Skip to main content

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”
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.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Misanthropy runs too deeply (0+ / 0-)

    A clear majority of Americans have no interest in making every human life humanly worth living.  Only their own, and to those toward whom they are well-disposed.  This in turn gets processed through our social structure, which tends to highlight and reward precisely the most misanthropic among us.  In order to secure for ourselves the image of being able to summon society's sympathies, the vast majority then shallowly ape the misanthropy of their overlords, extending and perpetuating its omnipotence.

    "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" ~Dr. Samuel Johnson

    by ActivistGuy on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 10:16:23 AM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site