Monday, August 16, 2010

Douthat's Two Americas

Good for Joan Walsh for cleaning Ross Douthat's clock on Salon today. His column in this morning's Times was Washington Post opinion page-quality stupid.

Walsh points out his most disturbing and glaring historical inaccuracy, and outright logical fallacy, in recalling the violent nativist/Know Nothing response to Catholic immigration in the 1800s. Let me pile on by pointing out that the "the two Americas" Douthat is writing about in terms of the nation's history of immigrant assimilation were really one America until the middle of the 20th century. By our modern standards, with the occasional exception of an individual like Horace Kallen, intolerance prevailed up to that point. The difference between camps was merely in degree. And there has been, in fact, very little tension between the "constitutional" and the "cultural" Americas he cites -- culture drove the constitutional conversation.

Or, to be more historically accurate, a cultural understanding derived from racism drove the constitutional. 1920s immigration laws weren't "draconian." They were racist. They were written from the perspective that race created culture and that Anglo Saxons, having the best genes, had the best culture and therefore were the most desirable potential Americans. Everyone else had to overcome the handicap of their racial identity demonstrably. I simply do not understand what Douthat sees that is usable in that past.

I think what he and other conservatives are calling for is not assimilation but the old spirit of "100 percent Americanism:" a demonstration of unquestioned loyalty according to the terms they set. These terms have to do with more than just bringing Islam up to speed with Western standards of individual rights -- a project, I must admit, I support (mainly because I believe such standards are truly secular in nature, unlike the Christian fanatics now so eager to bash Islam and ignore their own religion's sordid history on the matter). Conservatives also demand a forfeiture by Muslim immigrants of any political conception of the world that does not meet the demands of the post-9/11 national security state. They are simply not allowed to bring the perspectives of the nations they have left to bear on a conversation about the American projection of power in the world. This demand is just as damaging to the principles of American democracy as any interruption of the right to free exercise of religious faith. Douthat would be right to remember, too the America that threw German Americans into detention camps for not supporting a war against their homeland enough, or that beat them for not buying enough Liberty Bonds. Or the more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans whose disloyalty was perceived to be too great a risk not to strip of their rights, liberty, and property -- a position another commentator on that side of the aisle astoundingly has defended.

In our own time, to describe the United States as "an accessory to the crime" of 9/11 is wrong and offensive. But it is not the same as endorsing the act. But that doesn't matter to the America Douthat really wants us to live in, which would rather the person making that comment never participate in the conversation at all.

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