In honor of the last paper I will ever write, particularly English paper, something I have always loved doing, I am going to post the most boring blog post in the entire world. Here is my final paper on the collapse of the American ideals of the American Dream and the Melting Pot theory and therefore of Henry R. Luce’s concept of the American Century, as demonstrated by John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. If you are bored enough to read it, tell me if you see an typos. I am now lost because I do not know what I will do with lines of literature I find poignant from here on out. Start a notebook I guess. Or type them here..
Dismantling Luce’s American Century and American Ideals
Henry R. Luce’s The American Century claims that the century must be uniquely American because of “infinitely precious and especially American” ideals: “a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of cooperation” (Luce, 38). These are the foundation of two other American ideals: the American Dream and the Melting Pot theory. The American Dream is built on the idea that people have the freedoms and opportunity to create an independent and successful life for themselves. The Melting Pot theory is one that claims America accepts and mixes all races equally, therefore creating freedoms and an equality of opportunity. These two concepts are intrinsically tied together and their intersection is required for either to survive. At the same time, these concepts that make America worthy of its own century are repeatedly shown to be broken. In John Hersey’s Hiroshima and post-Pearl Harbor America, the Melting Pot theory is broken down as internment camps and dehumanization of an entire race is embraced. Sixty years later, just after the end of the so-called American Century, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun simultaneously shows that America continues to fail as a Melting Pot and that the American Dream can be taken away after it is achieved. Meanwhile, it offers a portrait of a city that is excluded from the American Dream and American freedoms. In the face of these, the concept of the American Century must be re-evaluated; can there be such a thing in the face of the broken foundations of America? Hiroshima and Zeitoun challenge the notion of a uniquely American Century by undermining the achievability and accessibility of the ideals the concept is built on.
The American Dream and the Melting Pot theory have long been staples of a uniquely American cultural identity. The country is built on the immigrant dream of being able to forget one’s past while simultaneously achieving a better life in the new world. The gold rush of the West was based on the American Dream that one could strike it rich. Over time, this concept has evolved into a staple of our society. Stephen J. Whitfield uses James Truslow Adams’ definition of the American Dream to call it “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable” (Whitfield, 2). It has become a structural institution that embodies both freedoms that allow one to achieve, and the tradition of self-reliance and independence Luce points to. To this day, the guarantee of opportunity still draws immigrants to America. This dream is deeply intertwined with the Melting Pot theory. Without the idea that America is all accepting and willing to forget your past, the American Dream cannot work. Equality of opportunity, cooperation and a love of universal freedoms cannot be fostered without issues of race and ethnicity being neutralized through the Melting Pot. The Melting Pot theory essentially says that everyone can be American.
The actions of America after Pearl Harbor begin to break down the validity of the Melting Pot theory. Following Pearl Harbor, America instituted an attack on the Japanese, one that extended to the Japanese within its own borders. Approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Schiffrin, 506). The breakdown of their rights in the face of war was justified by and to the American people through portrayals of the Japanese as the “Yellow Peril.” “Throughout the war, the Yellow Peril – in the form of the Japanese – was consistently represented in the United States media as an obedient, cruel, efficient, and homogenous ‘herd’ that single-mindedly carried out Japanese leaders’ dreams of global domination” (Sharp, 438). By amassing the Japanese people into a faceless herd, the American people absolved themselves of guilt towards the individuals. People who would normally be accepted by America’s freedoms for individuals were excluded because they were categorized instead as a body or whole instead of based on individual character. When individual freedoms are broken down, the possibility for the American Dream is removed, thus depriving the Japanese internment victims of this dream.
Mainstream media also took up the cry of Japanese evils: “In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, mainstream magazines such as Life and Newsweek carried articles on how to tell Japanese from Chinese. These articles reinscribed racial and cultural stereotypes of the Japanese, asserting that the Japanese had an ‘earth yellow complexion’” (438). Not only did these publications perpetuate the evaluation of the Japanese as a whole, they also enforced racist outlooks that prove that you cannot escape your past in the Melting Pot. Instead, the skin-deep differences that are supposedly irrelevant can be used against the immigrant if convenient. In the perpetuation of this racism, the United States embraced the racist ideology and language of the Nazis that they were denouncing in the war: “Congressman John Rankin stated in the Congressional Record of 15 December 1941… for example, that he was in favor of ‘catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps’ (Schiffrin, 512). He is demanding the same action of the U.S. that the Nazi’s enacted in Europe. At the same time, while the internment camps were essentially concentration camps, the open use of this term by a government representative at the time is deeply telling: using this language equates an American hatred of the Japanese with the Nazi hatred of the Jewish.
This American hatred of the Japanese’ “Yellow Peril” continued into the representation of Hiroshima. “In its aftermath, Hiroshima was represented in America largely in the same manner. A number of commentators seemed to draw on the ‘revenge’ trope of future-war stories and argued that the atomic bomb was justice coming back to haunt the Japanese for their many atrocities” (Sharp, 438). The representation of Hiroshima in America was one of defeating a terrible enemy, not killing thousands of innocent civilians. The responsibility of war atrocities was easily extended to the entirety of their civilians because they were shown as a faceless herd. The U.S. government strove to maintain this image as they focused on presenting data on the destruction of buildings and infrastructures above the tales of individuals. When reports of painful radiation sickness and deaths circulated, “[t]hey were denounced by some members of the military – most notably by General Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project – as unsubstantiated “Jap propaganda” designed to manipulate world opinion and generate sympathy for the defeated Japanese people” (442). Rather than the bomb and its aftereffects being a U.S. war atrocity, the government purposefully perpetuated a line of dialogue that made the Japanese people as a whole liars and instigators, and therefore worthy of American spite.
Hersey shattered this image of the Japanese in Hiroshima, yet at the same time struggled to escape the rhetoric of American hate. “As a reporter on the front lines of some of the action in World War II, Hersey had avoided the racist vilification of the Japanese that characterized the writing of many other reporters… He later commented. “I felt I would like to write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings” (444). His story written from the point of view of six civilians did exactly that; Hersey’s narrative re-humanized not just the victims of Hiroshima, but also the Japanese people in their entirety for America. By re-individualizing the Japanese he made Americans see them as people again:
A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition – a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next – that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death that he ever thought he would see. (Hersey, 2)
First, he gives us the figure of people killed in Hiroshima, than he very specifically distinguishes our six survivors from them. Then he furthers their individualization by citing individualized, differentiated actions that saved them. In doing this, he restores their personal initiative in action and separates them from their state; something denied them by the “Yellow Peril” American depiction. He also restores to them individualized emotion as they wonder why they lived and that they lived a dozen lives of those that died around them, showing that they had a very human and personal reaction to their situations. This individualization allows Americans to see the Japanese as relatable people once again.
This intense individualization of the six main characters however pushes him to use “Yellow Peril” rhetoric in order to categorize the thousands dying. He must resort to sweeping depictions of most of the victims: “Mr. Tanimoto’s way around the fire took him across the East Parade Ground, which, being an evacuation area, was now the scene of a gruesome review: rank on rank of the burned and bleeding” (31). These unnamed many are represented in the general terms of review and rank. Rank is an especially charged choice of generalization because it implies not only part of a mass, but part of a ranked military body. This language reinforces American rhetoric regarding the Japanese in exactly the way Hersey’s narrative wants to avoid. However, it also heightens our focus on the individual survivors of the text. Hersey struggles with balancing his language to avoid this rhetoric while needing its language in order to highly individualize the victims he profiles.
The climate of America sixty years later during Hurricane Katrina, as seen in Zeitoun, was not unlike the racism and de-individualization of 1945. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian and Muslim American had achieved the American Dream: he had a wife, children and a successful business. He was well known within the New Orleans community. His business’ rainbow logo was widely recognizable, partially because of the possible controversy it embodied. When he discovered this, he decided to keep the logo: “‘Think about it,’ Zeitoun laughed. ‘We’re a Muslim couple running a painting company in Louisiana. Not such a good idea to turn away clients.’ Anyone who had a problem with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam” (Eggers, 12). This passage shows both an acknowledgement of the racism and anti-gay sentiments possible in America, yet a faith in being able to rise above it. Zeitoun does not want to turn away business, and believes that he is better off accepting gay customers than changing his logo to attract intolerant customers, because those customers would probably have an issue with him anyway. The wording of the final sentence that is paraphrased is especially interesting because rainbow can have dual meanings. Not only does it physically represent the gay community, but it also literally means a spectrum of color, and a spectrum of human color or race fits in perfectly with this discussion of intolerance. At the same time, he clearly believes that he can get by as a businessman without these customers. He succeeds, and the logo eventually becomes extremely recognizable in the city of New Orleans.
While Zeitoun had achieved the dream despite American suspicion of difference, it is this same fear that both exacerbates the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and leads to Zeitoun’s temporary loss of the American Dream. As the hurricane bore down on the United States, representatives of the U.S. government were less concerned about evacuating the poor and elderly residents of the lower ward, many of them poor Blacks, and more concerned with informing the National Guard of the opportunities for terrorism during the crisis (308). Four years after 9/11, during a natural disaster on the homeland, the American focus was still on the possible disasters of difference. So while people continued to die trapped in their homes, the government used prison labor to erect a new Guantanamo Bay-style prison to house more than 1,200 men and women that were arrested after the disaster (311). Instead of the focus being on rescuing people, it was on preventing looting (which during a crisis when food and water were scarce and transportation for large items rare, may frequently have been justified as the need of the poor to survive,) and catching so-called terrorists. Zeitoun was one such prisoner. He was arrested on property he owned without any official charges, and because of his race and the paranoia of American government, he was denied all his freedoms. He was dehumanized by inhumane conditions, without even a place to sit or food he could eat, and by the loss of all his individuality, instead categorized by those in charge as “Al Qaeda” and “Taliban” (212-213) simply because of what they perceived to be his ethnicity. In this process, they stripped him of his identity, taking all his identification, his privacy, as they cavity searched him, and his life as they denied him the ability to contact his family. Meanwhile, his properties, home and business assets were being destroyed by looters or the effects of the disaster, which was what he had stayed through the hurricane to prevent in the first place. The government essentially stripped him of his accomplished American Dream for no reason other than his race.
Zeitoun clearly had doubts about the success of America’s Melting Pot theory entering the hurricane. Upon his arrest, “Zeitoun had long feared this day would come… He and Kathy worried about the reach of the Department of Homeland Security, its willingness to contact anyone born in or with a connection to the Middle East” (212-213). This passage reads eerily like the U.S. actions post-Pearl Harbor. Ethnicity suddenly became the determining factor above being a successful businessman or having a positive reputation in the community, things Americans expect to determine their interactions with authorities first and foremost. His arrest and treatment only furthered this viewpoint: “[K]nowing that Zeitoun’s ordeal was caused instead by systemic ignorance and malfunction – and perhaps long-festering paranoia on the part of the National Guard and whatever other agencies were involved – was unsettling. It said, quite clearly, that this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten” (307). The series of forces that led not to just to his arrest but also the prioritization of terrorism threats over American lives demonstrate that the Melting Pot theory is a broken concept. Systemic forces of ignorance and paranoia about difference have broken the theory, or rotted the barrel. And it when it breaks down, it inhibits the achievability of the American Dream.
In a country purportedly built on the principle of diversity and the achievement of all, America fails to actually embody the principles it claims as uniquely American. “Attitudes on immigration represent an even larger reversal. On an issue where the United States has been the model for the world, the country has regressed toward an angry defensive crouch (Zakaria, 48). America has taken to closing its borders against the kind of people seeking the American Dream that built the country to begin with. Citizens cling to the idea of the American Dream: the poor because they hope to fulfill it, and the rich because they want to avoid guilt or responsibility for those who cannot. Americans also cling to the presentation of America as a Melting Pot because they want it to embody them, but American actions across a century prove it does not. Race is not something that can be forgotten or overlooked in America; rather it is a tool for hatred and misunderstanding across the country’s narrative. When freedoms, individuality and equality of opportunity break down, inevitably these two ideals break with them. And an American Century based on the power of these broken American ideals inherently cannot exist.
Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. New York: Vintage Books, 2009. Print.
Hersey, John. Hiroshima. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. Print.
Luce, Henry R. “The American Century,” Life. Feb. 17, 1941; New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941. Print.
Schiffrin, Deborah. “Language and public memorial: ‘America’s concentration camps,’” Discourse Society 12.4 (2001): 505-534. Online.
Sharp, Patrick B. “From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima,’” Twentieth Century Literature 46.4 (2000): 434-452. Online.
Whitfield, Stephen J. “The American Century of Henry R. Luce,” Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [Online], (2004); Reprinted in Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, eds. Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 90-107. Online.
Zakaria, Fareed. The Post-American World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.