Monday, 25 October 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad (and Foreign) Wolf?

Fear is back in fashion, at least if the chattering classes are to be believed.  Not that it ever went out, of course.

In the space of a week, we've seen at least a couple of flaps that lead to cries of 'xenophobia.'  First, German chancellor Angela Merkel, in addressing young members of her party, made the comment that Germany's attempts at building a "multicultural society have utterly failed."  And more recently, liberal columnist and writer Juan Williams was excommunicated from even more liberal National Public Radio for comments he made regarding his personal fear of people who "are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims."

Both cases resulted in a wave of editorials on the impolitic nature of the comments.   In particular, James Carroll of the Boson Globe here declaimed a perceived rising tide of xenophobia.

Whatever one's opinions of the comments, I think it's fair to ask, "where does one draw the line between a legitimate desire for a nation and its people to ask those who wish to join them to accommodate their new homeland, not the other way round, and real, honest-to-goodness xenophobia - the irrational fear of those who are 'foreign' solely because they are foreign."

Setting aside the history of Germany towards its ethnic and religious minorities and semantic arguments about what a "Christian" country is, if one examines the facts on the ground - not only in Germany, but more generally in Western Europe - is it fair to ask how successfully the so-called multi-cultural model has actually worked, and not in some sort of Pollyanna way, but in reality?  Are ethnic Germans and ethnic Turks skipping through fields of daisies singing "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke?"

Carroll's own article points to second and third generation immigrants with scant language skills, stuck on the economic fringe.  The Guardian in London - hardly the English equivalent of National Review  commented on, e.g., the fact that German mosques need to bring in Turkish imams because the population doesn't speak German sufficiently well, and  there are simply none trained in Germany who can speak Turkish.  Regularly, we are treated to stories about riots in the ethnic banlieues of Paris, or the murders of people like Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands.

I disagree with Angela Merkel on at least this - Western democracies, and in particular the US, are pluralistic societies, and to some degree, innovation, growth, and advancement in the arts, science, culture, and industry have been the hallmarks of the West for nearly 500 years because of our willingness to incorporate new ideas.  And I think that our societies benefit enormously when industrious, enterprising people are welcomed to our shores.  Nations that shut their doors to new paradigms are doomed to stagnation and decline - one need look no further than China during the end of its imperial days, or the Arab middle east today.

But I think it's entirely appropriate as part of the bargain that those coming make an attempt to assimilate to the nation that they've chosen to join.  And it's not xenophobia to ask that some core principles that can define a nation beyond simply a geographic, economic, and political corporation be identified.  

E pluribus unum, despite what Al Gore mis-spoke some years ago, means  America is more than a place to sleep and way to earn a dollar.

Put simply - Carroll is right that this is not a "Christian" country; but separation of Church and state equally applies to separation of Mosque and state.  And in this respect, Williams's comments that those who self-identify ostentatiously that, first and foremost, they are any particular religious adherents and then and only thenAmericans are cause for pause, whether they be extremist Christians, Jews, or, yes, Moslems.
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