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Friday, March 04, 2005

Migration, Perception, and History

About a month ago my friend Robert Jubb wrote an extended response to my series of posts on the question of attitudes within Europe, and especially Britain, to the intersections of issues such as national identity, immigration, historical memory and cultural change. If you are interested in reading my original articles, please see "Things Americans Don't Understand About Europe", "Identity Politics and the Modern Progressive Malaise", "Nations and Concepts" and "More Thoughts on Europe, Migration, and History".

I actually started writing a response to his response just after he posted his article, but I ended up setting it to the side for a bit in order to better stew over the issues. Several articles that have appeared this week have given me fresh impetus to return to the subject, and so here I am.

I think the idea at the heart of Robert's response is the fact that national identity is not a fixed concept, that it is respondent to historical change. I agree with this, and I would add that concepts of national identity are only influenced by history, not set. A good example of this can be seen in the way that over the last couple of decades Scottish nationalism has been recast in an anti-imperialist mode, seeing the Scots as original victims of English imperialist aggression. Of course, the problem with this was that Scots played quite a disproportionate role in the British Empire, and proved to be some of its most enthusiastic servants.

I think that our debate over British identity (and the question of its constituent parts) is quite an instructive example of this as well. Robert says that, when I refer to the borders of post-WWII Europe as being "essentially boundaries between highly homogenous ethno-lingual societies," I am giving "half the ground to the anti-immigration nuts, by allowing them to legitimate their construction of a national identity which is substantially ethnically based. Alright, it's only descriptive, in that it merely points to an alleged fact of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, rather than to a moral claim about the proper basis of a given national identity, but allowing the right to say 'this is how it is' is allowing them to go a long way to adding 'and you can't change it, so don't try'."

Here we have the crux of the matter. Robert's objection is, I think, rooted in his desire not to concede an inch to anti-immigrationist nationalism. I am no fan of the idea of extreme ethnic nationalism/chauvinism returning to the center stage of European politics, yet I don't think that acknowledging (what I see as) the historical realities behind some of the myths of the various national identities is the same thing as saying that these are concepts that stand outside the boundaries of change. Essentially, while I see these identities as things that change over time, I think that they move more sluggishly than reality. As I see it, part of the current trouble in Europe is down to the lag between personal/tribal/national conceptions and the reality on the ground, on all sides, 'native' and 'foreign'.

When I was making my comparisons in the very first post on the subject, I was contrasting the Europe of today to the Europe of the immediate post-WWII period, at what was probably the very zenith of the European nation-state. The fact is that Europe in the immediate post-WWII period was a collection of quite highly homogenous societies. The two main exceptions were France (which had attracted high levels of immigrants from across Europe) and Yugoslavia. For instance, much of pre-WWII Eastern and Central Europe was markedly ethnically heterogenous - the classic example being Prague, which was shared between Czechs, Jews, and Germans. The Holocaust ended forever the Jewish presence as an important part of Central and Eastern European life, with six million butchered by the Nazis and much of the survivors fleeing to the West or to Palestine. The complete destruction of East Prussia, and the subsequent mass expulsions of millions of ethnic Germans from the east was another important factor. In fact, Yugoslavia was the only state to survive the war in its original multi-ethnic form was Yugoslavia, and it too had seen its own horrors under the bestial violence of Croatian dictator Ante Pavelic. What had been, in the 1930's, the most religiously and ethnically varied part of the continent was quite different at war's end, such that by the start of the Cold War Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and so on had commanding ethnic majorities.

The one exception in Western Europe, the one country that had an analogous concept to America's citizenship ideas, was France. Uniquely among the European nations, France had never had mass emigration (the preponderance of French surnames in today's New England is down to immigration from Quebec, where the French-speaking population is descended from roughly 15,000 French settlers). The French had for quite some time been absorbing waves of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Slavic and Armenian immigrants (among others) and, because France had a strong Constitutionalist and Republican ideology, there was not the same level of tension between a tribalized French identity and the absorption of newcomers (as long as they chose to abandon their old culture and become whole-heartedly French).

In other areas, though, the situation was quite different. And I think that this has to be taken seriously both as history and for its influence on folk memory. No sense of history is felt as keenly as the relatively recent past. Even though things have changed, and are continuing to change, I think that part of the problem is that there is not yet a really fool-proof way of allowing these cultural, economic, and political changes to rewire European identities. At the heart of much of Europe's official 'tolerance' for immigration has surely been the idea that these people could come in, do the work that needed to be done, and yet by ignoring them things could remain the same and continue as before? And hasn't the problem with many immigrant communities in Europe been that they've at times, or even often, attempted to recreate the insular rural worlds (with all the attendant family and religious traditions brought whole) of their homelands in the midst of the bustling cities they now found themselves inhabiting? And then the identity crises of their children, never fully accepted as being inherently 'local', but never able to experience anything more than an ersatz version of the world which their parents knew 'at home'.

This is where I think the key difference with the United States is. God knows there are problems with this country, but one of our great successes has been the creation of an American identity that is very flexible and inclusive. The concept of who is an 'American' has been only mildly stretched by our enormous immigration inflows of the past thirty years, and has proved very resilient to all manner of cultural and ideological conflict.

There was a great quote on this recently in an article by Anatole Lieven on Bush's brand of nationalism. In the course of what was otherwise a fairly standard attack on the world-view of Bush and his supporters, there was this gem:

"This (American civic) nationalism, and much of the US national identity itself, is based on the American Creed: belief in the values of democracy, the law, free speech and the US constitution; and less formally, in social and economic individualism, in America as the supreme exemplar of democracy and successful modernity, and in American benevolence, innocence, goodness and inevitable triumph.

Many great American thinkers from across the political spectrum have remarked on the power of this Creed. In the words of Richard Hofstadter: “it has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.” A century earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson described adherence to American governing principles as a form of religious conversion. In this sense, it bears a certain comparison to the role that Communism was supposed to play in the Soviet Union – with the crucial difference that the values of the American Creed have been both much more positive and much more successful historically. The strength of this Creed dates back even further than the foundation of the American colonies and 17th-century visions of America as the “city on a hill” to 16th-century English and Scottish Protestant beliefs in their countries as the “new Israel”.

The power of the Creed also stems from its immense importance in holding together the huge and immensely varied American nation, and giving it the ability constantly to assimilate vast numbers of new immigrants from hugely diverse backgrounds. Belief in the principles of the Creed is perhaps the only thing (other than the English language) that the gays of San Francisco and the fundamentalist Baptists of Texas have in common."

Now, I am not saying that there are not things that link, say, the unemployed Scouser on a Merseyside council estate to the Pakistani-born housewife in Bradford to the Scottish financial services executive in Canary Wharf to the farmer in Devon to the Albanian immigrant shivering on a rainy building site and so on and so forth. And beyond that, you can certainly draw up links across the boundaries of Europe. But (there's always a but) I don't think that Britain or any other nation in Europe has the same suppleness in absorbing the outsider that America (in general) does, because there is no credo, nothing, really, to join in any explicit sense. Of course, America has often failed to live up to its ideals, I know that, but we still have them, and they are powerful.

Abiola Lapite talked about this in a post of his last week, where he said:

"The downside of the European tendency to see nationality as a matter of ethnicity by blood is that it makes it all but impossible for newcomers to truly assimilate even if they want to, giving rise to such absurdities as "third generation immigrant" and so forth, while in America, all it takes to be accepted is a willingness to accept American values.

I've seen this mechanism at work myself, so I can testify to its validity. I lived in Britain in the years immediately before moving to America, and despite having British nationality, it was made clear to me on many an occasion that I would never be "truly" British, whatever might have been written on my passport; in America, on the other hand, making the transition from outsider to "one of us" was a remarkably quick and easy process, so much so that I now feel far more American than I ever felt British, and I have every intention of moving back to the US as soon as I'm done here. Indeed, it was the very closed feel of Britishness that drove me to move to America to begin with, and the truly funny thing this is that British society is an exemplar of openness by comparison with the nations of continental Europe. Too many European commentators fail to acknowledge that for assimilation to be an attractive option to newcomers, there has to be a real prospect of success to it, and that means more than just a chilly "toleration" of the sort one extends to burdensome houseguests."

In terms of Europe's future, I think that the central issue in regards to the immigration/assimilation question is Islam. That is what all of the debates ultimately return to. There is no perceived existential threat coming from Sikhism or Hinguism or African variants of Christianity. No, all of the rhetoric from both the 'decline and fall' and 'new multiculturalist utopia' camps on the issue of demographic and social and cultural change is all intimately tied to the issue of Islam.

Now, I may be quite unconvinced by the most extreme doom-mongering on the European future, but there are very serious questions that need to be asked about what it means, exactly, to be British or French or German or Spanish or, above all, European. I think it is too soon to tell exactly how Europe's new Muslim minority will work out, but I believe the possibilities can go either way: a softening or further ramping up of tensions. I think that it is probably not until the third generation, those who are still children now, starts to come of age will we see whether or not the slowly emerging 'European Islam' proves digestible to the rest of the continent. I think it will, but I admit I need to sit back, wait, and see. If Europeans, on a mass level, can come to see Muslims as simply part of life, and not a monolithic 'other', and and by the same token the Muslim religious sensibility melds with more particularist local and national identity, then I think there is little to fear. If not, well...

|| RPH || 4:41 PM || |