In a recent discussion on US public television, one of the country's most distinguished commentators, Eric Sevareid, said he thought the big story of the 1980s would be the threatened fragmentation of American society -- particularly with the pressure on it from the fast-growing Spanish-speaking segment within it. Behind Mr. Sevareid's concern, of course, lay his perception of the growing emphasis on ethnic and culltural differences within the US. Alongside this, and often related to it, is the jarring presence of single-issue politics.
For those Americans finding comfort in nostalgia, it may seem that a jinni has been let out of a bottle and that the problem is simply to get it back before it does any more damage. Others, looking at the Promethean history of the US during its short two centuries of independence, may recognize that the American people are again at one of the great hinges in their hitherto remarkable saga.
Some even wonder whether the strains from the present divisive tendencies in American society will come as close as did the Civil War to wrecking the Union.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C., says reassuringly: "We are not at the danger point. What we are seeing is part of the activism that only a very rich and secure society can afford."
Less optimistically, Philip Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston, had an article in the September issue of Commentary magazine about the threatened "Balkanizing" (or fragmentation into hostile ethnic units) of America.
"As this Balkanization of America comes to pass," he wrote, "our nation will be plagued with all the suspicions, resentments, and conflicts which the constitution and the Bill of Rights sought to avoid and which today characterize so many part so of Europe, Asia, and Africa."
Harold Isaacs, professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written (in the American Educator, Spring 1978) of this "time of great change" in American society as being "positive and fruitful in scope and consequences despite all its formidable incompleteness and continuing turmoil and confusion." On the negative side, he singled out "the breakdown of old patterns of racial-ethnic-religious status and behavior" and "a far more inclusive erosion during these same [recent] decades of moral, social, and cultural norms of every kind."
Irving Levine, director of the American Jewish Committee's Institute on Pluralism and Group Identity in New York, says this activism is paradoxically both "legitimate and dangerous." It has within it, he adds, an inexorable dualism like the yang and the yin (positive and negative) symbols in Chinese philosophy. Emphasis on ethnicity can lead to destructive chauvinism. It can also lead to comfort.
Martin Kilson, professor of government at Harvard and like Mrs. Norton a black, pins his faith in what he calls "the great cooptative and building capacity of American culture." Yet he, too, adds a caveat about "the potential for crisis and conflict" in the ferment of today.
It is into this situation of flux and uncertainty, where single groups or single interests vie fiercely with each other to make sure they do not end up losers, that Ronald Reagan is about to step as 40th President of the US.
In talking in recent weeks with men and women at different levels of government and with political scientists in the academic world, this writer found most of them saying repeatedly that American society is in fact at least a decade and a half into an unsetting process that had started back in the 1960s, with no end yet in sight.
What was it then that came together in the 1960s to start the process and unleash the centrifugal forces which are putting such strains on American society today?
Professor Isaacs hinted at the components in the passage quoted above. That confluence, in greater detail, must include:
* The impact of the technetronic revolution -- to borrow a phrase coined by Zbigniew Brzezinksi in his academic days -- which brought with it instant communication and the seductive tyranny of television.
* A movement of industry in two senses: first, geographically from urban centers of the industrial age to new expanding suburbs of the space age; and the second, in techniques, from labor-intensive systems to selective computer controls. This has been as socially wrenching in the latter part of the 20th century as was the original urbanization of once basically rural societies in the 19th.
* A parallel shift of the center of gravity of US political and economic life away from the once-accepted establishment of the Northeastern US toward the Sunbelt and the Pacific coast -- with a revival of regional jealousies and antagonisms, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona once said: "Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea."
* Under the pressure of these changes, coming at break-neck speed, a diminution of the influence of traditioinal Judeo-Christian teachings in establishing agreed values for society and -- most important -- in providing a cement for family life. A spinoff of this has been the emergence of the women's liberation and homosexual rights movements, often in most strident forms.
* In US political life, the gradual breakup of the coalition fashioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. This breakup came partly because the interest groups forged together in the original coalition had achieved their arms -- with the notable exception of the blacks.
* The determination of the blacks, well over 10 percent of the population but still (in the 1960s) without the full rights of US citizenships, to take things into their own hands to secure satisfaction of their grievances.
* The simultaneous determination of mainly white ethnic groups, which had leap-frogged over the blacks into full citizenship, not to be robbed of the recognition and acceptance which they had won -- largely as a result of their having entered the political mainstream by way of the Roosevelt coalition.
* The often overlooked but radical change in the pattern of immigration into the US from the 1960s onward, which was bound to be initially destabilizing.
At its birth, the US had been peopled by men and women of mainly British and Protestant origin. Between 1776 and the Civil War nearly 100 years later, the source of the predominant immigrant stream widened, but only to include the rest of Protestant northwestern Europe.
After the Civil War, the pattern changed significantly, wiht a flood of immigrants coming thenceforward from Central and Southern Europe. They were usually Roman Catholic and poor -- the "huddled masses" of the Statue of Liberty inscription. Until after World War II, the immigrant flow remained overwhelmingy European. But since the 1960s, Europe has had to take not second but third place to Asia and Latin America (in that order, according to Bureau of the Census figures for 1978) as the region of origin of those coming to settle in the US.
In many ways this remarkable change in the ethnic composition in US Society, still under way and still not generally perceived, parallels what has happened in the world at large since the end of World War II. More than four centuries of European world hegemony have come to an end with the dissolution of the great European empires estbalished around the globe between te Renaissance and early 20th century -- with the exception of the Russian one.
This is relfected in the changed pattern of membership of the United Nations. When this writer first reported from the UN in 1951, its total membership was 60 , and the faces in the General Assembly were nearly all white. Today the total membership is 154, with the great majority of New UN members over the past three decades coming from Africa and Asia. Now the majority of faces in the General Assembly are nonwhite -- as indeed are the majority of faces in the total population of the world.
The consequent "anticolonial" majority in the General Assembly often irritates the once-colonial European powers -- and the US as well. (Cynically, the remaining European Colonial power, the Soviet Union tries -- often successfully -- to make common cause with the anticolonial majority). But the overall pattern of action represents a jockeying for power and influence by peoples once excluded from the world stage -- or at least from commanding positions on it.
Understandably, this is jarring to those who consider themselves part of the original UN establishment.
Equally jarring to the establishment in American society is the jockeying for power and influcence, for changes in the pecking order, among those 106 ethnic groups within the US whose histories are given in the recently published Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. This jockeying is likely to intensify -- and to meet resistance. But happily for the US, it is underpinned and held together by an inspired Constitution much more consistently honored and observed -- at least in the last resort -- than are the nobly conceived provisions of the UN Charter by UN members. Next: "Why can't they be like the rest of us?"