TIME U.S.

How LeBron James Is Just Like Us

Miami Heat
Miami Heat's LeBron James talks with the media during a press conference at the AmericanAirlines Arena on June 17, 2014, in Miami. Miami Herald—MCT via Getty Images

The NBA player faced that excruciating tension that comes with modern mobility: choosing between home and opportunity.

Every schoolchild in America should have to read LeBron James’ marvelously hokey essay in Sports Illustrated explaining why he’s going home to northeast Ohio. Before that, of course, they should watch a brief clip of 2010’s infamous The Decision special on ESPN. Four years ago this month, the NBA superstar announced he was leaving Cleveland and “taking [his] talents to South Beach” where he thought he would have the best “opportunity” to win championships.

In one simple, 6’8” lesson, attentive students would grasp a fundamental tension that lies at the core of American history and culture: the conflict between the comfort of home and the lure of one’s dreams.

We Americans still like to think of our country as full of new beginnings, what sociologist Philip Slater once called “a culture of becoming.” Our uniqueness, as Slater put it, has always been “in our aptitude for change and our willingness to engage in continual self-creation.”

But a country that prides itself on its mobility—geographic, economic and otherwise—is, by definition, built on a foundation of painful separations, discarded identities and homesickness.

When James left Cleveland to win championships elsewhere, he was labeled a shallow, narcissistic ingrate who was turning his back on the people who had raised and nurtured him. Much of the country seemed to agree. But in his letter explaining why he’s returning to Cleveland, James took great pains to declare that home and family were more important to him now than professional success. He mused about the importance of raising his family in his hometown of Akron, 40 minutes south of Cleveland. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” he wrote.

I suppose all cultures sanctify the home, but Americans need to add that extra dose of schmaltz. If James’ experience tells us anything, it’s that—myths aside—following your dreams always has come at personal cost.

In our cultural imagination, “home sweet home” is where our genuine selves reside. Once we venture beyond its radius, beyond the roles ascribed to us by birth, we risk being accused of trying to be something that we’re not. We commonly employ terms like “wannabe,” “poseur,” “social climber,” and “sellout” to keep people in their place.

It turns out that the very concept of an authentic self is a product of modern mobility.

The idea emerged in Europe in the 16th Century with the end of feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist economy. Suddenly it became possible for more and more people to leave the place and class in which they were born. In new urban environments with mixed populations, people were no longer sure where they belonged in society or how they should relate to their neighbors. “The pleasures and possibilities of social mobility,” Boston University anthropologist Charles Lindholm has written, “coincided with potentials for guile and deceit.” In a world where former inferiors could pretend to outrank you, you put a premium on people’s ability to honestly declare who they really were.

For the longest time, Mexicans who chose to remain in their home country viewed emigrants to the U.S. with a mixture of admiration, resentment and envy. They used a derogatory term for their U.S.-born cousins that meant something like “watered-down Mexican” and suggested these Americanized relatives had cashed in their culture for material possessions.

In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes of the pressure many black migrants to the North felt when they made return visits to their family and friends who remained in the South. Her own mother worried about appearances as she drove back to her hometown of Rome, Georgia, in her brand-new 1956 Pontiac. “No migrant could, none would dare let on that their new life was anything less than perfect,” she wrote. “They had to prove that their decision to go north was the superior and right thing to do.”

If the expectations and resentment of others weren’t enough, those who’ve gone off to seek better lives have always been susceptible to the scourge of loneliness. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, American doctors widely acknowledged and took homesickness seriously, according to Weber State University historian Susan G. Matt. Newspapers published the tragic stories—and sometimes letters—of migrants who suffered from nostalgia, as homesickness was then called. In 1887, a 42-year-old Irish priest, J.M. McHale, reportedly fell ill not long after arriving in New York. “I cannot eat; my heart is breaking. … I am homesick,” he is quoted as saying. “My dear country, I will never set foot on your green shores again. Oh my mother how I long to see you.” Shortly after this proclamation, he lost consciousness and died. Nostalgia was listed as the cause of death.

Throughout the 20th Century, scholars documented the psychological pressures of socioeconomic mobility. In 1956, University of Chicago sociologist Peter M. Blau concluded that the upwardly mobile can suffer from having to “choose between abandoning hope of translating his occupational success into social acceptance” by his new peer group and “sacrificing valued social ties and customs” of the peers he grew up with. In 1973, University of North Dakota sociologist Alfred M. Mirande found that “upwardly mobile persons are relatively isolated from kin and friends, while downwardly mobile person have the highest level of kinship participation and are not isolated from friends.”

Today, despite the triumph of global capitalism, an individual’s origins are still seen as the source of their authentic selves while their aspirational selves are vulnerable to accusations of phoniness.

The Pew Research Center’s 2008 study on American mobility found that most Americans have moved to a new community at least once. Jobs and business opportunities are the most frequently cited reasons people give for moving today. By contrast, three-quarters of those who have remained in their hometowns their entire lives cite the pull of family ties as the main reason for staying put.

LeBron James, while a whole lot wealthier than the rest of us, faced the same dilemma as millions of Americans, past and present. That excruciating tension between the tug of home and the allure of opportunity has been central to so many family dramas and the source of so much resentment and guilt. After more than two centuries of mobility, maybe what all Americans need are those t-shirts you see fans wearing in Cleveland. You know, the ones that say “Forgiven.”

Gregory Rodriguez is publisher of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Imperfect Union column. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME U.S.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour December 19, 2005 in New York City.
Commuters pass through Grand Central Terminal during morning rush hour December 19, 2005 in New York City. Mario Tama—Getty Images

Thinking about difference works our brains by questioning our worldviews, beliefs and institutions.

An Irishman, a Jew and a Mexican walk into a bar. It’s a classic set-up line for a classic American joke. But it’s also a means of coping with our diversity.

We need such jokes. Despite all our slogans to the contrary, diversity such as ours isn’t always easy to negotiate. Humor is just one of the ways Americans navigate, narrate, expose and otherwise unburden ourselves of the absurdities and pitfalls of living in such a complicated place.

Eight years ago, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam released a now famous study concluding that diversity lowers social trust. Those of us living in ethnically diverse settings, the study found, “tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity” and to spend more time sitting in front of the television.

But Putnam didn’t explore the other side of that coin: how millions of us manage to overcome the social distrust that diversity can foster.

I have a devout Nicaraguan-born friend who lives in California’s Bay Area. She likes to say that practicing Catholicism would be so much easier had she stayed in the country of her birth. Here in the U.S., she’s a member of a diverse congregation made up of Filipinos, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and a few older Anglos and African-Americans. Recently, the priest asked the congregation to vote on which devotional figure they should install in the church first. Most Nicaraguan Catholics maintain a special devotion to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Mexicans are partial to the Virgin of Guadalupe, while Filipinos venerate the Holy Child of Atocha. My friend was obliged to sift through her feelings about her tradition and others, as well as to consider what she thought was fair and best for the common good. In the end, she voted for the Holy Child of Atocha, mostly because of how impressed she’s always been by the dedication of her congregation’s Filipinos, who show up even to services that compete with big sporting events.

In more homogenous parishes, towns, states and countries, residents don’t have to do this extra thinking. The way things are is so self-evident that they don’t require a second thought.

Diversity, however, requires second thoughts.

Because of our long history of immigration, this extra thinking has been commonplace in American life. The late historian Timothy L. Smith famously called migration to the U.S. a “theologizing experience” that forced newcomers into the existential dilemma of having to “determine how to act in these new circumstances by reference not simply to a dominant ‘host’ culture but to a dozen competing subcultures, all of which were in the process of adjustment.”

This burden—of having to find your place in a landscape both shifting and unfamiliar—has played a powerful role in forging both the American character and our institutions. I’m no linguist, but I suspect it explains the very direct manner of speech that Americans are known for around the world. Diversity and continuous migration—both foreign and domestic—make it difficult to forge a long-lived unspoken cultural consensus. In its absence, people must articulate their positions in as straightforward a way as possible to avoid misinterpretation.

Despite the fact that diversity is so central to the American condition, scholars who’ve studied the cognitive effects of diversity have long made the mistake of treating homogeneity as the norm. Only this year did a group of researchers from MIT, Columbia University and Northwestern University publish a paper questioning the conventional wisdom that homogeneity represents some kind of objective baseline for comparison or “neutral indicator of the ideal response in a group setting.”

To bolster their argument, the researchers cite a previous study that found that members of homogenous groups tasked with solving a mystery tend to be more confident in their problem-solving skills than their performance actually merits. By contrast, the confidence level of individuals in diverse groups corresponds better with how well their group actually performs. The authors concluded that homogenous groups “were actually further than diverse groups from an objective index of accuracy” and that people in diverse groups “are more likely to step outside their own perspective and less likely to instinctively impute their own knowledge onto others” than people in homogenous groups.

So it should follow that operating in a diverse environment makes you smarter. Not that that makes it any easier. Diversity doesn’t require us simply to learn how to celebrate our differences. It requires us to tax our brains by questioning our worldviews, our beliefs and our institutions. American ingenuity isn’t simply born of the fusion of peoples into your favorite metaphor for mixture. Whether we realize it or not, it’s the good-humored hard work of living with people different from us that has always been the source of America’s genius.

Gregory Rodriguez is the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME

How Genealogy Became Almost as Popular as Porn

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Andrew Bret Wallis—Getty Images

Believe it or not, Americans are obsessed with ancestry, which has spawned a billion-dollar cottage industry

Alex Haley, author of the hugely popular 1976 book Roots, once said that black Americans needed their own version of Plymouth Rock, a genesis story that didn’t begin — or end — at slavery. His 900-page American family saga, which reached back to 18th century Gambia, certainly delivered on that. But it also shared with all Americans the emotional and intellectual rewards that can come with discovering the identity of your ancestors.

No one knew it at the time, but Haley’s best seller — and the blockbuster television miniseries that aired a year later — were the beginnings of a genealogy craze that would sweep the nation.

Four decades later, genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening, according to ABC News, and the second most visited category of websites, after pornography. It’s a billion-dollar industry that has spawned profitable websites, television shows, scores of books and — with the advent of over-the-counter genetic test kits — a cottage industry in DNA ancestry testing.

During and after the 2008 presidential campaign, the press had a field day researching the family histories of Barack and Michelle Obama. Indeed, the winner of that election first came to the public eye as the author of Dreams From My Father, what he called an “autobiography, memoir, family history, or something else” that was essentially the tale of a young man desperately trying to find his own identity by exploring his unknown family past.

Genealogy has always had a following in the U.S. But prior to the civil rights movement, which encouraged racial and ethnic minorities to embrace their previously marginalized identities, the study of family history was largely the province of white social climbers and racists. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with millions of southern Europeans arriving on American shores, white elites often sought to maintain their social status by promoting a definition of whiteness that excluded newcomers. Genealogy became a way for them to prove their credentials and gain entry into such hereditary societies as the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was founded in 1890 and stood for, in the words of its president general, “the purity of our Caucasian blood.”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, such bald-faced white supremacy was in retreat, the vibrant immigrant identities of the early 20th century had largely been assimilated, and the women’s movement was challenging old-fashioned gender roles. In other words: the very institutions that once defined our ancestors’ identities were very much in flux.

All this tumult is what made identity crisis and finding yourself household terms. The publication, production and popularity of Roots were part and parcel of a newfound need to locate oneself in uncertain cultural terrain.

The great irony is that many Americans — particularly those who were several generations removed from the immigrant experience — were trying to find personal meaning in their ancestry long after their heritage ceased to play a meaningful role in their lives. In 1986 psychologist Roy F. Baumeister concluded rather cynically that genealogy’s popularity stemmed from the fact that it was the only “quest for self-knowledge” that boasted a “well-defined method,” whose “techniques were clear cut, a matter of definite questions with definite answers.”

Religion and technology helped make the search for those answers even easier. In the 1960s, the Mormon Church — which espouses the doctrine of baptism of the dead by proxy and encourages its members to research their unbaptized ancestors — opened branch genealogical libraries throughout the country. In the 1970s, these libraries began to receive more and more non-Mormon patrons.

In the 1990s, digital technology and the Internet revolutionized the way large amounts of information could be reproduced, transferred and retrieved. Moving genealogical databases online then made it possible for tens of millions more Americans to research their families in the comfort of their own homes. A hobby once dominated by persnickety elites was now fully democratized and focused on identity rather than pedigree.

A few years ago, my father spent a year researching his family roots. At the end of his journey, he presented each of his children with an ornate album containing his findings, which reach back to the early 18th century in what is today Chihuahua, Mexico.

While I admired the work he’d done and thought most of what he’d found pretty cool, none of it struck me as having the power to change the way I saw myself in the world. But that was before I looked more closely at the photocopy from the 1900 census he had placed under a laminated sheet. It was then that I discovered that my great-grandfather Federico Rodriguez, who worked as a smelter in a large copper mine in eastern Arizona, had arrived in the U.S. as early as 1893. Before, I had thought both my mother’s and father’s families came to the U.S. in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. We hadn’t known much about the paternal side of my dad’s family.

But suddenly, there it was: proof that my dad’s grandfather was living and working and raising a family in Arizona 19 years before it became a state of the Union.

It’s silly, I know, but every time I fly to the Grand Canyon State, I’m tempted to get off the plane wearing one of those black Pilgrim hats with buckles. Now I understand why so many millions of Americans love it. Genealogy is fun.

Gregory Rodriguez is the founder and publisher of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Imperfect Union column. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME U.S.

Memorial Day Should Be About Forgetting

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VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm—Getty Images

We need to move beyond the brutality of history, and that's where backyard barbecues come in as a building block of national morale.

Memorial Day is one of America’s most confusing holidays. Depending on the celebrant, it can be a day of grief, glory—or backyard barbecues.

It’s not a bad thing to have such disparate takes on a day of remembrance. And don’t worry: You’re not a bad person if you choose to sit back and enjoy your day off. But sometimes it pays to think about why we get the day off in the first place and ponder the mysterious forces that bind hot dogs, tears, and flags all together.

Decoration Day, as the holiday was once known, arose in the years after the Civil War as a way to grieve for the 750,000 soldiers who had perished over four bloody years. Families who stifled their mourning during wartime sought public ways to pay tribute to the fallen in peacetime. Understandably, graves become a focus for the bereaved, and mourners took flowers to cemeteries to decorate them.

This practice first received semi-official sanction in 1868 when General John Alexander Logan, the head of a large fraternal organization of Union veterans, designated a day each year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Southerners didn’t take too kindly to this initial effort, but by 1890 all the Northern states had recognized the holiday.

This emphasis on the Northern dead wasn’t just born of sectional spite. The ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of men to preserve the Union elevated the value of the nation to its citizens. Lacking the traditional building blocks of other nations (such as centuries of shared history on the land or ancient blood ties), the U.S. had long had a difficult time forging a unifying national culture. The idealistic nature of American nationhood left people hungry for a more flesh-and-blood connection to their country.

It was the Union dead who first seemed to prove that America was more than a mere idea. “Before the War our patriotism was a firework, a salute, a serenade for holidays and summer evenings,” wrote essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1864. “Now the deaths of thousands and the determination of millions of men and women show that it is real.”

James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, thought that the enormity of the Union Army’s sacrifice also proved something to condescending Europeans. “Till after our Civil War,” he wrote in 1869, “it never seemed to enter the head of any foreigner, especially of any Englishman, that an American had what could be called a country, except as a place to eat, sleep, and trade in. Then it seemed to strike them suddenly. ‘By Jove, you know, fellahs don’t fight like that for a shop-till!’”

The holiday overcame sectional tensions around World War I, when Southerners—though many still revered the heroes of their Lost Cause—rejoined the fold, and the day’s scope was expanded to honor Americans who died fighting in any U.S war. Commemorating the fallen is one way that governments rebuild the morale of nations that have suffered great loss. Even in victory, losses are real to families, and depictions of a triumphant nation thankful for its heroes can be comforting to a populace trying to move forward. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial—which was unveiled in 1954 in Arlington, Virginia, and shows five Marines and a Navy corpsman hoisting the American flag during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II—is the quintessential depiction of perseverance and a classic commemoration of war.

But in the aftermath of no war do grief and glory intersect seamlessly. The needs of the state, bereaved families, and surviving veterans do not always coincide. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, Indiana University historian John Bodnar describes the main sides of the late 1970s and early 1980s controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the one side, he writes, were national leaders, many patriotic veterans, and private citizens “who saw in the monument a device that would foster national unity and patriotism.” On the other were veterans who fought in Vietnam, people who cared about them, and bereaved families who were less interested in the memorial being a display of unity or patriotism than an expression of empathy for the soldiers who suffered and died. Empathy is paramount to the monument that was ultimately erected. The memorial—with the names of the fallen etched into black granite walls that sink into the National Mall—wound up symbolizing, in Bodnar’s words, “the human pain and sorrow of war rather than the valor and glory of warriors and nations.”

The annual Memorial Day holiday doesn’t elicit the same depth of emotional intensity as the planning of a permanent, national war memorial. But the interplay between grief and glory is ongoing. The politics and public reaction to war is ever-changing, and families who have lost soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are likely to observe the day differently than somebody who has not had a relative in uniform since the Korean War.

Memorial Day also has divided the public in another way: between those who chose to observe the holiday and those who saw it as a chance for leisure time. While there’s no way to accurately estimate the size of each group, historians Richard P. Harmond and Thomas J. Curran suggest it’s likely that the latter always has been larger than the former. And that gap is probably growing wider.

Rather than harangue about some presumed decline of patriotism or gratitude in America, I’d suggest that backyard barbecues are also fundamental to Memorial Day’s building of national morale. Yes, it is absolutely critical to remember the fallen and the wars they died in. But, as the 19th-century French scholar Ernest Renan argued, forgetting is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” We also need to move beyond old divisions and the brutality of history. That, my fellow Americans, is where the hot dogs come in.

Gregory Rodriguez is the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

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