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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Don't Have to Live like a Refugee: Europe and the Assimilation Problem

For the last year, the news in Europe has turned from tensely watching Greece, Russia, and Ukraine to the shores of the continent, where millions of refugees from Syria's bloody civil war are crossing over the borders.

Some come because they yearn to be free.

Some come for economic opportunity.

And some are coming to do evil deeds in the name of a perverted and twisted version of one of the most widely practiced faiths.

The rhetoric on both sides has been frightening and led to frightening consequences.

On New Years' Eve, many of Europe's cities were shocked as hundreds of cases of sexual violence were committed and then covered up by news agencies for fear of appearing racist or prejudiced.

Hate crimes and vigilante groups have sprung up all over the European Union as ethnic nationalist and neo-Nazi parties gain in the polls.

Political polarization is at best frustrating and at worst terrifying. Much of Europe's political discourse has become extreme.

On the left, some have become so zealous to defend their narrative of building a multicultural and inclusive society that they cannot admit the problems that can and have arisen, instead retreating and making accusations of racism.

On the right, populism, nationalism, and hatred are rising and fast. In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats are leading the polls with slogans like "Keep Sweden Swedish". 

It is beyond a reasonable doubt that Europe did not prepare adequately to take on the difficult task of accepting, settling, assimilating, and providing for millions of people.

The main problem to solve, however, may not be who's coming in or even how many are coming in. 

The United States of America has had an immigration debate going for most of its history as a sovereign state. Despite the overall success of assimilation in the United States, the history of immigrants coming to America is fraught with prejudice.

Before the Civil War, Irish immigrants fleeing British persecution, religious division, and famine came en masse to the United States. Most of them were poor and Catholic, stereotyped as rubes who did nothing but drink and fight. Back in those days, anti-Catholic sentiment was also strong in the United States. Irish were barred from many job opportunities, which stated in plain terms "No Irish Need Apply".

Decades after the Civil War, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. All Chinese laborers were restricted entry into the United States.

During World War I, German-Americans were subject to widespread mistrust and hatred. Speaking German was severely discouraged, German-American businesses were attacked in hate crimes, and names were changed en masse to hide identity.

A similar wave of prejudice occurred against Eastern Europeans with the communist takeover of Russia and again at the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s.

Japanese Americans also suffered racism during World War II when they were kept in internment camps as a national security precaution. The Supreme Court upheld this decision in Korematsu v. United States and even Bugs Bunny cartoons were quick to paint the "Japs" as sniveling, deceitful and bloodthirsty.

The issue of assimilation may turn out to be the most important problem to solve both for the present and the future. Margaret Thatcher once said that "Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy."

That Thatcher quote brings to light a very important difference between the United States and Europe. Nationalism thrives in the United States, but for the most part it is a civic nationalism rather than an ethnic nationalism, meaning it is based in the ideas that make up the country. In the United States, that means the ideas put forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Despite a history fraught with institutionalized racism, a theme that the United States is still trying to shake off, there is a sense and a belief in the United States that "Anyone can be an American". It's not uncommon to see Americans describe themselves as their heritage followed by "-American". Politicians in the United States proudly proclaim the country a "nation of immigrants". Indeed, in the United States there are large communities of immigrants who retain their culture while adopting American ideals and beliefs. In the United States there are Lebanese-Americans, Syrian-Americans, Russian-Americans, and so on. These are people who adopt American ideals, culture, and customs but also retain parts of their own cultures. The city of Chicago is famous for its huge Polish-American population and to this day, Polish is the third most widely spoken language in Chicago behind English and Spanish.

Europe's problem is not where the refugees are coming from. Even though Islamic fundamentalism is definitely a serious security problem for the western world,  the faith most of the refugees practice isn't the problem either.

What Europe needs to focus on is assimilation. In European countries, ethnic identity is more a part of nationalism than it is in the United States.

This isn't to say there aren't assimilated immigrants in Europe, there are many. Britain has large populations of Poles, Romanians, and Bulgarians. France has a large population of Africans, especially Algerians. Germany is home to millions of Turkish citizens.

Firstly, Europe must publicly and vigorously embrace what makes it free. The United States is no longer an outlier when it comes to democracy. The vast majority of European countries are vigorously democratic and free. Turnout is often higher in European countries and this is certainly a strength the EU can boast. If immigrants are actively taught the benefits of the process they can feel motivated and included in that  process. Participation in the process has to be valued across all communities and it must extend to truly make the immigrants a vital part of society as Germans, French, and British rather than Turkish, Algerian, and Polish.

Secondly, civic nationalism must be promoted in the face of ethnic nationalism. Europeans have every right to feel proud of where they come from. Unfortunately, displaying flags in many European countries often have counter-demonstrations of  acceptance and inclusiveness. Of course this is a good thing, but in order to beat ethnic nationalists at their own game, you have to provide an alternative which retains the ability of the nationalists to remain proud. The embrace of an active civic nationalism could hurt the rising popularity of ethnic nationalist political movements and civic nationalism by definition is open to anyone, further promoting inclusion.

And thirdly, perhaps most obviously, concrete and comprehensive immigration policies must be hammered out with the cooperation of the countries where the refugees and migrants are coming from. If systems are set up to let people come across, the flourishing human smuggling industry that has popped up can be fought against and ultimately beaten.

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