What do you think of this speech?
I think Mike Miles is a great candidate, but I am really worried about this speech
To Be an American
[keynote speech at the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council
high school symposium in October 2000]
What is an American?
My name is Mike Miles, and I am an American. I was born in Panama, I am an American. My mother is Japanese, I am an American. My father is Black and I speak Russian, I'm an American. I have represented U.S. interests abroad and have taught young people the value of democracy. I am an American.
What makes me an American? What makes anyone an American? To answer that question is also to explore the balance between diversity and unity in America. What makes me an American? Certainly it isn't obvious that this Russian-speaking, Black person with a Japanese mother who grew up poor in Colorado Springs and attended an Ivy League University is an American - or is it? Maybe my rootlessness gives me an affinity to something larger than the disparate cultures of my background. [Indeed, so rootless am I, the place where I was born doesn't even exist any more. Take a second to solve that riddle - I was born in the Panama Canal Zone.]
I claim to have a diverse background and diverse experiences. I appreciate diversity, and more, I celebrate diversity. How many of you are conscious of the way you look, your beliefs, your mannerisms. When I go to a show like Riverdance, I am painfully aware of the absence of people of color in the audience. When I get invited to the Broadmoor, I sigh because almost all of the celebrities whose pictures are on the walls are white. As a principal I agonize over how to raise minority achievement.
I am an American because of my diverse experiences and my identification with something that transcends my own unique cultural make-up. I appreciate diversity not because I am a minority, but because I have spent my life trying to understand the various perspectives of numerous diverse groups of people. I am an American because I have not placed one culture above all others. And I am an American because of something else - something else.
Diversity and Assimilation
Diversity is a good thing. How diverse are your classrooms? In your first period class do you have classmates whose native language is not English? Do you have classmates who are not Christians? Do you have classmates who believe that American students are too free? Diversity. It accounts for the richness of talent and ideas. It helps broaden our perspective. It challenges, enlivens, and educates us. Diversity is a good thing, but not always. Diversity costs. At my school, I just enrolled two illegal immigrants who speak absolutely no English. Who will pay for their education? You will. In California the ballots for the November election will be printed in several different languages. Why not 50 languages? - diversity costs.
Unity is a good thing, but I need to use a different word. Unity is a word we can all agree on, but it is not the right word. The right word is assimilation. To assimilate means to make similar or absorb into the prevailing culture. [Is assimilation a positive or negative word?] Somehow assimilation has taken on a pejorative meaning. I do not believe that it is necessarily negative. Indeed, assimilation is a necessary thing. What if students demanded to be excused from attending school on the holidays of their native country? Would that be O.K.? Just think if you were a Jewish-American with some Hispanic or Asian blood - you'd never have to go to school. Some of you may be slow to say you believe in assimilation because you don't want to be accused of being against diversity. But diversity and assimilation are not mutually exclusive and, philosophically, I believe that the course of human progress has in large part been the search for the balance between these two concepts.
Practices Accepted and Rejected
How do we find the intersection between diversity and assimilation? How do we describe the balance? In your high school, are there questions about school prayer? Does your school newspaper debate whether to include articles about homosexuals? Should there be college scholarships granted to a specific ethnic group? When a group of people want to express their culture or diversity, when they want to practice some aspect of their culture that is different than the practices of the prevailing culture, how do we decide what to tolerate or even accept. Is there any need to decide?
First there is a need to decide, not only because diversity costs, but often one group's practices come into conflict with another group's. Should all practices be allowed just because it is part of one's culture?
In some cultures men kiss each other on the cheek as a sign of welcome or friendship. The overwhelming majority of the people in this country would accept this practice. We might think it odd, but we would not pass legislation to outlaw it. In some cultures a woman wears clothing that covers almost her entire body and it is considered taboo to reveal her legs, any part of her chest, or even parts of her face. In America, most of us are saddened by this, but we again would not attempt to stop this practice. As a diplomat I lived abroad and visited many places and some of my practices were considered strange. I put my hands in my pockets - this was considered rude in Russia, but they did not pass a law against it. I think most of you could accept these practices.
However, there are other practices that most of us would probably have a hard time accepting. If a group of people in this country thought women were inferior to men and wanted to express this part of their culture by demanding that the public school only assigned their male children to male teachers, would we honor their request? If a young man paid money to become an officer in the army, a police officer, or judge even if that was regularly done in his native country (and was sometimes practiced in this country in the past), would we not attempt to stop this practice? Would not most of us rebel if every time we got a package in the mail we had to bribe the postman in order to collect it and pay a slightly larger bribe to be able to collect it unopened? All of these practices happen regularly abroad. Why are we willing to accept some practices and not others? How do we decide what to accept?
Parameters of the Constitution
We begin to speak of the balance between diversity and assimilation when we consider the reasons why some aspects of culture are tolerated or accepted while others are resisted or rejected. When the practice of some aspect of culture begins to interfere with the rights of another group of people, then there must be some way or some system to mediate the differences. What rights and what system? The answer to both questions are found in U.S. constitutional democracy.
The principles outlined in the Constitution establish the common ground among diverse peoples and establish the parameters in which our various cultures must find expression. Yes, the Constitution is a document of assimilation. We are a people who believe in freedom of religion. Newly arrived immigrants also begin to believe in freedom of religion. We are a country that no longer fears a Catholic being President or the possibility of a Jew being Vice President. Most of you would not think twice about sitting next to a black person in school. Newly arrived students also begin to appreciate equality of opportunity for all students.
Appealing to our inalienable sense of right and wrong the Constitution requires us to abide by certain rules. And if it is a document with much borrowed from the western European tradition, then so be it. It can be changed. The point here is that various cultures in America come to abide by the principles and must if we are not to live in constant conflict.
Within the parameters established by the Constitution much is allowed. The Constitution protects diversity as much as it proscribes or limits differences. Thus, in America one can sell Bibles, bow to the East, claim to be an atheist, or a witch without fear of being thrown in jail. One can profess to be a Nazi, criticize public officials, or print racist material. One can do things that are considered un-American by many -- burn the American flag, refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. You can do these things because honoring the flag and saying the Pledge are not what make an American. I'm an American not because of my language, religious belief, or taste in music. I am an American because I support the principles outlined in the Constitution.
In one sense, the controversy surrounding diversity and assimilation is moot. Richard Rodriguez, a journalist who gave a speech on this topic to the Air Force Academy, said that "assimilation happens." I believe that is true. Diverse groups begin to use a justice system established by the Constitution to expand their rights. Many significant gains made by the NAACP and the ACLU have resulted from decisions made by the Supreme Court. Minority groups have many differences with the interpretation of certain sections of the Constitution, but most of them will agree that it is a document that has served them well over time. They have been assimilated.
So influential are the principles embodied in the American system, that many places in the world are even now looking to democracy and the U.S. Constitution for answers to their own problems. We couldn't and didn't defeat the Soviet Union through strength of arms; in the end, it was the strength of our ideas that brought the Soviet Union down.
But assimilation happens on a smaller scale too - not just on the level of constitutional principles, but also in our everyday lives. Hence one hears young Japanese girls in California speaking "valley talk," one sees the sons of Russian immigrants falling in love with Britney Spears or Shania Twain, and Muslim girls in America shop for Levis and tank tops in Denver. Assimilation happens. Much to the chagrin of their parents and to the other "keepers of the faith" assimilation happens.
Assimilation happens and something is lost. On one level various cultures are diminished in America as the children of the children of immigrants buy into our free market and sometimes celebrate the holidays of their U.S. spouses. Something is lost as Native Americans leave the reservations and take jobs in cities as computer technicians. And sometimes it is this "something lost" that minority groups hope to put off by demanding that we respect their culture.
On another level, assimilation happens and we may lose some perspective on our practices and beliefs. Some people believe that one can only know truth by considering numerous other perspectives. If that is so, then diverse practices and beliefs enable us to develop our own understanding of society and the relationship among peoples. Diversity is the context for our evolving state and culture.
I was in Russia when the first McDonalds opened in Moscow. I stood in line for an hour and a half like all of the Russians. That was one of the first symbols of the democratization and "free marketization" of Russia. Something has definitely been lost in Russia as the nation's culture changes, adopting more of the practices of the West.
But there is yet another level to assimilation. And on this level much can be gained. Such are the protections of ideas in this country that the culture being assimilated has a chance to influence the dominant culture. In the market place of ideas, a different perspective is valued and often conquers, becoming part of what we are and what we believe.
On the level of constitutional principles, assimilation happens and something is gained and we are given hope that various peoples can live and work together in peace. It is clear that some ethnic or other minority group may take exception with an America that has not allowed them to reach their potential. This is a serious problem and all of us must remain vigilant. Perfect we are not by any means, but our system of government and enduring values continues to be a magnet for the oppressed and underprivileged. The system that gave us Plessy v. Ferguson also gave us Brown v. Board; the system that spawned Colorado's Amendment 2, also ruled it unconstitutional; the system that bears some institutional biases against minorities, also provides legal recourse. The system with all these problems provides many opportunities for people to be part of the solution. Thus did the civil rights movement led by Black Americans establish the lexicon with which we granted legal protections for various other minority groups and communities.
Cause for Concern
In the language of the everyday, our laws and policies must support those principles that respect all people and find the balance between diversity and assimilation. Herein lies the cause for concern. The nation's ability to serve the interests of all people relies on the people's understanding of the principles of a free nation and on the people's willingness to find the common good. The notion of the common good requires us to identify with something larger than ourselves and even larger than our culture. It requires us to recognize that sometimes society's interests supersede our more parochial ones. It requires us to be Americans and students of civics.
But we are not studying very hard. Thus opponents of gun control scream about the right to bear arms without ever having read the entire 2nd Amendment or studied the law surrounding it. People demand acceptance of cultural religious practices with little regard to the non-establishment clause. We attempt to pass laws against homosexuals that violate the 14th Amendment. To be sure, all of these issues are controversial and complex, but the fact that they are so requires all of us to be good students. For in our ignorance of constitutional principles, we have lost sight of the common good. Our familiarity with special interests has undermined the interests of all. In our clamor for rights, we have forgotten our responsibilities. And our silence - or failure to vote -- diminishes our common cause.
What is to be done? There are several things we as Americans can do to help us find the common good. The first thing we can do is to support some form of campaign finance reform to limit the influence of special interests. Also, we must begin to select and evaluate politicians on the basis of the breadth of their experience rather than the depth of their pocketbook. Let's nominate and support professional public servants - people who have wrestled with these issues - rather than privileged men who only belatedly want to give back to America. Let's support the candidates who have been giving to America most of their lives. We can also begin to find the common good by voting and casting informed votes.
These are things we can do, but I fear they will help very little if we fail to become students of democracy and attempt to understand what it is to be an American. Thus, I believe that our last best hope is our public schools. We should return to our curriculum those subjects such as civics, government, and philosophy. While I support the standards movement and the focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic - I feel we are sacrificing teaching students about the common good, about our responsibilities, about our government, about diversity, assimilation, and what it is to be an American. In this fast-paced world we seem to be more self-absorbed, more fragmented, with little time to reflect, to dream, to seek common ground.
Our continued success may very well rest on our collective ability to find that common ground, to find the balance between diversity and unity. As a people we must celebrate diversity, but we must also celebrate an identity larger than our Black, Hispanic, Russian, or Japanese background. Our schools must teach the lessons of constitutional democracy and we must become students of our democratic heritage. In short, we must all become Americans