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LBJ Stands For: a) A President b) A Rap Singer

LBJ Stands For: a) A President b) A Rap Singer

Author: Daniel Henninger
Publication: www.OpinionJournal.com
Date: September 20, 2002
URL: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/dhenninger/?id=110002308

Time to toss those hyphenated American labels into the melting pot.

It's beginning to look like the time has arrived to climb into the attic of American antiques and haul out the Melting Pot. The current formula for citizenship--ethnic identity loud and proud in front of the hyphen, the American half just an afterthought--isn't working very well.

The Yemeni-American community of Lackawanna, N.Y., which dates back to the 1920s, now feels beset with antipathy because five of the local boyos appear to be terrorists with ties to al Qaeda. Believe us, say the neighbors; Sahim, Yahya and Shafal are great guys. How their religious pilgrimage to Pakistan could have ended up in Osama's boot camps is a mystery to us.

Just days before, a nice lady named Eunice, who takes her morning coffee at the Shoney's in Calhoun, Ga., understood the three darkish-looking men seated nearby to be discussing terror-like acts against Miami, and within hours the whole country was watching tapes of the cops spilling the contents of the aspiring doctors' cars all over a Florida highway. Needless to say all three were quickly on Larry King, declaring: "We walk in anywhere and things stop," and "We want our dignity back."

For about 20 years, we've been told that the Melting Pot was a myth, and a myth that needed to be discarded. And so it was. In its place we've been taught--in the schools, in print, in corporate workshops--that it is better to "recognize our differences." It looks like that lady in Shoney's did exactly that, and it's not surprising that the victims are upset that they were singled out for those differences.

It appears that after 20 years of diversity indoctrination, the result is that the differences are about the only thing most people recognize, maybe even in themselves. The United States is well on the way to psychologically balkanizing its own population, a wondrously nutty thing to do. Is anyone as tired as I am of having to keep track of these endless hyphenations? Arab-American, African-American, Hispanic-American, Italian-American, Irish-American, Polish-American, Asian-American, Chinese American, Native-American, Filipino-American, Mongolian-American, Ugandan-American, Turkish-American, Greek- American, Korean-American, Azerbaijani-American, Serbo-Croatian-American, Australian- American (oops, we don't want to make it start sounding silly). Even George Bush and John Ashcroft now feel obliged to apologize to Muslim-Americans everywhere any time another bad apple gets caught.

You have to wonder how the Lackawanna Five, by the almost universal account of neighbors just nice boys from the Yemeni community, got it into their heads that the attractions of family life in western New York were as nothing compared to weapons training with Osama's fanatics in the Afghan outback, a place even more bereft than Lackawanna. America, truth to tell, really isn't such a bad place, but perhaps these young Americans didn't have a clue about the history or manifest virtues of the country in which they lived. Why would that be?

Most likely it is because no one ever told them--not Mom or Pop, not the local teachers, and most likely not the local imam. In fairness to the imam, the average Christian minister hasn't had much good to say about American society either for at least 40 years.

Several years ago, the Washington Post did a series called "The Myth of the Melting Pot." One of its themes was that a great many of the new immigrants coming to American weren't trying to assimilate and don't feel American in any particular way. This upsets some long-time citizens who wish the new immigrants would go back where they came from. But how different is their ignorance from that of the dumb and dumber, all-American college students whom Jay Leno routinely interviews on the street about the most basic questions of U.S. history. "Who was LBJ?" "Um, a rap singer?"

In the very week the Yemeni enclave in Lackawanna complained of being tarred, George Bush decided to address the larger mess with a solution: Start teaching civics again. "Ignorance of American history and civics weakens our sense of citizenship," Mr. Bush said, irrefutably. "To be an American is not just a matter of blood or birth; we are bound by ideals, and our children must know those ideals. They should know about the nearly impossible victory of the Revolutionary War, and the debates of the Constitutional Convention . . . and why the Berlin Wall came down." Which of course they don't. But we'd better start, because the census bureau predicts that in 50 years, the U.S. population could grow as high as 550 million people. Who was George Bush? Um, a rap singer?

Mr. Bush is proposing that the National Endowment for the Humanities take the lead in reviving the teaching of civics--which is as much about how the government's plumbing works as it is about great deeds; indeed it is one antidote to importing more homeland tensions. Good luck, though. Insofar as this is a good idea, the teachers' unions naturally will oppose it. (Many good private schools never stopped teaching civics.)

Mr. Bush is looking for allies for his teach-civics project. How about if the Yemeni community in Lackawanna volunteered its schools to be first in line? Fat chance, I suspect, what with all the energy needed just now to project pain over maligned ethnicity, as the larger Arab-American spokesgroups do daily.

I'm hardly saying that a grounding in American civics alone could have kept the Lackawanna Five home and happy. But if we in this country have learned anything the past year, it's that whatever the ethnic modifier that happens to dangle in front of the hyphen, we know we're all in this together now--whether as the bull's-eye for the world's crazy, embittered people or indeed as the project of common national purpose conceived by the Founding Fathers.

The ethnic diversity movement has propagated a degree of self-referencing that is ultimately neurotic. Anyone would go crazy obsessing over their "cultural identity" all the time (with some disappearing into medieval religious fanaticism). The Founders' vision of commonality was right the first time. In the United States that means that you never have to forget where you came from. But it does mean understanding where you are.

(Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.)

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