The American political commentator Reihan Salam has recently written about the need to create “a new melting-pot nationalism suited to our own time.” The old approach, in his view, doesn’t fit with current socio-economic reality. What worked to integrate, say, Italian-Americans in the 1900s no longer works today.
Salam’s essay focuses on the impact of changes in American immigration since 1965. The problem, as he sees it, isn’t necessarily numbers or ethnic composition. Rather it’s more an issue of skill mix.
Continuing waves of low-skill immigration have resulted in large numbers of people with neither the capacity, nor perhaps the inclination, to fully integrate into the broader society. With low-skills, it’s difficult to acquire a secure, independent foothold. And because the pool of people similar to you is being constantly replenished, the appetite for social contact outside your own group is reduced.
However, successful integration requires social interaction, even up to and including intermarriage. Absent those bonds of friendship and kinship, it becomes substantially more difficult to blur ethnic distinctions into a cohesive national identity. And that can be a problem.
Stepping back to take a historical perspective, it’s worth noting that newcomers and minorities have often aspired to join the majority tribe. Indeed, sometimes they’ve been prepared to go to considerable lengths to do so, as a peek at Irish history demonstrates.
For instance, historian Liam Kennedy’s Unhappy the Land looks at the 1911 Irish census for indications of inter-generational “traffic” across group boundaries. Surnames and religious affiliation provide the raw material.
Anderson, to take one example, was an English Protestant surname introduced to Ireland in the post-Reformation upheavals. By 1911, though, 74 per cent of the Andersons in the eastern province of Leinster identified as Catholics, whereas only eight per cent of those in the northern province of Ulster did so.
But the cross-group movement wasn’t entirely one-way. In Ulster, the erstwhile Gaelic Catholic McGimpseys had become exclusively Protestant. And in one Ulster county, Antrim, almost one-third of the Dohertys had made a similar switch.
It would, I think, be disingenuous to ascribe this kind of pattern to random religious revelation. More likely, it was a matter of seeking to align and identify with the majority tribe.
In Leinster, the Andersons found themselves part of an ethno-religious minority, whereas in Ulster they didn’t. So, following the human impulse of going along to get along, it made sense to change in one case but not in the other.
As for the aforementioned McGimpseys and Dohertys, the parts of Ulster in which they lived were intensely Protestant. They, too, had practical reasons to shift allegiance.
For a large part of the 20th century, North America saw lots of roughly similar accommodations. Sometimes it was just a matter of changing foreign-sounding names, while other times it manifested itself in shedding what would have been perceived as exotic religious affiliations.
When Dino Paul Crocetti launched his singing career in the 1940s, he decided that his professional prospects might be enhanced as Dean Martin. And the Bavarian-born Heinz Alfred Kissinger scaled the heights as Henry Kissinger, having dropped the Orthodox Judaism of his parents along the way.
Back then, integration and assimilation were viewed as broadly interchangeable terms. If newcomers or minorities were going to prosper, they should seek to become more like the host/majority group. And the test of the latter’s tolerance was whether its tribe was open to such new members.
Now, of course, assimilation is a dirty word. Indeed, anyone who advocates it is liable to be accused of promoting cultural genocide.
And here in Canada, John Diefenbaker’s vision of “unhyphenated Canadianism” seems positively quaint. Instead, multi-culturalism and diversity promotion are the order of the day, and “nation to nation” is to be the negotiating watchword for addressing aboriginal issues.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for the new dispensation. After all, why should you have to change your name just to fit in?
Still, there’s the question of what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, a society that’s abundantly cohesive isn’t something to be lightly discarded. As Robert Fulford pungently noted, Sarajevo’s “multi-cultural richness didn’t keep them from killing each other when the opportunity arose.”
Reihan Salam’s American challenge may involve more than finessing the skill mix.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.