Common Culture is the Glue that Holds US Together

By Bill Johnston

Aloha from Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii! I am writing on the beach. I have spent the last couple months here as I do every April and May, baking the Pacific Northwest winter out of my bones. We return home just as the beautiful Western Washington Spring kicks in.

I love Hawaii. The weather; the tropical surroundings; swimming in the bathtub warm Pacific Ocean and I delight in the diversity of the people — people, no doubt, more diverse than any other state in union if not anywhere on earth. Yet I enjoy a comfortable commonality with the Hawaiians because we are the same in a most historically unique way.

One of my favorite Kona Merchants to visit every year is The Country Samurai. This “Samurai” deals in coffee. The owner is a fourth-generation Japanese Hawaiian American. His great-great-grandfather came to Hawaii from Japan as a farm laborer. I am a fourth generation Irish Washingtonian American whose great-great-grandfather came from Ireland as a farm laborer.

The Country Samurai and I do not look anything alike — our ancestry could not be more different. But we are the same — we are Americans! We are equal citizens of a country that views citizenship differently than any country, empire, or culture that has ever existed in history. It is this concept — sometimes challenged — that has made us as strong and as innovative as we are today.

I remember Lee Joe, my Chinese-American friend from Texas, who was stationed with me at Taipei Air Station, Taiwan. Lee was born and raised in Amarillo, Texas. He would tell us how his Chinese girlfriend and her parents could not comprehend why he considered himself first and foremost an American. They could not separate race from nationality. They asked him, “If China and America were in a war who would you fight for?” “I was standing there in my uniform!” Lee said shaking his head. “They don’t understand our idea of citizenship. They just don’t get it.”

Certainly there are Americans who “just don’t get it” and believe citizenship is ethnic and racially centric. It is an orientation found in the nuanced racist thinking now most obviously and loudly expressed in the “Tea Bag” Movement and among members of the Republican Party. Groups claiming the last election was won by voters “who could not read English” or who refuse to accept an African-American President as “legitimate,” they see the inclusion and changing demographics of our country as weakness while history shows it to be our strength. Inclusion and assimilation is what we have done — although at times imperfectly and grudgingly — and it has been and is our strength as a country and a people.

Harvard Professor Amy Chua points out in her book Day of Empire that the United States is not only the first nation of immigrants to become what she calls a “hyper-power,” but it is also the first massive universal suffrage democracy to do so. Chua points out Americans are generally tolerant and accepting of immigrants and their traditions when they come here. The key to all of this is of what she calls “the glue.” That is the common cultural rules we all agree to live by leading to assimilation, creating citizens called “American”.

While I may consider myself an “Irish-American” and the Country Samurai considers himself a “Japanese American” we are in the end “American” and our accepted common culture brings the strengths of our ancestor’s cultures to America adding them to the “glue” creating the unique culture called American!

Professor Chua points out there are some key components to the glue. We must speak the same language. Those who do not are identified as different and thought disrespectful of the commons. We must be religiously tolerant of one another no matter who your God may be. Spain never became a hyper-power because it persecuted Islam and lost their agricultural experts and never recovered. They persecuted the Jews, losing any shipping and trade advantage to the Dutch who welcomed them. Such timeless historical examples spread from the Persian Empire to the British. Each hyper-power was strong when they were inclusive and tolerant and declined when they lost the “glue.”

Hawaii is America’s most obvious wonderful example of how that “glue” keeps our county together. I also believe that at this particular challenging time in our history it is appropriate we have Barack Obama the first “Hawaiian President of the United States.”

Bill Johnston is a retired staff organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He is a member of the National Writers Union (Pacific Northwest Chapter). Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010

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