Saturday, September 5, 2015

Could Immigrants Really Change American Cultural And Political Values?

It might be difficult for some of you to believe, but that very question was recently posed in this article in, in the context of the never-ending promotion (and self-promotion) of Donald Trump's would-be presidential campaign.  As all of us know by now (whether we like it or not), Trump has made immigration the rhetorical focal point of his campaign.  The Slate article itself cites a separate piece advancing the view that Trump's success thus far with making immigration an issue is a consequence of the fears held by many white voters that immigrants are a threat to their cultural identity, and that this fear, not economic or job-related fears, is what really gives the issue, and Trump, the power that both seemingly have.

The authors of both the Slate article, and the article from which it is derived, may have a point. It may very well be the case that fears of immigration may be based on cultural, rather than economic concerns.  If so, I for one would be happy to see the whole debate shift away from the whole crummy-illegals-taking-our-jobs framework that has dominated it over and over again.  For me, this is especially true in light of the fact that study after study after study has shown that immigrants, documented and undocumented, contribute far more in economic activity and public revenue than they receive in public benefits.  People can argue otherwise until they are blue in the face, but the facts ended that argument a long time ago.

And, in any case, it makes sense that immigrants have the potential to change our cultural values and, in consequence, our political values.  But so what?  That is part and parcel of having an open society in which ideas are freely shared in any case.  That was the point of colonization, the war for independence and, ultimately, the Constitution, from the very beginning.  Europeans came to the new world, introducing new technology, and in return sent back new crops to Europe that changed European culture for those not making the journey to the New World.  The effort to create cities and farms where none had existed before led in turn to the creation of a culture in the British colonies that, ultimately, was no longer completely British.  The nation that was born as a consequence of that cultural shift in turn needed human resources from other countries--and welcomed those resources, allowing them to make their own contributions and reshape our culture in the process.

So successful, in fact, has this process been that it is fair to consider this question:  If America is truly a WASP nation, what does it even mean to be a WASP?  Consider, for example, the requirement most anti-immigrant advocates require of all immigrants:  the ability to speak English.  It's fair to respond by asking:  what is English in the first place?  It's a language that has its roots in the broader Indo-European family of languages, which means that, although it eventually became specific to a particular nation and culture, means that it did not spring up in full bloom in a specific spot.  And even as it became identified with both England and the colonies of the British Empire, it was able to absorb and embrace words that have roots in other cultures.  Think about that the next time you go to a restaurant, eat a taco, or kibitz with your neighbors.

This is why English is as widely spoken around the world as it is, because its strength lies in its ability to adapt to the new usages people from different cultures add to it.  It's still English, in its fundamental vocabulary and structure, but it's also a worldwide language--one that is already spoken by the newer arrivals to the U.S., whether documented or not.  You want to speak a language that is native to the soil?  Well, consider Navajo--but forget about English.  It came here as a foreign tongue and, by virtue of its speakers being spread out throughout the world, it is close to a universal language, in part because it accepts other words as "immigrants."

Our nation was founded on the principal that our similarities are stronger than, and ultimately transcend, our differences.  That is why our national slogan was E pluribus unum--one out of many (before Red-baiting made us change it to "In God We Trust" in the 1950s).  We don't require people to abandon those qualities that are unique to them, because we are not threatened by them.  We feel we can learn from them and, in the process, strengthen our own traditions.  We think it is folly-or worse--to divide society into separate tribes; that only produces fear, conflict, and war, while doing nothing to "preserve" cultures.  Ultimately, cultures live or die based not only on their own underlying strength, but the strength they derive from learning the lessons of other cultures.

We need not fear cultural change.  All of us are the products of cultural change.  Our children, and their children, will also be the products of cultural change.  Cultural change cannot be avoided, and it should not be feared.  It has no more place in the immigration debate than economic concerns do. And, if this New York Times article is any indication, perhaps people are slowly waking up to that.  I hope and pray that they are.

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