Ground Zero mosque as wedge issue: Muslims vs. 'real' Americans
The debate over the so-called ground zero mosque has rekindled an old debate over who belongs in America. It has also given us an opportunity to finally stamp out the recurring nativist impulse to exclude feared groups from our midst.
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Having traveled through Europe on the eve of the First World War, Bourne was horrified by how competing European nationalisms were set to ravage the continent. Bourne saw the US instead as a beacon, the “first international nation,” with an opportunity to achieve a “higher ideal” than either tribalism or any kind of imposed, growth-stunting assimilation contained in the era’s Americanization campaigns.Skip to next paragraph
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Dangers of an 'Anglo-Saxon' ideal
These campaigns, whose sentiments are echoed in today’s versions, fetishized an “Anglo-Saxon” ideal – an idea that has also crept back into today’s discussions, including the most polite ones.
Even then, Bourne – Anglo-Saxon himself – saw such notions as facile. He wrote, “Let the Anglo Saxon be proud enough of the heroic toil and heroic sacrifices which moulded the nation. But let him ask himself, if he had had to depend on the English descendants, where he would have been living today...where he would have been if these races had not come?”
Bourne pointed out that the states whose demographics were most like when they were founded as colonies were also the most stagnant. He instead offered as examples states where “strong foreign cultures” had fueled new thoughts, cities, and wealth that the whole nation had benefited from.
Integration, not assimilation
For Bourne, integration – not assimilation – was the goal, and it was a two-way process, where all Americans engaged in dialogue, exchange, and even dissent in creating their shared, cross-pollinated, evolving society.
Then as now, these good ideas – such as freedom of religion and peaceful coexistence – can find their way to other countries when America proves it can work. Those who fail to recognize this should heed Bourne: “It bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.”
That Bourne’s essay reads nearly 100 years later as if it were penned today is not random or coincidence. Rather, it is evidence that he got America right. This is and has always been the great American experiment: dynamic society-making with the participation of varied peoples. It is, no doubt, a messy process continuously wrought with growing pains and many injustices, but it is our process, one that we also have the opportunity today to improve.
Nativists in Bourne’s day were adamant that the uncivilized hordes of Catholics, Italians, Greeks, Syrians, Slavs, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth, could never be American. History and time have proven them astonishingly wrong.
Yet modern-day nativists ignore these lessons. With each generation, they offer the same prescription: excommunicate from the American body politic the incompatible people du jour.
Well, we’ve tried that endlessly, with sedition acts, internment camps, witch hunts, segregation, scapegoating, lynchings, dubious prosecutions, and other forms of discrimination. And yet, despite these efforts, the intended targets today are part of us, and the country is better for it. But their integration did not happen without inflicting a few wounds whose still-visible scars remind us of our nation’s greatest shames.
We can take heart from our history – knowing that American democracy and society has been there, done that, and survived all this before. And we can best honor that history by making our recurrent trials by fire of feared groups a thing of the past.
Alia Malek is the author of “A Country Called Amreeka: US History Retold Through Arab American Lives,” and the editor of a forthcoming book of post-9/11 oral histories in the “Voice of Witness” series published by McSweeney’s Books.