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.

March 9, 2011

“What is history?”

     That was the name of a book by E. H. Carr, noted historian. Graduate students were supposed to read it in graduate school. However, this blog is about two kinds of “history” writing, incompatible with each other.

It is possible to write history within an entirely religious framework. 1. The deity intervenes in the everyday affairs of humanity, or 2. An undefined entity called “human nature” defies all attempts made by “secularists” to improve the condition of others and oneself, or 3. Civilizations rise and fall, hence there can be no “progress” based upon an improved study of the world around us, followed by measures taken to rectify the errors of the past.

I have encountered many historians writing under these assumptions: the cultural historians I mentioned who dominate the teaching of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction (see my blog, where their names are listed.) In one instance, the leading historian of this group wrote to me that the effects of slavery still lingered, though he did not say what they were, or how such a claim could be proven.

Similarly, today I read an essay by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online in which the author contrasted the “therapeutic” view of human nature (he doesn’t like it) with the “tragic view” that he does like, lamenting that it is to be found in literature and not a guide to political choices. It is worth noting that the tragic view has been rightly identified by some as the viewpoint of a declining class that peers into the future and sees nothing but darkness. In Greek tragedy, the hero fell because of hubris or pride. He should have understood that the gods were spinning our fate, and to defy their divine plans was to court the fate of Prometheus.

The other kind of historian is a Promethean, and is denounced as secularist by “traditionalists.” Count me in their city of the damned. These are our crimes against the fates.

1. We pry into the affairs of our betters. We read their private letters, diaries, and journals, along with their public pronouncements. But even their most private utterances are taken with a grain of salt, for they may be leaving a false record for posterity or may simply be fallible as we all are in dealing with touchy issues that are entangled with emotional defenses. It is sometimes said that only the mature historian should attempt biography. Young persons are still wet behind the ears, emotionally speaking. In any case, we footnote our sources so that others may check out our veracity in transmitting the historical record. It is outrageous that most publishers consign these to “endnotes” instead of putting them on the page where they are referenced.

2. We do not assume the role of analyst of today’s conflicts and events, for we have not access to primary source materials, unless they are leaked, and even then we have only hints. Our betters tend to keep the good stuff away from the public eye. That is why James O’Keefe’s sting operation in exposing the views of  NPR executive  Ron Schiller is arousing hysteria in liberal circles.

3. We do not use the past as a foreshadowing or “anticipation” of the future. Unless we are Hegelian Marxists, there is no telos. And even Marx said once that men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Too bad he went into prophet mode in his most influential work. But that is what organic thinkers do. For them, human history is analogous to the life cycle of a plant (e.g. Goethe), but we are not plants. Historians should study the past so that we may move on, while respecting the power of the human will and imagination to avoid preventable disasters and to increase the life chances for those who are needlessly burdened and slaughtered. We cannot be, must not be, “activist scholars” for that presumes a god-like omniscience or obeisance to a social movement; perhaps too that there is a telos or predetermined course for history, which we are hurrying on or making with our timely interventions. It is hard enough to do any kind of helpful history, given the sources at hand. But we can and must compare competing narratives of the past as disseminated by politicians, pundits, and all other communicators. Nothing and no one is sacred, especially not our own work. Writing history entails reconfiguring the past and sometimes, with new evidence,  overthrowing our own most cherished assumptions. If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve the name of scholar, but are courtiers or theologians.  Which is fine, only don’t pretend to be a participant in the Enlightenment or in the profession of  writing history.

4. Herman Melville, when queried, answered that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic. That is why I continue to read Melville and inspect the distortions of his work promulgated by optimists and pessimists.  Historians had better be close readers.

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