September 23, 2005

Assimilation in the UK -- Some American Lessons

David Goodhart has an interesting essay in the current Spectator (registration required) on the difficulties leftists have with the whole idea that there is a balance between immigration and social cohesion. Following the 7/7 attacks on London by second-generation immigrants who seemed to be assimilated to British culture, this assumption is getting a re-examination in some (but not all) quarters in the UK. It would be useful for Brits thinking this through to examine more closely the experience that the USA, Canada, and Australia have had with immigration and assimilation.

Many Brits assume, for example, that the distinctive features of American patriotic observance have been around since the Revolution. In some cases, this is true: the folk-observances around the Stars and Stripes began as part of the process of finding new substitutes for the symbolism previously centering around the Crown. Much of the elaborate flag ritual that has grown up was copied from Masonic ritual, which was widely known in the Revolutionary period.

However, many other features, such as the Pledge of Allegiance, many of the patriotic songs and poems, and the emergence of a concept of "Americanism" arose in the period roughly from 1880 to 1920. Much of his was a deliberate response to the stresses of first the Civil War, and secondly the widespread violence of the labor strife that accompanied the Industrial revolution. Much of this labor violence involved first-generation immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, a fact of great concern to many. The American political nation in 1776 was overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and English-speaking. (There were plenty of non-white Americans, but few of them had access to the political system, of course. The story of their entry into the American political nation is a different tale.) All of the major immigrant groups from independence through the 1880s possessed at least two out of those three qualifications -- Germans had an alien language and political tradition, but most of the early waves were Protestants; the Irish were Catholic, but they came from an English-speaking political system (even the Gaelic-speaking ones) and already knew about juries, sheriffs, bailiffs, and counties, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had pointed out. Thus the Irish entered American political life more quickly than many of the non-English-speaking Protestant immigrant groups.

After that date, however, Americans were faced with a wave of immigrants who came from authoritarian empires with no tradition of self-government, spoke obscure and difficult languages, and who were Catholic or even Eastern Orthodox. Furthermore, these "unpronouncable" names kept showing up in accounts of labor violence, culminating in the assassination of President McKinley by one Leon Czolgocz.

Czolgocz, however, was not fresh off the boat. He was in fact a second-generation Polish-American, who had grown up in reasonable comfort, had been educated in American schools and spoke English as his first, native language. Feeling alienated in his late teens and early twenties, he started hanging around anarchist labor groups, who in turn thought he was wierd and suspected him of being a police agent. In many ways, Czolgocz was the turn-of-the-century equivalent of the Yorkshire jihadists of 7/7.

Americans went through the same sort of shock as a result of these experiences as the British are beginning to do now. As a result, a movement began to actively promote assimilation, both through social work designed to improve the physical conditions of the immigrants, and education and propaganda designed to promote their psychological integration into the body politic. Many of the institutions that British observers have found "over the top" in American life are a result of these largely successful campaigns. From mandatory flag salutes and Pledges of Allegience in schools to the elaborate uniforms of state policemen, these have become part of the look and feel of American life and our national narrative.

(The state police uniforms came about after a commission of inquiry into a bloody bout of labor violence in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. The commissioners found that many of the strikers were immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and expected police to have gaudy and impressive uniforms. American lawmen of that period outside of the big cities tended to wear ordinary civilian clothes with perhaps a badge, and this was especially true of the special deputies recruited for labor strike duties. Many of the immigrant strikers had not even been aware that the deputies were official police, and had assumed they were thugs hired by the employers. Of course in those days the difference was often slim. But in any event, a specially-trained constabulary was created in Pennsylvania, which became the State Police, and care was taken to give them an impressive uniform -- the "Smokey-the-Bear" look. This established the tradition for American state police forces ever after.)

If Britain wishes to continue to host immigrants, it will need to look closely at the experiences of the USA, Canada, and Australia, and decide what to copy and what to pass on. I don't know what they will ultimately choose to do, but they should be aware that others have dealt with this issue before, and that the issue did not just resolve itself -- it took a lot of work, and the means by which it was accomplished have become such a part of everyday life that their origins have in many cases been forgotten.

Posted by Jim Bennett at September 23, 2005 04:59 PM

Another thing about the State Police, they were usually recruited from "downstate", i.e. whatever part of the state was away from the big city where the immigrant strikers were. Since the local cops were neighbors and relatives of striking laborers and routinely took the side of the laborers against the factory or mine or railroad owners. So a separate police force from a different area -- usually rural and Protestant -- was formed. Massachusetts was a good example of this. I suspect it was true in most places.

On your larger point, the British would have to go through a period of self-examination to decide what national symbols they would be willing to accept as unifying elements. They have plenty of them, after all. But they seem embarrassed by much of their own past these days. I hope they get over it.

Posted by: Lex at September 23, 2005 05:22 PM

To us Down-Staters, (or Out-Staters) as those in St. Louis call the rest of us in Missouri; a state police job was also a good way to get out of town and into a more exciting life. Still holds true today for military and state police jobs.

Posted by: ElamBend at September 25, 2005 02:33 PM

In The Anglosphere Challenge I discussed the gap that arose between(roughly)the 1880s and World War II in the northeastern and midwestern US between the new immigrant urban centers and the older populations in the countryside and smaller towns. Different values, political parties, churches, identities. Almost a two-nations kind of thing. If you read discussions of labor volence in that era (Louis Adamic's Dynamite is a good start) it almost amounted to a low-level war. And the state police were the front-line troops of one side of that war. I remember as a student in the late 1960s visiting the family of a college friend. It was a blue-collar family, and several of my friend's uncles started discussing the campus riots that were frequently in the news. One was saying "We never raised hell like that when we were young". The other laughed and said "What are you talking about? Remember what we did when the National Guard was called out in Flint?" The first one said "Well, that was different."

I never did find out exactly what they had done. But there were many kinds from blue-collar families in Michigan going to college for the first time in their families' history. There were many interesting stories about the labor violence of the depression period that could be heard.

By the way, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police played a similar role in Canadian labor history. Another uncle of a college friend had been a maritime union organizer. He told a very interesting story about a dock strike in Montreal in 1949 he had been at, and concluded that the RCMP had been one of the most hard-assed police forces of the many he had encountered.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at September 26, 2005 01:12 AM

Incidentally, I have a rather tangential response to this post here, which may be of interest.

Posted by: Lex at September 26, 2005 10:37 AM