Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bourne Supremacy

Of all the reportorial puffery that accompanied the inauguration, I enjoyed the lengthy piece in the Times on Obama's extended family the most. Extended and how! It includes relatives from Kenya to Indonesia, a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law (related to a Canadian??!! Wow!) and an African American convert to judaism who is now a rabbi. His experience of family resonates in a small way with my own, which includes a French Jewish uncle in his 70s who literally ran across the border into Switzerland to escape the Nazis and a 7 year old nephew whose parents are Korean and Columbian.

We have often asked for a government that "looks like America," and now we have a family that truly does. I confess, I teared up a bit.

Obama's candidacy and now his election have occasioned a great deal of discussion - ranging from the exuberant to the suspicious - about the state of American race relations. I doubt I have anything new or different to add to that except to say that Obama's election certainly confounds many of the easy truisms we have in this country about race and tolerance and the fluid, contingent nature of those things. Much of our discussion about race, like so many other things, got locked into stale frameworks left over from 1968. At the very least, the Obama phenomenon does not fit easily into those, and so we will have to develop new ones.

In the midst of all this, I have found myself thinking about Randolph Bourne. Bourne has been dead for 90 years now, but in 1916 he wrote an essay for the Atlantic which was just about the first, and still just about the best, expression of what we call diversity and multi-culturalism, long before those words were in wide use. (And there is no better critique of Bush's Iraq Folly than Bourne's 1918 essay "War is the Health of the State.")

Bourne wrote his celebration of "Trans-National America" against a rising tide of anti-immigrant xenophobia, and in the midst of World War I. He was unequivocal in his hope that a multi-ethnic America could save the world from the kind of butchery in which the nations of Europe - great civilizations all! - were engaged.

The so-called "melting pot" has happily failed, Bourne wrote, and he called the "English-American conservatism" which would demand it the "chief obstacle to social advance." Without the cultural variety brought by immigrants, Bourne insisted, America was doomed to stagnation.
So let me offer some bits of that essay as my reflection on Obama and the meaning of race in America:

Bourne's rejection of the "melting pot": "What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities [of immigrants] should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity. Already we have far too much of this insipidity. . . .The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun. Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed. In a world which has dreamed of internationalism, we find that we have all unawares been building up the first international nation. "

On the meaning of American nationalism: "America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men. To seek no other goal than the weary old nationalism,—belligerent, exclusive, inbreeding, the poison of which we are witnessing now in Europe,—is to make patriotism a hollow sham, and to declare that, in spite of our boastings, America must ever be a follower and not a leader of nations."

On "trans-national" America: "Only America, by reason of the unique liberty of opportunity and traditional isolation for which she seems to stand, can lead in this cosmopolitan enterprise. Only the American—and in this category I include the migratory alien who has lived with us and caught the pioneer spirit and a sense of new social vistas—has the chance to become that citizen of the world. America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision. "

In some ways, that "cosmopolitan vision" just moved into the White House, and I suspect that looking down from philosopher heaven, Randolph Bourne is smiling.