Saturday, August 12, 2006

Diversity makes us safe?

(Cross-posted at Sine qua non)

Over at The New Republic's blog The Plank, Noam Scheiber reads against the grain of an article on what factor(s) contribute to British Muslims being drawn to extremist thought and action. He offers up some anecdotal evidence that perhaps not all of this can be laid at the doorstep of Islam:

I think this is a pretty typically British way of viewing culture and cultural assimilation--you're either on the team or you're not--and I think it's a serious problem. I can't speak directly to its implications for Muslims, but I do have some experience with it when it comes to Jews, having spent two years living in England during the late 1990s. What repeatedly struck me was the fact that, unlike the United States, where there's generally no conflict between being self-consciously Jewish and being self-consciously American, in Britain one identity is almost always secondary to the other. Most of the Jews I knew either considered themselves Jews who just happened to be living in England--these tended to be religiously observant Jews. Or they considered themselves Brits who just happened to be of Jewish descent. (In many of the latter instances, I didn't even realize they were Jewish until I'd known them for several months.) There just didn't seem to be much room for dual identity, which seemed like a potentially alienating state of affairs--you're free to be ethnically or religiously proud, but if you are, you shouldn't expect to be accepted as part of the cultural mainstream.
(emphasis added)

Scheiber doesn't do this, but I think that implicit in this commentary is an appropriate reminder, if not a lesson, for this country regarding our present national debate on immigration. Many say this is a national security issue, and some point precisely to the dilemma many European nations have regarding their increasingly isolationist Muslim populations as evidence, but more often than not it seems to me that what is at stake for them is the securing of an "American" identity against the Other (who happens more often than not to be dark-skinned and not Protestant). They seek to address that fear through advocating much more stringent border security (significantly, along the southern and not the northern border, even though no arrested terrorists I've heard of have crossed from Mexico but from Canada), English-Only movements and the like.

As someone said in something I read elsewhere yesterday but can't recall where, our homegrown terrorists are best embodied not by immigrant populations but by Timothy McVeigh (and, I'd add, Eric Rudolph), good white, (Protestant-)God-fearing English-speakers: quintessentially American by definition who nevertheless became ironically and tragically self-estranged from the very culture that raised them.

You can see what I'm getting at, I hope: the subtext of many get-tough immigration proposals is fer-us-er-agin-us-ism, the unstated assumption that, as a prerequisite to residency in this country not only one's political loyalties but also one's cultural loyalties must be singular and clearly defined--and that we'd prefer that those cultural loyalties be "American." To which I'd just say that it does seem to make sense, does it not, that explicit and implicit pressures on people to choose "our" side seems more likely to cause some to choose the "other" side--something we'd do well to avoid. It is our great strength as a nation, as a people, precisely that we don't do this, and it would be to our credit--and no doubt contribute to our national security--that we continue not to do that.

UPDATE: This morning at the Plank, Alex Massie, who wrote the article to which Scheiber was responding, has his own response up, in which he comments helpfully on the distinction between "Britishness" and "Englishness". It's worth a visit over there to read because it happens to make, within the British/English context, the very distinction between constructed (read: political) and cultural identities that I fear have been blurred/elided/ignored by some (though NOT my commenters) in the course of debates on immigration in this country.

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Winston said...

It is interesting and somewhat ironic that Scheiber notes that Brits don't have "much room for dual identity" since it is their country that allows dual citizenship, or did the last time I looked.

As to any parallel between this and immigration policy in the US, I s'pose it is too early in the day for me to get the connection. The immigration problems and debate are NOT about locking the borders, NOT about English only, and NOT even about terrorism.

The problem is that we in the US, and particularly in the Southern-most states, and saddled with hundreds of thousands of ILLEGAL immigrants from MEXICO, NOT from Canada. We welcome anyone, as we always have and I hope always will, who comes into and stays in our country legally, works for a living, pays taxes, and yes, reads and speaks English, not ONLY, but enough that we don't have to spend millions of taxpayer dollars making every sign, every form, every conversation, a dual language presentation.

Many of our states' coffers are already close to bankruptcy due to the Bush administration's failure to deliver the funds they committed and promised for disaster relief and beefing up of homeland security. And now the states are staggering under a burgeoning debt for health care for illegal aliens who are sucking our system dry.

Yes, I get emotional. Yes, I think something needs to be done about it. You and I are paying the tab, including health care, for the illegals. What part of "illegal" does a large part of our populace not understand?

This does NOT mean close the borders. It simply means conduct our National affairs the way we did for a couple of centuries (with heightened security due to the terrorism threat), and enforce the laws already on the books, and DO NOT penalize American citizens for the law-breaking of those who have no loyalty, no desire to be American, no intention of taking care of themselves, pulling their own weight, paying their taxes.

Sorry, but I do get riled on this issue. I probably should have written my own post about it rather than rant on yours. But it is done...

John B. said...

Like you, I agree that our nation needs to address the matter of immigration, specifically illegal immigration, and for many of the reasons you offer. I'm more than open to listen to and participate in honest, frank discussions of this matter. But I have read elsewhere that some have explicitly linked a stronger policing of our southern border to a preventive measure against Muslim extremists attempting to "pass" as Hispanics. That seems plausible, I suppose. And as for English-Only movements, that debate is framed by its advocates in terms of cultural identity as much as--probably more than--in terms of economic expediency. And the Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a report that finds that the Klan and other white supremicist groups are using the issue of immigration to radicalize and recruit new members.

Scheiber's distinction is between citizenship and is suggesting that, in some places, citizenship carries less weight than does one's conformity to a cultural identity. I would argue essentially that what defines us as Americans is precisely our citizenship--that is, our allegiance to a system of political ideals. That allegiance transcends (or should) matters of race, class, religion, language . . . "liberty" is the same as "libertad," is it not? Those who wanted to pass a law making it illegal to sing the national anthem in any language other than English aren't just wasting time better spent on solving the very problems you name; I'd argue that such a proposal is blatantly un-American.

R. Sherman said...


This week on election day, the EMBLOS took the boys to a local library which was also a polling place. One of the campaign workers asked her if she'd voted. The EMBLOS replied, "No, I'm not a citizen." The worker told her she should be.

I've likewise posted my thoughts on immigration. I think the difference generally is that America is built on an idea rather than a "culture." American culture is an amalgamation of all the luggage we've brought here. For all our faults, most of us have an idea of what it means to be "American" and that distinction is, or in my view should be, separate from origin, race or creed.

In Europe, no one knows what it means to be "French" or "Danish" or "Spanish" beyond surnames and mother tongues. There is no "German" ideal. That's what allows minority groups to remain insulated and disaffected.

That's why I think we have substantially less unrest among first and second generation immigrant communities here. And by the third generation, the members of the communities are indistinguishable from all of us.