I SPENT a substantial span of my life in the United States, more specifically in California. And that was during perhaps my most impressionable years, from about mid-teens to mid-twenties. It would thus be an understatement to say that the US left me with many fond memories. So much so that at the time I thought I would eventually settle down in the US. But life of course made its interesting turns and I ended up going back to where I came from — Sabah. Yet perhaps the one most important lesson I took from the US is its long-enduring sociopolitical practice enshrined in a Latin phrase on its national emblem: “E pluribus unum,” or “Out of many, one.”
The origin of this phrase in the American context stemmed perhaps from the American Revolution, when 13 disparate British colonies in North America came together to fight off the British colonial forces and achieved independence. Although they all had a similar British heritage, these were essentially 13 nations (or states) which decided to unite into one federated country, hence the name United States.
Domestic American macro-politics is thus mostly about accommodating the rights of both the federal as well as the various state governments. On almost all aspects of governmental powers, there are the federal and the state dimensions, with the exception of perhaps foreign affairs. Even on defense, there are the federal army, navy and air force, but there are the state national guards as well, some equipped even with air wings. Federal taxes are “supplemented” by their state counterparts. Federal and state laws and law enforcement constantly fight over jurisdiction, as depicted in many American action movies. Education is perhaps the one sector where the most say goes to neither federal nor state authorities but local school districts. It is overall a most vibrant democracy in full swing, and I learned a lot from its intricacies, on how to check and balance while enabling things to get done.
But in more recent times, the slogan has come to acquire a related, and no less important dimension, and that is how to build a nation with peoples of increasingly diverse backgrounds. The US has always been a country of immigrants. Even among the earlier European settlers, not all hailed from England or even the British Isles (the Scots and Irish, for example, are fiercely assertive of their cultural diversions from the English). Germans, Dutch, French and Northern Europeans were aplenty, too. Later came a huge wave of Southern and Eastern Europeans. And when the US expanded to the West, Hispanics also came into the picture. Not to mention the African Americans many of whose ancestors were brought to American shores as slaves. Then Asians also making their way to America.
The point here is the American system, culture and society is broadly tolerant of the many hues of peoples from all around the world who decide to make their way to America and call it home. There are of course lively debates on the issue of legal versus illegal immigration, but it is the kind of debate that should be conducted in any democratic society as to whether they would like to become a closed one or continue to open their doors to more immigrants. English is undoubtedly the lingua franca of the US, and most Americans are undoubtedly Caucasian. But notice the US does not have a national or official language, although many mistakenly believe that English is the one. In fact, in California where I used to live, Spanish is used almost as often as English even in official dealings, as the Hispanic population there is huge. In Louisiana, which was a former French colony, French is understandably used frequently as well. And being ethnically Chinese, I of course communicated with my Chinese friends in Mandarin and also Cantonese, the latter a legacy from the California Gold Rush Years, which saw many Cantonese laborers toiling away in railroad construction projects. I took the California driver’s test in English, but I saw that you could actually take it in at least a dozen other languages, translated at the state’s expense. When there is a substantial minority of your population who prefer to use another language and not English, the state should do their best to accommodate those needs, as California does, and it doesn’t thereby make you any less American than your fellow Americans.
Nor does the US have an official religion which is supported by either the federal or state government. In fact, the US constitution explicitly provides for the separation of church (religion) away from governmental power or support. Religion may not interfere with the workings of the government, and government must not utilize its power and machinery to benefit any religion. This despite the fact that, for example, the states of Maryland and Utah were founded mostly by Catholics and Mormons, respectively. And the American government and society are generally tolerant of the different religions, major or minor, that are practised on its shores. Many religions which are considered cults and sometimes even prohibited from being adhered to in more authoritarian countries can proselytize freely in the US, as freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right that is taken very seriously. Even atheists such as myself can openly proclaim so in the US and still be respected, something which would have at least attracted social stigma in most parts of the world where religions still hold a big sway over society. This is not to say that the US is not a religious society; it is very much so, as attested to in one after another survey on religion and society, where it usually ranks near the top.
There is this largely semantic debate over tolerance versus acceptance in a multicultural society. For me, at least, you could always do both. To tolerate some other fellow citizens’ cultural practices, such as the languages they speak and the religions they embrace, does not necessary mean you “accept” the same in the sense that you also become a speaker or a believer as they do. Rather, to tolerate as such, is to “accept” the sociopolitical fact that we are a multicultural society, and that it is important that we respect the cultural rights of our fellow citizens, much as they respect ours. And on this count, my experience shows that the US has been doing a good job thus far, and I hope it will continue so.