When the “new nation” was founded, it was a given that former British citizens would be transmogrified into Americans after the umbilical cord with Britain was cut. This was simple assimilation.
With the building of the Erie Canal in 1817 Irish immigrants were invited to assist with the construction. This was to be the first time an “alien” group in large numbers entered American shores. Assimilation was difficult. The Irish were Catholic in a Protestant nation. They were often callous and prone to violence. Yet remarkably they were integrated into American life and fought in greater number than any ethnic group in the Civil War.
Recognizing the difficulty of assimilating large number of aliens, e.g. the Germans in the 1850’s and Scandavians in the 1870’s, a cultural accommodation was achieved through hyphenated loyalty. The assumption was made that an Irishman, to cite one example, could love his motherland as much as his adopted home and would be in an harmonious relationship with both.
This wasn’t exactly the melting pot, but there was enough melting to maintain modest tranquility. By mid-twentieth century this modus vivendi began to unravel. When Glazer and Moynihan wrote Beyond The Melting Pot cultural pluralism was gaining ground. Rather than discuss hyphenated loyalty the emphasis was put on one’s origin. Culture was seen through the prism of a unique experience different from the former expectations in America. The immigrant was not part of a cultural amalgam, but was instead tied to group loyalty. America might be valued, but certainly not in the same way as one’s cultural past.
This position has evolved into a condition far more extreme and clearly inconsistent with previous American patterns. Today, most immigrants have been misled into believing assimilation is not desirable. In fact, in the age of identity politics, each ethnic and national group is inserted metaphorically into silos.
Howard Zinn’s Peoples History of The United States confirms the vision that assimilation is in effect cooperation with a colonial power whose history is one of exploitation. The flaws in America’s past become the basis for separation, despite the obvious fact that most immigrant groups prospered in America.
Gilding the lily of this proposition is the attempt to mischaracterize current events by making them out to be systematic oppression of minority groups. The events in Ferguson, Missouri, for example were caricatured by militants on the scene leading to the Black Lives Matter organization, a group formed on a false premise and with a distinctly hostile attitude to the nation.
As a consequence, America has gone from assimilation, to integration and hyphenated loyalty, to cultural pluralism, to identity politics, to silo driven ethnicity and hostility to the nation. The question is whether the nation can restore its bearings. An America turning on itself cannot survive. A politics of hatred must end badly; a nation torn by warring ethnic groups can never know order.
At the moment, the signs aren’t hopeful. But the prospects remain unknown. Hate, as a movement, doesn’t secure adherents in America for long. Yet it is also true that this nation of immigrants cannot open its doors when the hope for assimilation has languished. The only real hope is the truth – a story of ringing success and remarkable achievement for immigrants in a land that is usually welcoming. Unfortunately, truth is a casualty in an atmosphere of hostility and monomania.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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