Sunday, July 08, 2007

Thoughts on cultural diversity, assimilation and secular religion

This post is an exploration of ideas I've been pondering lately in the wake of the London and Glasgow bombing attempts, and pulls together some disparate threads from blogs and articles. It will ramble a bit, but that's what explorations are, extended ramblings.

In a comment on my post "Going wobbly on Modernity and the West" I referenced data from a recent Pew Research survey of American Muslims and their sense of loyalty and identification with America. Though the survey points to some reasons for concern, in general it shows that most American Muslims have integrated into their adopted society.

It also shows, surprisingly if you take the critiques of America as a bigoted, jingoistic, fundamentalist society at face value, that American Muslims identify with their adopted culture to a greater degree than Muslims in Britain, Germany or Spain. The disparity is most apparent with Britain, where 81% consider themselves Muslims first and British second. The same number for American Muslims is 47%.

I believe that the transfer of alliegance to America is so much greater because of America's strong sense of national identity and purpose. In fact, Americanism is rightly seen as a religion. I started reading Gelernter's book and will write more on it in the near future, but one of the points he makes about Americanism is that it is a religion of the here and now, and not the future afterlife.

I don't remember who said it, but I read somewhere that religion is mainly about the worship of the state (the tribe, the people, etc.). When the Zurich city assembly gathered to debate and decide upon theological issues surrounding the reformed Protestant Christian faith that they would approve for worship within their city, the issue of infant baptism was raised. They decided in favor of infant baptism based on the view that the word sacrament was derived from the Roman word sacramentum, which was an oath of loyalty that a soldier took to his unit, it's commanders and the Roman state. To the leaders of Zurich this aligned well with their own ethic of a community held together by covenants of loyalty to the city and to its way of life.

The genius of the American religion is that it is able to split off this civic aspect of religion from the metaphysical commitments of traditional religions. Thus it is able to integrate with any and all theistic religions, including "noe of the above". Thus it can bind the loyalties of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans and Atheists to a single shared sense of purpose. It can also do so across racial and ethnic distinctions.

So, in short, Muslims find it easier to assimilate to Americanism because Americanism is a positive, strong belief system and identity. Which is why I believe Muslims are not successfully adopting British identity, because the British do not possess a similarly strong and compelling national identity. In a review of Peter Mandler's book "The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair" Max Hastings illustrates how confused and ambivalent the English sense of identity and purpose is:
Mandler notes that, from the late 1940s onwards, there was a steep decline in the traditional continental fascination with the English character, and, indeed, in home-grown analysis of it. We mattered less. The English, as well as foreigners, saw little to admire in themselves, and became increasingly confused about who we were. “Gentlemen” became unfashionable. The amateur spirit was perceived as having got Britain into the awful mess it had become by the 1960s. Mandler’s study pays insufficient attention to literary sources. One learns more about the English national character from Dickens and Trollope or, indeed, from any novelist, than from a study of this kind, which records various jokes, but fails to make any of its own. Just as Dickens contributed vastly to English self-perceptions in the 19th century, so Len Deighton’s 1960s spy thrillers vividly depicted the new Englishman’s contempt for the old one.

The expatriate Alan Pryce-Jones observed in 1968 that England was “an aquatinted country, full of very nice people, half asleep”. Mandler’s concluding pages portray a nation that has become deeply unsure of what it is, or wants to be. In the past half- century, most of this island’s inhabitants have become more concerned with personal than national identity. A 1963 poll for New Society showed that 73% of respondents thought that “individual happiness” was much more important than “national greatness”. I fancy that majority would increase in a similar poll taken today.

Even the nationalistic historian Arthur Bryant gave up, lamenting that “there is no unifying faith to bind us together”. In the late 1970s, the novelist Antonia Byatt without embarrassment applauded the virtues of multiculturalism: “I see our nation increasingly as a bright mosaic of little, unrelated patches.” Today, of course, we can see what dangerous tosh this was.

We perceive the threat not only to our social cohesion, but to our physical security, posed by an ideal of a nation in which nobody is required to display commitment to anything beyond self. If the age of John Bull, and that of Bulldog Drummond, is unlamented, we are learning by bitter experience that it is preferable to acknowledge almost any national character than none at all.

It is easy to mock our past ideal of identity, overwhelmingly defined by military achievement. Yet the replacement of the old national culture with one rooted only in personal self-fulfilment, in which the highest loyalties are offered to football teams, and new immigrants are permitted to live here as mere economic campers, is plainly a failure.

You can almost characterize this attitude as an anti-identity, or a revulsion against identities. It explains the sense of fear that some English commentators have of the strong, unambiguous sense of identity displayed by Americans, as evinced by an excerpt from Sandy Balfour's book "Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose" (via Random Distractions):
Swamped by the noise and heat I felt a disquiet at what I now realise was a relatively modest exhibition of American triumphal gloating. My response was to engage a colonel of the United States Air Force in conversation.

I told the colonel that I found the idea that he could kill me anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances unsettling. I mentioned that as a foreigner I found this less comforting than perhaps did the massed ranks of Americans at the air show. I pointed out that those of us who have disagreements with the United States assert our right to disagree, and to assert our own view of the world.

He said I was the first person he had ever met to say these things.

I asked him had he ever been abroad. He said no. We agreed that this probably explained it.

….at some point in the conversation the colonel mentioned a particular game of baseball. It is a game he umpired, and it took place one time in Sarajevo, in

‘But,’ I objected, ‘you said you had never been abroad.’

‘Hell no,’ he agreed, and then seeing my look of doubt he went on to explain. ‘By the time I got there, it was ours.’

Bryan Appleyard also displays this fear of a strong, unambiguous national identity, and identifies this fear, incorrectly I believe, with conservatism:
The two right wing movements of the last thirty years have both been anti-conservative. Neo-liberalism's glorification of the market subverted community, locality, custom and tradition. Neo-conservatism's rabid idealism is an affront to the anti-idealistic pragmatism of old conservatism. Thus 'right wing' and 'conservative' can no longer be regarded as synonyms. In fact, they never should have been. It was commonplace for late Victorians and Edwardians to regard socialism as a conservative movement. And G.K.Chesterton defined his own high Toryism as the support of the working man against vested interests. It was probably when the Russian revolution polarised political debate that the idea of conservatism as an anti-working class movement was born. Conservatism is not a matter of any specific policies, but rather it is an attitude defined by realism and a reverence for custom and tradition.

The problem with identifying conservatism with a love of custom and tradition is that customs and traditions are constantly shifting. What someone considers traditional today was borne of a wrenching, dislocating social change for our grandparents. Identities that are focused on the contingencies of time and place will dissolve as quickly as those historically brief, contingent social alignments.

Americanism, as an ideals-based identity as opposed to a traditions-based identity, can survive and thrive across temporal and geographical contingencies. The English mode of time and place based identity is the global norm, it's identity crisis is being shared by most national and ethnic groups, including the Muslim societies both in Europe and in their home lands. Paradoxically, multicultural policies do not soften these identity conflicts but intensify them. Americans might seem racist because of the demands they place on incoming immigrant communities to assimilate to American values and norms. It is not racist, but culturalist. I was chided by some of my non-American brethren for making a big deal about Muslims demanding foot washing stations in airports and other public accommodations of their traditional ways, but it is the little things like these that make or break the preservation of a single cultural framework in which multiple cultures can simultaneously share a single civic identity.

In that sense Americanism is a meta-culture. It allows for local expressions of cultural diversity while at the same time binding citizens together (sacramentum) under a shared, common identity and purpose. It makes demands on those it assimilates, but human nature yearns for belonging to a greater whole that makes demands and expects sacrifice. I think that many Muslim youth are turning to radical Islam out of frustration that their national societies, especially in Europe, are not making demands upon them or expecting sacrifices of them in the service of a greater purpose.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Lots to chew on here.

Not to (yet) disagree with any of it, but you'd get a different result if you compared American nationalism with German nationalism.

There's a well-known study of Nordhausen (whose title and author slip my mind) that found that in the '30s, there was still a lot of Hanoverian particularism there. Yet the Nordhausers were as Nazi and nationalist as anybody.

Not an either/or proposition.

Going further back, no one imagines the Germans of 1914 as lacking in nationalism, yet they marched off to war in subnational armies -- Bavarian etc.

And in 1918, when everything collapsed and the men marched home, they did not raise the flags of the Reich but of the Wittelsbachs.

A big part of the difference is that Europe is old and America is new. Well, sort of. The U.S. has one of the longest continuous polities in the world. Longer even than England's, if you treat the Reform Bill as more revolutionary than deposition of a monarch (as I tend to do).

Third initial point: I am not so sure about the assimilation of Muslims in the U.S. Polls may overstate it.

Also, there probably is no 'American Muslim community.' The differences between Somali cabbies in Minneapolis and English-speaking Indian Muslim merchants may be as great as or greater than the differences between, say, a white Englishman and the Indian Muslim.

July 08, 2007 12:00 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

As Harry alludes, using "Muslim" in this essay may be incorrect. It's not about religion, it's about the cultural residues of the immigrant's homelands.

A person saying that they consider themselves "Muslim first, American second", is as silly as saying that one considers oneself to be "Christian first, American second".
Allegiance to God may well come before allegiance to country, but God appears to be fine with the form and existence of the U.S., so problems only arise when the religious person falls under the spell of some self-appointed leader who has a personal beef with America.

That's where the problem arises with these "Muslim first" folks, that they want to benefit economically from living in the U.S., but don't want to pay the price culturally. They cling to the old ways, the old leaders - which, if they were any good, would have been able to construct a society and culture that the immigrant wouldn't have needed to flee.

So they're trying to have their cake, and eat it too.

July 09, 2007 9:10 AM  
Blogger monix said...

Congratulations, Duck, on a thoughtful and measured post. Terms like 'exploration of ideas' and 'pondering' are very dear to my heart. I am always nervous around expressions of certainty, which, I find, usually reflect a closed mind.

You raise a lot of issues that deserve deliberation. My fingers have been burned too badly from my recent foray into the political commentary box for me to join in the discussion. However, I look forward to following it and to gaining a better understanding of different views.

July 10, 2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks Monix! Your thoughts are always welcome.

July 10, 2007 7:14 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't see why you thought you got your fingers burned, monix.

At the moment, your side outnumbers mine about a zillion to one.

July 10, 2007 7:12 PM  
Blogger monix said...

Harry: what side would that be?

I looked at all the posts involved in the recent breakdown in relationships in this section of the blogosphere and it struck me that there was a lot of misunderstanding and rushing to (mis)judgement. I naively quoted a passage from Sandy Balfour to illustrate how this might have happened; in turn, this upset a lot of Americans who failed to see my point and thought I was making an anti-American statement. That, in turn, has led to a rash of anti-British posts e.g on erp's blog. I'd call that getting my fingers burned.

I thought we were all on the same side i.e. anti-terrorism.

July 11, 2007 1:55 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Oh, well, I hadn't read erp's blog.

I'll agree that everybody posting here is anti-terrorist, in principle, though I won't agree that everybody's approach could be effective.

And I do not believe everybody has correctly identified the source of terrorism.

I do not, however, believe that EVERYBODY is anti-terror.

Seems to me that everybody, since we're talking about him, should go back and re-read Conrad's 'Secret Agent.'

July 11, 2007 9:46 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

So, in short, Muslims find it easier to assimilate to Americanism because Americanism is a positive, strong belief system and identity. Which is why I believe Muslims are not successfully adopting British identity, because the British do not possess a similarly strong and compelling national identity.

This sounds a little confused to me.

First, I think the term "Americanism" is at risk of self-contradiction. The notions underlying Americanism -- contractually limited government, the regular requirement for government to submit itself for approval, and the assertion of the symmetry argument -- are really more akin to humanism. That is, the accessibility of those notions is completely independent of the particulars of nation, language or creed.

In that regard, Brits (and Canadians, and Australians, etc) believe in Americanism; unfortunately, the term starts to lose its meaning that way. Yes, Americans were the first to put these ideas into something like regular practice; but then to particularize the universal starts to look like swimming upstream.

Where the Brits (and Canadians) may be going astray is in failing to assert the fundamental notions. Rather than equivocating, the British should be stating in the strongest possible terms that attempts to impose sectarian notions are absolutely beyond the pale: believe what you like, but you must leave the rest of us out of it.

I think that many Muslim youth are turning to radical Islam out of frustration that their national societies, especially in Europe, are not making demands upon them or expecting sacrifices of them in the service of a greater purpose.

Then answer this: why is it only (or close as darnnit) Muslims who are turning towards murderous fundamentalism?

In that sense Americanism is a meta-culture. It allows for local expressions of cultural diversity while at the same time binding citizens together (sacramentum) under a shared, common identity and purpose.

I'm not sure what "purpose" or "identity" can be attributed to Americanism -- that seems a bit of a heavy load for a spare set of assumptions that amount largely to an individualistic YOYO.

(Which I happen to believe it is its greatest strength.)

July 15, 2007 7:16 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Then answer this: why is it only (or close as darnnit) Muslims who are turning towards murderous fundamentalism?

Maybe because, according to Orrin, Islam is a religion that inherently asserts control of both the spiritual and secular worlds, whereas Christianity settled the question of what religious leaders can control centuries ago ?

July 22, 2007 9:50 AM  

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