December 12, 2005

Some Thoughts on Assimilation

Democracy, Immigration, Multiculturalism -- Pick Any Two

So now we are seeing beach riots in Sydney between grievance-bearing, unassimiated Muslim youth and other young Australians. It's a story that echoes thoughout the developed world. Like the rule of law, like a public service ethic , like a high radius of trust and all the social benefits that go with it, assimilation is not just something one can pick from a list of "would-be-nice" social characteristics, it is something that must be worked at consistently over time.

One thing I have noticed is that, the further away in time we grow from the 1940s and 1950s, generations who did not experience this era personally have come to form peculiar ideas of what assimilation was like in practice as a ruling paradigm in a society. I have a different take on it, as I grew up in a small industrial town in Western Pennsylvania in the 1950s, a town that was heavily Southern and Eastern Euopean in makeup.

As my mother's parents were born in Italy, while my father's family were of highly mixed British Isles, German, and other ancestry (the "other" is worth a separate post sometime), and all of my uncles and aunts, save one, were living in the town, I grew up already networked into a wide variety of ethnic groups in town. (All three of my mother's brothers, and most of her cousins, married non-Italians; several of my father's siblings married into "ethnic" families, so I grew up around Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Croatian, and other ethnic relatives, as well as many from the old Scots-Irish families who predominated in the surrounding countrysides.) I even had an English war bride for an aunt, to add a truly exotic touch.

School was even more mixed; I recall the Julian dates for Christmas and Easter were de-facto school holidays because so many of the kinds were Eastern Orthodox, and thus absent that the teachers didn't want to give tests or move ahead on the lesson plans. Of course, the other great Pennsylvania holiday, Opening Day, was also a de-facto holiday because all the male teachers took off for deer hunting. (Our teachers were not metrosexuals.) The school was also something like a quarter African-American -- the town was just too small to have de-facto school segregation based on residence. As a band member, I was in "band home room", so all my classes were substantially integrated as well. Strange as it may seem today, this integration, happening just at the start of the civil rights era, was entirely uncontroversial at the time; I can't think of any fights or incidents that were racial in tone. Not that there wasn't racism in the town, or racial problems, and the riots of the 1960s had their echoes in the town. But it wasn't a big thing at school when I was there. One of the problems I had with John Birmingham's Axis of Time series, as much as I liked it in general, was that the racial attitudes of the 1942 characters as he portrayed them didn't ring true, at least for the Northern US characters. (I can't speak for the Southerners one way or the other, just because I didn't grow up around any.) Not that the attitudes were wonderful, but the whole thing was more complex than Birmingham portrayed -- for one thing, class was more important than he showed it, and it affected racial issues. I was growing up around these people, maybe twelve or fifteen years after the year in which Birmingham was portraying them. They weren't like that.

What I do remember was the very heavy public narrative of assimilation and national unity, in which World War Two and military service played a huge part. The war had been a huge watershed, and I sensed (and later by readng confirmed it) that before the war ethnic identification had been a much bigger dividing line, and class as well, but the war had blurred both lines. People would still ask "What kind of a name is that?" when they heard an unidentifiably ethnic name, but the most important question men asked each other in the fifties was "Where did you serve?" And service was a very powerful solvent that made all sorts of previously-unthinkable business partnerships, service organization memberships, and marriages acceptable.

This was all accomplished with a sort off dual narrative that allowed people to be proudly ethnic and completely American in a way that multiculturalism did not. And it was a compromise that picked out the key items on which Americanization was essential -- loyalty to America ahead of ethnic origin, willingness to serve America even against one's country of origin, rejection of ethnic exclusiveness, American family structures -- "old country" attitudes and habits were completely scorned by the second generation, and ven the first generation. Many said "we came here to get away from all that" -- the corruption and familialism of the Old World. At the same time pride in ethnic origins and things like food, music, cultural holidays, and various customs were encouraged. I remember the high school symphonic band concerts that were a big deal then (yes, working-class people went to classical-music concerts willingly, at least when their kids were playing) and only much later realized that the selections had been carefully ethnically balanced to more or less reflect the ethnic makeup of the town. Thus I grew up with a curious imbalance in my classical-music education, think that fairly minor Eastern European composers (Smetana, for example) were as or more important than Bach or Beethoven. (There weren't very many Germans in town.)

Later, anti-assimilationst arguments began to spread the idea that the 1950s were a time of blandness and homogenization, and that everyone was forced into a "white bread" lifestyle. Maybe in some areas, but nowhere that I was exposed to. Assimilation was much more a matter of ethnic Americans using World War Two service in the military and the war industries as a universal solvent to break down anti-assimilation prejudices among earlier-arrrived Americans. It was this transition that began the great wave of inter-ethnic and Anglo-ethnic intermarriage that has more or less wiped out the big immigrant-ethnic ghettoes, and made ethnicity a sort of style rahter than fundamental identity -- and since so many Americans have more than one ethnic identity, they can more or less switch them like hats for the occasion.

This has happened to greater or lesser degrees throughout the Anglosphere. if we are going to be open to immigration from other nations and cultures, as I believe we should, this hgihly succssful, and by no means accidental, engine of assimilation must be allowed to operate as it has in the past. it is one of the world's greatest success stories. Any shortcomings we now have are more likely to be solved through extending the model rather than turning it on its head, as the multiculturalists have done over the past few decades.

Posted by James C. Bennett at December 12, 2005 06:23 PM

Nice opening line.

Seeing as how there will probably never be a war like WWII again (one needing a majority of a generation's effort), I wonder what kind of tradition we could replace it with that would have public support.

Humans seem to like to seperate themselves into groups, and if they don't have anything better they'll use race / skin tone. They also use cultural clues, or religion, but the point remains that it's always _something_. If we want to start assimilating people again we need to positively create a new institution which will do that. Something important, that people will be able to take pride in.

Unfortunately I can't really think of anything other than general 'public works' projects like during the Depression. The Army doesn't want or need millions of draftees. Sending them over-seas en masse probably isn't practical, as well as dangerous.

I dunno. I'm really stumped. I don't think anything unites the USA as a country anymore. The memories of WWII are fading. The 60's and 70's seperate us more than they unite us. We don't agree on what the Constitution is or should be.

People need something to be a part of, and if we don't provide it, they'll find something on their own (which could be good or bad, but not united). A general concept of "the Anglosphere" won't do it either, unless it actually involves work and sacrifice that people can point to with pride.

Posted by: Brock at December 12, 2005 06:53 PM

Brock, assimilation was the rule rather than the exception from Jamestown on. Read Crevecoeur''s Letters of a American Farmer, for example. And in England before that for centuries. World War Two helped break down some specific barriers more quickly than otherwise would have been the case.

We don't know what existential challenge is going to face us in the next two decades. But if it is a time of rapid change, as the Singularity theortization suggests it will be, there will be soical challenges. Radical Islamism may just be the warm-up. Going back to the roots of what make us exceptional is the first step in figuring out what will bring us together when the need comes.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 12, 2005 08:56 PM

Any government policy that discourages assimilation in my view lacks rudimentary common sense. Unfortunately multiculturalism seems to have penetrated the public consciousness to such an extent that it cannot now be expunged. One of the reasons for this has to do with the fact that nobody knows what it means anymore, that it means different things to different people since it is not a precisely defined concept, since it lies on a spectrum of opinion. For example, some will say that it's nothing more than a celebration of diversity where each culture or subculture in civil society is respected, worshipped and offered an equal opportunity to contribute unique and valuable cultural aspects to the whole culture; that it's nothing more than a benign cross-pollination of ethno-cultural differences. And then there is the view that government policy is establishing cultural barriers, that it is going out of its way to preserve cultural distinctiveness at the expense of social integration, a kind of apartheid you might even venture.

I don't know. I live in Toronto, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. We've had official government multiculturalism for the past 35 years now, but I don't see anything that could be construed as apartheid up here or anything that threatens the social order of this city. People have mostly assimilated despite the government's encouragement not to. That's a testimonial strength of our civil society, not an endorsement of a deliberately harmful government policy. But if you're not a multiculturalist, what are you then? A monoculturalist? A cultural supremicist? It's easy to understand how we lose these arguments in the beginning but win them in the end. I've noticed that the government websites on multiculti political correctness have changed their tune in the last couple of years. They're now all full of double speak. Multiculturalism is now mentioned in tandem with social integration, where before there was no mention of assimilation. We're beginning to win the war on this one methinks.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at December 12, 2005 11:49 PM

Assimilation will always take place because of children. There was substantial support for Ron Utz's English only proposition in California from Hispanic families in spite of strongly voiced opposition from the educrats. This is no surprise. Those parents knew what kinds of jobs their children would be limited to if they did not have an adequate command of English. Likewise, the kids want to grow up to speak the predominant language in the culture. So at the individual level, assimilation will take place with only a minimal difference due to government efforts to accelerate or retard it.

The one exception would be ghettoization, whether imposed, as with segregation or voluntary, like the Amish. And even the legal example of segregation shows how difficult it would be in the US to truly ghettoize a group involuntarily. The one ingredient required for assimilation is patience. Experience indicates is very difficult to assimilate any population in less than 3 generations.

That is why the 40's and 50's seem like such a golden age. Beginning in 1917 immigration became more controlled by circumstance, depression and world war and by law. By the '50s most of the assimilating immigrants were really 3rd or 2nd generation Americans. So the process was really putting the finishing touches on the assimilation of the immigration of the late 1800s, early 1900s with no new immigrants to drain resources from the project.

The trick for the U. S., or any other anglosphere country, will be figuring out the correct level of immigration so that ghettoization does not occur allowing the normal social process to assimilate follwoing generations naturally.

Posted by: Richard A. Heddleson at December 13, 2005 08:16 AM

Interesting & rich post. Besides WWII, you point to schools. That's how I remember it, too. But as the 1968 culture permeated our culture, schools began to heavily emphasizing grievances and play down what we have in common. I'd like public schools so good that parents would always want that for their children - parents of every economic class, ethnicity, race, and level of education. And schools that respected both national & local culture. Assimilation would follow.

Posted by: Ginny at December 16, 2005 08:34 AM

yes. My mother's mother learned standard Italian at an American high school -- she had only spoken her regional dialect (not mutually intelligible with standard Italian) until she came to America at the age of nine and learned English. She and my grandfather courted each other in English -- his dialect was not mutually intelligible with hers or with standard Italian. The quality free public education (and it was first rate at that time) available to her and her children remained the number one thing that impressed her about America all her life.

Interestingly enough, she said she found standard Italian only a little easier to learn than English.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 16, 2005 05:03 PM

Nice post. I particularly appreciated the comment that "for one thing, class was more important than he showed it, and it affected racial issues." The reason class is minimized while race is emphasized as the source of all that is evil in these discussions is that class can be acquired with hard work and dedication. It's much easier to blame one's failings on something that cannot be controlled, rather than on what can be....

Posted by: Anonymous at April 7, 2006 04:32 PM

Besides the logical and rational reasons behind enforcing immigration laws, why in the world are so many people trying to get into the "evil Satan of the United States?" Isn't this country the source of all that is evil in the world? (hyperbole)

The real answer is for those who live in countries without these freedoms to do what the original settlors did: take possession of the land (steal from the natives if necessary), revolt against any government they don't want, and make the country what they want it to be. It worked once, it should work again. After all, if they're so hard-working and resourceful, that shouldn't be too difficult, right?

Posted by: smartypants at April 7, 2006 04:58 PM

Good post. I came here via Kate McMillan's Small Dead Animals. I live in Alberta now but I'm still a US citizen. Canada is the worst case scenario of rampant "multiculuralism" as you may already know. It's always western/Christian morals, values, traditions that have to bow to the "invaders." Which begs the question, why did they come here in the first place? I'd strongly suggest you read Oriana Fallaci's THE FORCE OF REASON. She has a very eloquent warining about unchecked immigration and multiculturalism. Too bad GWB hasn't read it.

I grew up in the Detroit area in the 1960-70's and would concur on many of your observations. Funny, I became a professional classical musician. Did you?

Posted by: Doug at April 12, 2006 10:42 AM
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