Someone recently gave me a book of photos taken on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1890s. The conditions were horrible: homeless, malnourished children sleeping in a clump, barefoot in a doorway. There was a block, on Bayard Street, with 39 tenement houses, and 2,781 people squeezed into them. There were only 264 toilets on that entire block and no showers or baths. There were 441 rooms on that block with no ventilation, where people lived in the shadows, catching tuberculosis and diphtheria.
My grandfather, Bernard Levy, grew up there, off Bayard Street, a few years later. He went to a public high school and a public college and rose to become a lawyer. He spent his evenings writing letters to the editor that he hoped would be printed in The New York Times. He didn’t live to see me get a job here, but I am living out his dream. Our family life, from the Lower East Side upward, is a social mobility miracle.
When you grow up with this background, you have a deep sense of the goodness and purpose of America. America is the land of milk and honey. Lincoln could go from a log cabin to the White House. A Jewish boy from the Bronx named Ralph Lifshitz could grow up to become Ralph Lauren and redefine American preppy. You could be born on the fringes and assimilate into this new thing called an American.
I used to think we could revive that story for the 21st century, but we probably can’t. Too many people feel left out of it. Plus, there is no longer a single American mainstream to serve as the structural spine of the nation. Mainline Protestantism is no longer the dominant religion and cultural force. The WASP establishment no longer rules the roost. There is no white majority in our kindergartens, and soon there will be no white majority in our society.
The big three TV networks no longer dominate the culture the way they did. There is no one dominant musical genre. The national ruling class has lost legitimacy. Social trust is strongest at the local levels, which grow more polarized from one another. Politically, we’re in an age of extremes.
The reality and challenge is that America has become radically pluralistic. We used to be unipolar — one dominant majority culture and a lot of minority groups that defined themselves against it. Now we’re multipolar. We’re all minorities now.
That could blow us to smithereens. But who knows? We could learn to be minorities together, to be what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls creative minorities. In a brilliant 2013 lecture , Sacks noted that when Solomon’s temple was destroyed and the Jews were cast into exile, the prophet Jeremiah had a surprising message: Go to new lands. Build houses. Plant gardens. Seek the peace and prosperity of the cities in which you settle.
Jeremiah was saying you don’t need to assimilate into the new place. Nor do you need to withdraw into a culturally pure enclave. Instead, don’t be afraid to be a distinct, orthodox version of yourself within a larger society. Build a rich moral community. Just don’t try to universalize your faith or even become a dominant minority. Interact with the world around you, confident in your own particularity, but realize that every time you seek to dominate others, you will wind up dominated.
This stance — aggressive interaction without an attempt to be hegemonic — made the Jews creative in three ways, Sacks argues.
First, the encounter with other cultures led to great flowerings of Jewish thought. Jews wrestled with the best ideas they encountered from outside. Second, Jews were often bridges between different civilizations. Through trade, they linked China and the West during the Middle Ages. Third, Jews emerged from their secure base and made great contributions to the wider world: Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, etc.
In a world of radical pluralism, we are all Jews. We have no choice but to build a mass multicultural democracy, a society that has no dominant center but is a collection of creative minorities.
Nearly 200 years ago, Tocqueville wrote that democracy was creating a new sort of man. Pluralism today is creating a new sort of person, especially among the young. They don’t just relish diversity; they embody it. Many have mixed roots — say, half-French/half-Dominican. Many are border stalkers; they live between cultures, switch back and forth, and work hard to build a multiplicity of influences into a single coherent life. They’re Whitmanesque, containing multitudes, holding opposite ideas in their minds at the same time.
Radical pluralism also necessitates retelling the nation’s history. We’ve always been a universal nation, a crossroads nation, a nation whose very identity is defined by the fact that it is a hub for a dense network of minorities and subgroups, and the distinct way of life they fashion to interact and flourish together.
I used to think that America had to find a new unifying national narrative. Now I wonder if not having a single national narrative will become our national narrative.
David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and, most recently, “The Second Mountain.” @nytdavidbrooks