The administration's 'town meetings' are a wrongheaded idea

February 01, 1994|By Richard Sennett

THE Clinton administration has unveiled its plan to bring Americans together.

Sheldon Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, announced this month that the government would hold a series of televised "town meetings" aimed at overcoming ethnic rivalries.

They will explore the bonds of community, the meaning of American identity and "how immigrant groups fit into the American dream."

It is easy to sympathize with what Mr. Hackney, Mr. Clinton and other sponsors of the forums want to achieve. They aim to challenge the inward-turning racial, ethnic and sexual zealotry that deny America a common civic culture.

Yet this is a deeply wrongheaded project.

First, it looks back on an America that never existed. From the beginning, American society has been fragmented by differences of wealth, religion and language, as well as by the conflicts between slave and nonslave states.

The waves of immigration after the Civil War did not break apart a unified nation; they added new diversities to old divisions.

In some ways, we are more divided today than during that first great immigrant wave. For example, because our society has become more open sexually, marriage and family no longer trace a clear design in people's lives.

Mr. Hackney is the latest of a long line of Americans who have sought to counter society's fissures by discovering a national identity or an American character.

These phrases, however, merely display the gentlemanly face of nationalism. Nationalism creates a mythic land in which people understand themselves and each other. The myth disguises inequalities and legitimates attacks on people whose lives are different.

Immigrants who came to these shores three or four generations ago thus encountered great prejudices based on the supposed fact that they weren't yet "real Americans."

Does Mr. Hackney feel bad about this? Of course he does.

Yet he asserts that it is "much better to start talking about American identity before getting into immigration issues."

This supposes an America that is obscured by the presence of outsiders, an America waiting for us once we stop obsessing about our differences.

Of course, the very notion of an American identity is a sweeping stereotype, and the manipulation of such generalizations lies at the very heart of nationalism.

The first wave of immigrants resisted falling under the sway of American stereotypes, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer showed in their classic study "Beyond the Melting Pot." Immigrants and their heirs sought to preserve a more complex and mixed experience of cultural identity.

Also, stereotyped thinking will invariably pay more attention to divisive rabble-rousers than to sophisticated thinkers about ethnic problems: In such a scenario, a Rev. Al Sharpton would easily overwhelm a Cornel West.

When people deal in stereotypes, they seek to define who "we" are in contrast to a threatening "other." Members of racial minorities (as well as homosexuals, immigrants and the elderly) face the same problem that 19th-century immigrants did: It is not so much the danger of turning inward -- a real temptation for any threatened group -- as the more subtle challenge of how to avoid being defined by someone else.

Not only is Mr. Hackney's blueprint for culture flawed in principle, it is perverse in practice. In the televised town meetings, people will be given air time to explain themselves to each other.

Mr. Hackney says he wants "to give people a sense they have been heard." This is one of the oldest American techniques for dealing with communal tension. It began with the Puritans and was adopted and updated by psychological theory a generation ago in encounter groups and consciousness-raising sessions.

In this kind of meeting, people do not decide things. Instead, they attempt to rouse sentiments of sharing and community through self-revelations and expressions of sympathy: "I feel your pain." These sorts of events tend to oversimplify our divisions and and exclude the confusions inherent in real experience.

In intimate life, adults connect to one another in part by accepting that they cannot often understand one another. Public discourse about "what we share" ignores this fact. And Mr. Hackney's "national conversation" will exclude from the televised picture those who don't easily open themselves up and commune.

Given the complexities of American society today, it's immensely important that people find ways to act together with those they do not understand or whom they dislike when they do understand.

The Clinton administration's finest achievements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, have acknowledged that America is not an island. Mr. Clinton has rightly sought to address, as in his proposed health care plan, collective problems that affect different Americans in radically different ways.

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