Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Assimilation

(from the BC thread "Alone")

It is over 20 years since Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister and the evidence is that things have only changed around the margins, and that was for the worse. Ninety six years ago an arrogant Englishman knew that his hauteur was backed by all the pink bits on the map, with the expectation, at unguessed cost, of more to come. Forty two years ago that Englishman's grandson could safely claim to dominate a conversation based on his presumably superior education, invaluable role as the trusted go between among East and West and North and South, cultural dynamism in "Swinging London," and clever timing in shedding a money losing Empire.

The problem with those who pretend to be the grandsons of Sir Humphrey Appleby is that it is clear to all but the most self deluded audience that the show lacks substance. The Mandarins no longer impress the former natives of either Britain or from the former pink bits who are flooding in. The later were invited in with as much foresight as the Romans showed in inviting in barbarian tribes to cross the limes and serve as allies.

The English have over time proven poor at assimilating foreigners in large numbers into the Imperium's culture. Despite all those missionaries playing the organ for little African Methodist souls and Princes sent to Cambridge and Sandhurst the natives did not Anglicize. The French proved more effective by ignoring the masses and uncompromisingly assimilating the elites. They at least gave the first impression that French culture could be seen as color blind and universal. America has proven more effective at spreading into popular culture than at co-opting elites.

What America did have was a great engine for assimilating large numbers of immigrants, the urban public schools. When I taught at what was at the time the most dangerous High School in New York City I found a book from the 1920s in a corner of a storage room with a title like "A Guide for New Americans." The Chairman gave it to me to keep. It was a collection of practical lessons on topics like opening a savings account and selected inspiring passages from Great Men like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie on Americanism. The entire approach was straightforward. Welcome to America, now don't spit on the floor. It worked for millions. Different ethnic groups can share a common space that includes sufficient tolerance to sustain democracy. We have done it.

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