In honor of the 4th of July, I want to discuss one of my favorite progressive renderings of Americanism. It comes from a 1923 speech by Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, philosophy professor at Columbia University, and progressive social reformer.
In the speech, Adler criticized many of the conceptions of Americanism prominent in the public discourse at the time (many of which are unfortunately still prominent today) and offered his own, one rooted in a progressive American idealism.
First, he rejected the racial definition of Americanism, that which equates Americanism with Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. At the time, he was referencing the growing nativist movement and the re-emergent Ku Klux Klan; however, there are still too many people today, mostly on the right, who refuse to accept the growing diversity of American society and latch onto a vision of a homogeneous or hierarchical past.
Second, he rejected what he called the “composite” definition, which he—perhaps unfairly—attributed to the settlement movement. The “composite” definition purports that each culture within the country contributes its own costumes, folk songs, dance, music, pageantry, etc.—and the sum of the contributions becomes Americanism. However, to Adler, such a definition was lacking because it offered no end, except perhaps to make life less puritanical. The “composite” view is somewhat akin to the “fruit salad” metaphor for Americanism that you might hear today.
Third, he rejected the metaphor of the “melting-pot,” which stemmed from the writings of playwright Israel Zangwill. Adler found this definition to be less generous to new Americans than the composite view because it says of the immigrant: “He is to be welcomed, but he is to be smelted.” Whereas the composite definition celebrates contributions without an overarching end, the melting-pot view appears to diminish the uniqueness of the contributions and the diversity of cherished traditions. Canada’s mosaic metaphor has gained recent prominence in the US as an alternative for just that reason.
Fourth, he rejected the equation of Americanism with capitalism, a definition that stems from the rather unwarranted belief that the capitalist system is the be-all, end-all.
Fifth, he rejected the imperialistic definition of Americanism, the belief that one can only form a nation by dominating others. Adler had been an outspoken critic of imperialism for the past several decades. He had been a member of the Anti-Imperialist League of New York and regularly spoke out against the atrocities committed by the United States in the Philippines. He later joined the Philippine Independence Society to push for the transition to self-government, and in the early 1920s, he joined the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society, which united former members of the Anti-Imperialist League and the NAACP largely united around The Nation’s Oswald Garrison Villard, to protest the U.S. occupation of Haiti. Of this imperialistic rendering of Americanism, he explained, “In the world of actualities, imperialism means foreign markets; even more inclusively it means foreign investments; and the great danger is that our American national consciousness, which is still undeveloped, still instinctive, will be rationalized and formulated in terms of imperialism.” Such capital investment would lead to a demand for a strong navy to enforce the financial domination, laying the grounds for future invasions and occupations, and the imperialistic definition of Americanism would bolster the materialistic taint of Americanism, arguing that we must all support a small group of investors in whatever they do. Unfortunately, this definition is still prominent today, especially among our elected officials and among foreign policy think tanks.
After going through these definitions, he presented his own view, that our goal should be “to make ourselves over into freedom.” Voting, of course, is necessary but not sufficient for such freedom because one can vote but still be unfree—trapped by the chains of poverty or ignorance, for instance. In the following passage, which is one of my favorites, he outlined what he saw as the goal of such an American idealism rooted in a universal, aspirational freedom:
“To develop a pure democracy, an industrial as well as a political democracy—for without industrial democracy as the basis, political democracy is a delusion—a pure democracy, purged not only of aristocracy, but also of plutocracy, a democracy in which the principle of the worth of every human being shall not only be proclaimed as a principle, but shall be expressed in the constant effort to make every human life humanly worth living” (134)
That aspiration—“to make every human life humanly worth living”—still resonates with us today and encapsulates the goal of the various progressive movements working to build a more just society at home and abroad.