A new nationalism on the rise

Census finds more people identify themselves, sans hyphen, as 'American.'

When Peter Kreitler returns to his family's place on Cape Cod this August, he'll make a point of raising the American flag each morning before breakfast.

It's not a reaction to Sept. 11. The Episcopal priest and his family have been doing it ever since his grandfather started the tradition in the dark months of 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In that 60-year stretch of time, America has had her Korea, her Vietnam, her Watergate, her culture wars. Mr. Kreitler has seen the national mood swing from cynical to idealist and back again several times.

Now, some cultural observers see an era of new nationalism – a shift that predates Sept 11. And the trend goes beyond red-white-and-blue symbolism.

Census figures released last week, for example, reveal a sharp jump in people identifying their ethnic background as simply "American" or "US," making that category the fourth largest "ancestry" for the first time since the Census Bureau began asking the question in 1980. The three largest ancestral groups – German, Irish, and English – saw their numbers decline by about 20 to 25 percent between 1990 and the 2000 tally.

Of course, just because fewer people identify themselves as Irish-American doesn't mean they're more patriotic. The point is that after a revival of ethnic identity in the 1960s and '70s, many Americans have been turning to the notion of commonality.

"There's certainly been a rise in patriotism and American nationalism," says Roy Rosenzweig, a history professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Some observers point to opinion surveys. Gallup polls in 1999 and 1994 found that about two-thirds of Americans felt "extremely" or "very" patriotic. Others point to the high numbers of college students involved in community service on campuses around the country

"It circles back to this collective notion of the American Dream," says Eric Newhall, professor of American studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. "The Vietnam War, followed by Watergate and various revelations of corruption in high places, ... left a lot of people jaded, cynical, running to the suburbs, running to the rural areas to cultivate their own gardens. [But now] I think there is a constructive spirit abroad in the United States."

Part of this new common spirit stems from old natural forces. Assimilation – the intermarriage, education, upward mobility of various groups – has weakened Americans' bonds with their immigrant roots. Many people "no longer have a childhood memory of an old cuddly grandparent from the old country," says Joel Perlmann, senior scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Consider the Slovaks. Immigrants a century ago, they experienced the largest decline of any ethnic identity – nearly 60 percent – in the latest census. "In essence the dream of our forefathers has come true," says Milan Kovac, supreme secretary of the Slovak Gymnastic Union (Sokol USA) in East Orange, N.J. Their descendants "have gone out into the American mainstream."

NEWER immigrants retain stronger ties. A surge of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa during the 1990s, for example, has contributed to the more than tripling of Americans claiming African ancestry.

Immigration can't fully explain that rise in 'African' ancestry, but experts don't see a return of the 1970s emphasis on alternative identity – such as black and Chicano power, gender politics, and ethnic reawakening. The current trend is "soft multiculturalism," in the words of Gary Gerstle, a historian at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"It's very easy to say: 'I'm an African-American and proud of my African ancestry and also proud to be an American,' " he explains.

The country has also witnessed little backlash to the wave of new American immigrants. Even more impressive has been the nation's emphasis on tolerance toward American Muslims in the wake of Sept. 11. Despite some incidents of violence and controversial detentions, reaction has been much more muted than was that against German-Americans in World War I or Japanese-Americans in World War II.

All these signs encourage Mr. Kreitler. "Patriotism is not flag waving," he says. In 1940, magazine publishers hatched the United We Stand campaign to back the war effort. They "talked about patriotism in terms of sacrifice. [This time] "it's going to take awhile for the full meaning of patriotism to be understood."

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