A Quarter-Inch Dash of Poison
Whether or not it shows up in the inaugural address, one of George W. Bush's campaign themes might have more far-reaching consequences than prescription drugs for the elderly, or even tax reform. It has to do with the people who populate this land - all of them.
When I took the oath of citizenship in 1964, the judge in that Grand Rapids, Michigan, courtroom admonished us henceforth to think of ourselves not as Dutch-American, Hungarian-American, or any other hyphenated American, but simply American. George Washington would have approved - he underlined the word not once but twice in his Farewell Address, and called it the most sacred appellation to supersede all others.
That was then.
Since the advent of group-think, that most un-American of all 1960's ideas: the hyphen, a quarter-inch dash of poison, has systematically attacked the glue holding together this nation of immigrants.
We come from every corner of the planet. We bring with us all the pathologies, the ancient hatreds, the inertia and frustration of generations - all those attributes that made us or our ancestors get up and leave with not much more than the clothes on their backs. What helped us shed the pathologies, the ancient hatreds, the inertia and frustration of generations was the opportunity, the willingness, the desire to become American.
No one has been able to account for the almost biological transformation that occurs when people become American.
But everyone has seen what happens when they do not.
The civil rights movement was all about making sure no one is denied constitutional rights. Now, everyone is clamoring for special rights. We have civil rights, human rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, handicapped rights, to list a few. We started out with an African-American community and a Hispanic community, but now we have the Irish community, the Asian community, the Jewish community - what we no longer seem to have are Americans, plain and simple.
We just witnessed where the road leads. The president-elect has assembled a cabinet which - I am willing to take him by his word - reflects his choice of the best persons available for the respective positions. Yet we have been treated to daily tallies by the media with regard to their ancestry, counting heads as Noah might have as he tried to make certain that every species is accommodated in his ark. Did you know Spencer Abraham was Arab? I didn't. I wish I still didn't.
And to what avail? Republicans are trying to prove they are not anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, anti-women, anti-disabled, anti-gay and anti-environment, until they are blue in the face. Democrats say, you can appoint a cabinet consisting solely of lesbian black women from Central America who are severely handicapped and recycle several times every day, we will still call you anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, anti women...(the reader can fill in the rest).
In the meantime, the country continues to split along fault lines that are being manufactured year in year out. People are regimented into adversarial groups against their will, their unconditional commitment to America mocked by those who flaunt their hyphenated identity, and once-committed Americans are being encouraged to reassume the citizenship of their ancestors - who could not wait to be out of it.
Whose interest is being served by splitting us into countless sub-identities? Whose interest is being served by rendering this nation eventually unable to mount a defense, because we no longer know what it is we are defending? Whose interest is being served by promoting the concept of "one world," but of countless Americas?
If we are lucky, we won't have to answer these vexing questions. If we are lucky, President George W. Bush, the uniter, will reverse the process and reinstate the designation handed to me as a gift in that Grand Rapids courtroom.
The alternative is not pretty. Everything about America's success has defied the rules. But if we abandon the reasons for that unique success, we will go the way of all those countries whose names now appear before the hyphen. The miraculous transformation of everyone who used to come here into "American" has been one of the main reasons behind the success.
So, Godspeed, Mr. President. May you succeed in the great endeavor of restoring this country to what it was supposed to be, and us to who we are supposed to be. May you sense the vast number of your potential allies across the land. For, Mr. President, as we traveled from East to West and from West to East with the "Re-Elect America" tour - which you were kind to endorse not once but twice - we have found a magic word that caused detractors to fall silent, and good men and women to find their voice, whatever their party affiliation.
You will not be surprised to learn, that word was "American."