Early in 1943, the editor of an African American newspaper in Minneapolis watched his only son prepare to enter the army. The profoundly mixed emotions of that moment inspired that journalist, Cecil Newman, to write an editorial under the headline “War Gets Closer to Home.”
Newman acknowledged the near-impossibility of giving a “pep talk filled with platitudes that sound empty.” His son Oscar had traveled through the South and seen that “democracy means one thing for whites and another for Negroes.”
Yet in the pages of the Spokesman, the newspaper that Newman had founded with his earnings as a Pullman porter, he also presented a deeply American argument for military service.
“Sure, son, we don’t expect you to fight for what your people are receiving today,” he put it, “but fight, pray, and hope that the sacrifices you and others will make raise our common country in reality to the lofty heights described and prescribed in our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.”
Twenty years later, Rabbi Joachim Prinz stood at a bank of microphones in front of the Lincoln Memorial to address hundreds of thousands of people attending the March on Washington. Referring to the descent of his German homeland into Nazism, he spoke of the “painful historical experience” that informed his passionate support of civil rights. Then he turned his words to his adopted country.
“America must not become a nation of onlookers,” Prinz declared. “America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the president down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea, and the aspiration of America itself.”
Nearly 40 more years later, in 2001, a Chicago congressman of Puerto Rican descent, Luis Gutiérrez, introduced a bill to allow students who were undocumented immigrants to be shielded from deportation and granted permanent legal residency under certain criteria.
Four months later, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced a companion bill in that chamber under the title of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.” Thus was born the DREAM Act, and over the subsequent years, the millions of eligible young people have taken to calling themselves Dreamers.
Quite obviously, they were linking themselves to the concept of the “American Dream,” one that traced back at least 200 years.
I cite these three examples from recent history by way of making a necessary point about Tuesday’s midterm elections and all the battles ahead against the Trump presidency and the entire movement of white nationalism, indeed white supremacy, that has enabled it.
Trump has succeeded in the dismal and ahistorical effort to turn nationalism into a synonym for white nationalism, which itself is a wink-and-nod euphemism for white supremacy. Those of us on the liberal or progressive or Democratic or merely rational side of the political spectrum need language with which to fight back.
In academic circles, it may be perfectly adequate to condemn nationalism as the cause of all that has ailed the world, and to identify the nation-state as the locus of intolerance. (Though people like me, who came of age during the 1960s and 70s, can recall when liberation movements based on national self-determination were the very epitome of left-wing political theory.)
For that matter, Trump’s version of nationalism might better be described as ultra-nationalism. In a formulation that I have heard attributed to the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, nationalism can unify a country against external threats, while ultra-nationalism divides a country against illusory internal threats. Which is precisely what Trump has done with Muslims, Central American immigrants, journalists, “anchor babies” and Jews, otherwise known as “globalists.”
But in the political arena, the counterpoint to even a radioactive idea cannot be no idea at all. Nor is it remotely sufficient to rhapsodize, as some scholars and acolytes do, about the halcyon days of multi-ethnic empires like the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian. What was a content existence for an internal minority by the standards of previous centuries hardly qualifies as citizenship by any modern measures.
So the antidote to nationalism, Trump-style, is Americanism. Americanism is a means of belonging to the greater whole that puts no value whatsoever on blood and soil. It is always dynamic, never static. It calls on the highest American ideals as the corrective to the vilest American actions.
Cecil Newman, Joachim Prinz, Luis Gutierrez, Dick Durbin and, yes, even the long-lost previous incarnation of Orrin Hatch all knew that. Martin Luther King knew it when he rooted his dream in the American Dream. Woody Guthrie knew it when he wrote that “this land is your land, this land is my land” — a sentiment whose bold assertion has been unfortunately effaced by the song’s tuneful familiarity.
America bears two original sins, those of African slavery and Native genocide. And America enjoys one state of grace, which is its tradition of immigration. Americanism has allowed this nation, however imperfectly, with however many fits and starts, to at least strive to repent for its sins by how it can include all of its present and former “others.”
The efforts to rectify and redeem America included the Emancipation Proclamation, the birthright citizenship established by the 14th Amendment, women’s suffrage, and the 1965 immigration law that reopened the Golden Door after decades of harsh restriction and shifted preference to family ties from the national-origins system rigged against Jews, Catholics and nonwhites.
The models of the melting pot and cultural pluralism are not really mutually exclusive. Rather, at different moments in American history, they offered two visions of how this land could embrace and accommodate its range of races, religions, and ethnic origins.
To call that process Americanism is geographically appropriate, too, for blood and soil and ethnic purity have been European values, values of the Old World. Virtually every country in the New World of the western hemisphere — Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, just for starters — has in its own flawed way at least attempted to be e pluribus unum.
Once already within my living memory, during the New Left years, our side handed over the symbol of the flag and the ideal of patriotism to conservatives. We paid a terrible electoral price in the form of Richard Nixon’s election and what his presidency wrought — the Watergate scandal and more than 20,000 additional American deaths in Vietnam, just for starters.
We cannot make the same mistake twice, not with a president and political party that make Nixon and his era’s GOP look like centrist Democrats by comparison. And we cannot win the votes we need without making our case that America, our country, our home, is far better than a vision of nationalism that harks not to our greatest days but our worst.
Samuel G. Freedman, an occasional contributor to the Sun-Times, is a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of eight books.
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