Assimilation, American style

Posted: Dec 01, 2005 12:05 AM

Some among the prosperous and privileged of my acquaintance had a difficult Thanksgiving. "All of our regular Hispanic workers were celebrating their own Thanksgiving with their families," one of them told me. "We had to do the work ourselves." Assimilation, American style.

 We decry the meltdown of the melting pot but sometimes can't see the robust stew bubbling on the stove right in front of us. The "help," as some call them, are mainly immigrants, who came here to find work. Many of their children were born here, educated in our schools. Some got here legally and some didn't. Legal or not, it would be impossible to round them up and send them home even if we wanted to, which some of us want to and some of us don't.

 The immigration issue, ever more contentious, is embroiled in the larger issue of multiculturalism. In many schools, for example, Christmas has been converted to "winter holiday" and Easter to "spring holiday," to avoid offending the easily offended. Thanksgiving has so far survived the secularist onslaught, as all our children learn about the Pilgrims who gave thanks to God for their new lives in the New World and the abundance wrought by the divine hand. We are all immigrants, after all, and discarded melting pot or not, it's not easy to mess up that underlying message of hope. I haven't met any immigrants who want to do that. This gives us assimilationists some hope.

 Some, but not a lot. The multiculturalists seem to be winning. The media, self-aggrandizing politicians and puffed-up professors perpetuate a message of ethnic identity above all. Sixty years ago, George Orwell wrote that England was the only great country where intellectuals were ashamed of their nationality. He just didn't live long enough to meet some of our intellectuals, so called, circa 2005. It's considerably easier to organize around grievances than to show a little appreciation for the successes past. Multiculturalism is less about affirmation of ethnic identity than about "getting something for me." Under the cover of group consciousness lurks a selfish sense of victimhood, the notion that society is organized to deprive designated unfortunates of their share of the American dream. But that comes from the top down, not from the bottom up.

 In his 1997 book "Assimilation, American Style," Peter Salins describes the recipe for the stew in the melting pot that nourished the generations of immigrants who have made America the magnet for the ambitious and the hard-working of the world: 1) the importance of English as a national language, 2) the liberal (in the classic sense) and egalitarian beliefs that have defined us, and 3) the Protestant ethic of hard work, also called "self-reliance." Many of us fear out-of-control immigration because we fear that the recipe has been discarded.

 Bilingualism delays assimilation, but the English language as a unifying force suffers less from bilingual programs for immigrants than from discarding the classic works in English in literature, philosophy and history, undercutting sources of pride in the English language and culture. This damages the following generation's understanding of liberal and egalitarian policies, distorting the ideals bequeathed by the Founding Fathers. Self-reliance is lost in the appeal to group identity.

 But among the Hispanics I know in Washington, who came here from El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico, some of whom arrived legally and some who have stayed through the amnesties, self-reliance is the constant. What's striking about them and their families is their pride in putting down roots in the United States and becoming Americans. Economic opportunity attracted them, but there's pride in eagerly adopted American customs.

 George Bush is finally talking tough about immigration enforcement, and it's time to secure our borders, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff expresses reality, too, when he observes that the cost of identifying the 10 million illegal aliens here, and sending them home, would run into billions of dollars. "It's really an issue of practicality," he says. Many Americans agree. In a poll last month of 800 likely Republican voters, the Manhattan Institute in New York found that 84 percent think such deportation is impossible, and 58 percent say "earned legalization" is the proper pathway to citizenship.

 Control of the border is what everybody wants, but the illegals who are here are going to stay here. That's the reality. Since we're not sending them home, we must encourage their ambition to prosper within the traditions that make us all Americans.