Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Hyphenated American

One may gather from my surname that I am of Italian extraction. Indeed, that is the case in both paternal and maternal lines: my mother was born near Rome in a place called San Vito Romano, and my paternal grandfather near Verona in the wine region whence comes Valpollicella. Given these facts, some will refer to me as Italian-American.

I myself, however, refer to myself as an American, and reject the hyphenated phrase as a coinage born of confusion and contributing to division. Suppose we reflect on this for a moment. What could it possibly mean to be an Italian-American? Does it imply dual citizenship? No. Does it imply being bilingual? No. Does it entail being bicultural? No again. My mother was both bilingual and bicultural, but I’m not. To refer to her as Italian-American makes sense, but not me. I am not Italian culturally, linguistically or by citizenship. I am Italian only by extraction.

And that doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, or at least should not make a difference to any rational person. Indeed, I identify myself as a rational being first and foremost, which implies nothing about ‘blood.’ Even before I am an American, I am animal metaphysicum and zoon logikon. Of course, I mean this to apply to everyone, especially those most in need of this message, namely Blacks and Hispanics. For a Black dude born in Philly to refer to himself as African-American borders on the absurd. Does he know Swahili? Can he chase down a gazelle in the wild? Build a thatched hut?

If he wants me to treat him as an individual, as a unique person with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto, and to judge him by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, why does he identify himself with a group? Why does he try to secure advantages in virtue of this group-membership? Is he so devoid of self-esteem and self-reliance that he cannot stand on his own two feet? Why does he need a Black caucus? Do Poles need a Polish caucus?

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre distinguishes between transcendence and facticity and identifies one form of bad faith as a person’s attempted identification of himself with an element of his facticity, such as race. But that is what the hyphenators and the Balkanizers and the identity-politicians want us to do: to identify ourselves in terms extraneous to our true being. Yet another reason never to vote for a liberal.