E Pluribus Unum?
Like most Americans, I looked forward to the inauguration of a new president as a reaffirmation of the democratic system, a time when all Americans can put aside our differences for a few hours and simply share the experience of pride in our country, its institutions, and traditions. Despite my own partisanship as a Republican, I approached President Clinton’s inauguration with anticipation and good cheer for what the day and the ceremony symbolize. As I listened to the President’s speech, I found much to applaud, especially when he talked about responsibility and service to country. His aim seemed not only to layout an agenda for his administration but to give Americans a sense of unity and purpose. Perhaps for that reason, what followed—Maya Angelou’s reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” written specifically for the occasion—was all the more jarring. Miss Angelou’s poem was an odd and divisive reading of America’s past and present which, despite the poem’s constant invocation of a better future, could hardly rouse hope.
In an interview Miss Angelou gave to the Washington Post just days before the Inauguration, she said that she wanted in her poem to talk about her nation: “I am amused by our similarities just beneath the color line, or the age, or the sex, how much we are alike.” But instead of the unifying principle she spoke of in the interview, her poem was a litany of grievances and groups. This was no Inaugural epic but an anthem for the radical critique of American history, which in too many places today has become the accepted orthodoxy.
Of all the images she might have picked from America’s past, she chose to describe those who “Have lain too long / Face down in ignorance. / Your mouths spilling words / Armed for slaughter.” She inveighed against “armed struggles for profit”; and against those “Other seekers—desperate for gain, / Starving for gold.” She recounted the brutality of the slave trade and forced resettlement of Indians to reservations, both ignoble pages from American history. But nowhere did she mention those who, from the founding of this nation, gave their lives in the struggle against intolerance.
In her mellifluous voice, she recited the groups: “The Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew / The African, the Native American, the Sioux, / The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek / The Irish, the rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik / The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher / The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.” She talked of the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Arab, the Swede, the Scot, and on and on and on.
As I listened to Miss Angelou, I kept waiting. Where was America in all of this? Where the one people out of many? Where the quest for freedom, opportunity, and equality? Is our history all shame, as she suggests? And have we become simply a nation of bitter and aggrieved groups, each vying with each other for equal mention and reparation for our past mistreatment? Is this the inclusion we so herald today—to be included among the oppressed? No partisan differences could ever threaten the unity of this nation as much as these incantations.
We live in dangerous times, made more dangerous because so few seem to recognize the peril. Surely, Miss Angelou did not intend her poem to exacerbate divisions—yet the words she chose did nonetheless. We are in danger of fragmenting into hundreds of rival factions, where race, ethnicity, gender, language make their claim on our loyalty. We are daily called on to emphasize our differences rather than transcend them—and nowhere more loudly than in our public schools. We have gone way beyond pluralism, to insist that the first duty of our schools is to teach children the stories of their ancestral past. Are my children to look to Aztec kings and Mayan princes, to Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juarez as their heroes, as if George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were reserved “for whites only”?
Spanish is now the medium of instruction in many public schools in California and other places where large populations of new immigrants reside. Two-thirds of all children from Spanish-speaking homes are taught to read in Spanish when they enter first grade in American public schools—and many are kept in classrooms where Spanish is the language of instruction for years after they enter school. School administrators seem to view assimilation with disdain, as if their duty to immigrant children is to preserve their past rather than to prepare them for their future.
For more than 200 years, this nation has survived because we have been able to forge a common identity dedicated to a common purpose. We have made a nation and created a people. We have shed our own blood to preserve that union and to extend its privileges ever more broadly. It is that history that Americans honor during inaugural celebrations. And it is that sense of ourselves as one people sharing a common destiny that we are in danger of losing.
The New Journalism
It’s not news that reporters and editors at the Washington Post support President Clinton’s stand on gays in the military. What is news is the ever more brazen bias the Post has allowed in news stories on the issue. In one front-page story, for example, Michael Weisskopf reported on the massive evangelical Christian opposition to the president’s plan. Acknowledging that this outrage sprang from the “grassroots,” Weisskopf explained that evangelicals are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command,” thereby insinuating there can be no moral or religious disapproval of homosexuality, only redneck intolerance. Uproar from evangelicals—and the truth—forced the Post to admit this stereotype was false, but Weisskopf’s deeper insinuation was never addressed.
Two weeks later, Molly Moore attempted to discredit the opposition of Marines in Somalia to open homosexuality in the service by casually referring to the Marine Corps as “homophobic.” She added that “few” Marines “seem to know or understand” homosexuals. No hard evidence accompanied these broad accusations, designed to stereotype Marines as the same kind of uneducated boors that Weisskopf accused evangelicals of being. Nor did Moore explain what it would mean to “know and understand” either homosexuals or those aspects of homosexuality about which Marines are supposedly so ignorant. Instead she implied that to “know and understand” homosexuals is to sympathize with or approve of homosexual behavior. By equating objective knowledge with the views of one side in a serious controversy, Moore forsook impartiality and foreclosed honest debate.
It seems few Post reporters or editors know or understand Christians or Marines.