Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on the knotty question of assimilation

Yesterday I offered some thoughts on immigration and assimilation.

I always try my best to make myself clear. But as is often the case, some commenters seemed to think I was saying something I was not (see the comments section of yesterday's post if you don't know what I'm referring to). But I've become resigned to this, because--as Gerard Van der Leun of American Digest quotes Karl Popper as saying, "It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood."

Indeed. And it's especially true if people are determined to set up strawman arguments in order to make a certain point they want to make, whatever I may be saying. But here's my attempt at clarification of the admittedly complex issue of assimilation, nonetheless.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I celebrate cultural diversity. You can see that if you actually read my previous post carefully. Ethnic food? Love it. I not only have no desire to take away the cous cous and the kim chee and the baba ganoush and the chow fun and the coriander and the curry, I revel in them.

So, celebrate your holidays and dress up in national costume at times, more power to you. Continue to speak your ancestral tongue; I wish I knew more of mine. But don't let that stop you from integrating the values and customs of your new country, the US, into your lives in a deep and meaningful way. As a key path to that goal: learn English, and learn it as quickly and as well as possible.

As commenter J.H. Bowden wrote here, "Becoming an American isn't embracing a culture, but embracing a set of ideas." That might be one of the more singular aspects of this country as opposed to more homogeneous nations. A Frenchman is a Frenchman by virtue of birth and ancestry, but that's much less true of Americans, who are meant to be united by the ideas expressed in the Constitution, which are in turn based on the principles of the Enlightenment.

The French themselves have been experiencing the problems inherent in assimilation--or, rather, the difficulties associated with its lack, or its partial application--in their country. The vast numbers of Moslem immigrants to France are mostly from North Africa, and they have remained for the most part in poverty-stricken enclaves, encouraged in many ways to keep key elements of their own culture that clash with those of the French. Some of this French discord and confusion has been played out in the furor about French laws banning the wearing of religious symbols and garb in the schools, for example, customs which are seen as violating the separation of church and state in a nation wary of church influence on the educational system.

The question about assimilation is where to draw the line, and how? What are the consequences of a failure to adopt and adapt to the mores of the prevailing culture--especially if one has customs that run counter to principles of that culture?

We have a tradition of respecting the rights of minorities--that's part of the reason so many immigrants want to come to this country, and do. There are even groups who have been here quite a long time who have continued to isolate themselves from the mainstream in many aspects of culture and dress--the Amish are a good example of this, as well as the Mennonites (see this for a discussion of their beliefs and origins).

So, have these groups "assimilated?" Not exactly. But the ways in which they are in accord with the basic belief system of this country are more important than surface differences in dress or the use of the automobile. They are peaceful and respectful of the rights of others. They may speak another language at home, but they are all fluent in English and use it with outsiders. They are dedicated to religious tolerance, both for themselves and for others--that's why they originally came here, in fact.

However, it's interesting that there are restrictive aspects of Amish life that would appear to violate some of our beliefs, such as, for example, the fact that education for Amish children only goes up to the eighth grade. I suppose that this might be more controversial if it were more widely known, or if the Amish themselves were seen as a threat to anyone, rather than a quaint and harmless group.

In researching the Amish for this post, I ran across the following fascinating tidbit:

Some Amish groups practice a tradition called rumspringa ("running around"). Teens aged 16 and older are allowed some freedom in behavior. It is a interval of a few years while they remain living at home, yet are somewhat released from the intense supervision of their parents. Since they have not yet been baptized, they have not committed to follow the extremely strict behavioral restrictions and community rules imposed by the religion. They may date, go out with their friends, visit the outside world, go to parties, drink alcoholic beverages, wear jeans, etc. The intent of rumspringa is to make certain that youth are giving their informed consent if they decide to be baptized. About 80% to 90% decide to remain Amish.

This indicates to me that, despite the restrictions of Amish life, and their differences from the mainstream, they retain a surprising amount of dedication to freedom of choice and belief which is in line with principles for which this country stands.

The major problem with lack of assimilation lies when there's a clash with such principles, and yet a concomitant demand for protection for such a belief system. This yields the contradiction involved in tolerating the intolerant.

Tolerating the intolerant; it's a conundrum I've written about before:

Tolerance applied without any distinction can become a trap. That way lies madness--not to mention the seeds of the destruction of tolerant societies themselves.

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