My friend Demonax, a frequent commenter on this blog and a contributor to Phylax Blog has a knack for making me question and think about things. A recent exchange really got me stirred up. I have always lived in three world's:
1) the immigrant world where the Greek language dominated and where all the activities were concentrated around being Greek and being Greek Orthodox; 2) my adopted land, America, which became familiar and comfortable, especially to my children; and 3) in the old country, the "Patrida," which I am unable and unwilling to forget.
My whole life has been a struggle to make sense of these worlds and achieve a blending of the best parts of each. My younger son, exasperated, once asked me: Are we American or are we Greek? Kids never miss a chance to put parents on the spot and force us to lay our cards on the table. He was really saying put up or shut up Dad. "Well of course we are Americans first and by choice but our genes are 100% Greek, our Greek part lives inside us." That cleared things right up. Originally, Greeks immigrants, were regarded as racially, socially, and religiously different from the mainstream of American society. As the early immigrant community got older, their children and grandchildren became an important factor in assimilation. They went to English language schools; they were able to make contacts outside their own community; and they married persons from other ethnic groups, a factor that had been rare among the first generation of immigrants. In other words, they assimilated rapidly; this fact had a considerable impact in binding and connecting their parents to American society.
Immigrants and their children assimilate if they begin to identify and become an integral part of the country they live in. They do so when they vote and get involved in politics, when they serve in the Armed Forces, when they participate in American cultural and social activities. In other words, when they begin to feel like it is their country, not someone else's. My parents became US citizens after residing in the US for five years. They became "Americans" when they cried watching the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, when they wrote letters to their son serving on battlefields in Vietnam and Kuwait, when they attended their children's college graduations and their daughter's wedding to the grandson of Italian and German immigrants. Despite all this they never forgot their connection with the Patrida. After the 1974 invasion of Cyprus the two of them traveled by bus to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate publicly their outrage at Turkish barbarism and American policy. Although both were ethnically, linguistically and religiously Greek in every sense, they never lived in Greece. My Dad grew up in Albania and my mother grew up in Turkey. They never thought of themselves as Albanian or Turkish, yet within a few decades they considered themselves proud and lucky to be Greek-Americans.
President Theodore Roosevelt, back in the heyday of European immigration to America, did not approve of the use of the term Greek-American: "... There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. This is just as true of the man who puts "native" before the hyphen as of the man who puts German or Irish or English or French before the hyphen. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul. Our allegiance must be purely to the United States. We must unsparingly condemn any man who holds any other allegiance. But if he is heartily and singly loyal to this Republic, then no matter where he was born, he is just as good an American as any one else. " Teddy was a proponent of the "melting pot" theory. He wanted immigrants to forget where they came from and assume an "American identity." For some immigrants it may take a few short years, for others it may take generations.
The melting pot theory eventually gave way to multi-culturalism. It stresses the co-existence of different cultures in one society. For more than a generation, multiculturalism has become the default mode of thinking among too many in the elites in Britain and in this country too. Multi-culturalists believe that all cultures are of equal moral worth, except for Western culture, which is imperialist, racist, oppressive and insufficiently respectful of other cultures. This line of reasoning has been taught relentlessly in our universities and seldom challenged by the mainstream media. By eschewing assimilation for multi-culturalism we create multi-ethnic societies prone to balkanization and condemn them to the same fates as some of the countries from which immigrants have fled. Creating enclaves within society where immigrants live apart, speak their own language, and even attempt to enforce their own laws is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, societies that adopt, nurture and incorporate worthwhile aspects of immigrant culture into the existing cultural mosaic are better for it. Many immigrants although they may be nostalgic are also realistic about the problems in their native countries that they are trying to escape. Michael Barone a well known political pundit who I consider very astute, has this to say about immigrants: "Consider the reaction of a Mexican I interviewed some years ago in Huntington Park, Calif. I asked him whether he wanted to see the Mexican system of government and politics here in the United States. I have seldom seen anyone laugh so heartily. Most Mexicans know that their government and politics are, alas, seriously dysfunctional. Less so than 20 years ago, certainly, but still dysfunctional. The number of Mexicans who want to re-create the Mexican system in the United States is probably not much higher than the number of professors of Chicano studies at our universities."
America says G.K. Chesterton, is "the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." The Declaration of Independence starts with this phrase: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Some would have us believe that Jefferson was trying to wipe out human differences, in fact, he is merely stating that in America, all of us should have an equal shot at fundamental rights, at pursuing happiness, not a guarantee of achieving it. America is comprised mostly of rejects, of people who were thrown out or let go or escaped or are just trying to get away from someplace else in order to improve their lives. In spite of such questionable pedigree, it is a land of great patriotic pride. Imbuing patriotism and Americanizing every immigrant who has come here to make a new beginning, was always considered essential. Historian Theodore White wrote: "Americans are not a people like the French, Germans or Japanese whose genes have been mixing with kindred genes for thousands of years. Americans are held together only by ideas insofar as Americans rejected the belief in nationalism of blood and soil, the sense in which nationalism is understood in its European heyday and still is in places like Croatia and Serbia. It made the country receptive to immigrants.... There has been, a minimal accessible qualification to becoming an American: adopt the creed and you are in.This has made it it possible for the United States not only to absorb huge numbers of people, but also to alter the composition of its population radically without major disruption." The question haunting us as we debate the virtues and vices of immigration, illegal or not, does the assimilation process still work? If it doesn't how do we make it work without expunging all the desirable things that immigrants bring to the table.