A Bridge to America's Future

commusings Aug 31, 2020

In 1898, Nathan Kiva, a nineteen-year old boy from Odessa, left his shtetl and embarked on the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic. Two months later, tempest-tost, his ship pulled into New York harbor, America’s golden door. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, he queued up and, finally, the immigration official asked for his surname.

“Kiva,” he replied.

The administrator wrinkled his face, “Vocation?”

“Ich bin ein gluzman,” Nathan mustered in Yiddish-inflected German.

“Ok. Nathan Glassman. Move along.”

Move along he did, out of the shadow of liberty’s torch and to Chicago. He purchased a small pushcart that he wheeled through the city repairing glass. Two years later, he met a Romanian woman, Dora, at the local temple. They soon married and, in 1918, my grandmother, Adeline Glassman, was born.

In 1942, Adeline gave birth to her only child, Richard Krasno, my father. In 1958, Richard met his high school sweetheart at Evanston Township High School. Jean Cullander’s grandparents had immigrated from Scotland and Sweden. Jean’s mother, Fran, played the bells in her church group. She was part of the same United Methodist congregation for 92 years until she moved to Connecticut.

Richard and Jean fell in love and, mollifying all parties by accommodating none, they consecrated their vows at the Unitarian Church, a Christian theology that maintains that Jesus was inspired by God in his moral teachings but he was not God incarnate.

In 1970, Jeffrey Patrick Krasno was forceps-extracted at Lying Inn Hospital at the University of Chicago. The name Jeffrey is derived from a Middle French variant for Gottfried. Patrick, initially rooted in Latin, is a popular Irish name and was one of my father’s best friends. Krasno is Russian meaning “red” or “beautiful.” I opt for the latter.

By the time I was seven, I had moved 10 times across Europe and Brazil. My olive skin, shades darker than that of my parents and brother, carries intimations of a promiscuous mailman. (Support the USPS (generally).) This jumble of genetics, faiths and peripatetics has always made self-identification a confounding process for me.

I am a Scottish-Romanian-Swedish, Jewish-Methodist-Unitarian dude with a French, Irish, and Russian name who speaks a number of languages and doesn’t look like his parents. In lingua canis, you might call me a mutt, just lovable enough. In terms of nationality, all of these far-flung traits and ethnicities makes me distinctly American.

My family was part of a major inflow of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. My story, though, is hardly exceptional. In fact, unless you are descended from Native Americans or from people brought to America against their will, then you share my immigrant story in some fashion.

Two Tuesdays ago, around 1pm PDT, my phone erupted with text messages. Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, had officially selected California senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, a significant milestone given she is the first Black woman and the first of South Asian descent in American history to be on a major party’s presidential ticket.

It is not my intention to legislate Harris’ political credentials here. I will simply state that, in my opinion, she is eminently qualified to be either president or vice-president. She is experienced, “tough” (as if that adjective would ever be used to describe a male candidate), articulate and progressive. And, like my beloved Nana, she also makes a mean tuna salad.

Harris’ selection underscores the rise of a new wave of children of immigrants, or second-generation Americans, as a growing political and cultural force. Her parents, Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, both immigrated to the United States, from India and Jamaica respectively, to receive doctorate degrees at the University of California, Berkeley. They were part of a mid-century influx of immigration from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Harris also grew up in a multi-faith household that accommodated both Christianity and Hinduism. As an adult, she married Doug Emhoff, a Brooklyn-born Jewish lawyer. She currently identifies as Baptist.

In a time of shifting racial demographics and religious pluralism and disaffiliation, Harris’ candidacy represents a political and cultural bridge to the future of America, one that significantly diverges from the white Christian majority of the past.

Nationwide, for the first time in American history, whites make up less than half of the population under the age of 16, a trend that is driven by larger numbers of Asians, Hispanics and people who are multiracial. Interracial marriage rates are especially high for second-generation Hispanics (26%) and among Asians (23%). Today, more than a quarter of American adults are foreign-born immigrants (approximately 42 million) or the American-born children of immigrants (about 25 million).

Here's a snapshot at what the future demographic composition of America resembles: In 2042, whites will no longer be a majority in America. And, at the current growth rate, a majority of Americans will identify as religiously disaffiliated by 2050. Whether one views this inexorable reality as deeply hopeful or profoundly threatening is among the greatest wedge issues of this moment.

What does this multi-racial, progressively more secular future mean in terms of how we self-identify and where we anchor morality and ethics?

Humans have invented myriad ways to understand the world and find purpose. Abrahamic religions, as heuristics, are useful in so far that they provide community, identity and moral values. However, the modern utility of texts that support the idea of fatally stoning someone for apostasy, homosexuality, talking back to your parents or not being a virgin on your wedding day is deeply questionable. Nor is the promise of paradise in the form of 72 virgins for martyrs carrying out the most extreme actions of the jihad ethically acceptable. In the end, despite any veneer of tolerance, these religions all ultimately claim the last word of God and are fundamentalist in this way. Sure, worship whomever you want, but you’ll be going to a hot place for eternity. Increasingly, young people simply do not resonate with this dogmatism.

Still, however, because we see many of the same universal truths posited in all religions and, also, because people of every faith have all claimed spiritual epiphanies experienced within the context of their own faith, this consilience suggests that there is some moral and ethical structure that occurs prior to the existence of religion. There is a basic and universal human intuition that recognizes compassion, love, empathy, charity and forgiveness as perennial virtues.

As we hurtle into a post-religious society, cohering around a reliable moral and ethical structure that does not devolve into relativism will be a formidable, if exhilarating, challenge. In the absence of religion (or, at least, one dominant faith), the future of how we differentiate between proper and improper decisions and actions may emerge from community, from how we co-exist and thrive together. And, in the United States, the way we live together will be increasingly secular and multi-racial.

What if our fundamental understanding of “spiritual” truths like equality, empathy, love and compassion was not Judeo-Christian (or based in any religious doctrine), but, instead, essentially human? Or perhaps intrinsically American, in its highest incarnation?

Identifying on the basis of race or religion can inform a sense of self, proudly connect us to a culture and a community, but, even in its best effect, it more often separates us. As the melting pot simmers and churns and institutional religion declines, race and faith will become less determinant in how we self-identify. This is where community and, by extension, nationhood, may become more important and central in the establishment of our identity and moral structures.

In trying to envision the future, messages in bottles can often provide clues. 70 millennia ago, homo sapiens experienced a near-extinction level event. It is posited that the Toba volcano super-erupted in Indonesia spewing forth tons of ash, creating a cooling effect on an already cold earth. There is evidence that the average temperature dropped 20-plus degrees in some locations and the great grassy plains of Africa significantly receded. This disaster decimated the human population as hominids retreated back to East Africa. It is speculated that the human population was reduced to a couple thousand bedraggled foragers.

In his brilliant book Tribe, Sebastian Junger describes the propensity of humans to profoundly bond together in disastrous times. Few instances could have been more devastating than the Toba eruption. From the brink of extinction, humans forged cooperative systems, found common ethical frameworks and slowly repopulated over ten thousand years. This period in history could be considered pre-racial and pre-religious (though undoubtedly there were local deities).

The human population dwindled to such an extent that it created a genetic bottleneck, a drastic narrowing of diversity, that extends into the present-day. Though we often focus on what divides us, genetically, we are all incredibly similar.

From this pre-racial, pre-religious society of a couple thousand people 70,000 years ago to a multi-racial, secular society of 10 billion in 2050, the challenge remains similar: How do we develop moral and ethical frameworks to guide the development of the systems and structures in which we live?

Expanding the marketplace of ideas and ethics to equally include a variety of cultures, races and traditions should yield, from a purely evolutionary perspective, better philosophies and stronger social cohesion versus a society that requires assimilation into one dominant culture.

In many ways, the vision of a post-racial society uncompromised by institutional dogma holds great utopian promise. Imagine the sense of common purpose and shared humanity in a world where skin color and religious fealty were increasingly irrelevant. At the same time, it’s also easy to envision the dystopic opposite. In a world of escalating population, diminishing resources and looming climate catastrophe, we might further bunker into competitive tribes vying for limited supplies.

Let us assume for a moment that a moral universe would yield the greatest possible flourishing of well-being (freedom, shelter, health, belonging, purpose) and minimize suffering (famine, disease, needless pain, war). This proposition emerges from consciousness as a moral intuition that is arguably universally acceptable. Can social science provide us with the empirical data that in conjunction with this moral intuition guides our behaviors and actions towards a global efflorescence of well-being? It may be that an alloying of morality and science can inform a New Enlightenment that leverages technology for the purposes of maximizing global well-being instead of corporate profits.

Science and technology will certainly be the prime drivers of the future and their ethical application will be of growing and paramount importance. Science, by its nature, must maintain value neutrality in order to be beneficial and has, to date, offered little usefulness as a framework for ethics. Perhaps the emergence of morality as a science itself, as Sam Harris posits in The Moral Landscape, can light the way forward. Whatever the case, this New Enlightenment must equally value reason and ethics if we are to instantiate a just society.

I know that as a meditator I should focus on the present moment but I can’t help but project into the future. In 2050, assuming we make it there, I’ll hopefully be in a corner somewhere, stuffed into a rocking chair, experiencing the transitory phenomena of howling grandchildren. But my daughters will be 46, 43 and 40, in the crosshairs of life. And I deeply care about what the human condition looks like, not just for my own children, but for everyone’s.

Kamala Harris is a bridge into that future. How fast we get there will depend, in some measure, on how many of us follow her across this current passage. I can say, as a proud American mutt, I am willing and ready.

In gratitude,
Jeff

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