|Humanity's Prism and the Cosmic Milkshake
By Claude Walker
The 2004 Vanity Fair Essay Contest Topic: Explain the "American Character" to the rest of the world.
July 4th weekend. Sports snapshot #1: Wimbledon women's finals. Maria Sharapova - whose Siberian family fled Chernobyl for a Florida tennis camp - versus Serena Williams, from the glass-strewn public tennis courts of Compton, California. Proud parents Oracene Williams and Yuri Sharapova perched high in the family box. Two different yet parallel paths to success, two riffs on the American Dream, celebrated during U.S. Independence Day weekend. In London.
July 4th sports snapshot #2. Major League Baseball announces the All-Star team. Players from Canada, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, United States, Venezuela and Vietnam (the last of whom is a distant cousin of my wife.) Maybe next year we'll see Vicente Padilla, Hee Seop Choi and Turk Wendell representing Nicaragua, South Korea and Mars, respectively.
The odd patriotic pride I experienced as a U.S. citizen over these two sports events - during July 4th weekend - may be at the core of the American Character. Paths from every place on Earth lead here and that - I'd argue - distinguishes us and could enable us to spearhead humanity's next evolutionary leap.
Our enduring icon: the State of Liberty beckoning, welcoming, assuring. Millions of immigrants who came here - via crowded ship, hidden compartment or makeshift raft - planted seeds of the culture they unknowingly toted along with their meager belongings. Africans uprooted and sold, refugees desperately fleeing oppression, freedom-seekers, dreamers seeking gold or a dishwashing job. Romantics, con men, convicts. Often the best and the brightest from Einstein to Olajuwan packed their bags and headed here, letting their culture hitch a ride with their particular genius.
They anted up their roots which we devoured with relish.
Diversity strengthens U.S. culture. Look at our favorite foods. Within 10 minutes of my Chicago home, I can eat authentic Jamaican, Indian, Persian, Greek, Ethiopian, Belizean, Columbian, Pakistani, Mexican, Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, Peruvian and Chinese. Five minutes more for Korean BBQ, Cuban sandwiches, sushi and fresh bagels. Every town in the U.S. has a Taco Bell, Olive Garden or Chinese take-out (touting "Chop Suey"). If "a man's heart is through his stomach," our love is universal and drooling.
Stroll Clark Street in my neighborhood any Sunday. The soundtrack of this aging, bustling commercial stretch features sonic blasts of mariachi and rap, punctuated by bell-ringing pushcart elote vendors and dollar store merchants yelling in Korean, Serbian or Spanglish. The Romanian Sausage factory, jerky pit and panaderķas spice up our olifact-o-rama. Vitale's Shoe & Leather Repair shares the weird Art Deco building with Hernandez' Aguas Frescas.
Forty languages are spoken at nearby Senn High, whose students hail from everywhere, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Sudanese Lost Boys do math alongside Tagalog-speaking teens. Ukrainian kids eat tacos in the school cafeteria. Haitian refugee students get a day off to honor Casmir Pulaski. Global culture is born here.
My jumpy neighborhood - Chicago's Rogers Park - isn't for everyone. Nor is a vision of our national core as a prism or cosmic milkshake blender for every culture on Earth.
As light enters a prism, colors are diffused in infinite directions. A new light bathes the room, reinventing it in a new optic harmony. The U.S. is a sort of cosmic prism, in which the light of humanity from across the planet is absorbed, then dazzlingly reinvented.
In grinding tension with intransigent forces of xenophobia, bigotry and intolerance, our pluralist foundation is guaranteed by our Constitution and personified by Lady Liberty's hospitable torch. We're deceptively invasive to other heritages. We invite cultures to visit our great cities and natural attractions. Sure, take your shoes off, have a beer, stay awhile as we cherry-pick whatever is good from you. As humanity careens to a global economy, our knack for sponging gravy from countless foreign plates is a huge plus.
To my fellow citizens pushing immigration curbs, I say, "You nuts?" This is our edge, this instinctive capacity to absorb. Want to fight terrorism and be a world power well into the 21st Century? Swing those gates wide open, baby, welcome everyone in. Most immigrants want to be here, make it here, fall in love here, contribute here.
U.S. military forces and intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan urged recruitment of many more Arabic- and Pashto-language speakers. The late U.S. Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) was a voice for increased foreign language study in U.S. schools to prepare us for global culture. Are we global citizens yet? Ha! Is there some seed in our character that uniquely prepares us to lead global culture? Yes, that and physics.
Physics and common practice show that when you mix hot with cold water, you get lukewarm water. Leave it be and it levels out at room temp. In a pluralist, multi-ethnic society, similar principles apply.
While still scorned or unheard of in many countries, interracial marriages and the number of children of mixed-race couples steadily increase in the U.S. annually, where it's getting tough to check just one race on the census. A new generation is growing up with multiracial pals and stars. Tiger Woods says he's a "Cablinasian" (Caucasian, Black, Indian, Asian).
Metaphors evolve for the assimilation process unique to the U.S. In the 19th Century, the defining image was the "melting pot", in which everyone slides into a social cauldron, then boiled into a bland, bubbling stew, until little is left of a newcomer's mother tongue or customs.
By the 1970s, cultural pluralism and renewed ethnic pride created a "salad bowl", in which assorted greens of cultural identity were tossed about in a unifying vinaigrette of language, pop culture and enterprise. A well-intentioned celebration of ethnic identity, but doomed.
I propose a new metaphor, a new 21st Century symbol for our assimilation of immigrants from across the Earth (and maybe humanity's next great leap): a great beige "cosmic milkshake" in which all the world's dialects, literature, spices, skills and joys leap into a high-speed evolutionary blender.
But this time the ingredients aren't boiled over a 19th Century open pit or tossed in a pristine 1970s suburban kitchen. This time, prism-fired bonds are laser-fused together like high-tension steel, synthesized and synergized by this reinventing quirk of the American Character.
In my vanguard Rogers Park community, business, friendship and love know no bounds. I'm a Polish-German-Italian-Irish-French-American married to a quadrilingual Vietnamese-American refugee. Our immediate neighbors include folks from Nigeria, Cuba, Iraq and Venezuela. Among our friends are a Vietnamese-Mexican couple whose wedding reception offered tamales and cha gio.
There's a passionate inevitability to this demographic trend, an unstoppable march towards hues of beige as multi-ethnic commerce and unleashable interracial lust percolate exponentially within humanity's finite gene pool. Who argues with entropy or equilibrium? Or a good milkshake?
This diversity makes us well-poised for global leadership in the emerging Information Age. Of course, our dark side must be acknowledged: for all our tolerance, there's an agitated, troubled personality. We've given humanity baseball, skyscrapers, the Bill of Rights and "can-do spirit". Also fast food, serial killers, Hummers and reality TV.
During recent trips to Peru, Jamaica and Mexico, I've felt shamed by the behavior of my fellow citizens. Americans abroad are condescending, boorish and cheap. We haggle over pesos with vendors whose annual income is a tiny fraction of ours, then mock them. Racist tendencies are magnified. The "Ugly American" is part of our national archetype; I cringe and apologize.
The American Character includes unbridled greed, ruthless expansionism and unabashed grabbiness. Gunslinger Nation, from Bunker Hill to Bonanza to Bloods, blessed by such Oval Office cowboys as Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ, Reagan and Bush. Maybe it's our frontier spirit, Manifest Destiny capitalism or rugged individualism. Or maybe we're just grabby.
In Lady Liberty's shadow bristles a churlish xenophobia, an ugly by-product of centuries of immigration. We still grapple with simmering racism, with our own apartheid - "Jim Crow" - only a few generations behind us. Women in the workplace still face greater chances of sexual harassment than promotion. Ours is a democracy that malfunctions, allowing itself to be used by insiders or sold to the highest bidder.
But ours is also a democracy born of optimism and faith in liberty and Jefferson's vigilance. It was given lyrical voice by Whitman, tested by Lincoln and FDR.
The American Character is committed to absorbing and renewing. We're resilient, restless, always willing to roll the dice on endless possibilities. We trust the marketplace of ideas and revel in the beautiful white noise of discordant voices. Our people, institutions and guiding principles display fundamental respect for the rights and potential of every citizen. That genuine respect - while not manifest in Ugly American turistas or Abu Ghraib - is why we open our arms. An earnest, open invitation to roll the dice and join this prism is how I'd explain the American Character to the world.