Anne points to this Douthat column which, so far as I can tell, is an exercise in painting with as broad a stroke as the New York Times allows. The whole “first America / second America” false dualism things is a pretty thin veneer. Nor does it quite capture the patriotic portrait of “second America” Douthat was going for.
After explaining the difference between these two Americas, Douthat offers up a brief history of religious and ethnic integration into American civil society and then moves on to the present conundrum: Islam.
The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.
So it is today with Islam. The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that Muslims have actually been migrating here for many years and sprouting up second and third and seventh generations in the United States, this use of a specific instance – the Cordoba Center – to segue into a larger framework in which American Muslims writ large are not doing enough to assimilate is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. (And are no American Muslims a part of Second America? Then they must all be part of First America…unless we’re working on creating a Third America. That’s possible, too.)
He goes on:
Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.
I wonder what exactly qualifies as ‘too often’? What percentage of Muslim institutions fit this criteria? Furthermore, what bearing does this have on the question of the Ground Zero Mosque?
For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June). And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.
They’ll need leaders, in other words, who understand that while the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.
Leaders like this guy, perhaps? I mean, if we’re going to just lump everyone of a particular faith together and cherry-pick the ‘leaders’ who we feel best represent them, why not pick the loudest of the bunch?
And if we can identify the group’s leaders, then we can pigeonhole the entire population’s motives. We can attribute the words of the few to the motives of the many. We can rile up “second America” against the fearful Other. And we can do it all quite nicely by calling into question the sincerity of the group’s desire to properly integrate into mainstream culture. It’s their fault, after all, that they haven’t made it all the way. Why would any real American want to build a mosque so near ground zero?
Since Douthat made immigration and integration central to his thesis, I think it’s only fitting that we move on to Exhibit B: this column by former Florida governor, Jeb Bush and Robert D. Putnam in the Washington Post. Bush has a few very interesting things to say about civil society and immigration. After pointing to statistics on immigrant inter-marriage and assimilation which show these things are occurring at higher than ever rates in America, Bush and Putnam write:
One important difference, however, that separates immigration then and now: We native-born Americans are doing less than our great-grandparents did to welcome immigrants.
A century ago, religious, civic and business groups and government provided classes in English and citizenship. Historian Thomas P. Vadasz found that in Bethlehem, Pa., a thriving town of about 20,000, roughly two-thirds of whom were immigrants, the biggest employer, Bethlehem Steel, and the local YMCA offered free English instruction to thousands of immigrants in the early 20th century, even paying them to take classes. Today, immigrants face long waiting lists for English classes, even ones they pay for.
Why is this important? A legal immigration system is the not-so-secret edge in a competitive, interconnected world economy. Immigrants enhance our ability to grow and prosper in the dynamic global marketplace. We will need every possible advantage to expand our economy amid its fiscal challenges. Moreover, the aging of our population places a premium on young, productive workers, many of whom must come from immigration.
They go on to offer solutions to this conundrum. In short, Americans need to (1) help immigrants learn English; (2) invest in public education; and (3) help communities that have the highest rates of immigration because these communities are the hardest hit by economic changes, healthcare costs, etc. Nowhere in here does Bush advocate that the immigrant communities themselves hire new ‘leaders’ or adopt new PR programs. He calls on Americans to step up their own efforts to help immigrants assimilate.
The writers even pulls the E Pluribus Unum card:
Assimilation does not mean immigrants shed ethnic identities. Our national experience with hyphenated identities shows that good Americans can retain a strong sense of ethnic identity.
We’ve lived our national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One”), better than any other country. But we ought not to airbrush our ancestors’ difficulties in assimilation, nor fail to match our forebears’ efforts to help integrate immigrants. Government, churches, libraries, civic organizations and businesses must cooperate to address this challenge, as they did a century ago.
That’s right. Americans themselves need to step it up, help immigrants assimilate better, and create a society in which more open immigration laws can actually lead to a better, more vibrant and economically flourishing culture. Perhaps the wisdom of this advice, if not the particulars, could be applied to the Ground Zero Mosque and to Muslims in general, many of whom aren’t even immigrants, but Americans whose families melted into the pot generations ago. Surely part of this process of assimilation, of ‘one among many’, requires Us to quit telling Them what to do or who their leaders are or ought to be.
Unless our society is much more fragile than Second America is always making it out to be.
Josh Barro has a very rational conservative take on why opposition to Cordoba House is antithetical to American values. It’s well worth your time.