Uncommon Culture


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.

We misunderstand assimilation, suggests California essayist Richard Rodriguez, because we have denied that American culture exists: "Lacking any plural sense of ourselves, how shall we describe Americanization, except as loss? The son of Italian immigrant parents is no longer Italian. America is the country where one stops being Italian or Chinese or German."

That common-culture advocates like Schlesinger do not understand our common culture shows in their obsession with public schools. America is not France, a nation defined by its state institutions, a uniform culture imposed by law. Richard Rodriguez, the Sacramento-born child of immigrants, did not go to public schools. His teachers were not even Americans but nuns from Ireland. His was the experience of millions of Catholic Americans whose story is missing from the official accounts.

America is not a finished artifact but an irresistible process. The assumptions of America—ambition, tolerance, social equality, the individual pursuit of happiness—do not dictate an outcome. But they produce an atmosphere, an atmosphere that permeates every institution, that undermines every group. Even the Amish lose many of their children.

"For the child of immigrant parents the knowledge comes like a slap: America exists," writes Rodriguez. "America exists in the slouch of the crowd, the pacing of traffic lights, the assertions of neon, the cry of freedom overriding the nineteenth-century melodic line. Grasp the implications of American democracy in a handshake or in a stranger's Jeffersonian 'hi.' America is irresistible. Nothing to do with choosing."

Well, choice has something to do with it. We choose America, and we choose which America to choose.

America is a multicultural nation. It would be a multicultural nation if every non-Caucasian vanished tomorrow. New England is not the South is not California is not Utah. Understanding America, and American assimilation, has to start with that fact.

America exists quite comfortably with numerous enduring subcultures. Indeed, the greatest testimony to America's irresistibility may be the persistence of our regional cultures. Though they differ from each other less than America differs from the world, American regions have maintained distinctive cultures through centuries of changing populations. My husband's great-grandparents lived in the shtetls of Ukraine and Lithuania, but he is the unmistakable child of the Delaware Valley. His ancestors are William Penn and Benjamin Franklin.

"On average," writes John Shelton Reed, sociologist of the South, "migrants to the South already look something like Southerners, culturally. In a few respects, they look more like Southerners than Southerners do. They are even less wild than the natives about taxes and federal programs to help the poor, for example….By moving to California and New England, some atypical Southerners have made those places look more like California and New England, and the South more like the South."

My friend Kris, the Indiana-born child of German parents, moved to South Carolina in the ninth grade, having spent the previous few years in France. If you met her today, the only signs of her roots would be her Catholicism and an unusual level of thrift. She drawls and flirts and cheers for Clemson football like any other child of the Carolina Piedmont. She makes the South more Southern.

As do I, by living elsewhere. In the fall of 1978 I left the religious, conservative, biracial, slow-paced culture of South Carolina for the secular, liberal, multi-ethnic, intense culture of Princeton University. Like most immigrants, I was looking for a better life in a place I only half understood. Like many immigrants, I found educational and economic opportunities greater than any in my homeland. And I assimilated—dropped most of my accent, changed my politics and my religion, stopped trying to get a tan. I did these things not because anyone foisted a common culture upon me but because they made me happy.

That is how, and why, most immigrants assimilate. Not because they hate themselves or deny their roots. Not because the government has prohibited their native tongue or forced them to swear allegiance to a new religion. Not because they've gone through the homogenizing experience of public school. Assimilation is a combination of willful self-fashioning (11 percent of the Mormons in L.A. are Latino; they didn't accidentally convert) and unconscious adaptation. I dropped most of my twang because prejudiced people, on hearing it, would think me stupid and a bigot; I replaced it with a hodge-podge of Northeastern strains, because that is where I lived. Happiness and practicality, the pursuit of personal furfillment and financial success, preserve the common culture. A common purpose has nothing to do with it.

America won't crack up in the next 25 years because its mosaic is not the one the Balkanizing multiculturalists describe. America is a mosaic not of groups but of individuals, each of whom carries a host of cultural influences, some chosen, some inherited, some absorbed by osmosis. That mosaic is held together by the pursuit of happiness, the most powerful mortar ever conceived. Left alone, it will long endure.

Unfortunately, intellectuals and activists are obsessed with lining the tiles up in neat, monochromatic rows. Jim Crow has returned, somewhat half-heartedly, to dole out privilege and power according to racial quotas. Politicians address voters as genetic categories, not as people with ideas. Educated people argue, quite seriously, over whether 16th-century Aztec civilization was superior to 16th-century Spanish civilization—as though either form of barbarism proves something about late 20th-century America.

And we are ruining our colleges. Students who have spent their high-school years happily existing in a multicultural stew hit college and are told they can trust only others of their own kind; they are classified by race and expected to join social groups defined by ethnicity. This was true at Princeton, which had the lame excuse of a large number of provincial white preppies, but it's even true at California's state universities, which have no such defense.

"Students moving out of ethnically/racially diverse environments and into the austere university setting come face to face with cultural stratification," writes Lynell George in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. "It is, for many, the first time that they are called upon to choose sides or feel a need to become politically active."

She quotes U.C.-San Diego ethnic studies professor George Lipsitz: "I've talked to many students who are either from racially mixed backgrounds or who have what they consider to be an odd history—maybe they were the only black student in a white school or something like that. Then at the university it seems that there is an inside that they are not part of, and there is no obvious subgroup they can join."

This is terribly unfair to the young. It forecloses options and experimentation. It denies them potential friends. But most survive. And the collegiality of the workplace, with its required teamwork (or its universally hated boss), restores a sense of balance and of mutual interest. College principles vanish before career realities.

People who worry about America's future spend a lot of time worrying about the English language. I don't. The financial incentives to learn English are simply too great. And English-speaking Americans are notoriously pigheaded about learning other languages, even when they're transported to other countries. That obstinacy ensures that those financial incentives will continue.

The more interesting question about language is how we describe ourselves. With what words do we designate our cultural differences? What do they portend? On this front, too, there is good news.

Ethnicity has always been an easier barrier for Americans to cross than race. Oddly enough, we're better off breaking down into lots of little groups than into a few large blocks. The little groups have something to do with actual historical experience and with individual identities. And, more importantly, they are easy to rearrange. Nobody gets excited when Italian-Americans marry German-Americans. The little blocks make interesting patterns; the big blocks only confine. Black and white are ghettos captured in words.

Hispanic was invented to turn the latest wave of immigrants into a new race, and a new race problem. But Latinos stubbornly resist that term (and Latino), preferring to be called Mexican or Cuban or Salvadoran or whatever. Seeing themselves simply as Catholic ethnics (and an increasing number of evangelical Protestants), they act like their forebears—settling first in enclave communities, moving out after a generation or two, and intermarrying. About one-fifth of Latinos marry non-Latinos.

The language problem begotten by tan immigrants has begotten another. Many "Hispanics" are "white," so we have to invent a new term for whites. The term is Anglo—and if you want a fight, just try to slap it on a Jew or an Italian or, worse yet, an Irishman. So we're back to national origins, which leaves out people like me whose relevant ethnicity is regional American. The labels break down in absurdity.

The best news on the language front is, however, the oh-so-cumbersome term African-American. (Yes, it is imprecise—but, seriously, is Colin Powell really "black"?) African-American turns race into ethnicity. It transforms the huge, insurmountable differences of Jim Crow into the small, interesting details of urban neighborhoods. It changes a color into a person, into an American. It is, in fact, a de-Balkanizing term. Eventually, perhaps, we may not even need it. What, after all, do you call Thurgood Marshall's grandchildren?

Virginia I. Postrel is editor of REASON.