Anglosphere: Melting pots and harmonies

By JAMES C. BENNETT, United Press International  |  Aug. 25, 2003 at 7:19 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- One possible result of the California gubernatorial race may be to return the related issues of immigration and assimilation policy to the political radarscope. A hot potato at all times, the immigration issue has been downplayed by the Bush administration from the start, a fact not unconnected to its desire to compete seriously for voters of Latin American origin.

However, California is where the rubber meets the road on these policies. California is one of the major users of immigrant labor in the United States, and therefore also one of the most affected by the demands illegal immigrants make on the social service system of the state. This concern was the principal driver behind former governor Pete Wilson's controversial initiative to deny social services to illegals. In campaigning against it, opponents suggested remedies such as federal aid to the more impacted states, like California. Such aid, of course, never happened. The question of fiscal burdens of immigration could rise again in this campaign. It's worth noting that to raise the issue is not necessarily to blame the immigrant; it can also be seen as a case of privatizing the benefit (in this case, of low-cost labor, which flows to employers) while socializing the costs, in the form of tax-supported social services.

There are a number of issues within the general categories of assimilation and immigration. One, of course, is whether current levels of immigration, whether legal or illegal, are too high. Many restrictionists argue that the high numbers we experience now are so high that we will not be able to adequately assimilate and integrate them into American society, thus setting the stage for inter-group strife and the degradation of civil society.

I tend to think they state the problem the wrong way around. It is rather the strength of our assimilation policy that determines how many immigrants we can welcome. Certainly America welcomed a higher percentage of foreign-born during the height of the immigrant boom in the years before World War I, and successfully assimilated them. This should be an existence proof that we can, given the right circumstances, do the job again.

However, this does not mean that the economic reductionists who make every social issue a matter of employment figures and economic benefits can assume that assimilation will be automatic. A closer look at the experience of 1890-1920 shows that America experienced many of the problems with immigration that we do again today: public health challenges, concerns about integration into civil society and the sharing of democratic discourse and values with people who had no previous exposure to such things, and rising levels of crime and corruption in high immigration areas.

As a response to these challenges, many reformers and activists of that era expended much effort on integrating immigrant groups, fighting the crime, poverty, and corruption that came with them, and in promoting an assimilationist agenda. This effort was in the end successful, culminating perhaps in the successes of World Wars I and II, where Americans of every immigrant group, including nationals of the states with which America was at war, gave a high degree of support to the war effort, and receiving in return a genuine acceptance from the general population.

The point is, and this is a point now usually ignored, that it was neither automatic nor effortless to assimilate these people. Some might say this assimilation would have happened whether the effort had been made or not, but this will remain forever an unproveable speculation. Certainly the burden of proof is on those who deny such an effort is needed now, rather than on those who would like to see our former successes repeated.

For that matter, the whole matter of assimilation requires a better vocabulary than what is available to us now. "Assimilation" and "melting pot," for example, are often used interchangeably, but they are two different theories. Assimilation, strictly used, means for the immigrant group to adopt the characteristics of the people they come among. Melting-pot theory looks to a mixing and amalgamation of the native and immigrant characteristics, to form something new and presumably better.

In the sense that I use the term, what I advocate is closer to melting-pot theory than assimilation. I only wish to see the critical framework of civil society -- the deep-rooted values and expectations that have made it work as well as it has -- adopted by incomers, along with fluency in a common language and common political narratives and discourses. We must be able to speak to each other, not past each other, if we are to have a representative constitutional political system.

However, melting-pot theory also tends to be taken as a prediction that the ensuing culture will be uniform. This is neither likely nor desirable. Strong civil societies tend to have a certain amount of diversity to them, and that is usually a source of strength, provided that a means of working together can be found. Anti-assimilationists sometimes propose the mosaic as an alternative model. But a mosaic is not dynamic -- the pieces remain what they were when they were placed, which is not a realistic model of how changeable and always-evolving people in a strong civil society can be.

What I look for can perhaps best be thought of as a thematic framework, generally accepted, that allows people from all the various streams in a society (and the new streams that are created by blending others together) to each create and play their own variations on a theme. The theme is that provided by the distinct cultural framework of the English-speaking people -- for the immigration drama is playing out in parallel in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in the Anglosphere -- even Britain itself. And in each country the same problems have arisen.

These problems will not be solved neither in America nor elsewhere in the Anglosphere until we all acquire the self-knowledge to understand why we have been so successful in past eras, and how we can impart these elements to newcomers now and in the future. For a historical drama of unprecedented scope is now in the making. Immigrants are coming into the English-speaking nations not just from one or two sources, but from myriad sources -- all the world, really. The minimal toolset for making civil society work must be made available to these people, and they must learn the thematic framework that allows them to play their parts, and introduce their own variations, in a way that will make the whole a workable melody, and not a cacophony. We cannot write the score beforehand, for this will be improvisation on a truly grand scale. But we can expect something wondrous if we can pull it off.

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