Monday, June 05, 2006

Anxiety in Professorial Ranks--Stanley Renshon

Just finished reading "The 50% American : immigration and national identity in an age of terror"
by Stanley Allen Renshon.
He's a professor and it's a scholarly work, lots of footnotes and citations. He points to the prevalence of nations who permit dual citizenship (most do) and argues it's a danger, leading people to fail to identify with the U.S. He sees immigrants, particularly Hispanics, as retaining allegiance to their country of origin and failing to assimilate. He's concerned about "multiculturalism", arguing that we need one national culture that is dominant. As I said, it's scholarly and makes a reasonable argument, though I'm not convinced. I'd offer these points:

  • It's a rather ahistorical picture. He's not conscious of the extent to which the U.S. has already had experience in navigating between the Scylla of individual/subcultural rights and the Charybdis of national culture and rules. The flag saluting of Jehovah's Witnesses, the peyote use of native Americans, the off-the-grid culture of the Amish (including aversion to higher ed), the hasidic Jews in NY, the question of parental rights of Christian Scientists to forego treatment, etc. etc. True we don't come close to the experience that a land like India has had with multicultures, but I'm confident we can navigate in the future.
  • While the tone is scholarly, there's a current of anxiety about American culture that pops out regularly--the culture wars, the crassness of popular culture, etc. etc. The anxiety is shared by others who'd oppose immigration as currently operative. This leads to an irony. On the one hand, Renshon says that immigrants have too strong and too cohesive of a (family) culture which poses a threat to the U.S. On the other, he points with alarm to the erosive effects of a free-market system of catering to individual tastes that supposedly dissolves our former culture. It's difficult to have it both ways.
  • But Renshon does offer some good suggestions to help immigrants acculturate, orientation sessions, English as a second language classes, etc. While I'm a bit dubious about the payoff from such efforts, there is a purpose to symbols. Perhaps an eventual compromise immigration bill would benefit by including some of these measures. They constitute a better response to the concerns of those who would restrict immigration than just dismissing their concerns.

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