by Conor Friedersdorf
One objection I have to Ross Douthat's recent work on assimilation is the way his division of America into two camps creates a false choice for those of us trying to grapple with the best way forward in a multi-ethnic nation of immigrants.
Let's revisit the conceit as he articulates it in his column:
There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.
But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly...
The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics. But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success.
The implication here, perhaps unintended, is that Americans should tolerate crude xenophobia from their fellow citizens, however ugly it may sound, because it is a necessary driver of the assimilation that helps the American project to succeed. But this misunderstands the nature of the wisdom that is supposedly missed by the first America, and known to the second: that some minimum of cultural cohesion is a necessary part of every society. If you believe that to be true, as I do (along with most but not all members of blue America) surely it is possible to encourage it without trampling on the rights or dignity of newcomers, or modifying their behavior through nativist intimidation.
It is telling that many millions of Americans manage to participate in this project, and they don't seem to fit inside the column's frame. In Embattled Dreams, Kevin Starr's book about World War II era California, one striking scene takes us inside the Japanese internment camps, where the American born adolescents of Japanese immigrants are re-forming the Boy Scout troops they belonged to prior to being rounded up and relocated. In prior years, the work of cultural assimilation had been done by people like a troop leader who welcomed his son's Japanese American friend into the fold, the Japan born parents who felt comfortable enough with their son's acculturation to let him participate, and the troop camping trip where parents of various backgrounds socialized.