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Assimilation breakdown

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 14, 2005

The riots that spread across France sparked considerable debate in our own country. If you thought the violence refuted multiculturalism, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says you're wrong.

A firefighter stands near a car set ablaze in the La Reynerie housing project of Toulouse, southern France on November 13
A firefighter stands near a car set ablaze in the La Reynerie housing project of Toulouse, southern France on November 13

Instead, he wrote, the blazing cars "ought to wipe the smirk from the lips of even multiculturalism's smuggest critics." France doesn't practice affirmative action, it doesn't let Muslim families send their daughters to school wearing headscarves and, in Robinson's telling, it doesn't acknowledge "that cultural and religious differences even existed."

Neoconservative columnist Ralph Peters goes a step further, writing in the New York Post, "There is no Western country more profoundly racist than France." Europe, he asserted, "has no model for integrating immigrants into the social and economic mainstream." Robinson's Washington Post colleague Anne Applebaum doubted "whether most Frenchmen even contemplate the possibility that the African and Arab immigrants and their offspring… who are both perpetrators and victims of these riots, could ever be truly French."

Unasked is whether these teen-aged children of immigrants think of themselves as French. Pace Robinson, 0ardently multicultural societies like the Netherlands have had their own problems coping with Muslim immigration. From Theo van Gogh to Pim Fortuyn, there have been assassinations which have led other public figures to fear for their lives.

Looking back at our own rich history of immigration, Americans tend to assume that assimilation is a relatively easy process for all involved. But it is in fact emotionally trying for immigrants to give up old languages, customs and practices in order to be absorbed into a new society. And the society into which they immigrate needs the determination and clear cultural identity to effectively demand such assimilation.

The reasons for this should be obvious: most people posses a strong, passionate attachment to their own culture and way of life. But many people who sing the praises of cultural diversity and mass immigration the loudest don't take any culture seriously other than their own. Their casual assumption is that their way of life is so self-evidently superior, and the economic incentives for integration so irresistibly powerful, that all well-intentioned people will naturally want to assimilate.

"Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande," George W. Bush has often said. Of course, he's right. Compassion, friendship and basic human decency don't stop at the Rio Grande either. But none of these qualities are unique to being an American. People love their families all over the world without necessarily wanting to become Americans.

Stripped of the universalist rhetoric, many of our assumptions about easy assimilation are implicitly insulting toward other countries. If all good-hearted, freedom-loving people are really Americans, what does that say about people living in the rest of the world?

There are also varying degrees of assimilation. People can eat at McDonald's, wear jeans and listen to Top 40 radio and still feel no emotional attachment to America's history, heroes or political traditions—the "mystic cords of memory" were either cut or never formed. Immigrants and their descendants may carry their own traditions and their own interpretation of American history for generations.

Many people have grown up learning a version of history in which America is described unfavorably. Others come from populations with values and ideals vastly different from those which prevail in the United States. The size of immigrant populations is another factor. Ethnic communities that keep the old country's customs and language alive provide an alternative to assimilation.

Thus we have France, which practices nearly every policy mass-immigration-plus-melting-pot boosters prescribe, finding its acculturation mechanisms overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Unable to assimilate into French culture, young Arabs and Muslims find communities in increasingly radicalized mosques. And we have the Netherlands, committed to multiculturalism but unable to avoid conflict. There young Muslims gravitate toward the imams while the Dutch fail to even offer something to assimilate into. Two favorite approaches of the political elite; two failures.

Perhaps, as Steve Sailer argues, "the quantity and quality of the immigrants matter more than the details of how you treat them." It's a complex interlocking of numbers, cultural compatibility and the expectations of the receiving country that determines a successful immigration policy. You need newcomers who are willing and able to assimilate, a dominant culture that is willing and able to require them to do so and admissions that are not so large that they undermine these objectives.

Now ask yourself: is that the immigration policy America has—or the one self-styled immigration reformers on Capitol Hill have in mind?

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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