The Barack Obama Inauguration Speech Sent the Wrong Message on Diversity

Our culture is dominated by a single heritage.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Of course, you've all heard or read Barack Obama's inaugural speech. It's the subject of my forthcoming digital U.S. News column, in which I suggest that Obama may get the same kind of positive response from the public that John F. Kennedy did 48 years ago. Here, where I've got unlimited space, I'd like to make another point. 

Near the end of the speech, Obama said that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." This sounds unobjectionable, and most of it is. We are a nation of multiple religions, and it's nice to include Muslims and Hindus and nonbelievers. Heck, the place of worship closest to my parent's condominium in Troy, Mich., is a Hindu temple. And, yes, we are shaped to some limited extent by every language and culture.

But we're influenced much more by one language and by one culture than any other, the English language and what the late Samuel Huntington called the Anglo-Protestant culture. In my 2001 book, The New Americans, I talked about how different peoples—Irish, Italians, Jews, blacks, Latinos, Asians—have been or are being interwoven into the American fabric; I was more optimistic than Huntington that Latinos were being and could be so interwoven. The weaving metaphor still strikes me as a good one, better than the melting pot—how many people these days know what a melting pot is?—because it suggests that the basic character of the fabric remains pretty much the same, with different accents. And that is pretty much what has happened. David Hackett Fischer, in his splendid Albion's Seed, shows how the cultural folkways that different groups of colonial Americans brought from different parts of the British Isles have persisted to this day. Michael Dukakis's parents were born in Greece, but he's a recognizable New England Yankee in his cultural attitudes.

So when Obama says, "We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth," he's not far away from plugging the multicultural idea, more prevalent in Western Europe than here in America, that every culture has the same moral worth—except maybe ours, which is worse. That's a very dangerous and wrongheaded way of thinking. And it's directly contrary to the way our first black president—and our first Catholic one—won their elections. Kennedy excelled and Obama excels at speaking the English language. The civic culture they mastered was our Anglo-Protestant culture, despite the fact that one went to a Catholic church and the other's father was a citizen of Kenya (and not, I think, as people tend to say, an immigrant: I presume he was in the United States on a student visa, and we know that he went home to Kenya and participated in politics there). Kennedy and Obama won because they did not fit the negative stereotypes of their ethnic groups, just as Margaret Thatcher won in Britain not because she was warm and cuddly but because she was the Iron Lady. Kennedy seemed more like an English lord than an Irish pol (one of his sisters was engaged to the marquis of Hartington), and Obama seemed more like a law professor than a ghetto protester.

I don't want to make too much of this. Elsewhere in his speech, Obama referred movingly to American history. His peroration featured a quotation from George Washington at Valley Forge. Overall, he's an excellent example of someone with a foreign heritage being interwoven into the American fabric. So let's make it clear. We're not every country. We are, as the slogan for the inaugural festivities put it, One.

  • Read more by Michael Barone.
  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.
  • Read more about the inauguration.