The American Experiment
Last week I was horrified to read that the Senate approved a judgeship for a man who wrote a paper denouncing the American melting pot ideal. He forcefully asserted that any country with a heterogeneous population is destined to failure, and that only countries with homogeneous populations can thrive. I guess he was absent from school when his history teachers taught about the 20th Century, aka the American Century.
The people of France gave us the Statue of Liberty to light the way for immigrants to come and revitalize our nation every generation. That process worked for 400 years. Why, all of a sudden, does it stop working now? Trump says he only wants rich white immigrants, but nearly all of us Americans are descended from the poor refuse from foreign shores.
My grandparents and great grandparents came here penniless. One of my great- grandfathers worked his way up to becoming a millionaire by the age of 35. Almost all my great-grandparents’ children became millionaires and solid citizens. A number of them served our country with honor in WWII.
Being Jewish, my ancestors came here for the opportunity to escape European anti-Semitism, only to deal with a diminished form of anti-Semitism in America. This did not deter them, and they overcame the prejudice they encountered and embraced even their detractors.
My father grew up very poor in the Bronx during the depression. His parents died right after he graduated from James Monroe High School (a few years after Hank Greenberg). He knocked around New York City at very low-paying jobs for four or five years until he was drafted.
Following boot camp, he was sent to Pearl Harbor. He described Hawaii at that time as paradise (except for a few hours that December). Later on, he was stationed in Texas and then sent to Europe, where he volunteered to drive a truck full of tires to Patton at the front. Never mind that he didn’t know how to drive or even know what a clutch was. Somehow, he survived and spent the rest of the war in a mop-up squad securing towns and killing snipers.
When I asked him about the army, all he would say is that he loved it. He spent the better part of his twenties in the service. He was thrown in with other soldiers from every state in the Union—white men from all sorts of religions and backgrounds (the army would remain segregated until after the war). Anti-Semitism was rampant, but he was above that, and made friends and got respect, but mostly he grew into a man. His war experience shaped his future. Not so much the killing all around him (although I’m sure that led to his growing depression) but surviving in a world of people different from himself. This led to his becoming a successful salesman and business owner.
For the past 20 or 30 years I’ve been advocating that the U.S. reinstate the draft but expanded to include women and for jobs not necessary in the defense department. We need to fix our infrastructure, aid our inner cities, police, fire departments and hospitals, as well as our Peace Corps.
My idea was to draft every citizen upon high school graduation or their 18th birthday if they have dropped out of high school. I figured that a two-year commitment would solve the youth unemployment problem (veterans would be hired as supervisors) and give some job training and experience, after which, a GI bill could help those who want to go to college. By age 20, they would be more mature and better suited to excel in school.
The other huge benefit to this conscription is the camaraderie that would naturally occur during the two-year commitment. Maybe Americans from different backgrounds working and bonding together would widen their views enough to understand their fellow Americans, much as the GIs did during their service in in WWII. I was surprised to hear a couple of the Democratic presidential hopefuls expressing exactly this same sentiment.
We are at present, a nation divided. Difference is what makes us a rich country, but the inability to function together is threatening our very existence. This concept of sameness and difference is present in all art. I experience it daily in music. How disparate ideas can be melded seamlessly into a piece of music makes for a rich listening experience. The balance of expectation and surprise is the single most important element of both music and comedy.
I’ve had a desire for things outside my comfort zone since childhood: Chinese food, Italian food, black musicians and singers, and even my attraction to women. The exotic can be exciting and maybe even dangerous. As Duke used to say, “Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions: when it ceases to be dangerous, you don't want it.” Great artists have the ability to incorporate the most extreme opposites into a cohesive structure. Maybe we need to do that in our personal and political lives as well.
Two things you might keep in mind at the Thanksgiving table this week:
- We can agree to disagree.
- If we do argue, always leave the other person with their dignity.