Why Identity Politics Are Not All-American

Here is Kay Hymowitz writing at National Review correcting the notion that identity politics are “all-American”:

Unlike today’s grievance-mongers, “pressure groups” of earlier eras shared goals and a sense of national identity.

. . .

The United States has always been a nation made up of diverse ethnic and racial groups. American have long thought of themselves as hyphenated beings: Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and so forth. It’s also the case that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ethnic groups struggled for power to run cities and, more important, to hand out patronage jobs to family, neighbors, friends, and other countrymen. They published broadsides and lobbied politicians in order to pursue concerns particular to their group, whether better sanitation in their neighborhood or more attention to a crisis in the homeland.

Political leaders traded votes for promises to these pressure groups, but the special pleading and glad-handing coexisted with a widespread acceptance of a shared national identity. No one questioned that immigrants had to become part of that identity. In his 1908 play, forthrightly titled “The Melting Pot,” the playwright Israel Zangwill described America as a place “where all the races of Europe were melting and reforming,” the hero of the play, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, enthuses. “Into the Crucible with you all. God is making the American!” Notice that in Zangwill’s telling the outsider immigrant doesn’t shed his ethnicity to become a WASP. As Arthur Schlesinger put it in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America, the immigrant “enrich[es] and reshape[s] the common culture in the very act of entering into it.”

The process could be heavy-handed or worse. In the schools, teachers punished students for speaking their native language. Without permission, teachers changed students’ foreign-sounding names and criticized their unfamiliar habits. In this atmosphere, children understandably became ashamed of their parents. But they also learned to identify as Americans. Until the mid 20th century, American children had to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning. Children also learned — or at least were supposed to learn — about the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In other words, they studied the making of the country and the system to which they were pledging and that many of them eventually would have to defend in deadly wars.

Read more: National Review