December 11, 2005


Native grounds: Many Europeans are asking whether they can ever emulate the American melting pot -- and whether the should. A letter from England. (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, December 11, 2005, Boston Globe)

America has always been a land of immigration-and until recently, or even now by European standards, of cheap labor. The explosive industrial development of the Gilded Age in the half century after the Civil War was fueled by British capital and by the labor of immigrants, peasants, and proletarians: men, women, and not least children, from all the corners of Europe. Employers in Massachusetts mill towns and Pennsylvania coal mines used those workers like machines, as expendable as any inanimate raw material.

But it worked after its fashion, and it worked because of work. To a remarkable degree, these incomers accepted the American gospel of equality through toil and dignity through reward.

Just how successful assimilation has been in America may be more clearly visible from outside. In 1988 I was taken to a press dinner in Washington at which President Reagan spoke. He gave what was no doubt a well-rehearsed set-piece speech: ''Every immigrant makes America more American," he said. You can't become an Englishman by going to live in England, or a Frenchman by going to live in France, ''but anyone can become an American." It may have been corny; I was moved almost to tears.

Indeed Reagan's words were truer than he may have realized, and even nomenclature is telling. A friend of mine was born and bred in Vienna before he left quickly and for good reason in 1938. Having spent the rest of his life in London and, in the fullness of time, as a subject of Her Majesty, he used to say drily, ''I've become British, but I know I can never become English." But anyone can become an American.

Modern Europe had no experience of large-scale immigration from outside the continent until after 1945. Just as the British were said to have acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind, so postwar Europe acquired a large new immigrant population without really thinking about it-in the case of England, France, and Holland-as the legacy of empire.

Different countries already had different attitudes to the idea of nationhood: German identity was founded on the Volk (the people) and the French republican version was founded on the patrie, ethnic as opposed to civic nationalism. German immigration law, dating back a hundred years, has been well-nigh racial in inspiration. Anyone can claim German nationality who can prove German descent, but it was very difficult indeed for anyone else to ''become a German." [...]

Another French republican ideal was laicism: not the passive secularism of the First Amendment but an active, or even aggressive, hostility to religion. France may be said to have been evenhanded about this: Forbidding Muslim girls to wear headscarves to school is surely no harsher than closing monasteries and expelling Catholic religious orders, as the Third Republic did early last century. [...]

In England and Holland there has been another factor, what William Pfaff, the American columnist who writes from Paris, calls ''ghettoization through political correctness." People were encouraged to think of themselves as members of a specific community, black or Muslim, rather than as citizens of the country in which they lived.

That was the exact opposite of the American tradition, whereby immigrants were taught to identify with flag and constitution. It is more than significant that the Blair government has now deliberately adopted the American model. Those seeking British citizenship are for the first time expected to show some knowledge of British history and culture, and then take a pledge of allegiance to crown and country.

So can anyone become British after all? Norman Tebbit, who was one of Margaret Thatcher's key lieutenants has proposed a new version of traditional loyalty oaths or badges of identity, in the form of a ''cricket test." When brown-skinned boys, second- or third-generation British, from Bradford or Luton go to watch England play Pakistan, which side do they support? It was a trick question, and a mean one, since (as Lord Tebbit well knew) they are often seen at Headingley and Lord's supporting their ancestral rather than their native land.

That is not in truth a fair test. We all have multiple identities and mixed loyalties, national, religious, political, social.

Beeyond the blood and soil nationalism of the Europeans is their own abandonment of the Grecco-Roman/Judeo-Christian civilization of the West. How would people who believe in nothing assimilate newcomers, especially ones who believe in something quite powerful and compelling? It's the ferocious defense of ancient values in America that gives us enduring ideals to force immigrants to assimilate to, because we assimilate ourselves to them in every generation (well, except the Boomers).

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 11, 2005 8:20 AM

Sounds like a bloody fair (and shrewd) test to me. Home is where the heart lies.

Posted by: Mikey at December 11, 2005 11:40 AM

Geoff says, the new immigrants were used used like any expendable raw material? Sorry, no. That's the socialist world view, not ours.

Were the new arrivals exploited. Yes, they were, but they certainly weren't expendable. In fact, many of those coming right off the boat made huge contributions. These people were Americans who were born in the wrong country, so they knew what to do. They jumped into the melting pot, worked hard and in no time became, our fellow Americans. Geoffrey said, it [the melting pot] "worked after a fashion." Yes it did, and it was so kind of Geoff to notice.

Works for sports too. I would be willing to bet that every American cheers for the U.S.A. even in contests against their country of our origin. Perhaps in contests where the U.S. isn't competing, some latent loyalty to the old country might be heard.

Posted by: erp at December 11, 2005 12:23 PM

you must never have seen a soccer game with mexico playing the u.s.

Posted by: anon at December 11, 2005 1:07 PM


That supports erp's point, since soccer isn't an American game.

In fact, it's one of the few endeavors in which the most talented Americans go overseas for fame and fortune, instead of the other way around, as is true of almost every entertainment, sporting, or scientific field.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2005 1:26 PM

mh: "that every American cheers for the U.S.A. even in contests against their country of our origin". don't copy oj's bad habits.

Posted by: anon at December 11, 2005 4:04 PM

My fault. I never think of soccer when thinking of sports, but I should have added a disclaimer. Soccer fans fly in the face of normalcy.

Posted by: erp at December 11, 2005 5:32 PM

i bet more kids are in ayso than little league.

Posted by: a dad at December 11, 2005 8:43 PM

Don't get defensive dad. We're just kidding around. My kids played soccer too.

Posted by: erp at December 11, 2005 9:44 PM

Soccer is fine for kids. Mindless running up and down the field is great exercise. It just isn't a serious sport for grown ups.

Posted by: Bob at December 11, 2005 9:55 PM

i don't mean to come across as defensive, just trying to provide accurate information on my corner of the country. all sports are for kids.

Posted by: a dad at December 11, 2005 11:27 PM

Sports are not for kids. Children, even most teenagers cannot play baseball with any fluency.

Soccer, is, OTOH, the same for 5 year olds as it is for 25 year olds -- stupefyingly dull.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 12, 2005 1:32 AM

The US was never a place for cheaper wages. If people got paid less here, then why would they have taken the voyage across the Atlantic? They travelled because they knew they'd get better pay.

Even while America was experiencing huge immigration, there was always a labor shortage - driving up wages and encouraging technological growth.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 12, 2005 11:21 AM