Flame Retardant

by Vince Rogers

There was once quite a memorable character on the television sitcom Friends who had a peculiar hobby. He liked to melt stuff. In his many attempts to melt things, he learned some very valuable lessons. He learned that most things simply don’t melt. Most things burn up, get overheated or boil over. After much travail and many errors, any melting enthusiast worth his salt will tell you that melting things isn’t easy. It takes a lot more time and effort to melt something than to just break something, bend a th ing, or crush it. If you take up the art of melting things as a hobby, you have to learn to be very patient.

The most illustrative example of the problematic nature of trying to melt things together can be found by looking at the greatest social experiments in the history of mankind. This experiment has come to be known as the “Great American Melting Pot.” Sometime after the American Revolution, but certainly before the Civil War, someone coined the moniker “Melting Pot” to describe the blending together of many people of different races, ethnicities and cultures into one people. The term was meant to be an analog ous description of enlightenment era philosophers, social scientists and theologian’s vision of an ideal society that was taking shape in America. They believed that the founding of America marked the emergence of a utopian nation in the “New World”. It is indisputable that the idea of people of different nationalities, races and ethnicities working together in harmony was (and still is) a novel idea.

The exact term "melting pot" came into popular usage in 1908, after the premiere of the play The Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill. This controversial theatrical production depicted the life of the sole survivor of a Russian-Jewish family, killed in an outbreak of ethnic violence. The immigrant David Quixano sought to leave the pain of losing his family to this jingoistic atrocity behind him in “Mother Russia” and start a completely new life in America. The main character of the play was willing to give up all ties to his homeland and heritage, including his language and religion in order to become a part of a new culture. The central message of the play was that Europe was the “Old World” and was rapidly showing the decay of doing things the old way. America represented the ideals of prosperity and freedom in the “New World” for those willing to work hard, embrace the new ways and abandon the old ones.

The “Founding Fathers” who envisioned the endless possibilities that lay in combining the strengths of these many immigrants would have certainly found such a play useful in the early days of the colonies. Nevertheless, they created a large body of writings of their own to support their ideals. They wrote a wide array of papers, manifestos and declarations that asserted the ideals that any man could enjoy a life free of tyranny, ignorance and want in this new nation called America, if he were willing to do just as David Quixano had in the play. The only thing he had to do to secure his chance at the pursuit of happiness was to free himself of all memories of the cultural, religious and ethnic injustices that prevented him from finding the same happiness back in the “Old Country”. The problem was that even way back when the young nation was composed of people with a common European heritage, most people weren’t so willing to forget the harsh realities of the past.

At the time, what was cooking in the pot was more of a roux than a stew, but it was still a very volatile mixture. The early American settlers and colonists all shared the same skin color, relative appearance and European heritage. Yet many immigrants still harbored long held prejudices, resentments and all out hatred of people who didn’t share the same national heritage, ethnic background, cultural experience and religious persuasion. Centuries of bloody wars, miserable hunger and religious persecution wer e hard for some people to forget.

If history teaches us anything, it is that xenophobia, jingoism and nativism have had more influence over the current composition of the world map than multiculturalism, diversity or tolerance ever has. Except for the American Experiment, the Soviet Union and the nation of Israel, few nations have ever attempted to further the principles of racial, ethnic or cultural tolerance in any way whatsoever. In fact it is very much the case that the primary people responsible for founding America, the English, Frenc h and Germans, had long histories of ethnic hatred and bitter bloodshed. The issues at the heart of most of these conflicts were matters of political economy, national boundaries and international trade. However the resulting atrocities, massacres and famines resulting from these wars created deeply held and bitter attitudes about the behavior, character and tendencies of people of different ethnic origins. In other words, whether people’s beliefs about each other were influenced by matters of trade, war or treaty, they managed to also produce racial, ethnic and cultural stereotypes and biases about their neighbors.

As things progressed in the colonies and the people joined forces to fight their various European oppressors, many of the tensions between the various ethnic groups eased. However, the tensions never completely went away. As depicted in the film Gangs of New York, bloodthirsty rivalries still existed between “Nativist” Protestant Englishmen and the Irish Catholic immigrants. The Irish were continuously coming to America to escape famine and find economic opportunity. So as late as the Civil War era, we see that there were still heated ethnic tensions between European ethnic groups. This clash between Catholicism and Protestantism makes it clear that the ideal of America being founded to assure religious tolerance was also under pressure. So it is clear that there was a problem with this idea of a melting pot long before the African, Asian or Latin-American ingredients were even added to the recipe.

Flame Retardant by Vince Rogers

© Copyright 2008. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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