It is with some trepidation that one takes issue with a premier essayist, especially the incomparable James Lileks. In a brilliant post on the London attacks, Mr. Lileks says:
|It is possible that a multiethnic society can unify along the lines of national identity; America proves that. But our foundational concepts are different. We’re the only true transnational country, inasmuch as our ideas are infinitely applicable. Our ethnic complexity began with refugees from all points of Europe, which is different from basing your national identity on beef-eating tars from Wales, Scotland, and assorted shires. Our ideals surpass ethnic identity, which is why a recent immigrant can get a lump in his throat when he hears the national anthem. [emphasis added]|
Mr Lileks: our ethnic complexity began in the 17th and 18th centuries. Well before the arrival of the groups you mentioned, the unique character of our nation was formed from the mix of three distinct peoples: the English, the black Africans who were their slaves, and the Scots-Irish. The English brought the democratic process, the equality of independent freeholders, and rule of English Common Law; the black Africans contributed the ultimate refusal to be broken by involuntary servitude; the Scots and Irish brought a fierce and martial independent spirit, a strong tradition of self-reliance, and a suspicion of all ruling elites. The traditions of the Scots-Irish mixed with the heritage of slavery to produce the modern “redneck culture” as described by Thomas Sowell in Black Rednecks And White Liberals. This mixture established the essence of the American character.
To this brawling bastard child of the British Isles came the later arrivals, all the tired and the poor from Italy and Russia and Norway and Germany and Poland, and later the huddled masses from Vietnam and Korea and El Salvador and Nigeria, fleeing despotism, war, and destitution. People who yearn to breathe free still yearn to come to America.
What is it about this Anglo-Saxon hybrid — this English, African, and Scots-Irish mongrel — that so easily accepts and incorporates all the wretched refuse of these polyglot arrivals?
The answer lies in the English language itself. Old English was an inflected Germanic tongue. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke its various dialects first united against the Danes under King Alfred, creating what was to become the bulldog English character.
But the English language took a severe blow from the Norman invasion, dropping its inflexions, simplifying its syntax, and borrowing massively from Norman French. So modern English is essentially a pidgin: a jury-rigged composite of languages thrown together so that the servants and vassals of the Normans could communicate with their masters as well as among themselves.
English became a voracious borrower of other peoples’ words. Even before the Conquest English had been liberally salted with Irish, Welsh, Gaelic, Danish and Norse; afterwards, besides the French contributions, words were borrowed from Arabic, Latin, Greek, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish throughout the Renaissance. Nowadays we take in Japanese, Hindi, and Malay with aplomb. Arabic is contributing a new batch: witness “jihad”, “dhimmi”, and “kufar”.
As an analytic language with simplified syntax and flexible forms, English easily incorporates and adapts new elements. Anglo-Saxon culture, particularly in America, parallels the language in its welcome of the new arrival.
The United States differs from Britain because we threw off the yoke of those Norman overlords; we decided to govern ourselves. Suspicion of elites is bred in our Celtic bones, so it comes naturally to us to extend a welcoming hand to the stranger descending the gangplank beside the golden door.