Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On polygamy and assimilation

Grad school is, as I mention below, all about delayed gratification. The slow-motion process of research itself, of interpreting the findings into something another human being might possibly understand or care about, of applying for grad school itself, then grants, then (dare I say it) jobs. So it was kind of exciting to see that the fact that I spend day in, day out researching 19th century assimilation; trying to frame that research in a way that might make sense to someone who isn't me and hasn't read that particular microfiche; and attempting to figure out how whatever it is I've found will translate into a dissertation or (a girl can dream) a career; has led to my having something akin to authoritah on the topic.

But for France, not the US. So while I can't (without reading up on it) offer my own take, in response to Douthat or anyone else, on the particularities of Teddy Roosevelt's thoughts on eugenics, I can weigh in on the more general question of what it means to be "pro-assimilation." Here goes...

Oh, and a disclaimer: I go on and on, but the main part of my answer to MSI, Fuzzy Face, and Douthat is in bold below.

First, let's get this out of the way: individuals aren't (often) purely progressive or purely traditionalist, purely Constitutionalist or culturalist, however we're looking at this question. And what might have counted one way in one era probably looks different or the next. And individuals tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum. Pardon my French, but Zola, hero of the Dreyfus Affair, wrote a not-so-flattering novel about Jewish bankers, while anti-Dreyfusard hero of right-wing nationalism Barrès had a moment of post-WWI epiphany that Jews can be French after all.

Anyway, there are not Two Americas, but the necessities of conceptualization are what they are. I don't think it makes sense to dismiss my argument - or Douthat's, for that matter - simply because we didn't, in the course of a short article or post account for this diversity. A generous reading of either of us assumes that anyone with half a brain knows that people come in more than two 'types.' I'm not a fan of the trend in academic writing to equivocate as though nuance means never arriving at an argument. So, these are just arguments, without which there'd be no discussion.

Also obvious, but missing so far from the discussion: assimilation goes both ways. Much of America's specific culture relates to where our population came from. Pizza, rap, words like "schlep," these owe nothing to the Noble Anglo-Saxon Tradition. This is all partly an argument over whether we're calling aspects of our culture that we can trace to WASPs superior to ones with different roots.

MSI, I will now get to the pressing question of Mormons. I'm not sure how that much fits into the topic of assimilation, as opposed to, I don't know, rule of law? Mormons had not been doing things the way they had since time immemorial, nor were their cultural (esp. marital) particularities specific to a different ethnic or racial background, as you point out. So however harsh the government was with Mormons, the goal was getting a bunch of people 'like us' to stop rebelling and being different and return to being 'like us.' Unless there's an aspect to this episode that I'm unaware of, I'm assuming a Mormon who refused to be polygamous went on to be accepted (as in, not oppressed, not not mocked - even WASPs are mocked) in mainstream America, and that a Mormon who converted to mainline Protestantism would have simply morphed into a undifferentiated Real American. The issue with Mormons was, I'm thinking, not terribly unlike that with Protestants in France - the 'problem' was their behavior, but they were a conversion away from unhyphenatedness.

As a point of comparison, take Napoleon's insistence on assembling a formal committee of French-Jewish leaders, over a decade after French Jews has been legally French, and asking them in all seriousness whether Jews practice polygamy. In terms of the absurdity of the question, imagine asking a bunch of Jews on the Upper West Side in 1990 whether they practice polygamy. That the Jews explained that they were monogamous ultimately failed to convince Napoleon, who went on first to convene another official meeting of Jews, because one can never be too sure, and ask them the same thing, and then, upon receiving yet another satisfactory answer, decided to go ahead anyway and create a law of exception discriminating against most of France's Jews, effectively revoking their newly-won citizenship. This episode, too, was about assimilation and the incompatibility of polygamy with Western modernity. But here, "polygamy" was not the practice of having multiple wives, but a pretext given for exclusion of a population that was, in its way, very much in favor of assimilating.

This diversion into my narrow area of expertise is to point out that demands of assimilation come in two forms. (Or infinite forms - if you'd prefer to do so, think of it as a spectrum.) On one side are demands that could easily enough be met, even if there's resistance at first: requests like 'don't be polygamous' or 'speak English' or 'attend public school' or 'get rid of that impossible-to-pronounce last name' are impositions of Western ideals, etc., etc., but can be met by all, assuming social exclusion doesn't stand in their way. A postcolonial studies prof might not like it - and I might not like it either, raging lefty I apparently am - but these need to be categorized differently from unmeetable requests. By this I mean demands that aren't so much demands as they are assertions that They will always-and-forever be too different. Examples: 'don't be from a religious tradition that was polygamous in biblical times,' 'don't have dark skin,' or 'marry into the general population at a time when the general population isn't open to marrying minorities in the first place.'* Any demand that asks someone to change something they can't - either because the trait is immutable or because social exclusion is too great of an obstacle - isn't so much about offering conditions for how to become an American as it is about asserting the eternal non-belonging of certain groups of Americans. Who does and doesn't belong is constantly shifting - again, because a Mayflower-only request wouldn't yield a whole lot - but the principle itself stays constant.

Finally, to return to Douthat's argument, what I understand it to be, and why I'm still not buying it. This will, I think, address MSI and Fuzzy Face as well. If what Douthat were saying was simply that various measures - insistence that immigrants speak English, or alter their names, or reign in their polygamy - repel today's well-meaning multiculturalist PC-types, but have historically served to help minorities blend in, then I don't think he'd have said anything terribly controversial, and aside from the PC-types in question and your college postcolonial studies prof, no one would be up in arms. Yes, yes, demands of assimilation are a form of violence to those of different but equally valid cultural traditions, etc., etc., but this is a different discussion. The question of whether the West should impose its values on immigrants is a real one, but it's one that assumes everyone could become Western, questioning only whether this is a fair thing to ask of non-Westerners. Boundaries shift, but traditionally this whole discussion has been an internal one among liberals. Today, the position that one should ask ferners to change in any way has become in the US, associated with the right. In France, that's not quite as much the case. But wherever the debate is situated on the political spectrum, the fact remains that there's another whole set of people who don't want to deal with Them in the first place, don't think they have a shot at assimilating.

What Douthat did, however, was to conflate genuine pro-assimilation requests with the assimilation request used as a proxy for a quite different demand, namely that ferners stay away or wear a coned hat or whatever. The cultural-rather-than-Constitutional America, the second America, encompasses both, by his definition, which is a lumping-together I don't think makes sense. So, I'll refine - no, revise - my argument to explain that I'm not calling second-America-as-Douthat-defines-it xenophobic, only a subset thereof. And I think, if we're going to divide America in two, it makes far more sense to separate those who think immigrants can become American (whether by changing their ways or simply by having their papers in order, if that) from those who believe in an essential Americanness not open to all. But, Douthat counters, refining his own position, it's impossible to divide requests that immigrants assimilate into categories of well-meaning and xenophobic. Nativists and assimilationists are often one and the same set of people. Yes, everything is ambiguous, but, I counter, it is quite possible - necessary, even - to divide requests into those that seem possible for the ferners in question to meet, and those that are so outrageous, so unattainable, as to amount to exclusion disguised as a request for assimilation. 

And finally, finally, in response to Fuzzy Face's problem with my use of "fern." ("it is you added the illiterate jargon thing.") Guilty as charged, although I don't intend it to be a comment about literacy so much as about nativism. Ferners, by my definition, are foreigners as understood by Americans who are suspicious of foreigners. Foreigners are marked by not having an American regional dialect of any kind, what with being, well, foreign. I don't see "fern" as coming from a particular region's accent so much as from the accent of any native US English speaker saying the term "foreign" with a sneer, while at the same time trying to play up his own folksiness. If my use of the term prior to defining it offended the illiterate-yet-cosmopolitan community, I apologize.

*This is, in a nutshell, my dissertation topic, but for France. I point this out both by way of an explanation for the length of this post - I find this stuff endlessly fascinating - and also as a disclaimer re: my weakness in terms of specifics of US history. I won't, for instance, get into MSI and Britta's debate about the reasons for anti-Chinese sentiment in pre-eugenics California. 


Fuzzy Face said...

I don't believe that you have answered my point at all, actually, and I'm pretty sure you have read into Douhat something he never said:

What Douthat did, however, was to conflate genuine pro-assimilation requests with the assimilation request used as a proxy for a quite different demand, namely that ferners stay away or wear a coned hat or whatever.

It is precisely this point that I believe you have misread. The closest I can find in his writing is:

During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

But he is not praising exclusivism; he is noting that the demand for assimilation has been historically a carrot-and-stick approach, but one that wound up paying dividends in creating this unique American culture. I find no basis in his writings to suggest any respect for a complete isolationist foreigners-stay-away attitude.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Fuzzy Face,

One man's "stick" is another man's exclusivism. Douthat himself admits he's talking about nativists and xenophobes, so I think you're getting at something above and beyond what he is. But regardless, if Douthat's just defending pro-assimilation rhetoric without considering whether minorities who tried their darndest to assimilate were then welcomed as Americans, and if not, if any of the non-welcomers were also among those who'd been advocating 'yeah, they should assimilate!', then that's a problem in itself. The fact that whichever groups are *now* accepted owes far more to 'natural' assimilation - shared neighborhoods and schools, the need to earn a living beyond one's own community, curiousity about life the next street over - than it does to the fact that a country club wouldn't accept their kind back in the day.

Britta said... someone who has studied immigration patterns and attitudes in the US, I call intellectual dishonesty on Douthat's article.
Firstly, anyone who seeks to find the positive in the immigration reform act of 1924 is not playing fair ball. The immigration law of 1924 was *explicitly* based on the idea that Southern and Eastern Europeans were genetically inferior to NW Europeans and thus were diluting the mostly superior racial stock of the US. The idea was not merely to restrict immigration all up so that those here could become more American, but return the balance of immigration so that an overwhelming majority (86% of all immigrants) came from NW Europe. (The rest of Europe got a quota of 11%, Asia 0%, and the rest of the world 3%. Ironically from today's perspective, immigration from Latin America was not restricted, but also fairly insignificant). If one wants to defend this law in terms of being based on wanting to assimilate those already present, then Douthat needs to explain why Germans are inherently more assimilable to American democratic values and deserved to be let in in large numbers (yearly quota: 57,0000) than, say, Italians (yearly quota: 4,000).
Also, if you look behind the words, "assimilate" for S/E Europeans meant "dilute the racial stock of." I guess that is a way of assimilation, however it is also classified as a type of genocide by the Geneva Convention of 1946, so again, I'm not sure it's something to wave up as one of America's greatest moments that we can now learn from.

While this law was perhaps the most egregious example of how repugnant racial theories have shaped American attitudes towards immigration (check out Madison Grant's "the Passing of a Great Race"), racial antagonism was pretty clearly present behind the Chinese Exclusion Act (which was, um, anti-Chinese) and the Know-Nothing movement (which was anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic).

Finally, Douthat's "anything goes" Americans are strawmen. I don't know of any movement that wants to abolish, say, the citizenship test, or not promote the learning of English for new immigrants (indeed, most or all bilingual programs attacked by conservatives are supported by arguments that they are more efficacious at helping people learn English and thus assimilate). These sorts of things are precisely attempts to inculcate American values without importing some sort of nebulous American "culture," which somehow involves changing one's name or giving up one's religion (which of course only applies to certain names and certain religions).

I think the whole "culture" idea is getting confused with "human rights," which certainly can have content without being rooted in the idea of being a specific set of practices carried out by a specific group of people. One can have certain minimum standards, say towards marriage, i.e., marriage should be between two persons, marriage cannot occur for people under age 16 or whatever, that happens to not include all forms of marriage ever practiced, without relying the idea of a homogenous culture shared by "real Americans."

(Ok, this is a long comment, but the more I think about this Douthat article, the angrier I get.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Fuzzy Face,

Or think of it like this. Douthat writes in the blog post, "Not that there aren’t many pro-assimilation liberals, but they share a political coalition with people of a more multicultural persuasion, who tend to raise an eyebrow at anything that seems to impose American or Western values too vigorously." Meanwhile, who exactly do we think pro-assimilation conservatives share a coalition with? Any of this making a dent?


"Also, if you look behind the words, "assimilate" for S/E Europeans meant "dilute the racial stock of." I guess that is a way of assimilation, however it is also classified as a type of genocide by the Geneva Convention of 1946, so again, I'm not sure it's something to wave up as one of America's greatest moments that we can now learn from."

This is really important for understanding why "pro-assimilation" gets, as some of the response to Douthat's article shows, the benefit of the doubt. Because alongside people rah-rahing assimilation, there are inevitably others advocating dilution or destruction of minority groups through violent means - genocide or expulsion. Next to that, assimilation sounds gentle and kind. Which is precisely why it's in the interests of the violent-exclusion (or just strictly exclusionary - not all nativists would take things to their logical extreme) camp to present their grievance with Group X in terms of "assimilation." Which is, in turn, precisely why we - you, me, Douthat, etc. - need to view "pro-assimilation" arguments with cynicism.

stari_momak said...

Sure, there were racialist ideas floating around at the time of the 1924 law -- but the law itself merely sought to maintain America's ethnic balance ... exactly as Israeli tries to maintain its religious balance. Here's a relevant quote

“Let me emphasize here that the restrictionists of Congress do not claim that the ‘Nordic’ race, or even the Anglo-Saxon race, is the best race in the world. Let us concede, in all fairness that the Czech is a more sturdy laborer…that the Jew is the best businessman in the world, and that the Italian has…a spiritual exaltation and an artistic creative sense which the Nordic rarely attains. Nordics need not be vain about their own qualifications. It well behooves them to be humble.

“What we do claim is that the northern European and particularly Anglo-Saxons made this country. Oh, yes; the others helped. But… [t]hey came to this country because it was already made as an Anglo-Saxon commonwealth. They added to it, they often enriched it, but they did not make it, and they have not yet greatly changed it.

“We are determined that they shall not...It is a good country. It suits us. And what we assert is that we are not going to surrender it to somebody else or allow other people, no matter what their merits, to make it something different. If there is any changing to be done, we will do it ourselves.” [Cong. Rec., April 8, 1924, 5922]

And yes, Americans had a culture, a distinct culture, long before the arrival of the Marx brothers, or the ancestors of those New Jersey Real Housewives. Pizza, while great, is not American. It is Italian, with variations in Spain, Slovenia, the UK, etc. Schlep is not an American word, it is a German/Yiddish word which is typically used -- outside of the North East -- to convey a certain sort of 'otherness'. Rap is American in a sense, but is probably as rooted in the country tradition of speaking songs as it is in anything specifically African.

The ironic thing is that someone who proclaims -- perhaps a bit ironically but it seems to me seriously also -- Francophilia and Zionism is trying to lecture the Anglo-Celts that founded this polity on what their country means.

One other point, on the 'genocide' thing. That 'dilute the racial stock' applies more readily to those who promote mass migration -- particularly to Western Europe, where the indigenous people are being subject to unwanted mass immigration. I would make the case that it also applies to America. For better or worse, white, English speaking, largely British origin, overwhelmingly North Western European people conquered this land -- just as the 'Indians' occupying it appear to have conqured it from someone else (see Kennewick man). We, therefore, are just as worthy of protection as indigenous as any Cherokee , and the "Latino Lebenraum' promoted by La Raza etc it the real campaign of genocide.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"The ironic thing is that someone who proclaims -- perhaps a bit ironically but it seems to me seriously also -- Francophilia and Zionism is trying to lecture the Anglo-Celts that founded this polity on what their country means."

Not at all ironic. Israel and the US were founded for slightly different reasons, under ever-so-slightly different circumstances, as you may recall. If the Americans, a people oppressed for millennia in the American diaspora, an oppression culminating in the genocide of six million Americans, were now, in 2010, a bit fussy and at times all-out wrong (Zionist does not equal 100% supporter of Israeli policy) in deciding who does or doesn't get to be American...

And Francophilia is irrelevant here. It's aesthetic, a preference for various cheese, books, and shoes and so forth.