I had a hard time sleeping last night and made the mistake of turning on the radio where there happened to be an overnight talk-show discussion of why we need a “melting pot” and not a “salad bowl” culture. As I listened, I realized that the problem wasn’t melting pot versus salad bowl. The problem was that the croutons want everyone else in the bowl to look and think like them. And only the croutons were calling.
I remember as I child hearing proud discussions of the United States as the great melting pot. It was seen as a good thing. We are were all one – none of us “better” than the other. No matter where a person came from, no matter what the background, here in the U.S. we were all one. The idea of the melting pot was that anyone who worked hard and adopted the “spirit of America” would be assimilated into the great diversity that was and frankly still is the strength of this country.
But the adulation of the melting pot fell apart in the sixties, as the country grappled with civil rights and the realization that the melting pot had really only functioned for white, European Americans. The melting pot allowed us all to enjoy being Irish for a day, but not Black for a day, or Native-American. And as differing groups struggled for equality under the law, they also struggled to balance assimilation into the “American Dream” with retaining their non-European cultural heritage. Thus the image of the salad bowl developed. We are each a part of the great American salad, so it was said, but we also retain who we are: Asian-American, African-American, Native-American.
In the great American “salad bowl” all are created equal. A lovely idea. But unfortunately, as “Animal Farm” noted, some are more equal than others. Hence, crouton supremacy. Carrots are carrots. And tomatoes are tomatoes. And they make a valuable contribution to the salad. But “real” Americans are croutons.
As I listened to the proponents of the “melting pot” last night (well, ok, this morning), one after another, it was clear they felt under attack both in the U.S. and, by extension, in Europe. A “Muslim invasion of Europe” was discussed. And the Muslim “refusal” to become assimilated. This was the great threat. Why? Because Muslims want to take over the world.
“Not that I want to tar all Muslims,” the talk-show host said. “There are some, perhaps even a majority of Muslims who are peaceful, good people. But let’s not forget that the fundamentalists of Islam want to convert the world.” And fundamentalist Christians don’t?
Here in the United States, the croutons are facing the shocking fact that they will soon be outnumbered. One caller bemoaned where he sees our democracy headed. “Democracy only works if there’s a melting pot,” he offered. But that’s not what he meant. He meant that democracy only worked if people like him were in the majority.
And it’s not just the United States. Let’s be clear on that. The theocracy in Iran only believes in democracy as long as the voters support the theocracy. Israel sees a similar threat to it’s democracy.
The truth of it is that the positioning of the “melting pot” versus the “salad bowl” is yet another example of “us” and “them” rearing it’s ugly head. We want a “melting pot” only if everyone “melts” into our likeness. We will tolerate a “salad bowl” only if the supremacy of “us” can be secured.
Two weeks ago, we had a service at Living Interfaith honoring Bodhi Day, and the Buddha’s enlightenment. One of the readings spoke of our need to “inter-be.” It is a deep and important need if we are to survive as a human community.
I believe that one of the great questions of the 21st century is how can we feel free to be who we are while respecting and indeed learning from and enjoying our differences?
I believe Interfaith can help to guide us. If we can learn how to be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’i, Humanists, among all our other spiritual paths (a spiritual salad bowl, if you will), while praying together, and sharing with one another, I believe we have a chance.
If we can learn to share who we are without feeling we have to change the “other” into a mirror of ourselves, if we can see our differences as exciting and beautiful rather than threatening, if we can embrace our differences rather than hide from them, if we can “inter-be,” then we have more than just a chance – we can offer our children the world all of our spiritual paths have dreamed of for so long. If.