Friday, May 27, 2011

And He Is Us

One of America's greatest points of appeal- at least we like to think it is- is that anyone can come in from anywhere on Earth and, if they apply themselves hard enough, find success through some means or other.

Perhaps America's darkest legacy is our repeated, often unapologetic efforts to make as many of these anyones feel as unwelcome as humanly possible. It has happened to nearly every ethnicity in the book at one time or another in one form or another, through war or immigration debates or, depressingly, again, some more, questioning someone's eligibility to be President. (It's not even Obama this time. It's Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio.) Right now, it's Mexicans, Arabs and anyone that looks too much like an Arab (including Iranians) that get the brunt of it, but it's also happened to blacks (which essentially covers the bulk of Africa and the Caribbean all on its own), Germans, Poles, Jews, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Irish, the British, the French, Italians, Russians, Slavs of all stripes, Spaniards, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, even Native Americans. On a more benign level, one can add Canadians, Scandinavians and the Dutch. And note that I've in all likelihood missed someone.
Whenever this happens, those doing the oppressing- and that's what it is- will justify it through some form of an Us Vs. Them mentality. Whoever we're picking on isn't a true American, like I am! That other nation is going to get its butt kicked! Screw whatever group of people that is! And let's conveniently ignore the fact that our ethnicity might be next!

Every time we do, though, we betray who we are at our core. A small percentage of us are Native Americans. As of 2006, that percentage was 0.8%. The rest of us, the other 99.2% of us, are a nation of everyone else, a percentage large enough to in turn all but make Native Americans 'everyone else' in their own country. Now, unless you're from East Africa, and for many of them even then, some quantity of your bloodline came from somewhere else. However, in many nations, their lineage to their homeland stretches so far back that the amount of blood that comes from somewhere else is negligible. A native Chinese, for example, may trace their bloodline back thousands of years without leaving China. They're Chinese through and through and cannot think of themselves as anything else.

Americans, save for the Native ones, do not share that situation, or at least, do not think they do. However American you may feel you are, 99.2% of you almost certainly trace your lineage back to somewhere that isn't America. You're of Irish descent, of Chinese descent, of Mexican descent, of Italian or Korean or Jamaican or Portuguese descent. Even people that go so far back as to claim their ancestors came over on the Mayflower at that level recognize that they are ultimately of British descent. Some people will even claim more than one. Tina Fey, for example, identifies dually as German and Greek. I claim dual Norwegian and German descent (though more Norwegian). Barack Obama traces his father to Kenya and his mother primarily to England.
And on some level, no matter how much we like to claim otherwise, we like it that way. Often, someone will trace their family tree, but as soon as they hit whatever generation it is that came to America from somewhere else, they stop. They don't go any further, as if to say 'okay, I know where I came from now; great job, everybody.' Even if you've never traced your family tree, there are a myriad of cues to let you know where it is your bloodline is from. Your name. Your physical attributes. Little trinkets around your house, up to and including a flag stand that holds the flags of the United States and one other country. A special dish your family prepares for Christmas. Some local heritage-pride festival you've gone to.

Often, we Americans will, in the process of making an immigrant feel unwelcome, pressure them to learn English, or attempt to scare fellow Americans that if we lose status compared to some other nation, or lose a war to them, we'll all have to learn their language; these days that's most likely to be Mandarin Chinese. We might also tell a former war ally that 'if it wasn't for us, you'd all be speaking language X', language X usually being German.

The funny thing is, English is in the same boat as America. Just as America is a nation of everyone else, English is the language of everyone else. A large quantity of the English language is simply words appropriated from other languages, either slightly modified or adopted whole cloth. It's the major reason the concept of the spelling bee works, in fact. Other languages do not have spelling bees, because too much of the language all has the same etymology. The bee would be too easy. Too many of the words could be guessed by following a few simple rules of thumb. English is such a patchwork language that no set of rules can contain it. Exceptions to all manner of rules abound.

In fact, one of the few hard-and-fast rules that applies to English every time is that, if there's something that English doesn't have a word to describe, but some other language does, you can just plug that word into an English sentence and make it English. One of the best examples of this is the word 'schadenfreude'- taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune. English didn't have a word for that, so people just started using schadenfreude in English sentences. Eventually, it became an English word.

And even if English wasn't being learned by someone for your sake, it would be learned for everyone else's sake. While Esperanto was intended to be a universal language, English is much closer to that ideal in practice. It's the language of business. It's the language of music. It's the de facto native tongue of the Internet. It's easy to learn (at least compared with other languages), its alphabet is small, it's very adaptable. And it's ever-evolving, as speakers worldwide continually create, and adapt from other languages, new words to describe their world.

Also, going back to the Mayflower descendants, English isn't truly America's original native tongue. We adapted it from England. The native tribes encountered by the pilgrims did not speak English. We taught them English, but that wasn't their original language. The first tribe we had contact with that wasn't in a shoot-on-sight capacity was the Wampanoag, who had a language by that name. That's just the one we talked with first. That doesn't take into account the hundreds and hundreds of other tribes, each with their own language, that originally lay within what is now the United States. Or Hawaiian, for that matter.

We have always traded on a version of this knowledge, that we are not a nation of this kind of person, or that kind of person, but rather a nation of ideas, of ideals, of principles, of the idea that anyone from anywhere can come in and change the course of the nation. And while we often have problems keeping ourselves true to those ideals, the meta-ideal- the ideal that we are a nation of ideals- ultimately, eventually, sees the best of us through any storm and keeps us pushing for something better than we have. We see it in our names. We see it in our bloodline. We see it in our language. We, ideally, see it in our policy.

How red-blooded American are we? Less than we like to admit.

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