Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Immigrants, Language, and Assimilation

Samuel Huntington, of the "clash of civilizations" fame, has written an article which applies some of his civilizational concerns to the U.S.; specifically, he's worried about "The Hispanic Challenge" which the flood of Spanish-speaking Mexicans and Latin Americans presents to America's identity. David Brooks has attacked Huntington's argument in the NYT; David Adensik and Matthew Yglesias both concur. I'm not sure they necessarily dispute any of the details which Huntington presents as part of his argument; David admits that he doesn't know "the first thing about demographics or immigration." Huntington presents a wealth of data (here, here, and here) to support his claim that this particular wave of immigrants--both legal and illegal--is larger and different from all previous waves, and certainly no one can dispute that many of our present-day struggles over education, inner cities, entry-level wages and so forth are to a significant degree functions of our complicated relationship with Mexican immigrant labor. Still, Huntington will no doubt receive a great deal of criticism for the article, primarily for exactly the reason David, Matt and Brooks don't care for it: they're troubled by the claim that English-speaking Americans possess a particular cultural accomplishment, that said accomplishment is irreconcilable with the Hispanic culture which the new immigrants are bringing with them, and that ultimately "Mexican Americans will share in [the American] dream and in that society only if they dream in English."

Brooks puts the complaint with making this a "cultural" issue this way: "Frankly, something's a little off in Huntington's use of the term 'Anglo-Protestant' to describe American culture. There is no question that we have all been shaped by the legacies of Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin. But the mentality that binds us is not well described by the words 'Anglo' or 'Protestant.' We are bound together because we Americans share a common conception of the future. History is not cyclical for us. Progress does not come incrementally, but can be achieved in daring leaps. That mentality burbles out of Hispanic neighborhoods, as any visitor can see."

Nice, but unfortunately wrong, or at least significantly wrong. What Brooks is embracing here is a not uncommon version of civic nationalism, the idea that America (and maybe other countries too, but especially America, as we are "exceptional") is a modern construct, a nation of thought and feeling and commitment, a "future-oriented" and thus fundamentally open-ended experiment in identity--and consequently, the substance of American political and social life is infinitely pliable, not bounded by ethnic or religious or linguistic borders; all that matters is being a patriot (Brooks in particular mentions how Hispanics serve in the military--and die in military service--"at comparable rates" to the native-born) and accepting the intellectual content of our civic symbols: Lincoln for justice and equality, Jefferson for individual liberty, and so forth. This idea is really a transformation of culture--which should be properly understood in terms of what Hegel called Sittlichkeit, or in other words, an ethic embedded into a historical and situated life--into something purely ideological. It's the dream of many who wish to hold on to the idea of nationality and belonging, but don't want their belonging troubled by the idea that "belonging" may require more than a common desire to get ahead. This civic escape from the hard work of situating and belonging (of making all belonging into a Kantian Moralität, a principle rationally available to all humankind) has been thoroughly demolished by numerous thinkers (see David Miller, Charles Taylor, Bernard Yack, George Fletcher, Kai Nielsen, Neil MacCormick....just start here and here). To take specific issue with the matter of language...does Brooks actually believe that his "American" vision of the future--something that isn't "cyclical," but which leaps forward with "daring"--is perfectly translatable to any other tongue, any other cultural context, without any change in meaning? What kind of philosophy of language does he embrace? Surely, when this vision is spoken in a particular language, it entails a particular range of meanings, and for better or worse that range is altered (perhaps expanded, perhaps contracted, perhaps both along different dimensions) when it is put into a different linguistic field, with it's own range of historical antecedents and associations. I'm admittedly influenced by the work of Johann Gottfried Herder here, but that's just because his arguments make sense. Consider what this scholar wrote about Herder's (I think correct) grasp of language:

"[Herder's] doctrine denies that meanings or concepts are to be equated with the sorts of items, in principle autonomous of language, with which most of the philosophical tradition has equated them--for example, the objects to which they refer, Platonic "forms," or the "ideas" favored by the British empiricists [or the simple civic visions which Brooks assumes to be the sum total of the matter]--and equates them instead with usages of words [developed over history in a particular social context]....The argument is simple but compelling: Intuitively enough, thought is of its very nature conceptually articulated, articulated in terms of meanings. But now, if concepts or meanings just are usages of words, and grasping concepts or meanings hence is just being competent in usages of words, thought's essential dependency on and boundedness by linguistic competence...[is] both established and explained. Herder gives this argument in several places...[such as when he writes]: 'What exactly is the connection between language and mode of thought? Whoever surveys the whole scope of a language surveys a field of thoughts and whoever learns to express himself with exactness precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we mumble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding.'" (From "Herder's Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three Fundamental Principles," The Review of Metaphysics 56 (December 2002), 341, 347.)

There is not necessarily any important political point here; only that, well, language matters--and hence, it is worth pondering the possible truth of Huntington's warning that "continuation of [Hispanic] immigration (without improved assimilation) could divide the United States into a country of two languages and two cultures...[and while such a transformation] would not necessarily be the end of the world, it would...be the end of the America we have known for more than three centuries." That's a real question, not one that can be ignored. Which is not to say that Huntington's framing of the question isn't weak--it is. Matt's basic objection to Huntington is correct (he writes that: "It's true that it often takes several generations before English fully displaces Spanish as the language of choice...[but] the same things were true of other large immigrant populations"); there's a xenophobic undercurrent to Huntington's specification of this wave of immigrants being a truly problematic wave as opposed to all previous ones. But still, neither are Huntington's basic premises incorrect. The English language spoken in the U.S. is by no means the sum total of American identity, but it is a vital part of it. America is a whole lot more than an "Anglo-Protestant" culture, but that doesn't mean that heritage can be completely dispensed in understanding how it is that our country perpetuates itself. Assimilation, in one sense or another, is a real issue, and a hard one, and easily disregarded by universalists of one stripe or another on both sides. When folks like Brooks say that being an American just boils down to having "a common conception of the future," he's dealing in platitudes that make it easier for xenophobes to justify themselves. And when folks like Huntington impose rigid civilizational lines on complicated questions like, for example, language assimilation, it makes it easier for liberals to think that "culture" needn't mean anything at all.