Enrichment Assimilation

INTRODUCTION

A following series of posts are derived from an unpublished book chapter that I began as an essay around 2008, long before the current milieu of hate crime resurgence in the United States. The resurgence threatens to distort our views of a bigger picture of multiculturalism. Partly because I’ve spent so many years reading history, I tend to adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward current events. I am particularly averse to predictions. Many have repeated the quote, “the past is prelude,” but prelude to what? We can never be sure. So what does the future hold for the recent surge in xenophobic white nationalism? We can fear the worst, hope for the best, try to prepare for one outcome or another . . . but in all cases I remain guardedly optimistic that the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and many other entities and a great many individuals will continue to do due diligence in maintaining our constitutional rights despite those threatening them. Without the Constitution, the USA is surely lost.

Having said that, I’ll assume my admittedly tiny readership will have at least some basic knowledge of American History for understanding the background for the Enrichment Assimilation series. But here are some of the basics.

One of the most prominent features of the United States is its much-noted characteristic as a land of immigrants. Also vitally important is how the United States was and is a product of the 18th century Enlightenment. Many may take today’s idea of “all people created equal” for granted, but this was actually a radical concept during the 1700s, contributing to major sociopolitical upheavals, probably none more profound than the French Revolution. And although Protestant Christianity was a major cultural force in America’s colonial period and afterward, philosophical principles from the Enlightenment pervaded the Constitution, the nation’s foundational document of law and jurisprudence.

Think of Thomas Jefferson’s preferred legacy. He had little interest in being remembered as one of the nation’s presidents. Instead, he wanted to be remembered for three other things: as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia — and, as author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The latter was a key document still very much pertinent in the ongoing vital principle separating church and state.

Racism has been an unfortunate aspect of American history going back to its earliest colonies. Until recently, “nativism” was a far lesser known bigotry, at least among my pre-Trump era students. Nativism is mainly xenophobia, a prejudice against outsiders. One of the themes throughout American history has been immigrants arriving, then their descendants wishing to slam the door on subsequent immigrants. It’s the old theme of, “Now that we’ve found paradise, you stay out of it, lest you spoil it for us.” This attitude also happens within American states, especially in the West after World War II, where a fear of “Californication” saw earlier state residents of (say) Colorado or Washington fear massive population increases and consequent decreases in quality of life with increased vehicular traffic, too many crowds, sub-developments in previous farm or forest lands, rising housing costs, higher property taxes, etc. If you remember western Washington or the mountainous portions of Colorado from the 1960s and 1970s, you already know what has come to pass.

On a national scale, the nadir of nativism was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was when the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan arose (the first, immediately following the Civil War). The second iteration of the Klan was as much anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic as it was racist. Nativism was then practically synonymous with the sociocultural phenomenon we call WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It is ironic that many (if not most) of the so-called WASPs were not descendant from Anglo-Saxons at all, but at some earlier point in American history “Anglo-Saxon” seemed to become shorthand for “white.” Most of the “whites” in the American South (a stronghold of the Klan) were actually descendant from Irish Sea immigrants, which included northern English, Irish, Scots-proper, and Scots-Irish (also called the Ulster Irish). And never mind that the original “English” were Celts, and that the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) did not begin immigrating en masse to England until the 5th century.

Few WASPs were interested in such nuances of history. What they were interested in was opposing immigration, political franchise, and economic opportunities for anyone except fellow WASPs.

Naturally I have a very different view, so I might as well mention the philosophy of moral cosmopolitanism. I’m a big fan. The moral cosmopolitan philosophy basically recognizes a universal human nature in which we all have the same basic needs and wants: education for our children, decent employment opportunities, life in a healthy physical environment, the fundamentals for survival, and so forth. It is not difficult to appreciate. In other words, we’re not all that different, regardless of endless cultural variations upon a common theme.

“Cosmopolitan” literally means “citizen of the world.” In western culture, the idea gained wings during the Hellenistic period of Greek history when the previously provincial polis (city-state) lost its political autonomy after Alexander the Great incorporated Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, et al, into a growing if brief empire. Ultimately the Romans inherited this legacy by coupling the eastern Greek-speaking peoples with the western Latin-speaking peoples into their republic, and then into their empire. At that point, it made a lot of sense for philosophers to embrace the cosmopolitan idea. A great many people had become citizens (or at least residents) of a much wider world.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is an example of a contemporary philosopher of moral cosmopolitanism. (David Shankbone’s 2007 photograph from Wikimedia Commons).

Today, moral cosmopolitans embrace things like an open-minded benevolence toward our fellow human beings, grounded in Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality. I see moral cosmopolitanism as a central antidote to racism, provincialism, and (now) our unfortunate resurgence of nativism. Keeping a cautious vigilance over the latter, what follows in this Enrichment Assimilation series are mainly historical arguments touching upon the present and illustrating a brighter side of American history with a guarded hope for the future. Recent headlines have discouraged me and a great many others regarding America’s cosmopolitan potential. But probably for the rest of my life, I will cling to the subtitle of the unpublished book these posts are derived from: Enrichment Assimilation: A Lingering American Dream.

Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

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Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.