Friday, November 29, 2013

the new segregationism

I'm an unapologetic cultural assimilationist. I think that people who come to live in America, no matter their original culture, have a duty to assimilate into the larger culture and to obey the law of the land. If a Korean lives in America for thirty years, but still can't speak a lick of English, I think English-fluent Americans have a right to be annoyed and to grouse, "Why can't you speak English?" The subtext undergirding that question is assimilationism: Why can't you be more like the rest of us—the majority of us? Why haven't you made the effort?*

It used to be the case that America celebrated its ethnic/cultural diversity while also lifting up the values that were—supposedly—common to us all, the values that bound us together as a people who were together by choice. E pluribus unum. Nowadays, however, it's becoming much more difficult to find that balanced perspective: there's much more pluribus than unum.

This pluribus-mania manifests itself on both the left and the right. On the left, we've got the strong push toward a heedless "multiculturalism" that is essentially a form of blind relativism. According to this point of view, no culture can ever be superior to (or "better than") another culture; all cultures are equal, and no intercultural disrespect—even humorous—will be tolerated in thought, word, and deed. Along with these notions is the idea that people of diverse backgrounds must live and work together: if diversity is our strength, then to be as strong as possible, we should be forced into culturally diverse situations.

On the right, there's been blowback against this liberal push: increasingly among political and social conservatives, the dominant paradigm has become "stop the mixing and let everyone self-sort the way they want to because diversity is unworkable." According to this view, like favors like: Qui se ressemblent s'assemblent. Birds of a feather, and all that. More and more sociological studies are confirming what, to conservatives, has been a long-standing truth: the more cultural/ethnic diversity there is in a given region, the less the sense of true community, and the more the potential for verbal and physical conflict. Better to stop integrating schools, for instance, and just let people sort themselves however they want. Better to stop those nonsensical "diversity workshops" and "diversity appreciation" courses at universities: cultivating a simple sense of decency should be enough for us all to live together.

While I agree with conservatives that people naturally come together with people who are like them, and that the result is greater social harmony (cf. Scandinavian countries with their low diversity, low crime rates, and great education), I often feel as if there were something more sinister going on under the surface. This creepiness pops up at certain moments in public discourse: Michelle Malkin infamously advocated both "internment camps" for illegal immigrants as well as rounding the illegals up and simply trucking them out of the country. Both of these ideas hark back to darker moments in the history of the twentieth century.

While I agree with liberals that living in the midst of diversity can confer a sort of worldly wisdom and make us more aware of our common humanity, I often feel there's something sinister in the liberal project as well: it's a social-engineering experiment that is leading the country to a nihilistic dead end via the path of relativism. If a person can't condemn honor killings, clitoridectomies, and other horrifying acts against women because "we can't judge other cultures," something is deeply wrong with that person. There is, in my view, absolutely nothing the matter with judging other cultures from the axiological perspective one has. Values are, by definition, not negotiable, not provisional, and not parochial: they apply to everyone, everywhere, at all times. If you believe all women should have the right to express themselves as loudly and as proudly as they want, then you believe that's true not just for the women of your own culture, but for others as well: ALL women should have this right. Otherwise, your convictions aren't really convictions, and you reveal yourself merely to be a shifty, lying coward. Sorry, Star Trek, but I do not subscribe to the Prime Directive: it is possible for us to judge other cultures—just as they can legitimately judge ours.

Quite the opposite of "diversity training," I think there should be a stronger push toward "unity training"—a reminder that there's an unum that's worth preserving, worth dying for. This is the hard path: far from trucking people out or throwing them into internment camps, this path involves relentless education. Sure, let people self-sort into their ethnically un-diverse communities, but remind the citizens that something still binds them together, namely, a set of ideas that all American citizens should take as gospel: the primacy of the US Constitution, the gubernatorial paradigm it delineates, and the basic freedoms it proclaims; the value of free markets/free trade; the necessity of federalism to keep state and local powers in check; the need for a culture of free expression, free discussion, and free debate; the crucial role that science plays in technological progress; the simple belief in, and love of, liberty in all its forms. There should also be an obvious limit to our society's tolerance: we cannot tolerate intolerance. Let those who rail against this vision of America leave, if they're so convinced that greener pastures lie elsewhere.

The "new segregationism" that I sense among modern conservatives is disappointing because it's a turn away from the old assimilationism. Instead of "Why can't you be more like us?", it's become "You live with your people; I'll live with mine." The result of the new attitude will be exactly the thing that conservative thinkers like Allan Bloom, writing in the 1980s, feared: balkanization, resulting in an even deeper fragmentation as "undiversity" becomes the rule and incestuous amplification builds up within each "pure" group, leading to precisely the sort of racial and cultural ignorance I see daily in undiverse South Korea. It's an ignorance that, if it takes deep enough root, will lead to conflict just as surely as the multiculturalist route will.

*This is, by the way, how I feel about living in Korea. An expat has a duty to learn the language, understand the culture, and respect the laws of the country that feeds, clothes, and otherwise nurtures him. This is the most sincere thank you an expat can give. Most Koreans aren't assimilationist at all; they have low to no expectations when it comes to foreigners, which is why Koreans are eternally surprised whenever they encounter a foreigner who has bothered to learn any amount of Korean. I was happy to discover one Korean lady, however, who stands as a welcome exception to this Korean tendency: my new barber. She's loud, her accent is almost incomprehensible to me, but she goes on and on about how the foreigners who come to her salon really need to learn Korean. Good for her, I say!



John said...

This was a good and thought provoking read. As one who leans right though I must say that I haven't observed as the norm the kind of thinking on separatism that you describe. I don't believe that folks should stay in their place, but rather we should all have the freedom to make the place we want for ourselves. It seems to me that the most extremist viewpoints on both the right and left are what gets everyone's attention, while the vast majority of us just want to live our lives in harmony.

For example, Malkin can definitely be out there on the fringe, but the reality is most people think we should have a sensible and consistent enforcement of our immigration laws. Although Malkin used harsh rhetoric, most countries in the world, including Korea and Mexico, strictly enforce their immigration statutes.

I too fear we are losing our "unum" and that can't be a good thing for a country that was founded on a "melting pot" principle. But having said that, it's always been the case that Americans have lived together and yet stayed somewhat apart. Every major city has it's Italian district, it's Chinatown, etc. I recall when my kids were in high school our community was 50% black and 50% white. This was decades after Jim Crow mandated segregation. And yet, at basketball games the African-Americans by choice sat almost exclusively in one section of the bleachers. There was no friction or animosity, they just preferred to sit and cheer together. I guess that's just basic human nature.

Assimilation is good and necessary but I don't think achieving that requires abandoning your cultural heritage either. So, I think that while English proficiency is a necessary component of becoming fully "Americanized", I don't really have a problem with those who haven't mastered the language. My attitude on this has moderated significantly over the years. In my hometown in California we had a huge influx of Vietnamese boat people. I'd drive down main street and couldn't read the shop signs in the city I grew up in and I found that irksome. But after living in Korea for several years I came to really appreciate some simple courtesies like announcing subway stops in English. Now, when I encounter the ubiquitous bi-lingual (generally Spanish/English) signs, advertisements, ballots and the like, I'm okay with it. Although I still think bi-lingual education in the public schools is wrong. It seems to me that kids who are not compelled to learn English are being set up for failure and a minimum wage lifestyle. That is in no ones best interest.

After all these years I can't converse in Korean, so maybe shame on me. I never worked on the economy there though and I did learn enough to get by (I can order my beer and ask for the bathroom for example). I do feel like a failure though when I can't participate in the conversation when I visit Jee Yeun's family. But many many times I've had Koreans apologize to me for their "poor" English. In their own damn country! And that embarrassed me because we wouldn't have been talking at all if they relied on my limited Korean.

Anyway, good stuff Kevin. Right after reading your post I came upon this piece from NPR talking about political segregation. It makes some points similar to yours.


Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

"As one who leans right though I must say that I haven't observed as the norm the kind of thinking on separatism that you describe."

You might want to take a look at my e-friend Malcolm's blog, especially here. Malcolm and the e-friend he links to, "hbd* chick," both seem to agree that "Diversity Doesn't Work" and that people should be free to "disaggregate," as Malcolm puts it. This attitude seems to be becoming more and more widespread among conservatives.

Obviously, you're right about those ethnic neighborhoods; this was hbd* chick's point as well. And you're right that it's simple human nature for birds of a feather to flock together. But what worries me is the darker side of that phenomenon: similar people gather together and form their in-groups, then start to spin a bunch of ignorant nonsense about the out-groups, breeding fear and feeding prejudice. The result is little different from what happens when diversity is forced upon us: racial/ethnic strife.

An example suggests itself. Here in Korea, as you well know, there's a free-floating meme about Americans: Americans can't eat spicy food. This is utter bullshit, but in a more-or-less homogeneous society like Korea's, the meme is hard to combat. Korean ideas about Americans and spicy food are pretty harmless compared to Koreans' more pernicious racial/cultural prejudices, but my point is that, in a homogeneous society, even simple prejudices and misconceptions are difficult to destroy. That, to me, is one of the big dangers of balkanization: balkanized societies and neighborhoods become prejudice factories.

Charles said...

Overall, I would classify myself as a liberal, but political, social, and economic issues are far too complex for a single blanket term--I'm definitely more conservative in some areas and more liberal in others.

Anyway, my basic problem with "extreme multiculturalism" is that it is paradoxical. If you have to accept all viewpoints and treat them as equally valid, what do you do when you run across mutually exclusive viewpoints? You can't just say, "Well, let them have their viewpoints and we'll have ours," because (as you pointed out), part and parcel of extreme multiculturalism is the idea that everyone must integrate. When you have mutually exclusive viewpoints coming together in what is supposed to be an integrated community, something has to give.

(And you already know my thoughts on assimilationism...)

gordsellar said...

Well, my problem with assimilationism isn't that I think people should have nay qualms condemning the kinds of things you mention: I don't actually know anyone who is significantly leftist in outlook outside of academia who actually has that kind of problem, though. It's not quite a strawman, but close.

But I do have a problem with the idea that there is one culture. What I learned in Korea is that even the most "homogenous" culture functions along a continuum: things that horrify some people are quite normal to others. For example, my wife teaches a mom in the morning and her daughter in the afternoon. The mom makes an effort to seem normal, but the daughter shows up distraught, after beatings, too often for it to be an occasional thing; and the child, basically, isn't allowed to play--outside, inside, at all. Her mother told her she sees no need or use for play, basically. (And things her mom has let slip in lessons make it seem like that probably isn't an exaggeration.) One kid I tutor got beaten for writing a poem in English in the wrong meter, by a mother who cannot read or speak English at all.

Teaching students privately, we see tons of that kind of stuff. It all shocks Jihyun (who is Korean, but, okay also arguably bicultural or something)... but it also shocked a Korean student of mine who is way closer to the cultural mainstream (whatever that means). So what's normal in one family is shocking in another... even if crazily wanton disproportinate violence toward kids seems overwhelmingly common.

Also: as a good assimilationist in Korea, are you supposed to adjust your belief system to thinking some other way about beating the living crap out of a defenseless child, to fit the mainstream permissive view? I am unable to do so, even if I were willing to try... which I'm not.

I think your view of multiculturalism is a little skewed. Our experience in Canada isn't as horrible as you seem to expect it would be. And, amusingly enough, I'm baffled by the idea that the USA needs more unity training. You guys seem to get plenty of that as it is, compared to us. (And other than the victimology-politics of Quebec, I don't see Canada disintegrating at the seams anytime soon.)

My big objection to not integrating schools is that it's even easier to stratify the distribution of (economic & other) resources when you've sorted people by race into different schools... because, after all, cultivating a sense of decency sort of requires familiarity, doesn't it? (Or else it becomes a question of decency toward whom?)

gordsellar said...

Also, I think this comment of John's:


Strikes me as just a little bit "easy," really: it's easy to say, but is it true?

The comments of people of color I know or have read online lead me to think that there's a degree of "accommodation" imposed on nonwhite minorities in the States--ie. that the white POV is the default--that would very easily explain why a specific group of nonwhites might choose to sit together, other than some mere, what, instinctual preference to be with "one's own kind"...

A review of the obvious cinematic referent, Why I Wouldn't See Twelve Years a Slave With a White Person comes to mind. (The short version, if I may take a stab at summarizing: the author didn't feel emotionally safe doing so; she felt she would be expected to accommodate a white-privileged POV on the film, just as is routinely expected of people of her race in America, in ways that are apparently invisible to non-blacks.)

The whole "people prefer their own kind" thing always struck me as suspect. I remember apartment hunting in an unfamiliar city, aided by an older local whom I'd known from another place and time. I saw a building that had a "Room for Rent" sign up, and suggested I might check the place, but he warned me against it, saying, "That's an Indian building. Everyone who lives there is from India. It smells like curry. I doubt you'd want to live there... or that they'd want you to live there, either."

I was frankly kind of shocked. He insisted that it wasn't racism to say so: after all, he himself was then enjoying a very happy interracial marriage. He insisted that thought I wouldn't be comfortable mixing at such close quarters. But I couldn't shake the feeling that deep down, underneath the justification, it actually was racism. (Whenever someone says, "It's not racist," it seems even more apparent to me that it is.) That's not to call my friend a racist (essentialism isn't helpful), but I think his comment had roots in some somewhat racist ideas.

gordsellar said...

Ironically, the *worst* experiences I had as a neighbor and a renter were among homogenous majority group. (French Quebecois.) That, despite making an effort to speak in French and despite them knowing my mother was Quebecois. ("One's own kind" can be a radically small group when one is so inclined; as my wife commented once, her parents wouldn't have had fewer problems with me if I were Korean and atheist; they wanted a Korean of the right Protestant denomination, with a good job, etc.)

Don't get me wrong: I have wonderful francophone-Canadian friends: truly wonderful people whom I miss dearly.

But that homogenous neighborhood was much less friendly, respectful, and pleasant than the buildings full of rootless cosmopolitans I moved to later on. *shrug* My best experience in that city was living in a very cosmopolitan building with Chinese- and Indian-immigrant neighbors, a Chilean immigrant superintendent, and a Korean-immigrant run convenience store next door--that ajumma was a wonderful person. They all were. Everyone sort of understood we were all different, and that it might take effort to get along. We ended up sharing food, talking, and so on a lot.

The homogenous group, on the other hand, seemed to take it as given that people of the same background would get along, and that people of different backgrounds would be more trouble. They kept their distance, because they weren't used to the effort.

Which is to say, maybe people stick to their own group because of reasons we white folks don't see. Or maybe because when you're in the dominant heterogenous group, it's easy to get lazy.

(To be fair, though, we learned near the end of our stay in that neighborhood that the previous tenants had been crazed heroin addicts, howling at the moon, fighting, smashing windows and doors, etc. It may be that our predecessors poisoned the well for us. I don't know. But the difference between the neighborhoods was like night and day.)