August 9, 2020

Tom Brokaw proves it’s really difficult to be a good American

When you think of good Americans, the solid and earnest good folk who are trustworthy and present as inoffensive, Tom Brokaw has to be the type of guy you’d think of.

But, after another mistake gone viral online, there’s a new way to see him.

Tom Brokaw, 78, perpetrator of reckless public speaking.


He did what many of your uncles have done on any given Sunday. He said new Americans, specifically LatinX immigrants, should “work harder” at assimilating into the American cultural mainstream.

I neither endorse nor condemn him for our purposes today. Mr. Brokaw has taken his lashes already so the work of condemnation is done.

Twitter promptly dog-walked him. Charges of xenophobia cascaded. An apology followed. Demands for reparations were made.

In the tsunami of blowback, a long list of LatinX leaders sent a briskly worded letter to NBC saying assimilationist comments like Brokaw’s fuel the hatred their community endures.

“Mr. Brokaw’s comments are more than just out-of-touch musings…Mr. Brokaw’s comments are part of a legacy of anti-Latino sentiment that is spreading freely in 2019,” they wrote.

“Though [Brokaw] has apologized, we are asking….” they continued, and then laid out a list of restorative requests:

Chuck Todd and Meet the Press production and booking team to integrate more regular and newer Latinx voices into the program to represent ourselves and our experiences;

The network makes a significant contribution to National Association of Hispanic Journalists to continue cultivating the bench of diverse reporters and analysts; and

Mr. Brokaw, Meet the Press and the network take actions to better educate themselves about the diversity of the fastest growing demographic in the country, including putting resources behind a series that highlights the diverse and complicated history and contributions of the community in the U.S.

And, scene.

I should quickly rewind here and let you see what Brokaw actually said.

Here it is:

“You know, they [LatinX immigrants] ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities…”

This sounds like a man who is somewhere on the spectrum between the worst thing a journalist can be, factually incorrect, and the thing I’ve come to expect most paleoliberals to be, which is insensible about the cultural chauvinism living beneath their white hats.

In truth, English acquisition in the LatinX community is phenomenal.

According to Pew research, English proficiency among foreign-born Hispanic children shot up from 43% in 1980 to 70% in 2013. With each year they are in the country their fluency accelerates.

When it comes to assimilating into the American mainstream, nobody does it faster than LatinX people.

Unlike the LatinX immigrants, when the Brokaws of the these Americas immigrated in the early 20th century, the downcast Irish and Germans among them lagged behind other whites, even after three generations.

A wave of Italian immigrants settled into “Little Sicilies” in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities, never learning English, intermarrying with other populations, or joining the mainstream.

Where I live in the Minnesota outback, Germans huddled together in one county reading German-language newspapers and finding outsiders suspicious. Our public schools here were the last in the state to switch from full-day German instruction to English.

But I need to switch gears at this point. You may have calcified beliefs about today’s immigrants, and you may have a romantic vision of your own ancestors who came here to do hard work and build a great nation.

Bully for you.

You may be racist, or not. Xenophobic, or not. A white nationalist or racial realist.

Whatever. You be what you wish.

The issue I will take with you is the insistence that there is such thing as a proper speaking, appropriately committed, and morally vetted good American.

We never had a meeting to discuss that, we never voted on it, and no law was passed to define that elusive state of being.

A good American in my mind is one who understands that the only way pluralism works is if people are mature about allowing others to live, love, pray, and speak as they see fit.

Beware ear-splitting calls for mass assimilation, social incorporation, racial integration, and other concepts that describe the negotiation between the dominant culture and the individuals it absorbs (voluntary or not). Those calls will ruin America or at least they will keep us locked in an endless pattern of interpersonal antagonism.

I fight that problem constantly in education where everyone from Diane Ravitch on the Left to any number of I-stand-for-the-flag dung slingers on Trump TV agrees that the state schooling and its associated behavorial pressures should act to mold free beings into some version of the solid patriot, the productive citizen – ultimately, the good American.

The same people who say they want the freedom to marry whomever they desire and choose abortion at-will also find a parent’s right to choose a non-unionized school beyond the pale of an acceptable social contract.

Likewise, others who believe in free speech when it wears a #MAGA hat but are not supportive when high school students mimic an NFL quarterback who kneels before games in protest of state violence against marginalized citizens.

In my mind, there is only one model of the good American we should all attempt to be: the one who extends the same freedoms to others that we expect for ourselves.

And that is hard.


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