The BEST: Democracy Versus the Melting Pot

Tradition Online | December 24, 2020


The BEST: “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot” by Horace M. Kallen
Reviewed by Helena Miller 

Summary: Horace M. Kallen’s essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot” was first published in The Nation, on February, 25 1915. Kallen (1882-1974) was a German-born American philosopher, son of an Orthodox rabbi, who supported the concept of cultural pluralism. He begins this article with an overview of the immigrant populations entering the United States, focusing specifically on the Jews. He discusses what it means to be “Americanized” and suggests that a democratic society that realizes the assumptions of the Declaration of Independence would lead to a leveling of society, such that all people become alike. This leveling is a melting pot. (Kallen distinguishes the Jewish immigrants from other immigrant groups by the fact that they do not come from truly native lands, but from countries where they have been treated as foreigners for sometimes centuries.) 

Horace M. Kallen

Kallen argues that although immigrant groups must be loyal to certain democratic principles, within those constraints, there is no reason that immigrant peoples should not be able to maintain their identities, cultural expressions, religious beliefs, and even languages. Kallen suggests that through union, not uniformity, a mutual respect and mutual co-operation based on mutual understanding can be achieved. He defines this as cultural pluralism: when smaller groups within society keep their unique cultural identities, their values, and practices and are nevertheless accepted by the dominant culture, providing they are consistent with the laws and values of the dominant culture.

Why is it The BEST? Readers might wonder to what extent an article exploring cultural pluralism from more than a century ago would resonate in contemporary times. Surely the world has moved on in its understanding of how groups within society can live together. But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, exploring identity in his The Home We Build Together (2007), cites both Kallen and philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952) as crucial voices in this process (31). He shows us how today’s multi-culturalism developed from Kallen’s definition of cultural pluralism. Sacks distinguishes the approach of Kallen and Dewey through a metaphor. He imagines that Kallen provides us with a fruit bowl, while Dewey serves us a fruit salad. In other words, Kallen wants us to preserve our distinct identities. He calls for us to integrate, not assimilate. The fruits in the bowl sit together, their colors and shapes contributing to the picture of the whole – but each fruit retains its distinctive and separate look and taste. Dewey viewed our identities as American or British, on the one hand, and Jewish on the other, as interconnected, leading to a shared identity, which may be seen as assimilation, rather than integration. Hence R. Sacks’ picture of Dewey’s fruit salad – a taste of all the fruits in a single mouthful.

R. Sacks uses this metaphor as the springboard for a new approach to national identity. We should see society as bringing the distinctive gifts of different groups to the common good. He compares multiculturalism to a hotel, in which nobody is at home – we each have our own room and so long as we do not disturb others, we can do what we like. He replaces this with his idea of a home, which we all build together. In doing so he emphasizes our responsibilities and asks us to value our differences, which are not used to keep us apart. Rather, we each have something different and special to give to the common good. He calls this “integrated diversity” and ultimately prefers this metaphor to either the fruit or hotel metaphors. Cultural pluralism is vital to sustain and build a society in which all religious identities can flourish, but on its own, as Sacks recognizes, it is not the only platform needed from which to build a strong Jewish identity, connected to Jewish tradition and Jewish life.

Dr. Helena Miller is the Director of Degrees, co-Head of teacher Training and Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies.

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