Sweet Land Of Liberties

Like millions of Mexican-American teenage girls, I still remember where I was when I learned that Selena had been shot. I was on my way to work, and I saw the story in the Times, and I said, Gee, never heard of her, and turned the page.

And then I thought: Wait a minute, this happened in America, not Bangladesh! She was the biggest star in tejano music, and I'd never heard of that, either! And after reading a description of it as "a fast-paced mix of accordion, guitars and lyrics... with roots both in the oompah music of European settlers in Texas and in Mexican ballads," I still don't know what the hell it is, except that millions of other Americans were practically throwing themselves out of windows because the queen of it was dead. If it was this big, why hadn't I heard about it on National Public Radio?

Perhaps we're just too big, too diverse to hold together. Thomas Jefferson surely would think so, although he probably would have thought so a hundred years ago, too. The great centrifugal engine of American culture turns faster and faster, spinning off fashions, slogans, ideologies, religions, artistic movements, economic theories, therapeutic disciplines, cults and dogmas in fabulous profusion. In America even fringe movements seem to number their adherents in the millions. Everyone's identity is politicized--not just in terms of race, ethnicity, religion and language (as in the nation formerly known as Yugoslavia, say) but also gender, sexual behavior, age, clothing, diet and personal habits. To smoke in public is a political act; to consume as much as a leaf of arugula is to make a potent statement of one's class and outlook.

Is our national identity really threatened by this? A substantial minority of Americans seem to think so, predicting that the United States will c ease to exist in recognizable form some time in the next century (NEWSWEEK Poll, page 26). If so, 1995 may turn out to be a turning point -- not because of Selena, but owing to the other big news that also broke last spring, that right-wing militias were arming themselves against federal law-enforcement officials. America will survive tejano just as it endured zydeco and klezmer, and it will work its way into the mainstream in the form, most likely, of a jingle for Taco Bell. But it remains to be seen whether any society can endure if even a fraction of its people believe that their own government was capable of planting the Oklahoma City bomb.

Not that fanaticism is a new development in American politics. If someone accused Bill Clinton of personally driving the bomb to Oklahoma, it wouldn't be much worse than what was said about Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon--or George Washington. Our standard for civic comity remains the placid 1950s, the decade most commonly cited by Americans, especially white Americans, as a time when "people in this country felt they had more in common... than Americans do today" (poll, page 27). But the three-and-a-half decades of chaos that followed should have given Americans the idea that upheaval and turmoil is in fact their country's normal condition. Nor was the 1950s as empty of conflict as we like to recall. This year's rebels -- Western ranchers who aren't about to let government bureaucrats tell them where their cattle can step-had their counterparts 45 years ago in a Montana draft board that took it upon itself to withhold inductions unless Gen. Douglas MacArthur was given nuclear weapons to use against North Korea. Later in the decade, America didn't seem like an especially harmonious place to black children who needed federal troops to protect them on their way to elementary schools in the South. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a plurality of blacks in the NEWSWEEK Poll chose the 1960s as the nation's halcyon era. But both groups-as well as Hispanics--agreed by wide margins that the American "national character" has gotten worse since 20 years ago (poll, right).

Over the centuries, various institutions have held America together against the centrifugal tug of its sheer size and diversity. In successive generations these have been the Protestant religion, the English language, the Constitution, the shared experience of war, the three television networks and Disney World, of which only the last remains a universal, unchallenged touchstone of national identity. The Constitution is still in effect, naturally. But in the May decision striking down term limits a forceful minority on the Supreme Court seemed intent on radically reinterpreting it as a compact among sovereign states rather than the people--an inherently separatist view that has been out of favor at least since the Union won the Civil War.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the belief in shared prosperity was a powerful, if not exactly inspirational, unifying force in American society. But more recent economic trends have called even that basic tenet of Americanism into question. Housing data analyzed by Paul A. Jargowsky, an economist at the University of Texas at Dallas, show what he calls "a pronounced trend toward increasing economic segregation" since 1970. It was in those years that millions of people left their homes in cities--notorious for letting poor people poach on the same census tracts as rich ones--for suburban developments whose walls and gates enclose a population self-selected for income compatibility. Many people, although not economists, were shocked to discover a few months ago that the United States now has the least equitable income distribution among all developed countries, including those, like England, with a hereditary aristocracy.

As common purpose and shared interests have declined, national unity has increasingly become a matter of symbols. We have symbolic enemies-Japanese auto manufacturers, invoked by President Clinton to represent the global economic forces behind the stagnation in real American wages. And symbolic heroes--Scott O'Grady, whose success in hiding in the woods for six days stood in for the war we didn't fight against Serbian genocide. We even have symbolic symbolism, in the form of a proposed amendment that would unleash the awesome power of the United States Constitution against "desecration" of the American flag, which has been occurring at the epidemic rate of around 10 times a year. This retroactive slap at the 1960s doesn't get at the contemporary problem of emigration by rich Americans (still a trickle, but an increasing one) who decide they'd rather salute the flags of nations with lower income taxes.

Many of the issues that divide Americans are familiar ones. One of the most widely discussed books of 1995 has been "Alien Nation," in which journalist Peter Brimelow sounds the alarm that if present trends in birth and immigration continue, some time in the next century white Americans will be outnumbered by those of black, Hispanic and Asian descent. Brimelow acknowledges that even to raise the subject is to risk condemnation as a racist, but he's willing to take the chance. A naturalized American of English birth, he evidently holds a fairly narrow view of who qualifies as white, leading him to the ludicrous observation that "when you leave Park Avenue and descend into the subway . . . you find yourself in an underworld that is not just teeming but is also almost entirely colored . . . where do all these people get off and come to the surface?" Leaving aside the fact that he's wrong (according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whites make up roughly 45 percent of New York's subway riders), it is hard to think of another time in the last 25 years when a white writer would have felt free to make such a dismissive generalization about the "colored."

But in fact immigration seems to be making one of its periodic resurgences as a divisive political issue. In part this is driven by economics. Brimelow's book conclusively demonstrates that contrary to myth, not all immigrants win the Nobel Prize after they get here; some drive cabs their whole lives, and quite a few wind up on welfare. Many Americans seem to have figured out the same thing for themselves. By a small but significant margin (52 percent to 40 percent), Americans in the NEWSWEEK Poll (page 32) were more likely to agree that "immigrants are a burden on our country because they take jobs, housing and health care" than with the view that "immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents." Psychologically, "multiculturalism" has also changed the terms of the debate, by dropping the presumption that immigrants come here in order to assimilate. The sentimental argument for immigration has been that newcomers "enrich" American society. But how can they do that, if they never even join it? If Selena was so great, why should Mexican-Americans (and, apparently, mostly just those who had settled in southwestern Texas, not the ones in California) have had her all to themselves? Brimelow is not the only one to ask why America should admit almost a million immigrants a year merely for them to re-create self-sufficient national enclaves on our shores.

But this is a variation on an old debate. The 1990s has been marked by the unpleasant discovery of a whole new set of fault lines running through American society, superimposed on the familiar ones of race, religion and ethnicity. Gun control and grazing rights are not unimportant issues, but no one 20 years ago could have predicted that they would become rallying cries for a militant right-wing separatist movement, fueled by the class resentments of the one group that wasn't supposed to have any, white men. Nor did most people expect the relation of intelligence to race to surface suddenly as a divisive issue in American society. Educated people who suspected that whites were smarter than blacks, or vice versa, kept it to themselves; the unspoken consensus was that television was reducing us all to morons at about the same rate anyway.

The common thread here is class, another issue that supposedly was put to rest in America two generations ago. The upper class, which no one expected to recover from its betrayal by Franklin Roosevelt, has risen again, but in a different form, consisting of a self-perpetuating elite of managers, professionals and marginal hangers-on such as journalists and artists. Two influential new books --"The Next American Nation" by Michael Lind, and "The Revolt of the Elites" by the late Christopher Lasch-describe this group, which seems to include many of the same people who a decade ago were semi-affectionately known as Yuppies. Lind goes out of his way to make the generally unacknowledged point that Americans have sorted themselves out partly on religious lines. He writes: "If you are Episcopalian or Jewish, have a graduate or professional degree from an expensive university . . . watch MacNeil/Lehrer on PBS and are saving for a vacation in London or Paris, you are a card-carrying member of the white overclass . . . If you are Methodist, Baptist or Catholic, have a B.A. from a state university, work in or for a small business or for a career government service, watch the Nashville Network on cable and are saving for a vacation in Las Vegas... you are probably not a member of the white overclass, no matter how much money you make."

The creation of such a class must constitute a significant development. Obviously there have always been subcultures in America, and rich people were more likely to vacation in Europe than poor ones. But until fairly recently most "managers" and "professionals" probably thought of themselves as part of a broad middle class, together with civil servants and the owners of small businesses, with shared aspirations and tastes. Some people smoked and others didn't, but the choice didn't signify anything about one's social status, as it does today; in 1990 people earning between $10,000 and $20,000 were 50 percent more likely to smoke than those making $50,000 or more. In William Manchester's compendious history of mid-20th-century America, "The Glory and The Dream," he reports a 1954 survey that found that the overwhelming choice of most Americans for dinner, cost no object, would be fruit cup, Vegetable soup, steak, french fries and apple pie a la mode. What's interesting is not the absence of arugula from this menu, but the very assumption that a meaningful consensus could be arrived at. A comparable exercise today would undoubtedly result in what statisticians call a bipolar distribution, defined by the presence or absence of truffle oil as an ingredient. Conversely, the phrase "a la mode" can stand in for all the other tests by which Lind distinguishes the "white overclass"; it's virtually vanished from their vocabulary.

The larger point Lind and Lasch make is that white wine and aerobics aren't just neutral choices about lifestyles, but essential badges of privilege in contemporary America. And, according to these authors, the widespread suspicion on the part of middle- and working-class white Americans that the overclass condescends to them is absolutely correct. Having arranged society for their own convenience, the privileged class is now busily siphoning off an increasing share of the national wealth. They use it not to advance the general welfare, but to erect ever more barriers between them and the kind of people for whom "oil" brings to mind "Quaker State" rather than "extra-virgin olive." They "have made themselves independent not only of crumbling industrial cities but of public services [schools, transit, hospitals...] in general," Lasch wrote. "In effect, they have removed themselves from common life... Many of them have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense ... Their ties to an international culture of work and leisure... make many of them deeply indifferent to the prospect of American national decline."

This is a pretty serious indictment. Americans of this class are presumably not about to express their disaffection by building bombs (and if they did, they would be more likely to blow up a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Dairy Queen than a federal office building). But their alienation is in some ways even more dangerous. It's hard to imagine a real scenario in which the "Aryans" of the Northwest actually secede from the Union, but the investors of Wall Street and the screen-writers of Brentwood can secede just by getting on a plane. It would be ironical if America survived civil war, black separatism, white separatism, international terrorism and domestic terrorism only to become the first nation to fall victim to a revolt by its Yuppies.

For that matter, we can't really afford to lose anyone. For the social contract to work, it must bind us all, irrespective of skin color, native language, IQ or the percentage of fat in our diet. The forces of separatism are on the rise in many parts of the world, and it would be naive to think we are beyond their reach. Right now, before setting off for London, Paris or Las Vegas, would be a good time for all Americans to rededicate themselves to the proposition that we are all in this nation together. Or else Selena will have died in vain.

Has the American national character changed in the last 20 years?

Changed for the better


19%        12%        9%

Changed for the worse


41%        63%        51%

Stayed the same


34%        23%        32%


Income Distribution


Under $5,000            4.5%

$5,000-9,999            9.7%

$10,000-14,999          9.2%

$15,000-24,999         16.9%

$25,000-34,999         14.7%

$35,000-49,999         16.3%

$50,000-74,999         16.1%

$75,000-99,999          6.7%

$100,000 and over       5.8%

Join the Discussion