The world is as simple as we are. Common sense– sense that is held in common, as opposed to good or bad sense– dictates to us that things are pretty much as they seem to be. For this reason it is obvious, as Terry Eagleton once wrote, that the sun revolves around the earth. We can see that it does every day.
In our discussions on The Gangster We Are All Looking For, we will have occasion to think about the common sense of national identity. We will engage with that venerable model of society the melting pot and more recent responses to it such as the tossed salad or the mosaic. We will examine just what those paradigms seek to do and what ideologies they promote.
Roughly, the melting pot is predicated on the idea of cultural assimilation, the notion that the nation is best served if all its inhabitants share certain values. An earlier version of the melting pot theory emphasized citizenship for particular groups. Some immigrants were held to be assimilable while others were viewed as incapable of fully integrating into American life. Legislation around the turn of the 20th century limited the numbers of Asians, for instance, including “immigration exclusion acts and laws against naturalization of Chinese in 1882, Asian Indians in 1917, Japanese and Koreans in 1924, and Filipinos in 1934” (Lowe 3). The tossed salad thesis, on the other hand, corresponds to multiculturalism, a belief in the power of racial and ethnic diversity. People of varying backgrounds ought to be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural features, the logic goes, because the friction and ferment of difference vitalizes social life. Students in ‘mixed’ classrooms learn about each other in addition to whatever content the course is intended to teach. Both of these models have their limits and it is my own personal sense that while our culture at large pays lip service to the latter, there are still many Americans who embrace the former. Luckily, we are not forced merely to choose between the two. Armed with a capacity for critical thought, we can push the often very banal public dialog on immigration, race and American identity into more interesting and productive directions.