My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader.)
The advantage of the melting pot is that it undermines tribalism. One gains a distance from one’s own national folly. Fashionable present-day multiculturalism, with its naïve call for ethnic pride, sounds to me like an attempt to restore me to precisely that state of mind my parents ran away from in Europe. The American culture is a strange concoction prepared and cooked by each individual in his own kitchen. It ought not to come in a package with a label and a fake list of wholesome, all-natural ingredients.
—Charles Simic, poet, NY Times Book Review, 12/20/03
When Simic wrote this, nearly a decade ago, I read it with relief, as a sign that we were coming to the end of a period of manufactured “multiculturalism,” when many hyphenated-Americans were asserting their “ethnic pride”— and trying to force their version of it on others of their ethnic group.
I hoped the change meant that acquaintances who had suddenly become super Italian-American, would stop accusing me (as one stated in a review) of “concealing my Italian identity” under a WASP name. (In other words, I use my husband’s name; I’d say you could accuse me of being, at worst, old-fashioned.)
Another accusing question asked by these newly super-ethnic Italian-Americans was why I did not write on “Italian-American subjects,” meaning why I touched only here and there, as needed for the story, on my family experience, instead of churning out the standard IMMIGRANT SAGA. I patiently smiled and said, “Since I am an Italian-American, everything I feel compelled to write about becomes, by definition, an Italian-American subject.” It seemed more polite than saying, “ Nobody tells me what to write.”
Many defenses of “multiculturalism” are boring and silly. But they can also be sinister. We must not tolerate oppressive, sometimes barbaric, traditions (inflicted mostly on middle-eastern women.) Examples include not only the forced veiling of women’s heads, or whole bodies, but the horror of female genital mutilation that, only a few years ago, I was told was actually being inflicted on some African immigrants in Oakland. (I hope that was just an urban legend.)
What Simic called the “undermining of tribalism” is great gift to recent immigrants and perhaps an even greater gift to less recent ones. We Americans can be grateful that our parents left behind their “national folly,” while contributing their national treasures and talents into the “melting pot,” so that all of us can choose wholesome flavors from everywhere in the world.
(Send the Berkeley Daily Planet a page from your own Commonplace Book)