On Assimilation, Debating, and Charges of Bigotry

by Conor Friedersdorf

In a characteristically smart post, Ross Douthat responds to my critique of his column. I'm grateful that he's taken the time to do so, and I regret it if I misunderstood part of his position in my earlier post.

He writes:

I don’t think we need to tolerate crude xenophobia; indeed, my point in using terms like “crude” and “xenophobia” was to suggest that a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the mosque has been ugly and inappropriate. I do think, though, that we need to recognize that 1) the line between positive assimilationism and unpleasant nativism isn’t nearly as clean in practice as it is in theory, and 2) that just because there are xenophobes on one side of a particular debate doesn’t mean that you can discount everything that side has to say.

On these points, we're in agreement, and I've tried to highlight responsible arguments from folks on the other side of the mosque issue, whether Rod Dreher's attempt to tease out the factors that explain why people have reacted to it so differently, or Claire Berlinski's efforts to ask tough questions about Imam Rauf and his approach to bridge-building. In case it isn't clear, I also think that Mr. Douthat's writing on assimilation is an invaluable addition to the debate -- basically everything he writes is -- even if we aren't in agreement.

Agreeing with my thoughts on immigrants to America and the English language, Mr. Douthat points out that some people would denounce them as bigoted, as they did during the California fight against bilingual education. In my work on immigration, including long ago columns on that very issue, I've always had success articulating even some restrictionist viewpoints without being called a bigot. I like to think that's largely because I don't bear any animosity to immigrants, and my tone reflects that (though it probably helps that I also advocate higher levels of legal immigration, and eventual amnesty for folks already here).  I've certainly defended others when they were accused unfairly of bigotry, so I join Mr. Douthat in objecting to that kind of thing, and I do think that due to his higher profile and religiosity, he is unfairly called a bigot more often than I am, always undeservedly. Tellingly, his least fair critics haven't exactly succeeded in keeping him down!

It's also important for anyone who writes about identity issues to keep open the possibility that they innocently harbor some assumption or opinion that on reflection is prejudicial, so I wouldn't want to stop my critics from earnestly saying (even if they're wrong), "Conor, I don't think you're a bigot, but this position you're arguing is prejudicial." I think a lot of these discussions would go better if the emphasis was on attacking viewpoints rather than people. In the mosque debate, I think a lot of decent Americans have offensive positions, and it shouldn't be verboten to say so, however much we loath the use accusations of racism as a cynical cudgel.

Mr. Douthat writes:

How do you draw the line between good social pressure and bad intimidation, a healthy opprobrium and an unhealthy discrimination? I don’t think it’s nearly as easy as Friedersdorf thinks. Any standard and/or stigma can and will be abused. But if you only focus on the abuses, you risk ignoring the benefits of having standards in the first place.  

Lines are drawn, whether easily or with difficulty, by arguing about them -- and naturally, I don't think our focus should only be on nativist abuses, though I do think it's appropriate to emphasize those abuses amid a heated controversy where lots of prominent media figures get the facts wrong in a way that reflects badly on a vulnerable religious minority, and high profile politicians are advocating that members of that minority be denied their constitutional rights.

Mr. Douthat says that "the attitude of nearly every liberal and libertarian commentator seems to be, 'bigots oppose it, therefore it must be a good idea.'" In fact, lots of liberal and libertarian commentators are making more far-reaching arguments -- some like Jeffrey Goldberg have provided compelling evidence that Imam Rauf is a courageous moderate; others like Gene Healy argue that the issue is a red herring largely ginned up by cynical elites; lots of people have tried to refute specific arguments about why the mosque is a bad idea; and I think the general libertarian/liberal line on this is better summed up as, "whether it's construction is a 'good idea' or not is open to debate, but it's a third order concern amid a controversy where factually inaccurate scare-mongering and an actual backlash against Muslim Americans is afoot, so we're going to focus on incendiary elites who are irresponsibly provoking a culture clash."

After articulating some legitimate questions for Imam Rauf, Mr. Douthat writes:

At its best, the challenge-response dynamic sets in motion a virtuous cycle, in which new-arriving groups (whether Muslim or Catholic or something else entirely) are expected to be sensitive to American values and concerns, and by showing sensitivity, they defuse prejudice, and on it goes until they aren’t considered “new” anymore, but just American. Overall, this process has been working quite well with Muslim immigrants across the last few decades but one reason it’s worked so well is because of precisely the kind of cultural expectations that Feisal Abdul Rauf has lately run afoul of.

Yes, Imam Rauf should be engaged and legitimately challenged -- though neither he nor his congregation is a "new-arriving group" -- but it is possible to participate in legitimate engagement and call out anti-Muslim bigotry. Both projects are important. For reasons I've already articulated, I think the latter project is more urgent in this particular controversy (though I've engaged myself in both).

I don't see how legitimate questions about Imam Rauf's beliefs about Hamas or Iranian theocracy, the kinds of questions I also want explored, are at all implicated in the controversy about whether the Cordoba Initiative's community center should be built two blocks from Ground Zero, as planned, or elsewhere in Manhattan, as its critics are demanding. Even if you think that demands for it to move are emotionally understandable, they are also irrational if your concern is the assimilation of its congregation. That aspect of the controversy -- that is to say, the main focus -- is therefore a poor example of "a challenge-response dynamic at its best."

Mr. Douthat is nevertheless right that the weakness of that position shouldn't cause us to dismiss every argument made by all mosque opponents. Neither should folks who are against the mosque be so sensitive about the forceful disagreement of their fellow Americans, and criticism of people on their side. You might even say that at its best, this challenge-response dynamic sets in motion a virtuous cycle, in which critics of minority religious groups are expected to be sensitive to American values and concerns, and by showing sensitivity, they defuse prejudice.