We’ve seen a “foreign” religion – Catholicism – demonized in a way that did not demur to then non-existent political correctness. (Consider the famous Thomas Nast cartoon that portrayed Catholic bishops in their full attire crawling onto the shores of America, their mitres re-interpreted as the mouths of crocodiles.)
We’ve seen geopolitical crisis – like World War I – bring to the surface the competing nationalisms and identities housed in this country, sometimes even within individuals. And we’ve seen the demonization of American co-ethnics – Germans and Japanese – of our enemies abroad.
Then, like today, nativist voices billowed loudly from the media to the halls of Congress, positing the existence of some mythical, homogenous, authentic America that excluded a whole list of Americans, from Native Americans to blacks to any immigrant not of the Founding Fathers’ “racial stock” – the composition of which conveniently shifted, depending on how favorably regarded Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans, or French were at the moment.
Today, these exclusionary voices are shouting again. And while their list of who fits in their authentic America has expanded, it still remains much easier for them to identify those, like Muslims, who don’t make the cut.
But it’s the voices of the transnationalists that need to be revived, and kudos to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for being one of them. They are remarkably relevant in offering us an alternate vision, a pep talk even. The most eloquent articulation of these beliefs is the 1916 essay “Trans-national America” by Randolph Bourne.
He recognized that what in fact is quintessentially American – and what gave the country a considerable advantage in the world – are its multiple cultures of ethnic and personal identifications all living side by side. For him, more ideas and more exchange yielded a better and more robust society and democracy.