As France Burns, Immigration Debate Rears its Ugly Head

For 10 nights now, France has burned and spun.  The fire has been provided by rioters, but the spin has been provided by the French government and the mainstream media, both in Europe and in North America. 

At first the riots were ignored, then portrayed as typical French-style protest, then as understandable acts of anger by an underclass made desperate by poverty, and finally they are being reluctantly described for what they are: race riots.

Gangs of Arab and African Muslim men, the children and grandchildren of immigrants accepted into France following the collapse of her African empire, are conducting an intifada in the midst of Europe.  It has escalated from shoving and shouting to stone throwing, then to arson of thousands of parked cars, then to assaults on civilians, firemen and paramedics, and finally, as of Sunday night, to shootings of police officers.  The intifada is increasingly organized and has spread to dozens of cities throughout France.

Apparently, while the intellectuals of Europe have moved past thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them,” a lot of the immigrants they have recruited to their homelands have not.  As a result, “assimilation” is suddenly more than just an SAT word in media analyses the world over.

Obviously, the spontaneous army of Muslim “youths” burning Peugeots and nursery schools in France has not been properly assimilated, it is reported.  Following this astute observation, it is usually added that France does not have America’s long history of successfully assimilating immigrants and that the French government needs to do something about that.  Preferably, it should do something teary-eyed, big-hearted and expensive—like build the vandals newer housing projects, expand the already gargantuan French welfare state and celebrate Ramadan with a culturally sensitive postage stamp.

This is, however, among the dumbest combination of observations I have ever encountered, since America’s successful history of assimilation has absolutely nothing to do with any major government action on our part.

So how is it then, that America has successfully assimilated so many millions, without any special government-run assimilation centers or acculturation projects?  What have we learned that Europe needs to know?  And more importantly, have we forgotten a few things ourselves?

What follows is simply my opinion on this rather understudied and important topic.  It is not a 500-footnote thesis and it is not in any way incontrovertible. But it is a considered opinion based on my reading of history, my family experience and my personal observations after having lived in many different parts of America.  Consider this an invitation to further thought if you do not agree with it, because this issue will determine the future, if any, of the Western world during the next hundred years and thus begs for further thought.

A number of historical factors have favored immigrant assimilation in the United States.  Many of these have since changed, but others have not.  Likewise, some can be made to apply in Europe, while others cannot.  The most important of these factors, in my estimation (along with comments), are:

1) For much of our history, admission into America was regarded as a very rare and generous gift.  This was primarily because it was a very rare and generous gift.  Most of the world did not, at the time, accept immigrants, or else accepted them only as part of a servant underclass, never to be treated as equals.  America, by contrast, allowed entry to millions, and made obtaining full and equal citizenship a simple and straightforward process. 

This was striking to most immigrants, who came from lands where the connection between blood and soil was centuries old and nearly immutable.  This contrast inspired a sense of wonder and gratitude in many immigrants to America that motivated them towards adopting the ways of their new homeland. 

Today, admission into the U.S. (or another Western democracy) is regarded by many as something between a civil right and an entitlement.  Indeed, many seem to believe that the host population should be grateful to them for having arrived.  Mass immigration is taken as a given.  Little gratitude is thus inspired for new lives given so freely.  Many immigrants, therefore, arrive as colonists, wishing only to set up a slightly wealthier version of their homeland. 

The idea that admission into another people’s homeland is an act of nearly unbelievable trust and generosity needs to be restored, perhaps by announcing it as such to new arrivals and deporting those who fail to acknowledge this.

2) America’s immigrants came from many different nationalities.  Devolving into a worldview of immigrant vs. native was, therefore, not possible for any single immigrant group.  “Us” and “immigrants” were not synonymous.  The introduced nationalities were each small in comparison to the host culture of native-born Americans, even though all immigrants combined were a large category.  The children of Swedish and Italian and German and Irish immigrants thus had to choose to join the mainstream culture or else live in the relatively small world of their ethnic group. 

In France, immigration has been heavily skewed toward Arab North Africans, who thus achieved the critical mass needed to form large self-contained cultural colonies within France.

3) America’s frontier mixed various ethnicities into new physical communities.  Assimilation is favored by physical mixing.  The many immigrants that disappeared into America’s frontier lands were assimilated within a single generation in most cases, because the children of immigrant and native-born grew up together as a single community.  By contrast, those immigrants that remained in ethnic ghettoes in large coastal cities assimilated much more slowly. 

Neither Europe nor modern America has such a force favoring rapid juxtaposition of newcomer and native-born.  There are no more frontiers.  America, however, has such a vibrant pattern of land redevelopment and internal migration that considerable involuntary mixing is still encouraged. 

In light of this observation, the practice in France (and elsewhere) of building huge subsidized housing projects for the concentrated settlement of immigrants in distinct enclaves thus seems very unwise, if assimilation is the eventual goal.

4) English as a lingua franca, then and now.  Both factors 3 and 4, above, encouraged people to not merely learn English quickly but also to forget the old language in only a generation or two, thus removing a major source of self-segregation.  America’s assimilation has been a one-way street, in part, for this reason.  The preservation of the ancestral language encourages self-segregation based on shared ancestry. Today, in all countries, Satellite TV in every language imaginable and easy travel back to an immigrant’s home country slows this process.  Also, in the case of Europe’s Arab immigrants, there is a strong religious tie to the ancestral language, further encouraging linguistic identity to be preserved. 

On the other hand, the proliferation of English overseas, via television and movies, probably accelerates integration of some immigrants to the US, Britain, Australia, and Canada, who arrive already knowing English and some customs.

5) America was not really so diverse as we now remember.  Until the mid-20th Century, immigration to America occurred from a very restricted pool of nations.  For all our celebration of the great melting pot, America was mostly melting European peoples in that pot.  These peoples shared a great deal of cultural inheritance before ever setting foot in America.  The gaps we formerly needed to bridge were thus relatively small.  Religious differences consisted primarily of differences in various Christian sects.  As much as it sometimes hurts to say it, a Frenchman and an American have most things in common, as do most other European nationalities.

It is only recently that the West has begun experimenting with mixing peoples from opposite sides of the Earth, with basic cultural incompatibilities and little shared experience.  It can be done, especially where two geographically distant cultures have evolved convergent beliefs.  But it can also present problems on a scale that no nation has had much experience in resolving.

A consequence of the fact that most American immigrant groups were drawn from the same single continent is that they were not capable of being identified as “foreign” stock after being assimilated linguistically.  Forced cultural segregation was, therefore, usually not practical.  The one major exception to this rule—the easy physical identification of people of African descent in the country—facilitated segregation by the predominant culture.  In Europe, most descendants of immigrants are readily identifiable racially, encouraging both self-segregation and forced (though not legal) segregation via social exclusion.

6) The (now defunct) emphasis on individualism and limited government in American culture discouraged ethnic identity and political identity from merging.  Ethnicity has always played a strong role in America’s political life.  But the spoils nature of modern welfare states and the rise of identity politics has made ethnic identity and political self-interest intimately linked as never before.  Democracy can easily degenerate into a demographic team sport in which collective effort is rewarded, encouraging ethnic balkanization and discouraging assimilation.

These factors demonstrate that America’s ability to assimilate millions of immigrants over two centuries was not a result of sweeping government assimilation policies and projects.  Neither was it a magical result of some pro-assimilation impurity in our drinking water.  It occurred for specific, if often fortuitous, reasons.  Study of these reasons can allow a society to encourage cultural assimilation and unity, if it so chooses.  But because some of the reasons are politically uncomfortable to discuss, I believe they will continue to be ignored.

If you want to admit and assimilate large numbers of immigrants into your country, it can be done.  Begin by choosing an immigrant pool as much like your existing culture as feasible.  Do not admit too many immigrants from a single source.  Disperse the immigrants into the general population—avoid ghettoes.  Encourage a single language.  And remind newcomers that admission into your country is a gift, not a right, and the gift carries with it certain obligations born of gratitude.

I can think of no European country that is following this proven formula for immigrant assimilation. But they should not feel bad, because the United States seems ot have abandoned it as well.