Preserving American culture: Immigration reduction complements assimilation
Melik Kaylan, writing in Opinion Journal, lamented the fact that even though America’s critics complain about our “cultural dominance,” classical American culture is in decline.
“These days,” Kaylan wrote, “American culture is all diversity. The legacy of bien-pensant intellectual support for ‘victimized’ minorities over many decades combined with the borderless nature of consumption has left no dominant American culture to speak of.” To be sure, American pop culture is alive and well. But the United States’ cultural output is more than McDonald’s, Madonna and MTV. Yet not only is that all we export to other countries, it is the cultural diet of native-born citizens living within the American mainstream.
To those with an appreciation for Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or a spiritual connection to the Christian culture of our ancestors, or simply an affinity for the familiar, the triumph of popular culture over high tradition within the United States has long been evident. At the same time, the trend of multiculturalism in American education has increasingly displaced anything in arts and letters that originated in the Western tradition. Traditionalists dating back even further than Russell Kirk have criticized the cultural impact of these changes and their meaning for who Americans are as a people, but perhaps even this does not go far enough in assessing the consequences of failing to preserve American culture.
Kaylan argues that this is a crucial area of failure in the American assimilation process: “Based on past history, Americans continue to believe that immigrants always eventually assimilate. But we forget that we no longer offer anything coherent or redemptive to assimilate to. And with access to e-mail and travel to the home country, nobody need change out of the culture he came with.” If America is going to continue to exist as a viable nation-state, it must somehow cohere, yet it is impossible for it to cohere without some common cultural identity. Combine this weakened shared identity with large-scale immigration and the bonds of national unity are frayed further. The answer, we are told, is assimilation. But assimilation into what?
Kaylan’s specific concern is attempting to promote the assimilation of those susceptible to Islamist appeals at the same time we treat higher culture to be as much of an individual preference as religion. “Islam is a venerational culture,” he wrote, “and America offers its immigrant communities no alternative culture of veneration to their own.”
This is a valid point. The irony is that these words appear on a website affiliated with the Wall Street Journal, which runs editorials more or less assuming that mass immigration from non-traditional sources is just dandy, commercialized culture suffices as a common identity, immigrants will always assimilate and that as long as everyone listens to rock music, wears jeans and eats Big Macs unity will abound.
Allow me to go a few steps further than Kaylan. Americans need to do more than reclaim their traditions, although this is very important. We need to reclaim our cultural self-confidence and an attachment to our national identity. Then we need to rethink our immigration policy so that we admit newcomers who reinforce rather than dilute this identity. As it will take time for us to fully recover our capacity for real assimilation, this will likely require the admission of a smaller number of immigrants.
Neoconservatives often speak of assimilation as an alternative to reducing legal immigration levels, but in fact immigration reduction complements assimilation. The historic immigration of the early 20th century was assimilated in part because of a more culturally cohesive and self-confident nation actively promoted “Americanization.” But Americanization was in no small part advanced by a 40-year-lull in immigration.
America has historically experienced intermitted immigration. Immigration waves are capped by pauses that facilitate assimilation and acculturation. During these pauses, foreign-born communities are not being reinforced and the numbers being assimilated become more manageable. These periods of minimal immigration do not happen by accident (though severe economic dislocations like the Great Depression can contribute); they are primarily the result of deliberate policy choices. The 40-year lull referenced above began with immigration restrictions adopted by Congress in 1924. Its result was the assimilation of an unprecedented immigrant wave that once seemed very alien but today is an integral part of the American nation. Can immigration reform accomplish this again?
It is becoming increasingly obvious even to Wall Street Journal conservatives that there needs to be a common culture for Americans to share and immigrants to assimilate into. The question is whether anything will be done to make it so.
“Published originally at EtherZone.com : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”