Sunday, February 12, 2017

American Identity - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

The Opinion Pages | LETTERS, New York Times
American Identity
FEB. 11, 2017
image from entry

History may be a continuing argument, but we don’t lack for a shared historical

To the Editor: Ross Douthat (“Who Are We?,” column, Feb. 5) suggests that the
resisters to the Trumpist narrative of restoring America’s greatness to the purity of
its past white settlers and their supremacy don’t recognize the significant number of
people who embrace that narrative. After all, it is what we were all taught during
mid­-20th-­century America, but it wasn’t factual history; it was blatant mythology.

When five of our earliest presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe
and Jackson) actually owned slaves during their presidencies, but we were taught
primarily about their brilliance and patriotism, how can any educated person
continue to hold onto that outdated mythology without wanting to create a healthier
modern narrative of multiculturalism and inclusivity?

Isn’t it up to our educational system to inform us of reality, not mythology,
when teaching American history? To have done otherwise seems to have led to the
divisiveness now tearing at the fabric of our country, to the detriment of us all.

Lafayette, Calif.

To the Editor: Does America lack a shared historical narrative? History is a
continuing argument, as various groups make their claim to be part of it.
Nevertheless, we do not lack a “unifying story” of American history, one that lifts up
both Enlightenment values and the contemporary pursuit of happiness.

What else is former President Barack Obama’s vision (and the Constitution’s) of
building “a more perfect union”? Our history is the expansion of freedom for people
of every class, race, gender and cultural origin — not without resistance from the
status quo powers of each age, and not without struggle as human rights battles are
fought in different arenas in each generation.

What else is Lincoln’s vision? “With malice toward none, with charity for all,”
our better angels embrace freedom. But race and class privilege is not freedom. The
former slaveholder is no longer free to own another human being. The Gilded Age
plutocrat is no longer free to exploit child labor. And so on to our own time.
As President Jimmy Carter said, “Human rights invented America.” Freedom is
our story, then and now.


To the Editor: Ross Douthat laments the lack of a unified national narrative. He
writes, “Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-­and-­settlers narrative and the
truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately

But that gap has been bridged by the National Park Service in visitors’ centers
and interpreters’ presentations at many places, including Jamestown, Va., Ellis
Island, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (with the slave quarters) and Pearl Harbor. It
has also been bridged at the Alamo by efforts of private groups and the State of

Progress has also been made (through protests and concessions) toward a
unified narrative at Plymouth Rock, Mass., and more should come before the 400th
anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, in 2020.

Americans still embrace the motto “E pluribus unum,” which we adopted after a
revolution opposed by 30 percent of us.

Purchase, N.Y.
The writer is a professor of world religions at Manhattanville College.

To the Editor: Ross Douthat laments our national inability to reconcile our
frontier past with the reality of a modern world while not mentioning the 50­-year
effort of the Republican Party to prevent this reconciliation.

Rather than joining with political opponents to create a unified country through
compromise, Republicans have exploited fear of change to drive Americans against
one another for political gain while taking advantage of the resulting human anxiety
to drive wealth to the top and suffering to the lower and middle classes.
This tragedy will not be reversed until its victims end their self­-destructive
voting preferences.

Arlington, Va.

To the Editor: Ross Douthat describes conflicting stories of American history
and asks if a new unifying story can be achieved. I suggest that a first step in that
direction would be to stop using the generalizations of “liberalism” and
“conservatism.” These are outdated labels that no longer provide insight into the
political environment.

Using these old terms sets up an oppositional mentality and predisposes the
reader to make conclusions that are not relevant to a situation that requires more
subtle and extensive analysis.

South Orange, N.J.

To the Editor: Re “A Return to National Greatness” (column, Feb. 3): How
tiresome to have to call out David Brooks for lamenting that our educational system
“doesn’t teach civilizational history or real American history but instead a shapeless
multiculturalism.” Surely a fan of “Hamilton” like Mr. Brooks knows that, to be real,
American history must be multicultural. Otherwise, it lapses into the very “static and
insular” nativism that he deplores in his thought-­provoking column.

I thought that we’d fought that battle in the 1970s and ’80s, when thousands of
teachers in schools and colleges across the land labored to create curriculums to
replace the monochromatic narrative of the deeds of white men that then passed for
real American history.

A truer story reflecting the roles of many peoples in the making of our country is
complex and dynamic, but the colleagues I worked with tried hard to avoid making it

The writer taught English and multidisciplinary studies at North Seattle
Community College.

To the Editor: David Brooks writes that the “American myth” has been “bruised
by people on the left who are uncomfortable with patriotism.” It seems as if he is
confusing patriotism with jingoism — extreme national loyalty hostile to the
interests of other countries.

The left may criticize the United States at times, but informed dissent is at the
root of a flourishing, healthy democracy and should never be confused with a lack of

Princeton, N.J

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