Native grounds: Many Europeans are asking whether they can ever emulate the American melting pot — and whether the should. A letter from England.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft – The Boston Globe

Copyright The Boston Globe | December 11, 2005
HERE ARE TWO happy and hopeful snapshots of modern Europe. In 1998, the French soccer team beat Brazil in the final of the World Cup thanks to two goals from Zinedine Zidane, the sublime ”Zizou” who was born in Marseilles, the son of Algerian immigrants. Then in 2002 the English cricket team beat India, led to victory against his native country by Nasser Hussein, who was born in Madras but brought to England as a boy.
Heartwarming stories of successful immigration and assimilation, these might be thought, eloquent tributes to Europe’s own melting pot. But there’s another side to the story, and there are much bleaker snapshots.
Last July a group of young English-born Muslims carried out devastating suicide bombings in London, killing scores of innocents. This autumn the dismal outer suburbs of Paris and other French cities were swept by riots which sent shock waves through the whole country and beyond. Those suicide bombers came from a ”British Asian” community which is passionate about cricket, and many of those riotous French boys of North African or black African descent are soccer fanatics who must have dreamed of emulating Zizou.
Looking at those bewilderingly different images it would seem, for one thing, that sports are not the solvent we had once hoped for. And for another, it looks at the moment as though a sour wisecrack applies more aptly in Europe than
in America: The only thing that melted was the pot.
In the United States and the European Union, immigration, assimilation, and identity are now the hottest of political topics. But if they illustrate a profound transatlantic gulf, they also reveal sharp differences within the European countries in their experiences of immigration and their responses to it. Although some Frenchmen were quick to point out that no one was killed in their latest outbreaks, by contrast with riots in America in 1992, any honest European must ruefully admit that our experience of absorbing immigrants into the community over the past 60 years compares in many ways unfavorably with the American experience. What went wrong?
On either side of the ocean, the debates over immigration and identity, like so many serious political topics today, transcend the banal language of left and right. They also make an almost amusing contrast. In America, the argument is within the right; in Europe, it is now within the left.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are split between libertarian free-traders, who favor almost unrestricted immigration, and nativists (for want of another word) who want to restrict it. More striking is the recent debate here in England. The liberal left has traditionally tended toward Third-Worldliness, racial equality, and multiculturalism, but the left’s touchstone is above all the welfare state, which is of course much more extensive in most European countries than in the United States.
Writing in the London monthly magazine Prospect, which he edits, David Goodhart has argued that his fellow social democrats should logically take a much more realistic attitude towards the need to control immigration. For his pains, he was abused and misrepresented, but what he was saying was perfectly simple: Not only must a welfare state safeguard the rights of workers, to do so it requires a degree of social cohesion and even national unity. Those are slogans which the right has before now appropriated: An army that fights for the defense of the realm needs such cohesion and unity. But so does a welfare state that fights for social justice, Goodhart suggests.
There is a contradiction between the welfare state and the ”diversity” beloved of progressive opinion, which can be summarized as ”Sweden versus America”-a universal welfare state based on a homogeneous society with intensely shared values, or, as in America, a much less homogeneous and more individualistic society which believes in self-worth and does not have the same sense of obligation between citizens.
Those transatlantic divides stem from starkly different historical experiences. America has always been a land of immigration-and until recently, or even now by European standards, of cheap labor. The explosive industrial development of the Gilded Age in the half century after the Civil War was fueled by British capital and by the labor of immigrants, peasants, and proletarians: men, women, and not least children, from all the corners of Europe. Employers in Massachusetts mill towns and Pennsylvania coal mines used those workers like machines, as expendable as any inanimate raw material.
But it worked after its fashion, and it worked because of work. To a remarkable degree, these incomers accepted the American gospel of equality through toil and dignity through reward.
Just how successful assimilation has been in America may be more clearly visible from outside. In 1988 I was taken to a press dinner in Washington at which President Reagan spoke. He gave what was no doubt a well-rehearsed set-piece speech: ”Every immigrant makes America more American,” he said. You can’t become an Englishman by going to live in England, or a Frenchman by going to live in France, ”but anyone can become an American.” It may have been corny; I was moved almost to tears.
Indeed Reagan’s words were truer than he may have realized, and even nomenclature is telling. A friend of mine was born and bred in Vienna before he left quickly and for good reason in 1938. Having spent the rest of his life in London and, in the fullness of time, as a subject of Her Majesty, he used to say drily, ”I’ve become British, but I know I can never become English.” But anyone can become an American.
Modern Europe had no experience of large-scale immigration from outside the continent until after 1945. Just as the British were said to have acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind, so postwar Europe acquired a large new immigrant population without really thinking about it-in the case of England, France, and Holland-as the legacy of empire.
Different countries already had different attitudes to the idea of nationhood: German identity was founded on the Volk (the people) and the French republican version was founded on the patrie, ethnic as opposed to civic nationalism. German immigration law, dating back a hundred years, has been well-nigh racial in inspiration. Anyone can claim German nationality who can prove German descent, but it was very difficult indeed for anyone else to ”become a German.”
This predated the Third Reich-the law comes from the Second or Hohenzollern Reich-and survived it. With his insane racial tidy-mindedness, Hitler murdered millions because of their birth, but he also ”gathered in” ethnic Germans from southeast Europe and Russia, a policy continued by his democratic successors. No one properly rebuked the German government in the 1990s for ”bringing home” the Saxons of western Romania, whose families had been living in Transylvania since the Middle Ages, or considered the implications of this policy.
Equally, and notoriously, Germany coined the name ”guest workers” to describe the immigrants who began arriving from Turkey in the 1950s. The phrase unambiguously intended that these workers, who played such an important part in the German economic miracle, would go home afterwards like other guests, but they didn’t. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch said, ”Workers were called, and human beings came.”
In France the official attitude was quite different. France had a long history of migration and assimilation, and a melting pot kept on a higher flame than the American one. Reagan’s ”you can’t become a Frenchman” was not quite right. France believed in a mission civilatrice, and this meant among other things that little boys from Martinique to Senegal to Indochina might achieve the highest honor of all by becoming Frenchmen.
Another French republican ideal was laicism: not the passive secularism of the First Amendment but an active, or even aggressive, hostility to religion. France may be said to have been evenhanded about this: Forbidding Muslim girls to wear headscarves to school is surely no harsher than closing monasteries and expelling Catholic religious orders, as the Third Republic did early last century.
The British Empire never quite preached its civilizing mission (as opposed to the ”white man’s burden” of Kipling’s self-pitying phrase), but did in fact assimilate with startling success in some respects. Any Englishman who visits Antigua and Barbados will find things quite unknown nowadays in England: large crowds at cricket matches and Anglican churches packed to standing room on a Sunday. Whether on their own islands in the sun, or as immigrants to our damp and chilly island, the West Indians can seem at times like the last Englishmen.
Not that this stopped some of them rioting in Liverpool and London in 1981, an early intimation that the pot might be melting. Those riots were partly inflamed by racial tension, though not by religion or any other kind of ideology. Nor were the recent French riots: For all that many of the violent youths in the banlieues were Muslims, they weren’t trying to re-establish the Caliphate, as Osama bin Laden says he wishes to, they were just depressed and desperate.
In England and Holland there has been another factor, what William Pfaff, the American columnist who writes from Paris, calls ”ghettoization through political correctness.” People were encouraged to think of themselves as members of a specific community, black or Muslim, rather than as citizens of the country in which they lived.
That was the exact opposite of the American tradition, whereby immigrants were taught to identify with flag and constitution. It is more than significant that the Blair government has now deliberately adopted the American model. Those seeking British citizenship are for the first time expected to show some knowledge of British history and culture, and then take a pledge of allegiance to crown and country.
So can anyone become British after all? Norman Tebbit, who was one of Margaret Thatcher’s key lieutenants has proposed a new version of traditional loyalty oaths or badges of identity, in the form of a ”cricket test.” When brown-skinned boys, second- or third-generation British, from Bradford or Luton go to watch England play Pakistan, which side do they support? It was a trick question, and a mean one, since (as Lord Tebbit well knew) they are often seen at Headingley and Lord’s supporting their ancestral rather than their native land.
That is not in truth a fair test. We all have multiple identities and mixed loyalties, national, religious, political, social. As it happens, there are enthusiastic Muslim cricket leagues in Yorkshire. A very few of their players might become terrorists, but most don’t. And yet the whole question of radical Islamism has muddied the waters of assimilation and identity, with that PC ghettoization playing a lamentable part.
Not even the silliest person defends what happened last July 7. Whether or not anyone can become an Englishman or a Frenchman, anyone can be assimilated to the basic values of an adoptive country. Team games like soccer and cricket are among England’s greatest gifts to the world, but not as great as what George Orwell called the defining characteristic of the English nowadays: We don’t kill each other because of our beliefs. Is it racist or repressive to suggest that anyone living among us should accept that?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist whose books include ”The Controversy of Zion” and, most recently, ”The Strange Death of Tory England.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *