Gone with the Unum

May 04, 1994|By Russell Baker

I HAVE always been an "E Pluribus Unum" person myself, but the future does not look bright for an "E Pluribus Unum" America. The melting pot in which the Pluribus were to be combined was not the success its advertisers had promised.

Well, what ever is? It is the destiny of Americans to be oversold by slogans. They know it instinctively, which is why advertising is far more to blame than Nixon and Johnson combined for the cynicism in which we now wallow.

What is new these days is the passion with which we now pursue our tribal identities.

A generation ago the sociologists Nathan Glazer and Patrick Moynihan created a stir by pointing out that we had been oversold on America as melting pot. The one people that was supposed to emerge from the many stirred into the pot simply refused to come forth, they observed. Anyone who had grown up in working-class America already knew all this. If you ran with Italian kids and got caught alone among Irish kids, you knew loosened teeth or blackened eye, and possibly both, might ensue. Persons of African ancestry were isolated in remote neighborhoods and rarely encountered.

My home was dominated by a woman born of a marriage between Ireland and Cuba. In that age with its unbuttoned indifference to ethnic delicacy, her husband lovingly teased her by saying, "The only thing dumber than a dumb Swede is a smart Irishman."

Since she ruled the domain, she could tolerate and even laugh at the cruelty of failed-melting-pot humor, but no one ever mentioned her Cuban blood. In fact her Irish mother had been read out of the family for marrying a Cuban.

You grew up knowing instinctively that the melting pot was an inferior vessel, but at the same time you were encouraged to believe that it ought to work, that it must work for America to succeed (whatever that meant), and that in time it eventually would work. Every schoolchild was taught at least enough Latin to know what "E Pluribus Unum" meant: "From many, one people."

How this will all play out is beyond my crystal ball's vision, but the game is already far afoot, and we old "E Pluribus Unum" people ought to be flexing our own tribal muscles on the possibility that it's going to be all Pluribus and no Unum for a long time to come.

My own tribe, I noticed while browsing in the press the other day, is being called "Caucasian." This is absurd. The Caucasus is a region between the Caspian and Black Seas and contains Russians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

The etiquette of the new ethnic sensitivity entitles each of us to decide what we want to be called, and it's hard to believe that many in my tribe want to face the coming struggle carrying the banner for the Caucasus, especially since Americans of Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Russian blood might sensibly object that we are ethnically impure.

"Caucasian" has long been a fussy, stuffy way of saying "a whitey." Cops with literary aspirations have used it for years. It's one of those nice-Nelly terms that throttle our ability to discuss the race problem without hypocrisy. Is it important to make clear that the perpetrator was not black, African-American, Negro, Afro-American, a person of color, Hispanic, Latino, Chicano or Asian-American? If so, announce that he was Caucasian.

The tribal dignity of all whiteys is demeaned by the embrace of this silly term. Choosing a name that will honor us as we have a right to be honored is not for me to do. It will require a committee. "Whiteys," incidentally, will not do, as we vary in color from glorious purple to mausoleum gray.

The Hispanic solution, calling us "Anglos," is pretty, but almost as wrong as "Caucasian." It will also offend Celtics among us who despise England. The Jewish "goyim," while picturesque, is equally applicable to everybody not Jewish.

The New York acronym "WASP" -- white Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- is pleasant ("WASPs of America, unite before your stingers are plucked!") but offensive to white Anglo-Saxon Catholics, white Anglo-Saxon agnostics, white Gallic Protestants, white Central European anarchists and millions more.

O Unum, what misery we courted when we forsook thee for Pluribus.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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