Andy: OK, maybe “delegitimize” is the wrong word, though I’m not entirely convinced; “co-opt” might be better. Nor am I trying to suggest that you or anyone else who utters “nation of immigrants” is therefore a multiculturalist. Rather, the spread of the concept over the past 50 years into a cliche is a symptom of America’s loss of confidence in its past and reluctance to insist that newcomers conform to our ways rather than the reverse. In Gramsci’s terms, it represents a challenge to the hegemony of American culture.
Look, here’s what I mean. In the past, immigrants tried to fit their story into America’s settler narrative; there are lots of examples of this in other ethnic groups, but I like to call it the “Martin the Armenian” syndrome. Martin was an early settler in Jamestown, arriving in 1618 or 1619, sent to try to develop silk cultivation in the new colony. He’s lost to history, probably dead of yellow fever or something, and he had no role in starting an Armenian community here; the first regular Armenian immigrants didn’t start coming til more than 200 years later. But Armenians in the past would frequently point to him as evidence that our tribe was in on the ground floor of America’s settlement.
The “nation of immigrants” talk reverses that relationship. Rather than the newcomers trying to fit themselves into America’s founding narrative, it represents an attempt to force the first quarter-millennium of America’s history into the immigrants’ narrative. It doesn’t mean this for everyone who uses it; there are plenty of people who use the cliche unthinkingly who really do believe that newcomers (and, heck, our own kids) need to cherish and be stirred by Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and the Oregon Trail. But the message sent to the broader culture is very different.
Compare two holidays. Columbus Day began a century ago in this country as an attempt by Italian immigrants to attache themselves into the founding of America. Move forward to today and see what’s happened to the Fourth of July; the main public ceremony that occurs on that day is no longer public readings of the Declaration of Independence but new-citizen swearing-in ceremonies. It has turned into Immigration Day rather than Independence Day, just as the Statue of Liberty has turned almost exclusively into a symbol of immigration (at least for us; as its adaptation by the Tiananmen protesters showed, abroad some people still see it as it was originally intended). This is why the Wall Street Journal’s notorious “there shall be open borders” editorials were all pegged to the Fourth of July.
I’ve gone on too long, but let me assure everyone I’m all for swearing in new citizens (I’ve actually spoken at several such ceremonies), I’m happy to have our Goldbergs and Ponnurus (and even Podhoretzes!), I like the frosting, I am the frosting. But the frosting is part of the cake, it’s an accent to the cake, it contributes to the cake’s taste — it’s not the whole cake.