Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Assimilation and citizenship

Last Fall I gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution and it is now published. They have put it out under a "First Principles Series" and some of the other essays might interest you. My piece, alas, is a variation on a theme with which you are all too familiar. Sorry.

And yet, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that the simple (although, I hope not simple-minded) themes of citizenship and assimilation of immigrants continues to press, Note this Washington Post article in which the deep question is posed: Should the U.S. Government encourage assimilation? The question is not, of course, whether the Feds should spend money on programs that encourages or teaches immigrants to become Americans. That is missing the point. Please note that in the WaPo article almost all the immigrants quoted make perfect sense (e.g.: Americans "want all the people -- black, yellow, green, Chinese," Zemikel (from Eretria) said. "In other countries, they don’t want them, like, equal.").

Discussions - 13 Comments

The link to the Washington Post is missing. I'd like to see how they posed the question.

Steve: Sorry. Fixed it.

A moving and powerful essay, Professor Schramm.

Sometimes two stories are told about the earliest free settlers: some came because they were called to the New World primarily to pursue religious opportunities (as was the case for some people in New England), others came for economic opportunites (land, etc: both NE and Virginia). Loosely, we can say that the first implies positive efforts to make sure people belong; the second supposes the problem is self-correcting.

Another axis, so to speak, for the debate is citizenship and federalism: if citizenship is, according to the 14th Amendment, national, then the national government should play a positive role. Enforcing all the provisions of the 14th Amendment is, then, about citizenship. I would say, in addition, getting control of the borders is a national or federal role, as is enforcing existing law and doing something reasonable about illegals (I leave that issue aside, since I have nothing new to say). Above all, do no harm.

My utterly conventional conception of the country does not require a single culture of origin, but does envision a unique common culture made up many cultures. Yes, English; yes, knowledge and skills appropriate to and required by self-government.

I suppose it is only fair to link to this, the Boston Globe's latest report on Putnam's article, which I still have not read.

Steve, I think that book by Putnam has been discussed here before, at least within a thread or two. Given Americans inclination to move around, I wonder that anyone experiences community in any sense at all in a geographic sense. I have been thinking about this, too, because when in the Ashland area last month I was staying with a widow in a little town south of there. This place looks about as "heartland America" as any place could. My friend rents from the owner of the local funeral parlor. He has lived in that town all his life and his complaint was that the community was unrecognizable to him. He used to know everyone in town, but now most of the houses were rental properties and those folks were transient. It was still his town, and he owned a good piece of it, but he had little sense of community within it.


I mention that to suggest that the issue of loss of community is not an immigrant problem alone. I would also suggest that this problem of disappearing community will make the assimilation of immigrants very difficult. We might need the otherwise pointless and undesirable government programs as the alternative seems to be missing. In that WaPo article, John Fonte was quoted. In a podcast last year he asked (I paraphrase from memory) if we intend to be a nation or a marketplace. If Steve is correct in his two stories about early settlers, then we have been wrestling with this problem since the beginning. If we are a nation or a country, we want and need immigrants to assimilate. Otherwise prior nationality and common language become the means of community and we might as well fully celebrate diversity as that is about all we will have.


There was an argument last week in another thread about what it means to be a citizen and whether or not poll testing would promote better citizenship. Give me neighbors who love American ideals. I don't care what they look like or even how well they speak the language. If they understand the language of self-government, and a few other idealistic American things, they are just fine with me.

I certainly agree that immigrants ought to learn and love the American tradition and idea of self-government.

But equally (if not more) important is the American tradition and idea of limited government. There is (or ought to be) a difference between state and society, with society (associations, families, and individuals) responsible for giving "care," in the body and soul senses. And society ought to be jealous of any attempt by government to assume such responsibility (and power).

The basics of self-government, like voting, are easy enough -- especially when Democrats are eager to herd immigrants to the polls. Not to minimize the artful brilliance of the Constitution, but I think that it's policy beliefs--for whom and for what to vote--that affect the country most and that urgently need teaching. Since the New Deal, most members of our elected national legislature have been quite happy to gratify voters by enacting, and then managing, big government.

Our course, native citizens need a civic education too -- some of them even more than new citizens.

"Understanding the language of self-government and a few other idealistic American things" is a bare minimum. It isn't enough for community, and man needs community. America is not exempt from human nature. If America is to remain recognizable and homelike, not merely an economic arena with a few abstract political rules, Putnam's hard truths must be pondered seriously and without preconditions. To quote Whittaker Chambers: "Whether we like what we see is not in point. To see is in point."

For most people, professions of political principle are a thin crust atop a much thicker layer of culture. Culture powerfully shapes what we understand these beliefs to mean in practice, how deeply we hold them, how well we understand them, and what we do about them, if anything. In addition, it is cultural affinity, more than agreement on political philosophy, that makes for a real sense of neighborliness and community. It is very easy to imagine having a neighbor who doubts key tenets of the American political creed, yet is easy to trust, talk with, interact with, pray with, and develop a real friendship with. It is equally easy to imagine a neighbor who zealously believes in the American creed, yet is harder to trust, talk with, interact with, pray with, and develop a deep friendship with. The variable in both cases being culture. This is in no way to argue that all immigrants represent a centrifugal force and that all native-born Americans represent a cohesive force. Nor is it to argue that one should prefer an American-born communist or Nazi as a neighbor just because he speaks in unaccented English, grew up with football, and knows acts like an American and not someone else in personal life. One shouldn't. But that is the point: Exceptional cases like these do not help our analysis much.

Two quick cases in point, both from recent news stories. 1: Apparently many folks in South Korea are angry with the South Koreans who were taken hostage by the Islamo-fascist savages in Afghanistan. These Christians, the thinking goes, should not have gone to Afghanistan as missionaries or do-gooders, because going into such a dangerous environment subjected their fellow countrymen at home to the emotional trauma of a hostage crisis.
Can you imagine such an attitude among Americans, other than leftist ideologues who hate Christian missionaries anyway? 2: Japan is trying to introduce the jury system. It's very difficult, because Japanese don't like to express, or clearly express, views that other people in the same room -- their fellow jurors -- might not like. The whole concept of bringing one's individual judgment to bear on a criminal case is foreign and uncomfortable. If you were on trial in America, wouldn't you want jurors who not only professed dedication to democracy, equality, etc., but jurors who were either native Americans or so heavily assimilated that they were actually -- not just theoretically -- comfortable serving as jurors? Note: South Korea and Japan are both liberal democracies, generally speaking. But how many of us would be comfortable living in either country?

David Frisk drills it... but in what sense is "community" not a sort of good? How many dollars is a feeling of community worth? Is the Esprit de Corps of the military worth the deployments? What if I like living in X, but the job I want is in Y...and the commuting costs are high...Decisions, decisions, decisions we are cursed with them as the Existentialists say. In any case because of the constant curse of decisions...I think that we live in a marketplace...but it is too simple to say that we do everything for money...we do everything for love or for money...but we make trade-offs because free will is a bitch.

Maybe America's sense of community comes through television and other media, including the Internet. Was that part of McLuhan's contention? Not about the Internet, but the engagement of individuals being transformed by the existence of mass media. God knows it is too many years since I read him for me to be too positive on the point. I do not partake of the television communion. That there is a sense of community through television, (and radio, and what else am I missing?) is evident to me when I am out and about, and even reading here. That people have American Idol or football or even the media driven politics that America now loves to watch makes conversation and means that even my faculty lounge, or doctor's waiting room, or any social gathering where the people are merely acquianted makes for a sense of community, without true community involvement. If enculturation comes through television and movies is that a good or bad thing? It is a broad thing, but is it beneficial?


I do not like it, but may be full of beans. It seems like a new cultural norm that is facilitated and facilitates the kind of moving around and destruction of true community that we are writing about here. I am not comfortable in it as I would not be comfortable living in Korea or Japan.

David, I can have conversation with neighbors who doubt key tenets of the American creed, as I have with my neighbors who do not believe in God, but there is something missing in the relationship and after living here with such neighbors for nearly twenty years, we are not close. I would do anything for them, whether asked or not. Actually, in both cases, that I do not watch TV and have that cultural commonality is a social detriment.

I just wanted to post this transcript from the newest player to win the WSOP main event: Jerry Yang.

"I can't believe that God brought my family to Thailand and to America, and now we have a better life. I can't ask for more; this is the greatest country in the world. You can worship...you can go to some other country on the Asian Continent and you can't even worship; you can't even read the Bible. The Communist people burn your Bible. My Uncle, (whom) I just sponsored from Laos, came through the political asylum program...He witnessed the soilders who went to their villages and burned their Bibles right in front of them, Tortured them, chased them, tried to kill them. They want them to worship their religion and not Christianity, so hopefully I can make a little difference."

I figured this quote belonged on No Left Turns.

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