Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Douthat Part Deux

Ross Douthat, did you read my blog? Your recent blog entry offered the kind of nuanced and more historically-accurate account of the history of Americans' assimilationist impulses I wanted from your column Monday. What you write there is so much more interesting and better formed I wonder why you didn't just go with it in the first place instead of the two Americas "conceit." The Catholic-Muslim parallel is a much more interesting (and appropriate) conceit if Times columnists feel the need to employ one.

Bravo for this recovery:

It would be nice, obviously, if you could draw a bright line between benighted exclusionists and enlightened assimilationists in American history. But the record doesn’t really support that kind of line-drawing. The two tendencies can be separated, and sometimes were. But they just as often coexisted in the same movements and institutions — and in the same human hearts.
But this is exactly why modern-day progressives are nervous when conservatives speak of assimilation. For starters, the assimilationist ethos -- even among the "enlightened -- was saturated in the now-outmoded racial theories of the past. One very well could be a racist in the sense that one believed racial categories were real and classifiable and explained differences between social groups and be an assimilationist, or even reject immigration restriction on nativist grounds. Forgive contemporary progressives for their skepticism over whether elements of American conservatism have moved beyond such perspectives.

Second, assimilation was and remains an idea imposed upon immigrant groups. As such, it was inherently coercive. In explaining to newcomers how to become "American," the Americanizers worked their political and social values into their lessons. While the worry that new immigrants will join the Wobblies has passed, concern that they will become terrorists obviously has not. But lest we forget the McVeighs and Rudolphs of the nation's recent past, demanding that some immigrants demonstrate their loyalty fully before receiving full acceptance into the nation has limited bearing on our safety. With that in mind, what should modern-day Americanizers ask of immigrants? To abandon emotional, cultural, and political connections to their homeland, which was the original meaning of the metaphor of the Melting Pot? To resist the urge of bringing foreign perspectives on global affairs with them, or at least those that are not convenient for confronting our enemies and supporting our allies as in the Cold War? To shed the political and class solidarity found in their working-class ethnic communities? To refrain from joining any movement that advocates expanding the American social safety net, or else risk having one's ethnic group being ostracized as welfare hounds? 

Progressives' discomfort with the inherent chauvinism of assimilation has led then to develop no answer at all to what immigrants should be required to do to Americanize. They have essentially punted the question back to ethnic and religious organizations -- like the one under attack in lower Manhattan, or the Latino groups under fire from Arizona conservatives I've discussed before. As a result, the only consensus Americans have formed on the issue of assimilation is that immigrants should learn English, they can keep their hard-to-pronounce names, and they can keep their food (hooray for number three!). Progressives need to work harder on their end of the debate and explain, as Randolph Bourne tried in his "Trans-National America" essay so long ago, how immigrants can transform America for the better, rather than merely be transformed themselves. 

Finally, to champion Americanization is to ignore the ways in which immigrants themselves have chosen to assimilate to American life. Beginning with Oscar Handlin, the entire field of immigration history has been built on this exact narrative. The problem the Vatican had with democracy that Douthat cites is exactly this kind of story -- members of the clergy in the United States argued for the adaptation of some Church doctrines (including the superiority of the Catholic Church over Protestant sects) to fit the pluralistic and democratic American political culture of the late 19th century. Pope Leo XIII, in turn, condemned what was being called "Americanism" within the Church. It would seem that the same accommodation is taking place in most American mosques without Americanizers or nativists pounding on the door - and irrespective of the opinions of foreign imams.

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