By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Few of us would disagree, I believe, that we live in troubled times, and a powerful aspect of that trouble is that our society is divided in ways that feel nasty and raw. “Polarized” is word often used to describe our current condition. It is a condition that leaves us anxious and uncertain about the future, America’s and our own. I need not dwell on how the division of American society is exacerbated by our political leadership. That we all know, and I have stated it many times from this platform. All one needs to do is turn on the news.
My talk this morning may start with this troubling fact, but what I want to do is look at solutions and get us to focus on positive and inspiring visions. But first a little analysis.
America is suffering today, in very strident ways, from a division that has always confronted human societies, and certainly Western societies since the 19th century. It is the division that is marked by those people who are committed to what we might call local values. I include among these people who center their lives, their identities—and their loyalties—primarily around their ethnic group, their religious community, their nationality, and perhaps their deeply felt political ideologies, doctrines, and positions. In centering their identities and loyalties in these ways, they may emphasize their differences from people other than themselves.
In contrast to people of such a disposition, there are those who are more disposed to embracing wider allegiances. They are perhaps more comfortable with differences and may in fact be intrigued by them. This outreach toward others may include a sense of responsibility for the welfare of others. Beyond their own—their loved ones, their family, ethnic groups—they may feel an obligation to strangers. Such a sense of wider obligation may be a component of their ethical philosophy. Let me for the moment define such people as “liberals” and their approach to those who are different or outside their own group may be characterized by greater tolerance.
Very broadly speaking, I think this is a way of describing the prevailing characteristics that define the major divisions in American society and that have reached the point of being very acrimonious.
Localists and liberals in the current moment
To apply this description to the current moment, though it may be a gross generalization, those who comprise Donald Trump’s base, dominated by older, white males, fall into the first group of what I am calling “localists.” Those who are dismissed by them as “liberal East Coast elites,” who profess a commitment to minorities and are dedicated to wider issues—some of global nature, such as the plight of immigrants and refugees and climate change—fall into the second group. Their focus is not primarily on their own group, but they look outward and beyond to others and their welfare. They have broader interests and wider loyalties.
So, we have localists—ethno- and religio-centrists and nationalists—in one camp, and liberals and internationalists in the other, and each party has its representatives in government where these differences are played out on the 24-hour news cycle. Communication between the two camps has broken down and virtually disappeared, and the contempt of each for the other has grown fierce. The polarization has reached the point of mutual marginalization and name-calling. Each side considers that the other has bad intentions. It has even reached the level wherein each sees the other not merely as an adversary who holds to a different viewpoint, but rather as an enemy, whose legitimacy as a citizen is implicitly called into question.
I need to be clear: There has never been a Golden Age in America. We have always been divided between what I am calling localists and those whom I am tentatively calling “liberals.” There have always been divisions as to what America and American society should look like. In the early 19th century, different visions of American society were, in essence, precursors to what we experience now. The American statesman John C. Calhoun in 1848 argued against admitting Mexicans as citizens and declared, “Ours is a government of the white man.” And leading up to the Civil War, the greatest divide in American history, in 1858, Stephen Douglas said, “This Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.”
The post-Civil War constitutional amendments that granted birthright citizenship and voting rights to all citizens continued to unearth different visions of whom America was for. Opponents of the 15th Amendment found both African-American and Chinese citizenship scandalous. A Democratic senator from Kentucky, Garrett Davis, declared, “I want no negro government; I want no Mongolian government; I want the government of the white man which our fathers incorporated.”
A contrary vision of America was articulated by one of its most eloquent spokespersons, the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In defense of the 14th and 15th Amendments, in speeches across the country he spoke of America as a “composite nation,” a nation formed out of difference, Native American, African-American, European, Asian, and every possible mixture. As for the Chinese, he said, “Do you ask, if I would favor such immigration, I answer, I do. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would.” And then, looking to the American future, Douglass said, “I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours.” For Douglass, for America to progress it needed to be a “composite nation.” That was his vision and it was a vision of a harmonious society. But it was not to be.
In the 1880s, with the end of Reconstruction, we had the creation of Jim Crow laws, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the vile history of lynching in America. We also had, in 1882, the Chinese exclusion Act, the first federal law restricting immigration, which betrayed the Constitutional promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
The Klan, a highly visible grassroots organization
While it is often forgotten, the Ku Klux Klan after World War I, in its second instantiation was a huge and highly visible grassroots organization. By 1925, it claimed a membership of somewhere between 2 million and 5 million, with many more sympathizers. It was an era when Woodrow Wilson, who was extremely racist even for his time and cleansed the federal government of all black employees, could bemoan “the lost cause of the confederacy,” a rubric that painted the Confederacy in noble terms.
As the 20th century progressed, illiberal nationalism in some ways became uglier. One form it took was to enforce American isolationism in the world. In 1917, William Randolph Hearst called for “America First,” which became a movement before World War II.
In the years before World War II, a father Charles Coughlin, a rabid anti-Semite and radio broadcaster with a huge audience, proclaimed his admiration for Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party, and called on his audiences to form a new political party under the title of the Christian Front. In 1939, about 20,000 Americans, some dressed in Nazi uniforms, gathered in Madison Square Garden, decorated with swastikas, American flags, and posters declaring a “Mass Demonstration for True Americanism,” where they denounced the New Deal as the “Jew Deal.” Nazi propaganda was actually distributed in the South calling for the repeal of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
The division between those of narrower nationalistic interpretations of what America should be and those of more expansive and liberal visions cuts in other ways, as well. I like to tell my students about the great religious divides in this country, which for them can only be history, but for you and me is memory.
Throughout its history until the late 1970s, the United States was definitively a Protestant-dominant society. The American Episcopalianism has come closest to an established religion in American society. An aspect of that Protestant dominance has been a vitriolic suspicion of Catholics, especially Irish and Italian immigrants, a hatred fueled by the Ku Klux Klan. The assumption was that Catholics could not be trusted because their highest allegiance was not to the US Constitution or the United States, but to the Pope in Rome. The canard was that American Catholics were a front for papal designs to take over the United States.
I well remember that when John Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, he had to bend over backward, time and again, to tell his audiences that if elected, his highest allegiance would be to the US Constitution and not to the Pope in Rome, and that he believed in the absolute separation of Church and State. And to make this more interesting, one of the Protestant leaders of the anti-Kennedy campaign was the highly distinguished minister of the tony Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue, Norman Vincent Peale, who organized fellow Protestant clergy to undermine Kennedy’s campaign on the grounds that he was front for a Catholic takeover. It is an interesting fact of history, of probably no significance, that Norman Vincent Peale was Donald Trump’s minister, when he went to church, which probably wasn’t very often.
Conservative entrenchment gave way in the 1960s
American history and society have oscillated between these two tendencies, the local and the liberal. The conservative entrenchment of the 1950s, was broken open with the advent of the 1960s, with the flourishing of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, which spoke to a diversity in popular culture and an attack on the conformity of an increasing corporate society, which was followed by the Gay Rights Movement, the rights for people with disabilities, and the celebration of a more open and diverse society.
To simplify what is a long and complex story, I think we are witnessing now, in part, a parochial, nationalistic backlash against the diversifying, progressive, and liberalizing trends of the 1960s, 50 years later, as exemplified in the local and illiberal nationalist reaction, epitomized by the Trump constituency.
So, given this history and given our polarized condition, what is to be done? I think a way out needs to begin with a vision, which is the centerpiece of my message this morning.
Most of us, I suspect, are the legatees of a more liberal interpretation of American history and American society, a history expounded by such historians as Arthur Schlesinger, a friend of the Kennedys, who argued that liberals occupied the “vital center” of American politics. But if we focus American history on liberty, rights, revolution, freedom, and equality, we simply cannot be blind to the influence of racism, slavery, segregation, bigotry, and exclusion.
The historical currents I have been reviewing, except for the last, were, of course, before my time. I cannot speak to the national atmosphere and anxieties of the post-Reconstruction era or what it felt like to be alive in the populist, nationalist, and extremist environment brought on by the America First movement during the 1930s and World War Two
But, I do know what it is like to live now, and I would hazard a guess that the divisions we confront now are even more perilous. What I think makes the age of Trump distinctive is that the emotions that lie behind and fuel the divisions in society are so powerful, that they not only swamp reason and rationality but actually dissolve it at its core. Hatred of immigrants, blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, gays, and other minorities may have been rooted in powerful emotional impulses, but I don’t think that these despicable trends led to the dissolution of reason itself. And I know that extremist wings of American society have often been plagued by irrational conspiracy theories, whether it be Catholics taking over the US government, Jewish bankers taking over the world, or the John Birch Society, which saw a communist behind every tree.
Reason is in peril in high places
American society has always had its nutty expressions, but I don’t think they have ever spread so deep, so wide, and so corrosively as they do at this moment. Reason seems to count for little these days and feeling a great deal. Reason is in peril, in politics, in high places, in society as I believe it never has been before. We live in an age of “alternative facts.”
The virtue of reason is that it is objective, impersonal, and unbiased as an arbiter in guiding people as to what to believe. But what happens to democracy and society when powerful feelings drive people not to care about reason anymore?
So, what vision of American society can we put forward that can inspire us to get beyond these deep division, beyond the polarization that is fueled by such powerful emotions?
It seems to me that almost from its inception, American society has appropriated three different approaches to American identity, what it means to be an American. From the early decades of the 19th century until the mid-1960s, the prevailing American identity was that of the “melting pot.” I well recall being taught about the melting pot in elementary school. The melting pot ideal was that people came from all over to the United States and left their cultural identities of where they came from in their country of origin. In its stead, they appropriated a new American identity, which was a blended mix of all these different cultures, but something new and distinctive. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes—of the Africans and of the Polynesians—will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages.” The image of America, in other words, would reflect an assimilationist ideal.
This ideal had its critics, but it prevailed pretty much unchallenged until the late 1960s, with the emergence of the Black Power movement, which was a militant rejection of the integrationist aims of the Civil Rights movement. Despite its small size, the Black Power movement actually transformed how many Americans understand their identity as Americans. Its leadership claimed that while Irish, Italians, Greeks, Jews etc., could melt into American society, blacks as a consequence of the color of their skin and the ineradicable reality of racism, never could. What the Black Power movement also did was unmask the melting pot as an expression, not of a neutral American identity, but as a form of Anglo-dominance. Hence, American Negroes became African-Americans, which ushered in the phenomenon of hyphenated Americans. This was involved with pride, factoring into one’s Americanism a positive appreciation of one’s racial, ethnic-religious, backgrounds, which previous generations might have been happy to leave behind. So we now had Italian-Americans, Latino-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and then gender became a component of one’s American identity.
And so multiculturalism was born, which had at its center a celebration of cultural difference and its watchword was tolerance. Americans were not exclusively one people, but a mix of different sub-groups and it became the prevailing value to tolerate this diversity and difference.
Multiculturalism, in turn, became the basis for what has come to be known as identity politics, whereby people express their political interests through their distinctive and parochial identities, whether they be racial, ethnic, or gender identities. Identity politics has certainly been a powerful force, especially for those minorities who have been the object of oppression, marginalization, and invisibility throughout our history, and it remains so.
The limits of tolerance
But multiculturalism is not without its problems. In the first instance, while multiculturalism requires that the relationship between different cultural groups be one of tolerance, and this is all to the good, we can ask the question: How is society to respond if the groups that we are tolerating are internally intolerant to their own members or violate what we consider to be the basic norms of society? Under multiculturalism we should tolerate religious groups that entertain values very different from our own, but what if these groups are excessively patriarchal? What if the Amish refuse to educate their children beyond the age of 14, or some groups, religious or not, refuse to vaccinate their children, or children in Hasidic schools are not taught to read or write English? How far should tolerance extend in these cases or others? In addition, multiculturalism does not prescribe how different cultural groups should relate to each other, other than tolerate one another, which can be achieved simply by ignoring one another to go about their business as they please. Such an ideology can lead to the disuniting of America in the minds of its critics, and they may have a valid point.
Perhaps the time has come to envision and to advocate for another way of understanding American society and American identity. And what I propose is the renewal of what is actually a very old idea, namely that of cosmopolitanism.
It’s an image of American society that has recently been put forward most cogently by the philosopher Anthony Appiah, who teaches at New York University and is known to readers of the New York Times as an ethicist who has a column in the Sunday magazine section.
What is cosmopolitanism? The word comes from the Greek and it means” citizen of the world.” At first glance, cosmopolitanism would seem to stand in direct opposition to the localism, provincialism, illiberal nationalism, and populism that has emerged in so many countries, including our own, in the past decade and present a threat to liberal democracy that many of us would argue is the best form of government.
In its assumed contempt for concrete, local values and loyalties, cosmopolitanism has often gotten a bad rap, in that it seems to be identified with the elitism that is the object of so much distain these days. More specifically, the cosmopolitan has been accused of being the type of person who loves humanity more than he or she loves real, downhome human beings. The cosmopolitan, it is claimed, has more concern for the stranger on the other side of the world than the neighbor next door, or perhaps is more preoccupied with others than even members of his family who are closest to him. Or as Appiah puts it, the cosmopolitan might be “the frequent flyer who can scarcely glimpse his earthbound compatriots through the clouds.”
In the Soviet Union in the Stalinist period, Jews were referred to as “rootless cosmopolitans.” It was an anti-Semitic slur, implying that the Jews didn’t really belong anywhere and therefore were unpatriotic.
But, in Appiah’s version of cosmopolitanism, these notions are mistaken, and I find his understanding of cosmopolitanism very attractive. In his view, the cosmopolitan outlook does not exist in opposition to local values and loyalties, but incorporates them and extends beyond them to embrace much more. By his understanding, “The cosmopolitan task…is to be able to focus on both far and near. Cosmopolitanism is an expansive act of the moral imagination. It sees human beings as shaping their lives within nesting memberships: a family, a neighborhood, a plurality of overlapping identity groups, spiraling out to all humanity. It asks us to be many things, because we are many things.”
In my allegiances, I don’t have to exclude
The implication of this is that when it comes to my own personal identity and my allegiances it is not a question of either/or, but of both/and. I can and do have multiple loyalties. So I am a resident of the City of Hackensack, a resident of New Jersey, and of the United States. If you ask which am I most loyal to, the question doesn’t make all that much sense. When I vote in a local school referendum in Hackensack, as I did a few weeks ago, it matters most that I am a Hackensackian. When I vote for a Senator or Representative, the city, state, and nation all matter to me. When I work for international human rights on behalf of Amnesty International on behalf of a prisoner in a foreign country or on behalf of an asylum-seeker coming here, escaping persecution in a faraway land, I am very conscious of being an internationalist. None of these identities or loyalties contradict each other; all of them make me who I am. On the big issues, I can feel myself to be an American patriot, but that is not necessarily a reason why I cannot commit myself to the fate of the Earth.
Another very important point is that some cosmopolitans are seduced by the thinking that if everyone matters, then everyone must matter equally, and if this is true then each of us has the same moral obligations to everyone. Therefore being partial, favoring those who are connected by blood or culture or territory can look arbitrary. In other words, if I am a citizen of the world, is it wrong to be partial to one’s own place or people? For those cosmopolitans who answer “yes,” it is that position that raises the contempt of those people I am referring to as localists.
But this impartiality is a fallacy. As Appiah notes, “… the fact of everyone mattering equally from the perspective of universal morality does not mean that each of us has the same obligations to everyone. I have a particular fondness for my nephews and nieces, one that does not extend to your nephews and nieces.” Indeed, he says, it would be morally wrong not to favor my relatives when it comes to distributing my limited attention and treasure. Does it follow that I must hate your nephews and nieces or try to shape the world to their disadvantage? Surely not. I can recognize the legitimate moral interests of your family, while still paying special attention to mine. It’s not that my family matters more than yours; it’s that it matters more to me.” And according Appiah, there is nothing wrong with that.
This opens the door to another aspect of the cosmopolitan outlook. And that is that a cosmopolitanism way of life needs to be accepting of the rights of others to be different from themselves, and in that acceptance cosmopolitans extend the right to be uncosmopolitan. Central to cosmopolitanism is that every human being matters, everyone counts, which lies at the heart of cosmopolitanism’s universalism. And the reality of the human condition is that different people do have different values, and many choose to live in community with people who share their language, customs, and values they think of as their own. And assuming some want to stay away from people unlike themselves, that is their right. I think the stance of a genuine cosmopolitan is to not want to impose one’s own values on others who wish and choose to live by different and more parochial values. To think otherwise is to be imperialistic, I think arrogant, and even to claim for oneself a certain infallibility. Speaking for myself as a humanist and as a primarily secular person, I have no interest in turning everyone into a facsimile of myself. For this reason, I am a humanist who sees a place for religion in society, which puts me at variance with even some of colleagues in the Ethical Culture movement. For me, as a cosmopolitan, a society comprised of a pluralism of values, as opposed to a society in which everyone believed in the same way is potentially a much richer society.
Economic inequality fuels divisions
Now this formulation does cause some problems, which Appiah does not adequately address. And that is that the cosmopolitan can more readily accept into his or her framework the uncosmopolitan than the uncosmopolitan can accept the cosmopolitan into his. And this is indeed the problem we confront in a polarized American society at this moment. There are no easy answers here; a response would take another address, or perhaps many addresses. But in briefest terms, I think the answer to our divided society has a great deal to do with economic inequality and the need to reopen the doors to economic security and opportunity.
But when comes down to the final reckoning, there may be no easy or harmonious resolution to the conflict between localists and cosmopolitans. There is a real struggle here. It will need to embrace economics, political struggle, and ways to open dialogue between people who now are deaf to the positions and needs of others. Dialogue and listening to others who are different is as central to the cosmopolitan worldview as it is to reviving a viable democracy.
In the final analysis, this contrast between those whom I am calling localists and the global view embraced by cosmopolitans is not merely a question of personal preferences. It’s not merely an aesthetic choice or choice of lifestyles. Those who have opted for localism, parochialism, and tribalism, in this country and elsewhere, in a sense have withdrawn from the world, where the greatest threats to the planet and human survival are to be found. Today, with carbon dioxide levels at their highest point in 800,000 years, with global warming threatening the fate of the planet, with 260 million international migrants, our problems are truly global, not local. In short, tribalism is a luxury that humanity can no longer afford. Therefore, each of us needs to develop an ethos that, while affirming our own sense of place, also needs to transcend our sense of place to embrace the world.
Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, delivered this platform address on March 3, 2019.