The cost of becoming American
“In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American.
If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American.
We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile. We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul (sic) loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.”
The words of Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to the president of the American Defense Society. It was read publicly at a meeting of the American Defense Society on January 5, 1919. Roosevelt died the next day, on January 6, 1919.
Despite its disturbing conflict between liberty and cultural cleansing, TR’s Americanization policy made good sense to himself and to many in America at the bitter close of the first World War and the turn of the 19th century. The former rough rider prefaced the comment quoted above with the warning: “There may be no sagging back in the fight for Americanism merely because the war is over.” TR referenced WW I which was the catalyst for his own anti-immigrant views but it is clear that Roosevelt viewed immigrant cultural identity and celebration as a thinly veiled cover for widespread foreign insurgency even in peacetime. This modern statement of Americanism under which much of America still operates today – forced cultural assimilation – was born out of blind fear, ignorance and misunderstanding.
Like its rickety old cousin manifest destiny, forced assimilation is the product of a very different time and outlook (hopefully). It fails to address and explain a few important historical facts not the least of which is the very inconvenient truth that this entire American nation lies on land that was stolen from native peoples following the greatest genocide in human history, estimated at 100 million natives killed. English or “Anglo” dominance in America is based on a “to the victor go the spoils” philosophy that is unattractive and difficult to justify in the 21st century.
Late in life TR developed a belief that given the new geopolitical realities of his time America must energetically impose a strict policy of “complete Americanization” of every immigrant or risk foreign political insurgence and domination. In Roosevelt’s opinion, and that of the other nativists of the period, every new American must be paternally reshaped to be consistent with something like TR’s own image: male (although properly controlled, assimilated attached females would apparently be allowed), bigger and bolder than life, better than anything the world had seen before, English speaking and American. Godlike in its intrusion and completely intolerant, the entrenched American mandate of forced assimilation is the most draconian of the ways of human acculturation. It remains the best approach to immigration policy in the minds of many citizens of the world’s citadel of freedom. Trump loves it.
Like all Americans, Gaelic Americans are the product of this involuntary cultural assimilation. The Gaelic experience in America has followed a path similar to other immigrant cultural experience. Within the first few new generations after arrival, the Scots Gaelic language was consistently lost to English. For Gaels, it was a language and ancient cultural tradition that had withstood literally centuries of active English and Scottish suppression, harassment, discrimination, prohibition and murder and it disappeared in America in the blink of an eye. A double tragedy.
Indeed the American cultural cleansing process has worked so well that observers have developed a reliable time table for its success: Upon arrival, the first immigrant generation often speaks little or no English. The second generation is raised bilingually and the third generation will reliably lose the mother tongue entirely. It works that way by design. Quick and reliable. Anthropologists call it “Language Attainment” and it is used as a signpost of how well the immigrant has assimilated . How well has she erased her own cultural identity and replaced it with Theodore Roosevelt’s cultural identity.
Whether forced cultural assimilation is a good or a bad thing is debatable. I suggest here that it is a failed idea as implemented in America. In either event, forced cultural assimilation has left Gaelic Americans in an especially bad situation because the Scots Gaelic culture of our ancestors is endangered in its homeland. Unlike German, Italian, Spanish and many other immigrants, the Gaelic diaspora finds very little Gaelic reserve and support in Scotland to fuel our own cultural search and rescue operation. Indeed, our Gaelic homeland more and more looks to its diaspora for survival help. Scots Gaelic culture was already on the run when it found North American shores. It came here to survive but unfortunately immigrant cultural survival has never been on the Americano menu and it has been silenced here for more than a century.
America’s forced cultural assimilation mandate and mindset helps to extirpate Scots Gaelic language and culture even today by encouraging acceptance of cultural loss and legitimizing intolerance for cultural revitalization and diversity in the nation as a whole. Worse yet, in the absence of a real culture, Gaelic Americans are asked to accept a replica culture that has assumed the role of a real culture, all wrapped in Victorian literary romance and imperial military splendor and historically interpreted by patriotically unhyphenated Americans with poor access and ability to pursue and integrate Gaelic truth. The existence of a past interpretation of Scots Gaelic history and heritage should not, in a tolerant community, prevent exploration and adoption of more accurate interpretation based on fresh scholarship. In an intolerant community, good luck.
FORCED CULTURAL ASSIMILATION IS A FAILED THING
Possibly the best evidence that forced cultural assimilation in America is a failed policy are the millions of Americans who are today in search of what their own nation has taken from them – their ancestral cultural identity. Genealogical and ancestry related online searches are persistently some of the most popular, eclipsing even the ubiquitous search for online porn. The nation is trying to figure out who it is because after our ancestors set aside their ancestral cultural identities as the price of admission to America, they and we have found that there really is no such thing as a satisfying American ethnicity and culture with which we can fill the gaping hole in our cultural lives. Americans are a very young people – too young to have formed an honest-to-goodness culture and we suffer greatly today from the historical fibs of the past upon which we have tried to build a heritage. American culture seems to satisfy very few Americans these days. Cultural assimilation has left the country a bit empty.
Have we grown out of our historic Anglo driven xenophobia? Have we admitted that forcibly stripping new Americans of their ancestral cultural rootedness is not America’s only way to proceed nor is it a healthy way to proceed? Forced cultural assimilation has not made us safer, it has only made us less interesting, less resilient, far less tolerant and I would argue profoundly less fulfilled. More like walking talking human tofu. It has perpetuated a feeling of mainstream American dominance over minorities of all kinds because domination is all the mainstream has left.
Are we finished celebrating the national value of ancestral cultural diversity as displayed by people like the Navajo code talkers of WW II, while we simultaneously disavow and set up obstacles to retained immigrant cultural identity and we continue to refuse to recognize or respect native cultural identity (or sovereignty for that matter)?
Have we set aside the broadly institutionalized cultural discrimination that makes economic success in America profoundly more accessible to those who check their cultural identity at the door? Because, what is the point of doing that? What do we as a nation get for that torture?
If I use myself as an example, and ask, is my country safer because I have been denied the knowledge of the Scots Gaelic, southern dialect of Italian and German languages of my ancestors? Would I or my dad or uncles or cousins have gone radical if we had been raised as bilingual English/German speakers? Unlikely. On the other hand, would I have been a more productive citizen had I been been offered the opportunity to learn some or all of those languages in addition to English in my childhood home as a native speaker? Without question, yes. The lifetime benefits and advantages of bilingualism are well known and accepted. Would knowing who I am make me value American freedom less? Nope. Again, what’s not to like?
SO HAVE WE GROWN INTO A MORE TOLERANT AND DIVERSITY LOVING NATION?
There was a moment in the late 20th century when a few academics declared that forced cultural assimilation in the U.S. was dead. Perhaps America had begun to find a more progressive way but any ancestral immigrant cultural renaissance in America is at risk of a serious derailment today. Did anyone watch the last GOP Presidential campaign debate?
While America has hit the genealogical and ancestral trail with great energy looking for its roots, the really sad news is that even under the more enlightened sun that shines upon the 21st century, regaining (or holding onto) one’s ancestral cultural identity in America remains an uphill battle requiring great effort and dedication and even with those, few ethnicities survive let alone thrive.
Gaelic Americans were rightly shocked recently at the arrogant and ignorant complaints of Scottish residents against Scottish public funds being spent on English/Gaelic roadsigns and other Gaelic cultural support in Scotland. Unfortunately that very same voice of conformity and intolerance is alive and gaining volume in the land of the free and home of the brave. The Republican Party, supported by what the Southern Poverty Law Center characterize as anti immigrant hate groups, consistently, year after year, brings several pieces of proposed federal legislation seeking to make English the official language of America.
There is a good deal of (Republican) legislative support for various other anti immigrant measures including proposals like the recently introduced “COST Act” which seeks to develop the argument that dollars currently spent on English/Spanish bilingual services across America would be far better spent on more relevant and valuable programs (presumably in the defense sector which is where isolationist xenophobic policies generally take us). Similarities with the Gaelic experience in Scotland are abundant. Supporters of measures like these cannot understand and are not interested in the value of regaining an ancestral language and a cultural and ethnic presence in an American individual’s life.
DO I CARE ABOUT THIS?
So, you ask, beyond a general sense of global injustice in all of this, what is the direct Scots Gaelic connection? Simple.
First. Scots Gaelic is losing its battle for survival. Scottish census estimates 58,000 Scots Gaelic speakers remain in Scotland within a national population of 5.5 million. Numbers of Gaelic speakers continues to decline annually, although recently at a less brisk rate than past years. For those of us who would find the loss of native Scots Gaelic language and culture in Scotland to be an extreme tragedy, a great loss and something worth fighting to prevent, an increasingly strident xenophobic global voice that is willing, even eager, to see Scots Gaelic die in Scotland, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Europe or elsewhere is something to take very seriously.
Second. Scots Gaelic cultural revitalization tends to be viewed as very political and can be fairly highly charged within the mainstream Scottish heritage community. A growing national “English only” attitude does not work to the advantage of increased understanding and acceptance of Scots Gaelic history within the mainstream Scottish heritage community. On the contrary, Scots Gaelic cultural revitalization, like any other cultural revitalization project, will benefit from a welcoming, tolerant, respectful and curious attitude toward ancestral cultural identity in both homeland and diaspora nations.
Third. As mentioned on several occasions in past NYFG posts, America has not one single Scots Gaelic studies program at the research University level. This is a critical and eventually fatal deficiency. We cannot discover our Scots Gaelic cultural past without a seat of scholarly academic research and teaching. Again, our critical effort to establish such an academic base of support for Scots Gaelic cultural studies will benefit from tolerance, respect and curiosity from the American people and government.
Finally, not only do we need our respective governments not to be working against our language and cultural revitalization projects, we need them to commit even more resources to support those projects.
I WANT MY CULTURE BACK
Not only should I be allowed to reconstruct and discuss and celebrate my Scots Gaelic heritage, America should embrace and support that activity. Presently, my gut feeling tells me that at best, America is neutral to Scots Gaelic cultural revitalization. And they probably think its a little silly. We should all learn and understand why cultural identity is such an important part of being human. With it we are likely to be more culturally confident and tolerant. Without it cultural tolerance is difficult to understand let alone to practice.
Instead of “English Only” budget support we should increase our public budgets to promote ancestral cultural revitalization across the board. Any cultural community that comes together and wants to learn, resurrect, celebrate and share an ancestral culture that was laid to rest in the crucible of Americanization should find a welcome hand up from Washington DC. Likewise, individual states should be welcoming ports of call for Scots Gaelic cultural revitalization projects. In an America that has the courage to understand and appreciate the value of cultural diversity over forced cultural assimilation, that will be the case. In a fearful “English only” America, do not expect Scots Gaelic culture to advance any further than its tenuous position today.
I want my culture back. I have a use for it in my life today. Among many other things that help define me, I am a Gaelic – American. I am one of those hyphenated dwellers in TR’s polyglot boardinghouse that I hope America can finally someday become. Someday, I hope to be speaking Scots Gaelic at a pretty raucous and far happier and diverse national dinner table. Anyone with me?