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Asking and answering the question: ‘Who are we as a people?’

I would suggest that rarely have 300-million-plus people been as fair-minded and hospitable as Americans are and have been for a long time.

When it comes to matters such as celebrating (or not celebrating) holidays in elementary schools, or seeing a need to take out full-page ads about treating everyone with dignity regardless of their faith, I ask myself questions such as: “Who are we as a people?” And then voicing assertions such as: “This is what we are as a nation.”

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

Regarding the question about who we may be, I would suggest that rarely have 300-million-plus people been as fair-minded and hospitable as Americans are and have been for a long time.

And as for the assertion, I would argue that American history and practice are significantly different from histories and practices almost anywhere else in the world. And that with few but glaring exceptions, slavery and Jim Crow being the worst and most obvious, this has been virtuously and successfully so, making it not rash or hubristic to say things such as: “Ideas and policies that might fit elsewhere don’t fit in the United States.” But even if they could be shoehorned, “That wouldn’t be who we are.”  

We’re not Scandinavia

Think, for instance, how it’s not a dodge but a philosophical fact of life to argue how we’re not Scandinavia when proposals are made to further enlarge the role of government on these shores. With affection and all due respect for Swedes and Norwegians, this is true because our DNA is more individualistic and capitalistic than Sweden or Norway’s.

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Or picking a local and comparatively trivial event, when a principal of an elementary school in St. Paul sought to cancel celebrations of “dominant holidays” (including Thanksgiving, for heaven’s sake), as such festivities, he alleged, would threaten “a culture of tolerance and respect for all,” it’s entirely kosher to say: This is one area in which abstinence is not a good idea and where multiculturalism has run amok. And that such attempts to deny who we fundamentally are – among other good things, a “nation with the soul of a church” as a Brit once put it – is educationally and civically unsound. Never mind also dismissive of centuries of animating values and disrespectful of majorities who believe in them.      

A few days after the Arbor Day manifesto, a group of political, business, educational and other Minnesota leaders felt compelled to take out a full-page newspaper ad about how it is “un-Minnesotan” to be bigoted against Muslims, as it absolutely is. And that, “We must lead people to a place of tolerance and understanding.”  Right again, they were.

In the main, Americans have acted decently

But as noble and necessary as these imperatives are, I would have added a few sentences at the bottom of the piece about how Minnesotans and Americans, in the overwhelming main, have conducted themselves since 9/11 and before in decent, even gracious ways. In fact, rarely in the history of the planet, I’m reasonably certain, has a nation at war been so respectful of the co-nationalists and co-religionists of the very forces trying to maim and kill them – doing so, not incidentally, in the perverted name of that faith. 

Let me be clear and not misread here. I’m very pleased we have put our best soul forward. We are morally obliged to be fair. And Muslim Americans are just that: Americans.

But recall, if you will, how vastly different things were during another war, when slurs commonly were used to describe Germans and Japanese, even in good company, including movies. And the ugly names used in referring to Vietnamese and other Asians, albeit less frequently and less publicly, in a subsequent war, not all that long ago. At least in terms of not giving needless offense, we may never have been a better people than we are now.  

(For a really massive contrast, imagine some of the names those who live to kill us, and frequently do, call us at the drop of a fuse.)  

I recognize, as well as I can, the pain suffered by a consequential number of Muslims in Minnesota because of what other Minnesotans have said and sometimes what they physically have done. But I also recognize that the decency with which an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans and other Americans interact with Muslims, if not always in ways as warm and personal as one might hope, is nonetheless salutary. It is also much closer to who and what we are, most essentially, as a state and nation and people.

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.  His most recent publication is “Can America’s Religious Traditions Strengthen Marriage? Minnesota Leaders Say ‘Yes’ and Propose How.”


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