Another Week, Another Ross Douthat Column

Ross Douthat at NYT:

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history. And they’re in tension again this summer, in the controversy over the Islamic mosque and cultural center scheduled to go up two blocks from ground zero.

The first America, not surprisingly, views the project as the consummate expression of our nation’s high ideals. “This is America,” President Obama intoned last week, “and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” The construction of the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers, is as important a test of the principle of religious freedom “as we may see in our lifetimes.”

The second America begs to differ. It sees the project as an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness. And beneath these concerns lurks the darker suspicion that Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.

This is typical of how these debates usually play out. The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.

But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.

So it is today with Islam. The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.

Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

Granted, the “conservative spot” on the Gray Lady’s op-ed pages comes with plenty of caveats and handcuffs. So if a conservative columnist is going to last more than a year, he will have to suppress his harshest impulses toward the left and a great deal of his critical faculties. The result is likely to be condescending columns like today’s by Ross Douthat.

He posits two Americas: “The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes.” The first cares about the Constitution, and the second is composed of a bunch of racist rubes, it seems. “The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.” Yes, you can guess which are the opponents of the Ground Zero mosque. (I was wondering if he was going to write, “The first America helped little old ladies across the street; the second America drowned puppies.)

I assume that this is what one has to do to keep your piece of turf next to such intellectual luminaries as Maureen Dowd, but it’s really the worst straw man sort of argument since, well, the last time Obama spoke. But he’s not done: “The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.” OK, on behalf of the rubes in Second America, enough!

Second America — that’s 68% of us — recognizes (and we’ve said it over and over again) that there may be little we can do legally (other than exercise eminent domain) to halt the Ground Zero mosque, but that doesn’t suspend our powers of judgment and moral persuasion. Those who oppose the mosque are not bigots or constitutional ruffians. They merely believe that our president shouldn’t be cheerleading the desecration of “hallowed ground” (”first America’s” term, articulated by Obama) or averting our eyes from the funding sources of the imam’s planned fortress.

E.D. Kain at Balloon Juice:

Leaving aside the obvious fact that Muslims have actually been migrating here for many years and sprouting up second and third and seventh generations in the United States, this use of a specific instance – the Cordoba Center – to segue into a larger framework in which American Muslims writ large are not doing enough to assimilate is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. (And are no American Muslims a part of Second America? Then they must all be part of First America…unless we’re working on creating a Third America. That’s possible, too.)

He goes on:

Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.

I wonder what exactly qualifies as ‘too often’? What percentage of Muslim institutions fit this criteria? Furthermore, what bearing does this have on the question of the Ground Zero Mosque?

For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June). And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.

They’ll need leaders, in other words, who understand that while the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.

Leaders like this guy, perhaps? I mean, if we’re going to just lump everyone of a particular faith together and cherry-pick the ‘leaders’ who we feel best represent them, why not pick the loudest of the bunch?

And if we can identify the group’s leaders, then we can pigeonhole the entire population’s motives. We can attribute the words of the few to the motives of the many. We can rile up “second America” against the fearful Other. And we can do it all quite nicely by calling into question the sincerity of the group’s desire to properly integrate into mainstream culture. It’s their fault, after all, that they haven’t made it all the way. Why would any real American want to build a mosque so near ground zero?

Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:

But this is bad history; the nativists of 19th-century America weren’t much interested in having “new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture,” rather, the nativists of mid-19th-century America wanted to keep immigrants off of American shores. In its 1856 platform, the American Party — otherwise known as the “Know-Nothing Party” — pushed for the mass expulsion of poor immigrants, and declared that “Americans must rule America, and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices of government employment, in preference to all others.”Likewise, nativism in the late 19th century was preoccupied with keeping foreigners out of the United States. Here is a passage from the constitution the Immigration Restriction League, formed in 1894 by a handful of Harvard graduates:

The objects of this League shall be to advocate and work for further judicious restriction or stricter regulation of immigration, to issue documents and circulars, solicit facts and information on that subject, hold public meetings, and to arouse public opinion to the necessity of a further exclusion of elements undesirable for citizenship or injurious to our national character.

This seems completely obvious, but nativists and xenophobes have never been interested in seeing immigrants join our nation and culture as Americans. Our modern-day nativists — as represented by the previously mentioned Tea Party activists — see “undesirable” immigrants as pests to be dealt with, not potential Americans:

“Instead of finding bugs in our beds, we’re finding home invaders,” said Tony Venuti, a Tucson radio host who attached a huge sign to the fence that told immigrants to head to Los Angeles, where they will be more welcome, and even offered directions for getting there.

Contra Douthat, nativists and xenophobes have never been integral to assimilating immigrants. That distinction goes to the assimilationists of American life who understood — and understand — that “American-ness” can be learned and adopted. Different assimilationists had different approaches to bringing immigrants into American life, but they were united by a common view of America as an open society.

Jonathan Bernstein:

Jamelle Bouie has a great post up this morning about assimilation and immigration, riffing off of Ross Douthat’s column.  Douthat’s claim is that the America of high-minded ideals is at odds with cultural protectionism, and while the latter is bigoted and small-minded, it also winds up having the virtue of forcing newer immigrants and minorities in general to conform to American cultural norms (including those high-minded ideals).  I think Bouie is a bit harsher than necessary to Douthat, who isn’t exactly warm towards those who he says use discrimination and persecution to get their way.  But I also think Bouie is correct: Douthat’s claim that it’s the nativists who have indirectly encouraged assimilation through intimidation may not be entirely wrong, but it’s a somewhat strained reading of history — the nativists didn’t want assimilation, they wanted (and often got) exclusion.  And Bouie is right that Douthat’s history ignores that those in Douthat’s “first” America (the one with the high-minded ideals) have almost always supported and worked to achieve assimilation.

But I think both of them are missing the main actors here: the immigrants themselves, who in almost all cases have been pretty desperate to assimilate as quickly as possible.  That was true of the great immigration waves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s true of the great immigration wave now.  Of course, each group has had various cultural bits and pieces they keep with them (bits and pieces which generally are gobbled up by the larger American culture, so that everyone eats tacos and bagels), and each group has minorities within their minority who resist assimilation, keeping the old language and practices alive (although often radically altered, sometimes without anyone realizing it) even as most of the community drifts — runs — towards America.

Matt Welch at Reason:

Such John Edwards-style reductionism inevitably sends off alarm bells, but this paragraph in particular smelled funny to me:

[B]oth understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

Is this true? To find out I asked an old college newspaper buddy of mine, the immigration historian Christina Ziegler-McPherson, who is author of a recent book called Americanization in the States: Immigrant Social Welfare Policy, Citizenship, and National Identity in the United States, 1908-1929. She e-mailed me back 2,500 words; thought I’d pass along a few of them:

Douthat is full of crap in several ways:

1. [...] [F]or much of the 19th century, except in the big cities like New York, immigrants and natives had little contact and less competition with one another, because the country was growing and was so physically big. [...]

This is not to discount the nativism (i.e. the Know Nothing party) of the mid-1850s but that was a city phenomenon and was driven mostly by anti-Catholicism inspired by famine Irish immigration. Some people didn’t like “clannish” Germans but as long as they weren’t Catholic, no one complained as much. Nativism in the mid-19th century was basically an anti-Irish phenomenon. AND, in some ways, it wasn’t anti-immigrant, just anti-Catholic, and sought to slow down the integration of immigrants into the polity (i.e., by requiring a much longer period of residency before naturalization, and this was as much an elite anti-machine politics idea as anti-Irish or anti-immigrant).

Also, there was no real “national” culture until after the Civil War (and this developed gradually with industrialism and the spread of a mass media and eventually mass consumption) so there could be no “insistence” on immigrants assimilating. Who the heck is he talking about? [...]

2. Nativism, and some aspects of the Americanization movement of the WWI period (especially the more coercive stuff) has always had the effect of making immigrants cling more tightly to their cultures, their languages, traditions. This is both basic psychology and is historically accurate and can be documented for many groups.

Any attack on religion (which frankly, is what anti-Muslim talk is, it’s not anti-ethnic, because there’s no ethnic group called “Muslim”) encourages more orthodoxy, not less, and is totally counter-preductive, because of the 1st Amendment. The American Catholic Church became the authoritarian institution that it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries in large part because of Anglo-American Protestants insisting that Protestantism and Americanism were synonymous and attacking Irish Catholics. [...]

[T]he harder you push for “assimilation”…the more you get orthodoxy, extremism, alienation.

3. Post-WWI restrictions were separate from the Americanization movement and were not designed to encourage assimilation (although a few people did realize that assimilation might happen if immigrants were cut off from rejuvenating contact with their home cultures). The 1924 and 1929 restrictions were explicitly racist (and I mean that in the 19th century biological sense, as in, we don’t want our blood being contaminated by alien blood which is different and is incompatible with ours.)…Eugenics heavily influenced the 1924 and 1929 acts and eugenicists were the statisticians who determined the specific quotas for each group. [...]

The problem of course with Douthat, besides that he has no idea about what he’s talking about, is he’s so vague. When in the 19th century? Which groups? Where? What created these “persistent ethnic divisions”? Are these institutional, cultural, created by policy? Who the heck can tell?

Alex Knapp:

First off all, you’ll note that Little Italy’s and Chinatowns still exist all over the country. There are neighborhoods on the East Coast where you’re lost if you don’t speak Italian, and neighborhoods on the West Coast where you’re lost if you don’t speak Chinese. There are people living in these neighborhoods who are still hostile to outsiders, and lots of different ethnic neighborhoods share this characteristic.And it’s important to realize that these ethnic enclaves, with their insularity and hostility to integration, not only failed to “swiftly assimilate”, they failed to swiftly assimilate because of discrimination. Because of the law and because of cultural prejudice, Italians, Chinese, Irish, Slavs, Jews and other immigrants were very often not hired by their neighbors. As a consequence, Italians hired Italians, Chinese hired Chinese, Irish hired Irish, etc. Immigrant neighborhoods were often either ignored by the police or shaken down by them for protection money. In either case, in a desperate desire for order, immigrants turned to organized crime for protection from criminals or the police. While the Mafioso were brutal, greedy and ruthless, they also kept order on the streets and took care of widows, etc. (You can actually see a similar pattern in Palestine, where Hamas was voted into power as not only a reaction against Israel and the PLO, but also because while Arafat’s government was growing rich and corrupt on foreign aid payments, Hamas was building schools and medical clinics for the destitute.)

Indeed, the combination of the rise of organized crime and the hositility from “second America” more likely delayed the integration of immigrant communities. That integration really didn’t start to happen until various immigrant populations simply became numerous enough to vote their preferred candidates into office, such as the experience of the Irish in Boston.

Another example of Douthat’s willful glossing over of history comes in his discussion of the Mormon experience:

The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream.

This is a great example of how to write something that’s factually true, but rhetorically false. Given his tone, you’d think that Mormon families were getting some glares and “tsks tsks” at PTA meetings. The reality, of course, is that Mormons were violently persecuted, first by their neighbors in Illinois and Missouri, and then by the U.S. Army after they moved to Utah. The Mormons weren’t “persuaded” to abandon polygamy, they were forced to after the United States Congress disincorporated the Church and seized all Mormon assets. Mormon leaders fought the Act in the Courts, but the Supreme Court ultimately upheld Congress’ Act. It was only then that the Mormons capitulated to the government. And it was a long time before Mormons got over that and became more assimilated into every day American life. And even at that, there was considerable hostility among quarters in the Republican Party against Mitt Romney because of his religion.

I definitely agree that, as a culture, Americans should encourage the integration of immigrant populations into every day life. But that integration isn’t built on fear and peer pressure. It’s built on tolerance, a shared ideal of freedom, and the embrace of new cultures into the rich tapestry of American life. Integration comes from delicious foods at Indian buffets and the required learning about American government before an immigrant takes his oath of citizenship. It certainly doesn’t come from protesting Mosques or putting up No Irish Need Apply signs on the door of your business.

UPDATE: Conor Friedersdorf at Andrew Sullivan’s place

Douthat responds to Friedersdorf

Razib Khan at Secular Right

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1 Comment

Filed under History, Immigration, Mainstream, New Media, Religion

One response to “Another Week, Another Ross Douthat Column

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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