folks. It’s this kind of information that makes the world real, even if you can’t travel or haven’t had an education that helps put people, places and events into a context.

So I do think that American dissociation from the rest of the world will become less–is already becoming less–but I don’t think it will be because of the melting-pot phenomenon. To a certain degree immigrants will always be considered guests in America and are expected to behave as such, and if they don’t, it ruffles people’s feathers. But seeing and listening to people online or in travels abroad, who–ironically enough–are not necessarily addressing America or Americans, is what will gradually connect everyone. I hope.

image: wikipedia

Well, by now you could probably do with some meligheid. I know I can. Click here.

I would love to know what you think, even about old posts.

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