Sunday, April 3, 2011

Roots I

I tend to take some exception to the notion of American exceptionalism.  Or at least the way it’s sometimes used to rally folks around a certain jingoistic view of the US.  The belief that America is exceptional – uniquely different from any other country in the world – is an article of faith among the majority of my countrymen.  It’s a staple of many politicians’ talking points and not something to be hidden under a bushel if you aspire to higher office.  For example, because Barack Obama doesn’t talk about the concept as much as some of his conservative critics think he should, they have questioned whether the President believes sufficiently in the exceptionalism of the country he leads. 

Germans immigrants arriving in America, 1874.
Many Americans interpret “exceptionalism” to mean the US is better than any other country in the world.  Whether this is true for every single facet of life in the US is a topic for another day.  (Hint: it ain’t necessarily so.)  But I do feel one part of the American story clearly set the US apart from most other countries, especially those in Europe:  the United States is a nation of immigrants, some fresher off the boat than others, but newcomers all the same.  (Not counting, of course, the some two-and-a-half-million Native Americans who trace their origins back to the continent’s very first human inhabitants, nomads who crossed over from Asia thousands of years ago seeking new lands.) 

The rest of us descended from much more recent nomads who came for much the same purpose – to make a new life in a new home.  It goes without saying that such bouts of restlessness have swept through all peoples around the world at one time or another.  Soon after the Ice Age, the original inhabitants of Finland migrated from an ancestral homeland, much further east in present-day Russia, to relocate in this cold corner of Europe, while their distant ethnic cousins settled in the warm, arid plains of Hungary.  I’ll leave it to the Finns to decide whether they took the right turn in that move. 

Europe has undergone many such migrations in a dizzying game of geopolitical musical chairs, with different tribes and peoples constantly changing places over the centuries as they pushed themselves or were pushed by others or otherwise just drifted onto new real estate.  Compared to the days when the likes of the Huns and the Vikings were stirring things up all over Europe, the continent has been mostly static for some time now – despite all the redrawing of maps kicked off by the fall of the Iron Curtain.  This is why most modern European nations have tended to identify themselves along ethnic lines in a way that America does not.  Except for some spots where a minority group spills across a national border, France is the land of the French, England is the home of the English, and so on. 

Such national identities can make for rigid attitudes towards newcomers.  Until about ten years ago, Germany did not grant citizenship to second- or third-generation Turkish residents who had lived all their lives in the country.  I’ve had British friends tell me that England is not an immigrant country, meaning the growing population of citizens of Pakistani or West Indian descent doesn’t really seem to fit in there. 

America is different – if you will, even exceptional – in that there is no such thing as an “ethnic American” (again, except for Native Americans).  You can’t distinguish an American from a Nigerian or Nepalese just by their physical appearance.  And no wonder.  Unlike almost any other country, the US is made up of people from every corner of the globe who, despite sometimes facing prejudice and hostility, have found a new home in America.  This includes Finns. 

Little Italy, New York City, 1903. Photo by Debivort.
On a dresser in the apartment of my wife’s almost 100-year-old aunt in Turku, in southwestern Finland, sits a gilded mantel clock, a family heirloom that belonged to her late husband.  He was born in New York City in the early 1900s, a child of one of those emigrant families that crowded into the five boroughs in a period immortalized by many a Hollywood film.  This young New Yorker’s parents, however, eventually decided to return to Finland, which shows that not all the huddled masses who came to America necessarily found it to their liking. 

Of course, many transplanted Finns did.  Some years ago in Yellowstone National Park, we were walking among some hot springs and smelly fumaroles when a couple of elderly women overheard my wife and kids speaking Finnish.  Excitedly, the pair approached us to introduce themselves as third-generation Finnish-Americans and to try out the fractured (and quite old-fashioned) Finnish they had, more or less, learned as children. 

Like these two delightful ladies, most Americans are proud of their roots and happy to claim the different nationalities or ethnic groups that make up their heritage.  I know Americans who are Greek-Irish or German-Irish or Dutch-Indonesian or Japanese-Finnish.  Such ethnic mashups aren’t at all unusual, especially in certain parts of the country like the Northeast, where the pots of New York and Boston have been melting for centuries.  By contrast, the southeastern US where I’m from has always seemed a much less diverse place, populated mostly by only two hyphened forms of Americans, Anglo and African. 

That is rapidly changing.  Alabama, South Carolina and other southern states that haven’t traditionally been home to large Hispanic populations have, over the last ten years, seen a doubling of Latino residents.  Georgia now ranks 10th nationally in terms of the number of Hispanics living there. 

These statistics only confirm what anyone has been able to see for themselves in my small hometown in the Georgia mountains over the past 10-15 years.  Every time we have visited in recent years, we’ve noticed more and more short, dark-skinned men, often walking along the highways into town.  These newest arrivals to the county are Central Americans, mainly Guatemalan, who originally came to work in the local chicken-processing plant and apple orchards.  It’s quite different from my childhood, when practically the only Hispanics living there were professionals – including our only surgeon and veterinarian – who had fled Castro’s Cuba. 

Today, the Latino migrants to my hometown are willing to do less-desirable manual labor to make a better life for themselves.  Like my own ancestors, they are reliving that classic – and, let’s be honest, not always easy – story of folks looking for new opportunities and putting down roots in a new land.  


  1. Argh. America is NOT "exceptional" in being a country of immigrants, since there are at least THREE other English speaking nations (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and various multilingual nations that all are entirely based on immigration. Largest by population? Yes. Exceptional or unique? Not remotely, unless "exceptional" has come to mean "one of a group".

    1. You’re right, of course, that Canada, Australia and NZ are -- like the US and the entire New World -- nations of immigrants, thanks to their history of conquest by Europeans. But not all immigrant counties necessary have a higher level of diversity, which was what I was mostly referring to in the case of the US.

      Canada is definitely one that does. When I was in Ottawa a couple years ago, my sense was that it was a more diverse place than the US, and that seems to be borne out by a study from Harvard ( The same study also showed that although the US is still more diverse than Europe (and Australia and NZ, for that matter), it’s much more homogeneous than countries in Africa (and about the same as India, which seems weird).

      I guess one difference is that diversity in the US, and the New World in general, is almost entirely due to immigration, voluntary or otherwise, while in Africa it’s partly a result of European powers drawing national borders to suit themselves.

      In any case, after seeing this study, I have to concede that when it comes to diversity, maybe the US isn’t so exceptional after all, just more exceptional than Europe.