The melting-pot metaphor

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The melting pot has been around for quite a while as a way to describe a certain American ideal – "Give us your tired, your poor" – your immigrants from wherever, and we'll turn them into Americans. That was the idea behind that broad paraphrase of Emma Lazarus by way of Fiorello LaGuardia, with some Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt thrown in.

More recently, this ideal has been called into question. Is it a good thing for newcomers to America to give up their ancestral languages, their perhaps richer traditions of extended family life, or their more interesting food to become, in effect, pretend Anglos?

"No" is the answer from some quarters. A cultural-sensitivity coach in San Francisco sums up a new attitude thus:

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"Today the trend is toward multiculturalism, not assimilation. The old 'melting pot' metaphor is giving way to new metaphors such as 'salad bowl' and 'mosaic,' mixtures of various ingredients that keep their individual characteristics. Immigrant populations within the United States are not being blended together in one 'pot,' but rather they are transforming American society into a truly multicultural mosaic."

The first time I can remember hearing the term "multicultural" was in Australia in 1984, where I reported on an extensive "multicultural television" operation based in Sydney. Reviewing the piece now, I see that I did indeed use the phrase melting pot – as a culinary metaphor.

But was I right? There are relatively few ingredients that one melts in the kitchen – butter, fat, chocolate, perhaps cheese. One doesn't, in any cuisine I'm aware of, melt whole assemblages of ingredients into a single dish.

Soupmaking may be a good source of metaphors for different approaches to assimilation or multiculturalism. Some soups are homogenized through a blender – get it? In other soups, the constituent elements remain distinct. My mother used to make what she called a vegetable soup with chunks of beef big enough that we ate it with knife and fork.

But a melting pot is not a soup kettle. Here's a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal in 1845:

"[A]s in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent, – asylum of all nations, – the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes, – of the Africans, and of the Polynesians, – will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages."

This passage reflects some strange ideas about metallurgy – Emerson seems here to be promoting a sort of reverse alchemy, whereby gold is turned into baser metal. But it's clear that the pot he had in mind was not in the kitchen.

My thinking was also nudged a bit by one of the definitions I found for "melting pot": "a vessel made of material that does not melt easily; used for high temperature chemical reactions."

Here the "not-melting" aspect seems as important as the "melting." There's a metaphor there for a vessel that can take the heat.

This may give us a way to think about the difference between the essential framework – the constitutional system, so to speak – and the ever-changing content held within that framework – the new peoples and new cultures that come to a country. And that metaphor may be a way to think about assimilation and multiculturalism.

If we pay attention to literal meaning, even a metaphor long since morphed into cliché may still have lessons for us.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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