The Clare Spark Blog

May 5, 2011

Assimilation and its malcontents

Yesterday on Facebook I started a thread asking my friends what they thought that assimilation meant, then refined it to assimilation in a democratic republic. I got this strong response from Tom Nichols, a political scientist and frequent contributor to the History of Diplomacy (Humanities Net) discussion group:

“Assimilation, to me, has never had a negative connotation. To me it means that if you ask to immigrate to another country, you’re accepting that you’re asking other people to let you make your home with them. The house rules are posted up front: you don’t get to pick and choose. If the adopting country is attractive enough to you to move there and seek citizenship, then you must accept all of the communal responsibilities of citizenship. But let’s leave the U.S. out of it for a moment, and let’s pretend we’re talking about assimilation if you move to Saudi Arabia. If you want to move to the Kingdom, then suck it up: the little missus is going to have to wear a headscarf. It’s their country, not yours, and if you want to join their family, get it straight about who wears the veil and who wears the pants. It might be ridiculous, but it’s their right as a society. On the other hand, it’s our right not to have to move there, and this might explain why talented, smart people in the West are not deluging the Saudi consulates for immigration visas.

Or better yet, take France, which has had the stones to pass some laws we would never have the guts to pass here. If you move to France, you respect and practice French values, at least in public — and that means you don’t form roving packs of boys raping unveiled women in Marseilles. If your son is in one of those packs, you don’t later defend him by saying that in your culture, women who are unveiled are asking for it. (If you like your own culture so much, then stay where you are.) It means you accept the decisions of the legally-elected French government until the next election, and
if you lose in that election, you don’t protest those decisions by wilding in the streets because it’s your “culture” to do so. You become French, and you damn well stand up when the French flag is raised. Assimilation doesn’t mean losing your identity; in a democratic republic it means your public identity must conform to the values that made you want to move in the first place. It means not being cynical about being an immigrant. And in a democratic republic, the bargain is this: it means your private life is just that — private. Do what you like at home, but one you step outside, your public life conforms to the norms of the Republic. Most importantly, you cannot be a hypocrite. You cannot come to France, take citizenship, study in the great
halls of the Sorbonne, gorge on wine and cognac, chase the local gals, download porn at prodigious rates over Europe’s free and uncensored internet, and then complain that the EU is just a decadent, indulgent melange of perverts and that is why you therefore maintain two or three passports, just like you have two or three wives, no matter what those French snobs think about it. That all sounds harsh, maybe, but the solution is clear: if you don’t like it, don’t get off the plane at De Gaulle. Try Russia or Japan or Mexico, pull your anti-assimilationist *merde* there, and see how that goes for you. So vive la France. And good luck to every other country that takes in and tolerates immigrants who think that “immigration” means staking out a community like some sort of hostile base camp deep in enemy territory. Let’s have more assimilation and less use of the word “culture.” Oh, and PS: Learn French, damn it.” [end, Tom Nichols quote]

I was glad that professor Nichols picked France as his example, as it has been secular (off and on)* since the much derided French Revolution, a revolution that took its inspiration in part from the previous American Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is significant to me because some “traditionalist” conservatives regularly condemn “secularism” as if the conception was derived from the godlessly atheistic Soviet Union. These same persons are busy finding fault with the separation of church and state, and combing through documents for proof that the Founding Fathers were godly and never intended to leave spiritual matters to the privacy of the individual conscience. Hence, the culture wars. I have written about that tendency among the social conservatives before on this website, and deplore their abandonment of libertarian ideas originated in the early modern period.

To end this blog, let me make a distinction between multiculturalism ( a pseudo-solution to the existence of prejudice or bigotry) and the pluralism guaranteed by our Constitution, particularly in the First Amendment. The American and French Revolutions were children of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, with the exception of the divergent German Enlightenment, the latter an irrationalist assault on the Age of Reason. Multiculturalism was consciously counter-revolutionary, a response to the French philosophes, materialists all, who preceded them. As I have shown with quotes from Herder and his followers on this website, the notion of national character, a racialist and collectivist idea, was the linchpin of their philosophy.

[Added after I was working on the blog, from Tom Nichols:  just to be clear, I think every country’s culture is its own business, and that each nation decides for itself what is acceptable within its own social norms — except when those practices become so dangerous to human life that they must be stopped (like, say, genocide or ritual female mutilation). I just happen to think that *Western* nations have the same rights.”

* When I first wrote this I had forgotten that the Declaration of the Rights of Man has had a rocky history in France. When Melville’s Billy Budd says farewell to the Rights of Man, we have a hint that Melville was not assigning to his character the qualities often ascribed to him.


  1. […] Spark elaborates here on the […]

    Pingback by Multiculturalism explained — questions answered « Churchmouse Campanologist — November 9, 2011 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

  2. Clare,
    Perhaps I have missed something. What do you find special about the French Revolution and its resulting Reign of Terror?

    I understand that Marx and his followers were inspired by the French revolution, but I don’t see much special there either. The Marxists have produced many more terrors, even worse than those which ended the French Revolution. Already, these anti-Christian secularists have killed 100 million people, in the name of “reason.”

    How many more have to die before people realize that “reason” is a tool which has no morals. Reason can be used for evil as well as for good. Again, what have I missed? What is it about the French Revolution, and its hatred for Christianity, followed by rivers of blood, that you admire?

    When religious Americans reject “secularism”, whether they realize it or not, they are rejecting the French innovation, laicite. Laicite was invented in France, long after our founding. From my perspective, laicite, is anther front, in the war against our Christian culture, which has been the bulwark of Western Civilization for the last two thousand years.

    Since “Reason”, separated from God, has no intrinsic moral values, the common values, that make society possible, come from religion, not from “reason”. The slogan, “separation of Church and State”, is not a call for freedom, rather it is a weapon used by people who hate Christianity, to destroy our Christian culture, and to replace it with a culture of their own choosing. What that culture will be is still unknown. In Europe, the anti-Christians have tried the teachings of the philosophes resulting in the Reign of Terror, Marxism with its massive killing fields, and Naziism with the Holocaust. Now, Eurpoean “secularists” are in the process of replacing the last shreds of their own Christian heritage a new religion and its new culture, Sharia.

    The United States was founded on a different idea, the culture based on the teachings of a Jewish carpenter, who was crucified by the Romans, 2000 years ago. His teachings have enlightened and liberted millions of people. I much prefer our culture, over Marxism, Nazism, and Islamism. Please help me out? What have I missed?

    Comment by Dennis — May 13, 2011 @ 9:12 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for the reply. I’ll try to be a little more direct. I was born in 1978, long after what you referred to in the “more on the ABCs” blog as “the almost incomprehensible deterioration of our shared culture since at least the second world war.”

    You say you’re not sure where I’m going with my question — neither am I. That’s the purpose of a question, to my mind. I abhor polemics, especially when the polemic is couched in pretend-questions. The purpose of my question here is only to learn more. My own experience (through graduate school in English) has convinced me that there’s seriously something to what you’re saying; but it seems to me that the only way to begin to understand it is to admit that my own education was a failed string of ideological indoctrination, at best.

    I suppose I could elaborate a few of my positions. I appreciate science, but think it’s been badly appropriated by corporate/political interests. I’m typical as a “spiritual but not relgious” thirty-something. I’ve read all of Melville, and a good bit of Plato, and the Bible, and Nietzsche, and Camus. And Tacitus is the most serious historian I’ve read. And I’ve read Hayek & Keynes and Marx and Mises. And all that reading and the rest of my reading seems only a preliminary inroad toward what you’re talking about. Nevertheless, since I read the first few pages of “Hunting Ahab,” I’ve felt strongly that you’re onto something. My own dissertation chapter on Melville was a study of the One/Many conflict as depicted in the tension (unresolved, I think) between Ahab as heroic unifier and Ishmael as problematic pluralist. But that was four years ago.

    Maybe you could recommend one or two books on American history? I love the idea of rescuing or continuing to defend a politics that recognizes individual rights over the collective…. other than continuing to read your blog, what’s a good next step or two?

    Comment by Casey — May 6, 2011 @ 2:15 pm | Reply

  4. Everything that Tom Nichols said about France (a democratic republic) can be transferred to this democratic republic. I wrote about these issues in many blogs, but see this one in particular and look for Mordecai Grossman’s statement in the first issue of Commentary magazine, 1945 (
    I don’t know where you are going with your question, perhaps to the realm of symbolic politics that test old loyalties to the societies of our ancestors, but as I understand old-fashioned liberal nationalism (that is contrasted to conservative nationalism), the unit of value is the individual, not the collective. For instance, Charles Sumner (whose chief ideas are reproduced on the website) believed that the nation protected the general welfare from invasion, but also protected the civil rights of individuals, without respect to ethnicity or “race.” For conservative nationalists, however, nationalism refers to the control over a specific territory and its resources. It is silent about individual civil rights. What makes America exceptional is what the antislavery Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner fought for: A conception of the nation that reflected the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. If you want more detail from me, you will have to be more direct. My own opinion is that the conception of the self-managing, self-directed individual (taking advantage of the opportunity to improve her or his lot in life) is fading away, especially in the mass media. For contrast, see

    Comment by clarespark — May 5, 2011 @ 11:16 pm | Reply

  5. More for the sake of getting a follow-up, can you clarify how a vision like the one you described — “If you move to France, you respect and practice French values, at least in public” — would translate into American terms? Is it as simple as showing your face in public, or are you thinking more narrowly (which, of course, would be more dangerous and interesting!).

    Ever stumble upon this site?

    Anyway–interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Casey — May 5, 2011 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

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