Monday, September 04, 2006

On the multicultural fallacy

Michael Barone, one of America's leading political commentators, lays the grounds for the central argument of his book The New Americans when, in its revised preface, he attacks the current crop of America's liberal elite for its moral relativism:

[In the America of today,] there are the highly educated moral-relativist elite, who regard our civilization as a virus and hostile immigrants and multiculturalism as the cure.

Barone's argument is in favor of Americanization, the assimilated experience of the melting pot that makes each and every person residing in the United States quintessentially American. He attacks the liberal elite for equating Americanization with subverting the native instincts of foreign-born people.

To Barone, this latter position is fundamentally flawed, since, as he convincingly argues, allowing immigrant communities to retain their native habits ultimately harms the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. He points to the race riots in France and the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh as pointers to why multiculturalism has backfired in Europe. He attacks this system for failing to inculcate in immigrants a love for their host countries. Multiculturalism, he says, by encouraging immigrants to stay in separate communities, "fosters hostile attitudes" toward host countries. They reside in distinctive ghettos that are mired in poverty and filth. Since there isn't a tendency toward assimilation, they lack basic skills and have no job opportunities. There is a silent rage that festers in these communities only waiting to explode.

What lends robustness to Barone's argument is his deep knowledge of the immigrant communities he writes about. The book is a first-rate primer on the histories and varied experiences of immigrants of different hues. For instance, did you know that the first sport at which Jews excelled was boxing? Or that Chinese and Korean credit associations, known as the hui and keh, respectively, and which are founded on strong social ties, have been the backbone of several successful businesses run by them in America?

The book is packed with many such interesting nuggets and melds them into the larger tale of the immigrant community. Barone looks at immigrants by discussing two groups at a time. He draws parallels between the experiences of Latinos and Italians, blacks and Irish, and Asians and Jews. By comparing and contrasting these subcategories on a number of parameters such as literacy levels, crime rates, family structure, motives to migrate, etc., Barone asserts that there are striking resemblances between them. The study yields notable observations, among them, that neither Italian nor Latino immigrants placed much value on education, and that both the Irish and blacks created and dominated their own churches.

Barone culls his material from diverse sources. Making references to the likes of Octavio Paz and Francis Fukuyama, the book is that rare combination: a scholarly journal whose text is approachable for its smooth narrative flow.

The writer falters, however, in placing all Asian immigrants under one umbrella. His definition of Asian encompasses only China, Japan, South Korea and the countries of Indo-China, barring Myanmar. Which is why he makes faulty assumptions like, "For most Asians, the guiding tradition has been Confucianism." None of the countries comprising the Indian subcontinent have followed a tradition of Confucianism. Yet, large numbers of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have migrated to America.

The arguments raised by Barone remind me of what the political right has been demanding in India. The main opposition party, the BJP, has attacked the ruling Congress-led UPA for following a policy of minority appeasement, which the former calls pseudo-secularism. The BJP contends that pseudo-secularism ensures that minorities stay just that - minorities. Barone similarly attacks the left-liberal agenda, which asks for bilingual education, or religious preachers being given a free hand to preach what they like, for harming the long-term well-being of the immigrants.

He discards any misgivings one may harbor regarding the future of immigration in America. Just as the Irish and Jews were considered separate races in the early years of the 20th century (yes!) but are an essential part of American life today, so will Asians and Latinos be accepted into the American mainstream over time. In fact, Barone looks forward to such an eventuality. What he advocates as Americanization is not a blanket disavowal of all things non-American, but a blending of different cultures into a heterogeneous whole, much like how pizza is as much an American snack today as Italian.

Instead of only mentioning it in passing, had Barone tackled the scourge of terrorism in relation to the experience of a certain segment of immigrants, their motives, their influences, The New Americans would have been a complete compendium on one of the most pertinent questions America faces today. In any case, grab the book for an engaging account of the collective histories of a single nation state.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow!
i mean wow! thats YOU!