He was a Berber from Algeria. And, like many a Washington cab driver, he had a story to tell about politics. The Algerian government had done his people wrong, had done him wrong when he was a student demonstrator standing up for Berber rights. But Americans didn't understand his struggle "Americans won't fight for principles," he said.
Thinking of my country as the would-be world policeman and idealistic guardian of human rights, I demurred. But then he started talking about soccer riots, about how Americans didn't understand the principle behind them, the notion of standing up for your team no matter what. The notion of blind, dehumanizing, clan loyalties.
To the cab driver, "principles" weren't abstract ideals like liberty or equality. They were group allegiances. "Principles" were what set Serbs against Bosnians, Hindus against Muslims, neo-Nazis against Turks. And Americans won't fight for principles. It is one of our defining characteristics.
The cab driver was, I believe, correct. But not everyone is so sure. A lot of very smart people see the Balkans in America's future. They point to the L.A. riots and say race relations are worse than ever. They look at immigrants pouring in from Third World nations and say (on the left) that we must accommodate diverse cultures and (on the right) that we must shut the doors. They worry about a fragmenting nation–too many ethnicities, too many religions, even too many cable TV channels. They're afraid America will disappear. "Unless a common purpose binds [Americans] together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart," says liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., neatly encapsulating the centrist position.
"There is no American heritage," proclaims Rubén Martinez, one of L.A.'s angry young pundits, voicing the multiculturalism of the left.
Writing in National Review, Peter Brimelow declares that Americans, to remain a nation, must have genetic ties. " 'Nation'–as suggested by its Latin root nacere, to be born–intrinsically implies a link by blood. A nation is like an extended family," he writes, and later, "Americans are now being urged to abandon the bonds of a common ethnicity and instead to trust entirely to ideology to hold together their state (polity). This is an extraordinary experiment, like suddenly replacing all the blood in a patient's body."
Martinez and Brimelow are both right, in part. America has more than one heritage, and America is an extraordinary experiment. But it is an experiment that works.
And it will continue to work as long as the multiculturalists of the left and the monoculturalists of the right aren't allowed to impose their visions on America. The United States is neither the Balkans nor Little England, West. And the forces of assimilation–the forces of American culture–are as powerful as they are utterly misunderstood.
Sometimes a picture is worth only a few words. The picture of Thurgood Marshall's funeral said, "We won." On the front page of the Los Angeles Times was Marshall's widow, flanked by their two sons. And they were all, unmistakably Asian. Mrs. Marshall is ethnically Filipina, born in Hawaii. Her half-Asian sons are married to white women.
Thurgood Marshall was, above all else, the lawyer who beat Jim Crow in court. That he became a Supreme Court justice was incidental. And Jim Crow was, above all else, designed to prevent families like Marshall's. Until 1967, it was illegal for an interracial couple to live together in the state of Virginia. The Marshalls bought their home there in 1968.
The old segregationists understood the American character. They knew that if the law didn't keep people apart, common humanity would bring them together. Americans have no principles. Restaurants and hotels and railroads and department store dressing rooms would let the races mingle–all in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Jim Crow was a bulwark against the integrating forces of commerce, education, and, above all, love. Allow the races to mingle, the segregationists said, and you'd soon have mixed-race children.
They were right. In 1970, there were 310,000 interracial marriages in the United States. In 1988, there were almost a million. "But would you want your daughter to marry one?" is now an irrelevant question. Your daughter will do as she pleases. America melts tribal ties. Jewish leaders write and preach incessantly on the evils of intermarriage. And the Jewish intermarriage rate has gone from 10 percent before 1965 to more than 50 percent since 1985–not counting ethnic non-Jews who convert. "We have lost more Jews to intermarriage than to the Holocaust," thundered a direct-mail appeal I once received. (Ah, that Commentary list.)
But most American Jews–most Americans–don't think of assimilation as death. Most Americans, lacking the cab driver's principles, do not disown their children for marrying outside their kind. We teach our ninth-graders Romeo and Juliet. It tells them adolescent love is more important than family loyalty. It says we are all the same kind.
For the last quarter century, the children of the New Deal have been fighting with the children of the '60s over what it means to be an American. Shall we melt everyone down in an Eisenhower-era cultural pot and call it America? Or shall we divide up on principle and get together only to insult each other's ancestors? Shall we protect "the common culture" or champion "cultural pluralism"? On and on the battle has raged–in the schools, in the newspapers, over the airwaves.
The debate over the American character has it all wrong. Assimilation is not an evil (or a good) foisted upon unwilling, unmeltable ethnics. It does not represent a betrayal of the self, a denial of identity. And it does not require public schools.