The McGill Report

Assimilate Then Celebrate -- In That Order

ROCHESTER, MN (Oct. 8) -- When did "assimilation" become a dirty word in America?

"Celebrating diversity" and "embracing the other," these are the vogue words these days. They both describe ways for the majority population to alter its attitudes and behaviors to absorb immigrants.

But old-fashioned "assimilation," which puts the responsibility on the immigrant to do the hard work of adapting, is definitely out.

Multiculturalism, the idea that we're a nation of many subcultures rather than of one national culture, was the death of the ideal of assimilation. And it's a crying shame.

And now, multiculturalism added to mass immigration is threatening to sink the ship. Many American subcultures -- Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans, and many others -- now number in the millions, enough to form an entire country of their own. But these new countries are located inside our borders.

Under multiculturalism these foreign-born populations are encouraged to succeed not through assimilation but rather through ethnic self-determination, to become self-sustaining enclaves of business and religion and culture linked to one another by nothing but a U.S. mail address.

Strong Points

It's time to rethink why we trashed the ideal of assimilation, and to bring it back, at least partially. Can we do this in Rochester?

There are so many strong institutions in our city to help immigrants settle into southeast Minnesota -- the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, the Migration and Refugee Services, the Adult Literacy Center, the Rochester Diversity Council, many Rochester schools, and so on.

But are we asking the immigrants themselves to do enough? To take on enough responsibility for their own assimilation? Are we asking them explicitly and insistently, not to forget or to renounce their former identities, but rather to subordinate them fully as they become Americans?

In earlier eras, for all its strong points, we botched assimilation by misunderstanding it and too brutally enforcing it. In schools, we whipped children for speaking a single German, or Chinese, or Indian word; we put Japanese families in internment camps; and we committed other crimes.

Assimilation is not (should not be) about the enforced forgetting of a former culture and identity. That goes against human nature and is thus literally inhuman and bound to fail. And we don't want immigrants to leave every thread of their old selves behind -- we benefit far too much from their wisdoms, languages and cultures for that.

Hooking Up

Assimilation is (should be) about subordinating the old identity to a new American one. And it's a sacred civic obligation to demand that from immigrants for the sake of security and for the sake of the transcendent ideals of freedom and consensual government that we serve.

Assimilation was enshrined by our nation's founders, including George Washington, who cautioned immigrants to shed the "language, habits, and principles (good and bad) which they bring with them." Instead they should be ready for "intermixture with our people" and thus be "assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people."

In families you don't adopt a Chinese baby expecting her to speak only Chinese and eat with chopsticks when she's grown. It's the same way in marriage. When you hook up, you take vows to change and to subordinate yourself in certain ways. You sacrifice.

It should be no different with citizenship. Yet for some reason, when it comes to immigrants, we extend to this gigantic number of permanent life partners a free pass. "Celebrate diversity!" "Embrace your roots!"

We keep repeating feel-good multicultural mantras as year by year America becomes less unique and more like the rest of the world, just another kaleidoscope of competing tribes and factions.

The Gift of Unity

Pick your separatist movement -- the Basques, the Palestinians, the Kurds, the East Timorese, the Zulus, the Uighurs, the Chechens, the Quebecois, the Zulus, and on and on. The failure of the larger nation to achieve a national cultural unity is the tragic flaw behind all these disasters. The United States was given the gift of unity from the beginning. Now we are squandering it.

On Monday afternoon, I dropped in at Riverside Central Elementary School, where many children are from immigrant families. Riverside is well known for the work its teachers do to help these youngsters overcome language and cultural barriers to get an equal start in life with other kids.

The school's mission statement is posted on the wall. It reads in part: "We encourage students to become good citizens who embrace each other's differences."

How about a new mission statement for students at Riverside and across America that would read as follows: "We encourage students to embrace each other's differences and to become good citizens, above all by learning how to subordinate their individual ethnic differences in the interest of national unity and for the sake of America's highest ideals."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report