Coming Soon: The Museum of Me

In another bow to ethnic division, on June 13, 2022, President Biden signed into law a bill (H.R.3525) authorizing a commission to build a possible National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) museum in Washington, D.C.

Introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York) in May 2021, the bipartisan bill cleared the House on April 26 and the Senate on May 18, both by unanimous consent.

The signing was couched as a way to counter Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remaining on the margins of American education, with little mention in classes beyond the topics of Pearl Harbor, immigration and the U.S.’s territorial interests in the Pacific. A museum would be key to combating the stereotypes and misconceptions that drive anti-AAPI discrimination, supporters say.

If built, an AAPI Museum would follow on the National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2016.

It would also supplement the National Museum of the American Latino. Legislation calling for the Smithsonian to establish that museum passed in Dec. 2020.  “The new museum will be the cornerstone for visitors to learn how Latinos have contributed and continue to contribute to U.S. art, history, culture, and science.,” according to the Smithsonian. “Additionally, it will serve as a gateway to exhibitions, collections, and programming at other Smithsonian museums, research centers, and traveling exhibition services.”

At the rate things are going, today’s pandering politicians, who, as Blake Smith, says, eagerly “offer cultural victories instead of substantive ones,” will eventually advocate the creation of museums for every single ethnic group in America. Where they will be put in an already crowded mall is unknown. 

Some might argue that recognition of America’s diversity through such museums is a good thing. I’d offer a “Yes, but”… There’s no question that education about our multifaceted country can combat stereotypes and misconceptions, but excessive focus on identity is not such a good thing when it exacerbates divisiveness and encourage a splintering of the populace.

Oregon’s new K-12 Ethnic Studies standards, for example, were well-intentioned, but are a prime example of identity politics run amok. 

Kindergarten Standards, for example, include the following: *Describe how individual and group characteristics are used to divide, unite and categorize racial, ethnic, and social groups” and *Develop an understanding of one’s own identity groups including, but not limited to, race, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion, and ability.” Good grief!

Colt Gill, the Director of the Oregon Department of Education, clearly sees the K-12 education universe as nothing more than an assemblage of distinct and maligned minorities. This is the kind of identity politics that foments perilous division of our state and our country. Rather than emphasizing common values and interest, Gill’s identity politics stresses differences and creates a feeling of ‘zero-sum’ competition between groups. 

One problem with this kind of identify politics is that it leads to even more minority designations. “Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition,” says Amy Chua in Political Tribes.

And that leads to an AAPI Museum.

As for highlighting Asian Americans with a new museum, one problem is they are far from a monolith. Instead, they have a complex history and cultures.  Even the term “Asian American” encompasses dozens of ethnic groups of Asian descent. Just Southeast Asians, for example, includes Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Burmese, Indonesian and Malaysian. 

 An analysis from Common App, a nonprofit that allows prospective students to apply to more than 1,000 member colleges using one application, noted that the term Asian American can refer to around 50 ethnic groups. “While Asian American was a term established by activists in the 1960s as a means to build political power, it’s also been criticized for obscuring the immense diversity among those it purports to cover…,” notes a Vox article, part of an Asian American identity series.

The analysis also points out a “prominent shortcoming” of the “Hispanic” category for completely concealing the racial identities of its members. The analysis found that, in 2021, half of the applicants identified as white.

What are craven politicians going to endorse next? A German Museum and an Irish Museum? The high immigration numbers in the 1800s were largely fueled by Irish and German immigrants.  A Hungarian Museum? The Hungarian revolution in 1956 led to a burst of Hungarian refugees coming to the United States, including some families who settled in my hometown in Connecticut. Maybe an Eastern European Museum?

The 1959 Cuban revolution drove hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the United States. Given their concentration in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other politicians seeking the Cuban vote could probably be counted on to endorse a Cuban Museum on the National Mall.

The way things are going, we’ll end up with a Museum of Me. Or a Museum of You.

Want to see where identity politics is taking us?

Tucked into the massive year-end deal President Trump finally signed to fund the government and coronavirus relief are provisions to fund a National Museum of the American Latino and an American Women’s History Museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution. They will supplement more than 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo the Smithsonian Institution already operates.

At some point, I guess, every sliver of the American population is going to get its own Smithsonian museum. 

At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama declared, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” Not so much now. 

Now we are more a fragmented America that has shifted away from inclusion to exclusion and the proliferation of group identities. Maybe the members of each segmented group feel better about themselves, but it’s at the expense of national cohesion and productive discourse and too often leads to multiple categories of aggrieved, mutually antagonistic people. 

Look at how identity fixation has already led to unwarranted minor and extreme accusations of cultural appropriation and the obscene cancelling of people caught in the spotlight.

“Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole,” wrote Francis Fukuyama, a prominent American writer and political theorist. “This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure.”

After we build American Latino and Women’s museums, are we going to be pressured to build separate museums honoring the contributions of German, Polish, Irish, French, Scottish, Puerto Rican, Dutch, Swedish, Chinese, Russian, Filipino, and Norwegian Americans? How about the contributions of men, the disabled or other yet-to-be-contrived categories of people?

There are already 11 Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries at the National Mall in Washington D.C., so finding space for two more on the mall will be hard. Finding room for 15 more will be impossible.

But arguing against more identity museums will be hard in the current climate, partly because politicians see advantage in pandering to special interests.. 

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to kill funding for the new American Latino and Women’s museums. “The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups,”” he said. “At this moment in the history of our diverse nation, we need our federal government and the Smithsonian Institution itself to pull us closer together and not further apart.”

His objection was met with withering criticism by other members from both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) responded with high dudgeon, calling Lee’s objections to the Latino museum  “outrageous,” and saying Lee “…stands in the way of the hopes and dreams and aspirations of seeing Americans of Latino descent having their dreams fulfilled and being recognized.” 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) slammed Lee for trying to block a women’s museum “in a year where we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.” 

Members also cited the conclusion of a congressional commission formed to study the potential for an American museum of women’s history that, “America needs and deserves a physical national museum dedicated to showcasing the historical experiences and impact of women in this country.”

In the end, funding for both museums came through. Expected to stand on or near the National Mall, the proposed museums will be the first to join the Smithsonian since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016.  

But will they really be cause for celebration?