Thoughts on America

Arturo Toscanini (New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

Doing some reading about nationalism and how it might apply specifically to the United States, I thought of Arturo Toscanini, the great conductor (and WFB’s boyhood hero). (“I worshiped him,” WFB wrote.)

Obviously, Toscanini had conducted orchestras all over Europe: Italian ones, of course; French ones, German ones, British ones, etc. They all had their distinct characteristics.

When he first came to America, people asked him, “Maestro, what do you think of American orchestras?” He’d reply, “What’s an American orchestra?” He found men from all over in them. (There were only men in those days.) They spoke with a hundred different accents.

Yet they were forming something new: an American brand, incorporating strains from all over. (I mean no musical pun on “strains.”) In music, you speak of “the Russian school,” “the French school,” etc. This especially applies to piano playing. The American school — to the extent there is one — combines all of these elements. It is a universal school.

And our country at large? Well, ideally, there are people from every corner, dedicated to common ideals and principles. E pluribus unum. Is the ideal a reality? To a greater degree than many people suppose . . .

In addition to Toscanini, I’ve thought of Reagan — specifically, the last speech he gave as president. When it’s your last, you choose your topic and your words extra-carefully. Here’s Reagan:

Since this is the last speech that I will give as president, I think it’s fitting to leave one final thought, an observation about a country which I love. It was stated best in a letter I received not long ago. A man wrote me and said:

“You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”

Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life-force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond.

Other countries may seek to compete with us, but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on earth comes close. This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world, and by doing so, we continuously renew and enrich our nation.

While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams, we create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow.

Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier.

This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.

Obviously, no one talks that way today. It’s the kind of talk that makes people gag. Today, Reagan would be met by eye-rolls, if he talked that way, and probably a rain of boos.

What does the current Republican president say, repeatedly? “Our country is full.” “We’re full.”

Yet there is much practicality in Reagan’s words, beyond sentimental rhetoric. I thought of China while pondering this: “Other countries may seek to compete with us, but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on earth comes close. This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.”

We may well become involved in a great global competition with China, and soon. Arms are vitally important. And Reagan was a mighty defense hawk. But the theme of his final speech is important too. Who will be attracted to the ideals of the Chinese Communist Party? Not even the Chinese Communists.

I say, get our house in order on immigration. Cut illegal immigration to as close to zero as possible. Emphasize the rule of law. Have a sensible, balanced policy of legal immigration. Emphasize the importance of assimilation and integration — E pluribus unum. And remember the Gipper’s admonitions.

(As regular readers know, my favorite commenter on illegal immigration is the late, great Sonny Bono. When he was first running for office, someone asked him, “Hey, Sonny, what’s your position on illegal immigration?” He replied, “It’s illegal, isn’t it?”)

One more word on Reagan, before I leave him: Republicans and conservatives thrilled to him, especially when he defended and articulated American ideals. Dems and lefties grimaced and groused at him. This is the GOP I embraced, in bad ol’ lefty Ann Arbor. I liked America better than Amerika, so to speak.

Let’s have a little language (beyond “America” and “Amerika”). As you know, words and phrases come and go — in fashion one day, out the next. Words and phrases are like hemlines, I suppose. For most of my life, you were not really supposed to say “cosmopolitan” in the context of politics. (Cosmopolitan was a magazine in which Burt Reynolds posed nude.) In politics, “cosmopolitan” was a codeword for “Jew.” Stalin and his gang, of course, spoke of “rootless cosmopolitans.” If you were one of them, woe betide you.

“America First” was verboten too — smelly. It was associated with Lindbergh and isolationism. When Pat Buchanan revived it in the 1990s, I thought, “Whoa, he’s really all in.” PJB knew his history extremely well. And, of course, Donald Trump took the phrase to new heights.

“Cosmopolitan,” like “America First,” has made a comeback. I hear it from the lips and pens of the new nationalists. They mean to contrast their nationalism with others’ cosmopolitanism. Nationalism, good; cosmopolitanism, bad. Bill Buckley was called “cosmopolitan” his entire life (along with “elitist,” “effete,” and worse). He was as patriotic as the day is long. If you’re tagged as “cosmopolitan,” remember that you’re in good company.

I think of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader, and a worldwide nationalist pin-up, rallying the folks last year:

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

That’s the spirit.

(By the way, I spoke of Orbán as a “worldwide nationalist pin-up.” That is an interesting phenomenon of today: an international nationalist movement. A Nationalist International. Both Farage and Bannon have spoken of “our global movement.”)

No doubt, lots of people, when they criticize “cosmopolitans,” mean the word benignly — without its former smells. But it will take my ears, and nose, a while to adjust — just as I’ve had to adjust to “America First” (if I have). I’m still used to the old hemlines; you’ve gotta give me more time to get hip to the program.

Am I a nationalist or a cosmopolitan? Well, I believe in universal values, principles, and facts — such as those found in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. I also think that Supreme Court justices should not cite foreign law, when seeking to craft new American law. And I think that American law should be made by American legislators.

There are a billion more things to say about this subject, or these subjects, but I have gone on too long, and I’ll end — with a story.

Returning from a trip abroad a few weeks ago, I observed something that made me smile. An airport official was admonishing someone who was hawking a ride service, I believe. The hawker was an immigrant, probably from Africa. In accented English, he said to the lady — the official who was giving him a hard time — “I know my rights.” He said it with great, indignant confidence. That struck me as so American.

In how many countries can you talk back to an official, saying, “I know my rights” — especially if you’re a foreigner or a newcomer? Precious few.

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