Monday, December 06, 2004

Dissing Uncle Sam

Since I've just finished reading it, and have been ceaselessly recommending it in other people's comments, I think I should offer a few words on my view of Samuel Huntington's latest book, Who Are We? America's Great Debate.

"America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals..." The style of the book seems familiar from the themes set out in Richard Hofstatder's celebrated essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

Huntington, in spite of being unnecessarily obnoxious in expressing himself, has a point about the challenges of Hispanic immigration to the US. Since never before have such a big bloc of immigrants come from one country, namely Mexico, and clustering in particular areas, he forecasts, linguistic separation or even seperatism will result.

While, it's undeniable that it takes people time to assimilate and a shared language, the ability to pop over the Rio Grande for visits and to stay in touch by phone and email strengthens ties between diasporas and the home country, this isn't likely to translate into a fifth column of some sort.

Imagining Mexicans as some monolithic bloc is very flawed assumption. As even he himself wrote in Clash of Civilisations, its a country torn between the Latin and US elements in its culture. Beyond that, the population consists of a spectrum, rather than the discrete races in which America divided itself. Those of solely Spanish descent are in a small minority. Then there's the pure-blooded indians who speak no Spanish, are completely marginal to society and have been subject to periodic massacres right through history. Most people are mixed to some degree, with a characteristic cultural schizophrenia common to the whole country, so that Mexicans such as President Vicente Fox would proudly claim white European (i.e. Irish) but not Spanish or American ancestry or leave the most important Aztec monuments buried beneath Mexico City.

Add on to that the massively oppressive and dysfunctional nature of most Mexican institutions, most notoriously the police who rob many visiting emigrants and I doubt Chicanos will spend too long pining for a return to the motherland.

The veteran commentator Michael Barone, best known as editor of the almanac of American politics, points out in his book from 2001, The New Americans that Hispanics are largely American in their behaviour already: they fit in fully with the ethics of a country that matches Japan in its hours worked each year , with the higest participation rate of any group, and devotion to both Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism.

America's competitive advantage is assimilation. Getting German nationality would be impossible for the Munich-born grandson of Turkish gastarbiteren, but any immigrant can buy a Thanksgiving turkey and a $10 flag to feel at home in America after getting citizenship without any huge bureaucratic interference.

Finally, and this is probably the most important and overlooked element, both by restrictionists and by Huntington, the political system is set up to create and maintain consensus. Unlike in any other democracy, US legislators, courts and executive offices are mercifully free of the influence of ideological splinter groups such as socialists, communists, fascists and greens or ethnic seperatists. With the seperation of power among the branches and the federal system of government, nobody can get anywhere without entering into the embrace of two huge, all-embracing coalitions to get anything at all done. If the electoral college, federalism and a minimal level of constitutional nationalism in the courts is maintained, there'll just never be an influential Latino seperatist movement; everyone will just have to pick a party umbrella just like the gun-owners, Cubans, Jews and evangelicals.