Wednesday, June 28, 2006

America: 'Melting Pot or Vegetable Stew'?

The seems to be a great metaphorical argument today: is the US a "melting pot" or a"vegetable stew". Is America a special blending of races, cultures, ethnicities, etc., a melting, as it were, into a single taste; or is it a brew where all social grouping are--and should remain-- individual vegetables within the larger national (somewhat weaker) broth?

Arguments abound on both sides, depending which part of the hyphen we wish to emphasize: Is an African-American more African than American? Are Mexican-Americans more Mexican than American? Does a Mexican-American having more emotional allegiance to Mexico than America (given that he/she has only enough money to buy one flag, which should he/she wave on holidays?) Is American or the other the central noun in the equation, the great eqalizer, the dominant word, or is it a simply the modifier?

Another way to consider it: is America a geographical or economic destination only, or a cultural one? Many recent immigrants, especially those who wish to emphasize the heritage left behind, say they only "came to America for a job". They want a chance to work but still want to retain the strength of their cultural identification. They are "multicultural" Americans: America is the land of economic opportunity, not cultural blending...or even definition. Vive la difference!

I was walking down the 3rd Street promenade (in Santa Monica, CA) the other day pondering this dilemma. The first thing that struck me was the multiversity of body tones, ethnicities, races and cultures. My wife and I were going to a movie, and as I looked around, I said to her: " Whether America is a 'melting pot' or a 'stew', America is amazingly diverse."

African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Euro-Americans, Micronesian-Americans, German-Americans...The list is endless...We were all shopping, eating, or going to the movies. Everyone was spending money (or truly tempted to). All the stores offered goods "Made in....(Somewhere Else)", but they were being bought and sold American-style: gaudy advertisements, garish storefronts, hot dogs, pizza, Chinese food, Mediterranean food, etc...All with a common denominator of service arrangements, quick service and copious portions. Life was filled with speed, generosity, energy, material abundance, pleasure-seeking and the freedom to pursue all that in their own particular manner. Isn't that America...a "cultural" blending of all the other cultures? Should a river be considered any less of a specific body of water because it is a compilation of the entering individual smaller rivers, streams, and rivulets.

"The business of America is business." Didn't American "culture" provide the legal systems, the psychological support and the wide-open-spaces possibility for all these other cultures to succeed here? Aren't "jobs" themselves a product of American "culture"? Can America success be divorced from the laws and political structure that Americans have voted for for two hundred plus years and maintained with their taxes and occasionally their wars? Can an economy, and economic opportunity be divorced from the concept the "culture" which creates, nurtures and supports it?

By now you can intuit which side of the argument I fall on: America is a melting pot, not a vegetable stew. A _____-American is a transformational, spilling, blending, melding of all other immigrant culture-specifics into the ever-changing, and ever-constant "culture" called American. American culture (including economic dynamism) attracts the "other" and will change and be changed by them. American culture is all too often jingoistic, sometimes dead wrong politically, sometimes anti-intellectual, sometimes highly materialistic, sometimes...But it is America...It is a very fluid "culture". That is one of its main attributes. It has its positive and negative aspects, like any other culture; but American culture is specific. And for proof of its specificity, ask any American hater (or lover) and they will give you a very, very list of very specific adjectives that define America.


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