The Right to Be Different

In the early 20th century, Horace Kallen argued that the image of the “melting pot” did not and should not epitomize the American immigrant experience. Instead, Kallen advocated for cultural pluralism, in which different groups could retain cultural heritage and respect the ties and commitments of others. This vision has been tested throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly by groups that wish to remain radically separate from the American majority, such as the Amish.

Since the first appearance of the language of the “melting pot,” some critics have rejected the term. To these critics, freedom meant, most fundamentally, the freedom to be oneself, with all one’s differences and particularities. In the wake of the most intensive decades of massive immigration to America that brought an unprecedented diversity of people to American shores, there were those who argued that the distinctive ways of immigrant communities did not need to be melted down or stripped away for them to become Americans.

At the forefront of these thinkers was Horace Kallen, an American Jewish scholar who published a provocative essay in a 1915 edition of The Nation called “Democracy versus the Melting Pot.” Here he argued that the very idea of America as a melting pot contradicts the premise of American democracy: the inalienable right to be different, to follow the lights of one’s own conscience. In contrast to the melting pot, Kallen eventually coined the term “cultural pluralism” to describe what America is and should be. By 1924, he had refined his thinking into a book entitled Culture and Democracy in the United States.

Kallen argued that the “melting pot” often meant assimilation into Anglo-Saxon American identity. But as he looked at the Scandinavians in Minnesota, the Germans in Wisconsin, and the Irish in Boston, he did not see evidence of a melting pot. He saw a distinctive process of Americanization that, at the same time, preserved cultural uniqueness. He observed that, after a period of economic assimilation into American life, many immigrants began to identify once again with their distinctive cultural heritage. It was now not a disadvantage, but an asset to identify with that culture. The fact that Scandinavians in Minnesota created a Scandinavian Society or Germans supported the translation of German classics was not evidence of fragmentation but of a very American kind of freedom. “Americanization has liberated nationality,” Kallen wrote. Rather than a melting pot, America can be a “nation of nationalities.”

Kallen argues that although immigrant groups must be loyal to certain democratic principles, within those constraints, there is no reason that immigrant peoples should not be able to maintain their identities, cultural expressions, religious beliefs, and even languages. In his 1916 essay, “The Meaning of Americanism,” he wrote: “Democracy involves, not the elimination of differences, but the perfection and conservation of differences. It aims, through Union, not at uniformity, but at variety, at a one out of many, as the dollars say in Latin, and a many in one. It involves a give and take between radically different types, and a mutual respect and mutual cooperation based on mutual understanding.” This is, indeed, his vision of cultural pluralism: the consensus of different cultures to recognize and respect one another, to communicate with one another, to work together if possible, and to agree to peacefully disagree if not. Kallen wrote primarily of America’s ethnic groups, but his views apply equally to the religious communities so often the bearers of ethnic or cultural identities.

Kallen describes cultural pluralism as a “symphony.” America, he argued, should not try to become homogenous, singing in unison. Rather, it should be “a multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind.” As in a symphony, each instrument sounds on its own, in harmony but not in imitation of the others. The instruments together, sounding in harmony and not in unison is, in Kallen’s view, the true expression of the American ideal. “But the question is,” he poses, “do the dominant classes in America want such a society?”

It became clear in Kallen’s time that many Americans did not want such a society. Black-white segregation was still the rule, and even Kallen did not address the issue in his early discussion of cultural pluralism. The anti-foreign born, nativist sentiment of America increased, especially after World War I, with many pointing to embattled Europe as prognostic of what could happen if difference flourished unchecked. By 1924, immigration from Asia and from Eastern and Southern Europe was effectively closed. Theories of racial superiority thrived. Insecurity, fear, and the desire for religious certainties gave rise to Christian fundamentalism and gave new life to the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1920s, Jews and Catholics were the primary targets of its agitation.

Despite this spate of nativism, the “right to be different” has persisted in America as a strong, even inevitable, concomitant of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. In a democratic pluralist society, the right of groups and individuals to their own conscience is balanced by a strong commitment to a common civic and political culture—to play in the orchestra, so to speak. Every religious community has experienced the tensions between maintaining the cherished particularities of its own religious and cultural “music” and learning to play in the orchestra of a more complex nation of peoples. Catholics, for example, have developed and maintained a strong parochial school system in order to foster faith among young American Catholics. Orthodox Christianity has also cultivated rather than converged national and cultural traditions as immigrants from Greece, Russia, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria did not unite under a common roof in America but maintained strong lines of distinction in their churches, each ecclesiastically linked to their several home Patriarchates. While Reform Judaism has become increasingly “American” in its timbre, Orthodox Judaism has kept its own distance from mainstream American culture, as has the Lubavitcher movement.

In the early decades of the 20th century African Americans developed their own black nationalist movements. Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement of the 1920s kindled a new spirit of African identity among black Americans. The recovery of African American Islam also began in this period with Noble Drew Ali, whose Moorish Science Temple, launched in Newark in 1913, encouraged urban blacks to claim their Islamic roots. W.D. Fard and his successor Elijah Muhammad gave rise to the Nation of Islam in Detroit in the 1930s, claiming a separate black Muslim identity as a “nation” within the U.S.

For some such groups, commitment to a distinctive religion or culture created a sharper tension with the participatory engagement of pluralism. They were faced with a question: Is American pluralism strong enough to provide space even for those who wish to maintain their own separate identities? This has been a crucial and continuing question for Native peoples and African Americans and has been raised anew for groups like the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Lubavitchers.

The Amish, for example, have tried consciously to resist any assimilation, seeking to preserve their German-speaking culture and maintain a lifestyle in which pacifist Christian values dictate clear gender roles, strict parent-child relations, and a strong ethic of simple living. Some of the landmark religious freedom cases decided by the Supreme Court have concerned them. In 1972, the Amish’s right to withdraw their children from formal education in the public schools after the eighth grade was upheld, despite the state of Wisconsin’s requirement that formal schooling be continued into high school (Wisconsin v. Yoder). For religious reasons, the Amish would rather remain apart from the symphony Kallen describes, or perhaps sound their note from a distance.

For Horace Kallen and those taking up the banner of cultural pluralism, the right to be different and to sound one’s own distinctive note comes with the responsibility to participate in the symphony. Indeed, participation is the very premise of participatory democracy. But while civil participation has its legal obligations, cultural participation cannot, of course, be constitutionally required. What makes the orchestra work is the energy and engagement of all its diverse players, whose commitment to making music springs from a participatory spirit of good will toward the whole.

Additional Content

“Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” Horace Kallen, 1915

Horace Kallen, a Jewish scholar and writer, began a decade of writing about the issues of American identity in the face of massive immigration with this piece, published in two parts, in The Nation. The full collection was published in 1924, as Culture and Democracy in the United States. During the time this article was published, America was receiving the largest influx of immigrants in history, and “Americanization” programs were one response to enabling the assimilation of so many diverse peoples into “American” culture, which Kallen insists is basically the Anglo-Saxon culture of New England. He saw the Americanization programs as being primarily in the interest of old Anglo-Saxon business classes and antithetical to the real spirit of democracy. In response to the “melting pot” image of the day, which Kallen rejects, he proposes “cultural pluralism.” This essay also responds critically to a book by Edward A. Ross, The Old World in the New, describing the dangers lurking in massive immigration and advocating the halt of immigration—a view which eventually won out in 1924.

All the immigrants and their offspring are in the way of becoming “Americanized” if they remain in one place in the country long enough—say, six or seven years. The general notion, “Americanization,” appears to denote the adoption of English speech, of American clothes and manners, of the American attitude in politics. It connotes the fusion of the various bloods, and a transmutation by “the miracle of assimilation” of Jews, Slavs, Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, Hindus, Scandinavians into beings similar in background, tradition, outlook, and spirit to the descendants of the British colonists, the Anglo-Saxon stock.

…It is summed up in the contemporary representative “average” American of British stock—an individualist, English-speaking, interested in getting on, kind, neighborly, not too scrupulous in business, indulgent to his women, optimistically devoted to laissez-faire in economics and politics, very respectable in private life, tending to liberalism and mysticism in religion, and moved, where his economic interests are unaffected, by formulas rather than ideas. He typifies the aristocracy of America. From among his fellows are recruited her foremost protagonists in politics, religion, art, and learning. He constitutes, in virtue of being heir of the oldest rooted economic settlement and spiritual tradition of the white man in America, the measure and the standard of Americanism that the newcomer is to attain.

…To the dominant nationality in America, nationality, in the European sense, has had no meaning: for it had set the country’s standards and had been assimilating others to itself. Now that the process seems to be slowing down, it finds itself confronted with the problem of nationality, just as do the Irish, the Poles, the Bohemians, the Czechs, and the other oppressed nationalities in Europe. “We are submerged,” writes a great American man of letters, who has better than anyone I know interpreted the American spirit to the world, “we are submerged beneath a conquest so complete that the very name of us means something not ourselves…I feel as I should think an Indian might feel, in the face of ourselves that were.”

…It is in the shock of confrontation with other ethnic groups and the feeling of aliency that generates in them an intense self-consciousness, which then militates against Americanization in spirit by reinforcing the two factors to which the spiritual expression of the proletarian has been largely confined. These factors are language and religion. Religion is, of course, no more a “universal” than language. The history of Christianity makes evident enough how religion is modified, even inverted, by race, place, and time. It becomes a principle of separation, often the sole repository of the national spirit, almost always the conservator of the national language and of the tradition that is passed on with the language to succeeding generations. Among immigrants, hence, both religion and language tend to be coordinate: a single expression of the spontaneous and instinctive mental life of the masses and the primary inward factors making against assimilation.

…At the present time there is no dominant American mind. Our spirit is inarticulate, not a voice, but a chorus of many voices, each singing a rather different tune. How to get order out of this cacophony is the question for all those who are concerned about those things which alone justify wealth and power, concerned about justice, the arts, literature, philosophy, science. What must, what shall this cacophony become—a unison or a harmony?

…Immigrants appear to pass through four phases in the course of being Americanized. In the first phase they exhibit economic eagerness, the greed of the unfed. Since external differences are a handicap in the economic struggle, they ‘assimilate,’ seeking thus to facilitate the attainment of economic independence. Once the proletarian level of such independence is reached, the process of assimilation slows down and tends to come to a stop. The immigrant group is still a national group, modified, sometimes improved, by environmental influences, but otherwise a solitary spiritual unit, which is seeking to find its way out on its own social level. This search brings to light permanent group distinctions, and the immigrant, like the Anglo-Saxon American, is thrown back upon himself and his ancestry. Then a process of dissimilation begins. The arts, life, and ideals of the nationality become central and paramount; ethnic and national differences change in status from disadvantages to distinctions. All the while the immigrant has been using the English language and behaving like an American in matters economic and political, and continues to do so. The institutions of the Republic have become the liberating cause and the background for the rise of the cultural consciousness and social autonomy of the immigrant Irishman, German, Scandinavian, Jew, Pole or Bohemian. On the whole, Americanization has not repressed nationality. Americanization has liberated nationality.

Hence, what troubles Mr. Ross and so many other Anglo-Saxon Americans is not really inequality; what troubles them is difference. Only things that are alike in fact and not abstractly, and only men that are alike in origin and in spirit and not abstractly, can be truly ‘equal’ and maintain that inward unanimity of action and outlook which make a national life. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not confronted by the practical fact of ethnic dissimilarity among the whites of the country. Their descendants are confronted by it. Its existence, acceptance, and development provide one of the inevitable consequences of the democratic principle on which our theory of government is based, and the result at the present writing is to many worthies very unpleasant. Democratism and the Federal principle have worked together with economic greed and ethnic snobbishness to people the land with all the nationalities of Europe, and to convert the early American nation into the present American state. For in effect we are in the process of becoming a true federal state.

…We are, in fact, at the parting of the ways. A genuine social alternative is before us, either of which parts we may realize if we will. In social construction the will is father to the fact, for the fact is nothing more than the concord or conflict of wills. What do we will to make of the United States—a unison, singing the old Anglo-Saxon theme “America,” the America of the New England school, or a harmony, in which that theme shall be dominant, perhaps, among others, but one among many, not the only one?

…The common language of the commonwealth, the language of its great political tradition, is English, but each nationalist expresses its emotional and voluntary life in its own language, in its own inevitable aesthetic and intellectual forms. The common life of the commonwealth is politico-economic, and serves as the foundation and background for the realization of the distinctive individuality of each nation that composes it. The “American civilization” may come to mean the perfection of the cooperative harmonies of “European civilization,” the waste, the squalor, and the distress of Europe being eliminated—a multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind.

As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody, and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization, with this difference: a musical symphony is written before it is played; in the symphony of civilization the playing is the writing, so that there is nothing so fixed and inevitable about its progressions as in music, so that within the limits set by nature they may vary at will, and the range and variety of the harmonies may become wider and richer and more beautiful.

But the question is, do the dominant classes in America want such a society?

[From Horace Kallen, “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” The Nation 100, no. 2590 (18-25 February 1915), 190-94, 217-220.]

Americanization Division on the “Melting Pot” Phrase

From this article, it is clear that the Americanization Division of the Bureau of Education heard and tried to respond to the critique of the “Melting Pot” idea and even suggests dropping the term.

“Foreign-born misunderstand this and other terms, report discloses—Urge their elimination from current affairs.”

Washington, D. C.: Following the campaign of the Americanization Division of the United States Bureau of Education, Department of the Interior, to eliminate from current use such insulting names for foreign-born persons and their children as “Dago,” “Wop,” “Sheeny,” etc., a drive has been begun by the division after a conference with its Committee of Racial Advisors to eliminate also terms like “Little Italy,” “Ghetto,” “Jewry,” and “Melting Pot.”

Since Israel Zangwill produced his famous play “The Melting Pot,” that term has been generally used to convey the idea that America is the land in which all the races of the world are slowly being melted into a new race and a new nationalism. To the native-born American the term has no unpleasant meaning, abut to the foreign-born, the Americanization Division has found, it suggests the kind of melting down which means to them the sacrifice of their native culture and character. For this reason, concludes the division, it would be better to drop the term and substitute one which convey the idea not of the destruction of what is rich and desirable in European culture, not a process of burning down, but rather the building up of a new civilization which, being a blend of all the cultures of the earth, will be the higher Americanism of the future.

In the same way it would be well, suggests the Americanization Division, if other terms of a similar nature were struck out of current use and substituted by ones of a slightly different color.

“In talking with men of different races now resident in this country,” says a report of the division, “we have noticed that the word colony is not always kindly received. They would much rather that we spoke of the ‘Armenian community’ or of ‘our fellow citizens of Polish birth,’ if we have to refer to them separately at all. The present habit of publicly locating them ‘across the railroad track,’ or ‘in the immigrant quarter,’ or in the ‘Ghetto,’ ‘Jewry,’ or ‘Little Italy’ is properly resented by them and greatly retards the friendly relations and cooperation for mutual good citizenship which true Americans desire. Sometimes they say: ‘We are more American than those who could not help being born here, because we deliberately chose this country as our country above all the countries of the world, even about the land of our birth.’”

“Let the word be passed along,” concludes the report, “that all men are Americans who try to live American.”

As part of its work along this line the Americanization Division recently published a “code of honorable names,” which was circulated largely among the schools and boys’ clubs throughout the country.

[From Americanization Division of the Bureau of Education, “Americanization Division on the ‘Melting Pot’ Phrase,” Americanization Bulletin 1, no. 6 (Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education,  1918), 7]