The Joy of Becoming American: Culture, Assimilation, and the Brokenness Thereof
Tommy De Seno begins his epic post on the main feed with these words:
As the immigration debate heats up, we must remember that America has a culture. Of foremost importance to any immigration policy must be protection of that culture.
As a 1.5 generation immigrant (meaning, I came here when I was 10 or so), and likely one of only a few Ricochetti who actually had to go through the naturalization process, I feel compelled to point out something here.
If you believe the above-- that immigration policy must protect American culture -- then I have news for you.
America had a culture. It no longer does. And before you can talk about immigration policy protecting American culture, you had best figure out what the heck that is.
I immigrated with my parents in 1979-1980, part of the second wave of immigrants from Asia. (The first wave happened in the late 60's after the 1965 immigration reforms.) At least in the 80s, and even through parts of the 90s (when I finally became a citizen), I can say with certainty that there was an American culture. It wasn't easy to define, but you felt it and knew it.
For example, consider what was on TV in the mid-80's and was popular. I distinctly remember watching Little House on the Prairie after school and thinking that the whole frontier spirit was distinctly American. I distinctly remember watching shows like Silver Spoons, The Jeffersons, Family Ties, and The Cosby Show, and taking from each of them a sense of what it meant to be American -- a valuable clue for a foreigner. Even Cheers, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, and other programs that weren't centered around the family still had major streaks of "American culture" in them -- a sort of gruff, everyman quality where a snooty intellectual would hang out in the same Boston bar with a mailman and a wisecracking waitress. At the same time, Dallas, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, and other shows/movies made it clear that wealth was not despised here, but celebrated. Capitalism was a hero -- after all, we were in a Cold War with communists.
Socially, as a young foreigner, I was fully aware that the Puritan tradition remained in American culture. Do you remember just how shocking Madonna's "Like A Virgin" was when it hit the airwaves? We kids snuck around to listen to that titillating song, because we knew it wasn't quite accepted. The practice on the streets may have been very different from what was on TV and in our music, but I got the distinct sense that Americans at least paid lip service to traditional morality.
Overall, the culture of America -- to which an immigrant is hyper-sensitive -- was one of Christian capitalism, always undergirded with a strong sense of individualism and personal freedom.
Fast forward to today. To 2013.
If I were immigrating today, you tell me just what is the culture I'm supposed to absorb, learn, and assimilate to?
The culture of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, where supersized Big Gulps are banned and smoking isn't allowed outdoors in city parks? Or the culture of Texas where bar owners are free to decide whether to have indoor smoking or not?
Am I supposed to believe that American culture is about family and faith as it is in parts of the South and exurban/suburban communities? Or about Sex And The City and Girls?
Is capitalism and success something to be celebrated? Or demonized? Or justified only because it allows the super rich to give to charities (as appears to be the case looking at Silicon Valley and high finance culture)?
Am I supposed to believe that Americans still consider themselves equal to each other in rights and privileges, or believe that government officials and former law enforcement are special and different?
What's American? Tommy De Seno cites an essay in which Italian immigrants talk about Americans being people who ate PB&J on mushy white bread. None of my peers and friends in urban areas would be caught dead buying mushy white bread when fresh-baked seven-grain French peasant bread is available at Whole Foods. Is it American to know the names of at least a dozen celebrity chefs? Or is it still American to order a burger medium-rare, with a side of sweet potato fries?
I can go on and on and on, but there is little doubt in my mind that there really are two Americas now. It isn't the "rich vs. poor" of John Edwards' fiction, but the City vs. the Country, or Charles Murray's Belmont vs. Fishtown, or the North vs. South, or something less definable.
Whether we're talking about leisure (college football vs. independent films), food, music, TV, movies, political beliefs, religious beliefs ... there are two Americas.
So when you want to ask immigrants to assimilate to American culture... which America's culture? Should they assimilate to the New Yorker (after all, New York still boasts the quintessential American icon of the Statue of Liberty, no?) and disdain fast food, hold politically correct opinions, and look upon smokers as lepers? Or do they assimilate to the Texan?
Tommy DeSeno writes:
Were we to allow America’s ideals to be radically changed over time by outsiders coming in, the case could then be made that America as founded no longer exists. At that point we may as well change the name to not denigrate what American once was.
I don't know what to tell ya, but it ain't the outsiders who changed America's ideals. It ain't Hispanics that pushed Obamacare through, but whitebread, trace-my-lineage-to-the-Mayflower types from Boston et. al. It ain't the Asians who are agitating for national bans on firearms; it's the natives with generations upon generations of roots in this country of ours.
And finally, this:
While I acknowledge that it can be hard to let go, I stress that anyone who won’t let go of their old country makes themselves an outsider here, not the other way around. Assimilation means the newcomer has to do the work of fitting in with us, not us with him.
As someone who had to actually do this, I concur heartily and agree 100 percent. It is the outsider that should do the work of fitting in, not the other way around. I did it, and I expect newcomers to do it too.
But you know, you/we need to be able to tell the outsider what it is that he's supposed to fit in with. You want immigrants to assimilate? Give him something to assimilate with.
Start there. Because it's not only unfair but patently illogical to demand in 2013 that the new immigrant fit in with "us", when there is no "us" to speak of. Speak of that first, before you go about trying to set immigration policy of any sort.