Pluralism. I like the sound of the word. The syllables coat my tongue like chocolate. Sweet and easy. But pluralism is not so easy to understand. America boasts a pluralistic society, so gloriously diverse in race, religion, culture, and ethnicity and yet, we continue to divide ourselves in ways destructive and heartbreaking. For me, one of the great human mysteries is how we can look about, see so much beautiful diversity and continue to treat each other so very badly. No one, as far as I know, has come up with a conclusive answer. It’s been suggested that I read the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond for context on the subject.
I have been experiencing anxiety about the backlash to the expanding multicultural population in the United States, and I talked with my therapist about it. She questioned me about my use of the word pluralism.
“What do you mean by the term pluralism? What do you mean by a successful pluralistic society?”
My idealistic vision of a peaceful, love-each-other society is something I’ve been struggling with for decades. Her question encouraged me to delve deeper into a concept that I believe I had misunderstood.
Merriam-Webster lists several definitions of pluralism. Among them: “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization”
Right. Our common civilization is one that exists under the commitment to equal rights and justice for every individual under the Constitution of the United States.
In 1955, a book of photos from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was published. The book, created by Edward Steichen, contained 503 pictures from 58 countries and was titled, The Family of Man.
A friend gave me a copy of the book shortly after I had returned from a year in San Francisco. I had fallen in love with the Bay Area, its people and the progressive politics of the time. This was in the late 1960s during that era’s Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon administration and its involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Latin American leaders.
My friend knew of my dreams for a multiracial, multifaith, multicultural society where people treated each other with respect and tolerance. I was 22 at the time, and I often wondered, like so many young people, “What is wrong with humanity?”
The Family of Man became one of my favorites and graced my bookshelf for years. I would flip through the pages leisurely, marveling at the diversity and beauty of humanity. Also during this time, Tony Bennett’s I Left My Heart In San Francisco became a louder and louder siren song. So loud that in 1973, I packed my things and moved back to the West Coast. I never looked back. But I lost the book. I didn’t even think about The Family of Man until I returned to the East Coast decades later.
A fragile dream of multiculturalism
This morning, disgruntled by the disheartening political discourse and the corrosive Big Lie, I resorted to one of my two faithful companions ─ food. The other is prayer. I devoured an unhealthful breakfast of syrupy sweet coffee and a hunk of overly cheesy macaroni and cheese. I had added cream cheese to the other three kinds of cheese I used ─ sharp cheddar, provolone, and Monterey jack. I had used coconut cream instead of regular milk and went heavy on the butter. No eggs. One hunk became two, then three until the pan was almost empty. It was delicious. It was soothing. I felt ─ calm. Then I felt drawn inward. That would be the other companion. Prayer.
I considered pluralistic societies and how successful these societies could or could not be. There’s more to be studied on this, but for now…
In the midst of the media focus on those sowing the hatred and division we are experiencing, I have come to consider that my personal vision of pluralism has been based on unrealistic idealism. My understanding of our particular pluralistic society has changed as we struggle to create a more tolerant and peaceful one. We are not the vaunted “melting pot,” but more like a “tossed salad.”
I found a quote the other day while researching that seemed to state my vision beautifully. (Dear fellow Democrats, let me accept the message if not the messenger!) In his farewell speech, President Ronald Reagan said “…I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. … a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…”
Reagan didn’t actualize his ideals with his failed trickle-down economic policies, union-busting, and incendiary racial rhetoric. Things got worse. But this phrase haunts me because it is a part of my vision of the United States, “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
A return to where I ran from
In 2001 I moved to upstate New York, and in 2003, because of my mother’s illness, I moved to Philadelphia. There, I was referred for an informational interview where the interviewer, a woman, looked at my resume and scowled. Then she said:
You spent a lot of time out west. I don’t like it there. All the cultures mixing and whatnot. I like it right here where I am in West Philly. I don’t want to be around people who are not like me.”
So much for brotherly [or sisterly] love. That’s what she said, and my enthusiasm evaporated. All I could think about was what a horrible human being she was.
Shortly after that meeting, I was “garage sailing,” the term I used for sidewalk sales in those days. At one of those sidewalk sales, I found a water-damaged copy of — you guessed it — The Family of Man. I was delighted, re-inspired, and rejuvenated. In my heart, I knew I was right about multiculturalism. The Universe had spoken! The woman at the interview was irreversibly wrong.
So here we are again. Living our lives like a scratch on a broken record. We are stuck. We move forward a little and then we hit that damned scratch. We eat Asian cuisine. We salivate for Mexican and Latinx food. We like Russian, Italian, Indian, and African foods. We are exploring the health benefits of Native American cuisine. Our eating habits, for most of us, reflect our acceptance of a pluralistic society. We also get treated by physicians, taught by professors, and interact with people during business and leisure with people from various countries, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.
Many continue to balk at accepting a reality of a vast and diverse population, spewing hatred and division among us. Fact: we are becoming a more and more beautifully diverse society every day. The latest census report revealed that 57.8% of Americans identify as White, a decrease from 63.7% in 2010. The rest of us are everything else.
Today, as I was listening to an interview with the U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, I was moved by her depth of empathy for people of all colors and cultures. As a Native American and, in my view a social warrior, she uses the poet’s platform to tirelessly bless and protect the native peoples by bringing their stories and history to the front of American consciousness. She’s doing the work to bring tolerance and cultural acceptance. She is encouraging.
We have the potential to become that shining example of peaceful pluralism.