[Overview] Immigration IV – Cultural Assimilation

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Appendix; Single page]


by David Severa

  • OPENO: Well, let’s see what we do know about cultural assimilation.
  • RESTRICTES: Let me start out by pointing out that assimilation is not guaranteed. Jews and Roma both lived in Europe for well over a millennium without fully assimilating. Of course, this was in no small part due to the hostility and bigotry of the surrounding populations, but Europe certainly hasn’t eliminated xenophobia from the human character. We live in a relatively tolerant moment, but there’s no guarantee that this will continue. If it doesn’t then today’s Muslim immigrants could easily become a permanently separate and lower status group, almost necessarily at odds with the rest of Europe. Even if there is little hostility, groups can religiously separate themselves from the rest of a nation, as with the Amish and Haredim in the United States. Of course Muslims are religiously distinct and distinctly more pious than native Europeans. Proximity does not guarantee assimilation. And giving the growing interconnectedness of the Islamic world, Muslims everywhere are now tuned in to violent, illiberal streams of thought.
  • OPENO: Over 90% of Muslims in France, Germany, and Britain completely reject violence against civilians.
  • RESTRICTES: Alarmingly low!
  • OPENO: If that’s how little support there is for terrorism even when the Middle East is in such a crisis, I can only imagine that it will drop further. Islam is going to modernize sooner or later.
  • RESTRICTES: I agree! But later could mean centuries, and until then Europe is opening itself to quite hostile streams of thought it has no control over. And as the Islamic world is tearing itself apart, in some ways European assimilation is going into reverse. In Britain in 2007 36% of 16-24 year olds believed that apostasy should be punishable by death, compared to (still alarmingly high!) 19% of 55+ year olds. For wearing the veil support goes from 28%  of 55+ year olds to 74% of youths. On other measures, like support for al Qaeda and preference for Islamic schools, the numbers go in the same direction.
  • OPENO: Even so, you’re mostly talking about a minority of a minority.
  • RESTRICTES: True for now. A few percent of the population believing something terrible is normal, but my worry is autocatalyzing ethnic polarization. Some fraction of Muslims use terrorism, or gangs to enforce conformity on other Muslims for instance, which provokes an indiscriminate reaction from white Europe, which pushes Muslims to band together, likely under an Islamist ideology. (Chechnya is an extreme, perhaps not perfectly relevant example. Chechens had always been Muslim, but the wars with Russia have pushed things in a more extremist direction tied to a broader jihadist ideology.) That won’t necessarily happen, but in this climate it’s a serious risk. So far most Europeans have been mostly tolerant. (Favorable views of Muslims in France went up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.) Yet Front National and the BNP forever lurk in the background. If some crisis pushes Europe over that edge, it may be very hard to come back from.
  • OPENO: I’m confused. Is your argument that we shouldn’t let immigrants or refugees in because it might worsen our moral character and make us less tolerant? That seems odd.
  • RESTRICTES: Persistent ethnic tensions can fuel illiberalism. I mean, think back all the way to the Spartans and Helots. Or, more recently, the violence used in the American South to keep blacks down, which was also directed at abolitionist or pro-integration whites.* Or the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties. Or the worries about the solidity of Israeli democracy. Liberal democracy doesn’t work always and everywhere. It has preconditions. At a minimum, most groups in a country must accept liberal democracy. It can’t be forced. If even just a substantial minority utterly rejects it (or uses it solely as a tool to be cynically manipulated), suddenly the whole system starts to seem quite rickety. A fearful majority can take frightful measures. Bans on speech supporting terrorism become bans on speech supporting Islamism become bans on… All of a sudden the West has lost much of what made it worth defending in the first place. That’s what I’m worried about, more than fanciful scenarios of demographic takeover. Muslims are over 10% of the population in some parts of Europe and if they turn more hostile to modern ideas, that would certainly provoke a crisis.

* To be clear, Restrictes isn’t saying that violence against one group counts more or less, just that illiberalism can turn on anyone and any idea.

  • OPENO: So your concern is not diversity per se, but the beliefs of the minority?
  • RESTRICTES: Diversity can be a concern (remember that the Belgians can barely hold a state together), but it isn’t a death sentence. America has always been diverse both ethnically and ideologically, but it’s held together since the Civil War.
  • OPENO: Even if I grant that that’s a possible scenario, how likely is it in reality? Just before you were lambasting me for using historical examples to analyze the present.
  • RESTRICTES: I can’t think of any precedent for an illiberal minority living among a liberal majority, so I don’t think my analysis is historically based so much as trying to analyze the underlying situation and work out ways things could play out. That’s an uncertain approach, but there aren’t any certainties with any approach. Regardless, even if the risks aren’t exactly known, the possible costs seem high enough to warrant extreme caution in allowing future immigration. The Muslim population is already growing faster than the rest of Europe, and greater size means a greater risk if these trends toward illiberalism accelerate.
  • OPENO: The fact that there hasn’t been any example of that sort of illiberal minority seems telling. Democracy and liberalism corrode traditionalist modes of thought. People will have more to gain than lose by generally cooperating. Democracy rewards that sort of thing.
  • RESTRICTES: But remember that religious groups in America can keep themselves separate even against all of democracy’s promises. Obviously European Muslims aren’t the Amish, but I don’t see any reason why it would be impossible to set up some sort of self-reinforcing separate system with promises of power and rewards in opposition to the mainstream. British Muslims already have separate courts to enforce the will of the community. Social pressure can be as powerful as the government. If the majority becomes biased against the minority and the minority can no longer achieve power through normal channels, then something like that seems almost inevitable.
  • OPENO: I have to bring this back out of the speculative realm. While in France Muslims are less trustful of government than the broader populace, in Germany and the UK that’s reversed. Muslims have more confidence in elections, courts, and the national government in general. Nothing you worry about is theoretically impossible, but I can’t see it as anything more than spinning tales that seem plausible.
  • RESTRICTES: That’s an unfair way to put it, and I think that could be applied to almost all speculation, not just to what I’ve laid out.
  • OPENO: Speculation must be adequately backed by facts. In any case, obviously whatever problems Latino immigrants have in assimilation are quite different, so let’s turn there.
  • RESTRICTES: As before, I’ll note that even linguistic assimilation isn’t guaranteed. German Americans kept speaking German until World War I and Cajuns kept speaking French until World War II, both changes that required considerable outside pressure.
  • OPENO: German Americans tried to keep their children in German-language schools, but most kids were growing up English-dominant decades before World War I. There are no comparable institutions to keep immigrants speaking Spanish. Cajuns were geographically and culturally isolated in a way that is impossible today. And in fact, Latino immigrants seem to be following the standard pattern where the second generation is bilingual and the third primarily speaks English. Only 1% of third generation immigrants aren’t at least bilingual and a majority don’t speak Spanish at all. That seems pretty overwhelming and completely unsurprising compared to past waves of immigration.
  • RESTRICTES: I’ll accept that.
  • OPENO: And as far as political values? Native born Hispanics are… 6% less likely to be conservative than the rest of America. Third generation Hispanics are more likely to support bigger government, but there’s a huge convergence with the rest of America over generations. The third generation’s attitudes towards homosexuality and abortion are indistinguishable from the rest of America. I’m not saying that immigrants are adopting good or bad norms, just that they’re adopting extremely boring generic American norms. There isn’t some wave that’s going to completely reshape the US. (Remember how the grandkids of European immigrants became Reagan Democrats.) It’s a big population, so even small shifts from the norm can make a difference in politics, true, but the change is moderate overall. Also note that a plurality of Latinos see the US as having better moral values than their home countries.
  • RESTRICTES: That’s somewhat comforting, but I’m not sure it cuts to the heart of my concerns. Remember at the beginning of this conversation, when we discussed how white Americans with different ancestries can still be distinguished centuries later? I’m more worried about these less-easily measured deeper folkways persisting.
  • OPENO: Then what is your worst case scenario? Here’s one plausible outcome. The American Southwest becomes sort of a second Appalachia. Culturally distinct but still recognizably American, poorer than average, but not overwhelmingly so, maybe with somewhat more social problems as well. Perhaps that’s suboptimal in some way (though it’s great for the immigrants – something we keep losing sight of) but I simply don’t understand the general caterwauling. What is so awful about this picture? You can’t realistically say that this is some fifth column bent on Reconquista. People are assimilating! American culture is extraordinarily attractive to people! Immigrants are coming to work and to raise families, not to bring to life nativist fever dreams! And it’s not like Mexico or Latin America are so wildly alien; it’s not like we border the tribal regions of Pakistan. Mexico seems to me like Spain, but poorer and a few decades of development behind. You’ve convinced me that immigration can be difficult yes, but what are you really so worried about?
  • RESTRICTES: Well… I’m not so sure that our society encourages assimilation anymore. “Hispanic” is basically an arbitrary census category designed to create a unified ethnic bloc. Affirmative action and multiculturalism reward separatism, rather than assimilation. So maybe the US will become truly ethnically balkanized, like the white/black split but with a larger number of groups.
  • OPENO: Do you really think that the government has that sort of power?
  • RESTRICTES: No, but it reflects the values that the broader society chooses to implement.
  • OPENO: I can blow up your concerns easily by looking at intermarriage. One in four Hispanic newlyweds is married to someone non-Hispanic. For native born Hispanics, it’s 36% and rising. The percentage of marriages that are from separate races/ethnicities has grown from 11% to 15% from 2000 to 2010, part of a much larger trend. This is true for every group in America. How can these groups possibly maintain hostile separatism in the face of that? These categories have never been perfectly discreet, and that’s just going to become more obvious with time. If there’s been one important fact in this entire discussion, it’s that intermarriage rate, which to me obviates so many potential long term problems. Future generations will shed their ethnic identities as being a core part of their identity, just as past immigrant groups did.
  • RESTRICTES: (How’s that multiracial future working out for Brazil?) It will take a long time for that potential future to come. In the meantime, who knows how identities will solidify? Also, note that the intermarriage rate overstates how many children will be born to mixed couples, as poor people are likelier both to stay within their own ethnicity and to have children out of wedlock. (Over half of Hispanic children are born to unwed mothers.) So even those numbers you give, which I’m not sure deserved that optimistic spin, are overstating things.
  • OPENO: It’s not just intermarriage, it’s that society is accepting of intermarriage and all it represents…

Next: The long term demographic impact of immigration

(Source for header image)

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