"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 30, 2012

Open Immigration -The Myth of Cultural Homogeneity

There have been a number of articles recently on the aging of the population of developed countries.  Some, such as the Manchester Guardian’s, below, focus on the economic consequences of declining birth rates and restrictive immigration policy, such as in Australia; while others, such as the New York Times’, discuss the more far-reaching changes in society caused by a distortion of the normal age distribution, such as in Japan.  Few discuss the major issue underlying the persistent and increasingly xenophobic demands for cultural purity.  Members of the old guard – the French who have for centuries viewed the country as a cultural and spiritual leader of Europe; traditional Japanese who have retained the ancient traditions of the Shoguns, strong family and societal structures, and Shinto and Buddhist principles; white, Anglo-Saxon Americans who trace their cultural lineage back to the Puritans and the Calvinist fundamentals of the new nation – all resist the changes that would result from a more pluralistic society.

The anti-immigration movement uses three arguments, two understandable, the other not so.  The first is economic.  Illegal Mexican immigration, it is often repeated in the United States, is depressing wages, adding to welfare roles, increasing public service costs, and increasing taxpayer burden.  This same scenario is played out in Europe with different dimensions.  France, Denmark and even socially tolerant Netherlands are realizing that the labor market can be, at least in the short run, altered, often with negative consequences for the native population. 

The second argument is that the rapid influx of immigrants will cause social unrest.  This has been especially true in Europe where Muslim immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa are from vastly different cultures.  Worse, because of radical Islam, the demands of these marginalized and ghettoized populations become aggressive and dangerous.  They will not abide by white European traditions of assimilation and homogenization, and have been empowered to demand what they see are their civil rights. While this is indeed a problem, countries have been slow to realize the dimensions of the problem. 

Africans in France were largely concentrated, isolated, and mostly forgotten in the suburbs of Paris and other major cities.  Unlike in the United States where urban ghettoes are close, visible, and frightening, these poor and increasingly dysfunctional communities were far from the majority’s view.  Old-school French families in the tony 7th arrondissement went about their business shopping for fashion, wine, baguettes and cheese with little thought to the turmoil raging in Neuilly-sur-Marne, Aulnay-sous-Bois, and Trembley-en-France, neighborhoods with traditional names evoking a pastoral existence on the banks of rivers or under shading elms.  The French government ignored the simmering resentment and hostility until it was too late, and the suburbs erupted.  After a token expression of regret and conciliation, France is back to measures which will only further isolate, enrage, and harden these communities.

The third and most compelling argument is that immigration will destroy ‘traditional culture’ – our American way, our French way. But what exactly is the culture that these diminishing majorities want to extend? And how will a more diverse population diminish it?  Few people have convincing answers. America is the hardest to understand, since we are a country of immigrants, easily and quickly assimilated, and within one or two generations speak English and more importantly subscribe to the American work ethic.  The sons and daughters of Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran immigrants want the same thing as ‘traditional’ citizens – to get ahead, to make money, to be a success.  No argument makes sense.  Most first or second generation Americans speak English.  All are Christian.  Few practice barbarous rites.  Yet the idea of a largely Hispanic population is still threatening.

The French cultural resistance is easier to understand but just as hard to accept.  France has always considered itself ‘The Elder Sister of the Catholic Church’ thanks to the valiant efforts of Charlemagne to keep the Muslim hordes out of France.  Because of its strong intellectual traditions, it has ascribed to itself a certain intellectual and cultural supremacy; and because of the past elegance and luxury of the French courts, it has preserved its national talents for fashion and cuisine.   When the French say that their culture is being perversely altered, it is likely to be comprised of these elements.  At least the French of the 7th arrondissement who have the money and social status to preserve them.  Not so for the vast majority of French who work in factories, ports, railroads, farms, and post offices throughout the nation.  For them – if they think about it – culture is more indefinable.  A café-cognac at the neighborhood bar, perhaps; or two- or three-stop shopping at the butcher, grocer, and baker.  In any case, both classes revolt in their own ways.

In any case French primacy in culture and the arts has long since suffered a decline.  The arts have moved across the Atlantic, futuristic innovations occur from California to India.  When one thinks of fashion, it is the runways of New York, Italy, or the boutiques of hipster San Francisco that first come to mind.  The world is smaller, more competitive, more integrated and more flexible.  The traditional French have not yet learned this lesson.

So, again, what is this culture that the French are trying to preserve? The current received wisdom is as old as the Revolution – “We are all French citizens, equal in being and opportunity”.  Within that official worldview, there are no boxes for race or ethnicity to be checked on census forms; no affirmative action; no cultural preferences.  The current policies to forbid hijabs and non-‘French’ cultural practices in public institutions are an extension of this principle. Yet no one – except traditional French – accept this principle any more.  Racial and ethnic differences, far from diminishing or dissipating, are increasing.  Only countries like Britain and the United States have realized this and accepted it.

What the French have not realized is that it is almost impossible for cultural traditions to expire because immigration is gradual.  If you travel to some of the ethnically diverse outlying neighborhoods of Paris you will find both boulangeries, charcuteries, and epicieries alongside felafel, couscous, and pita.  Second generation immigrants read Le Monde and Arab weeklies.

The point is that French cultural traditions will not disappear.  Many will be changed to incorporate non-European perspectives, and many will simply co-exist with newcomers. Countries all have certain characteristics which guide if not propel newcomers without their realizing it, or without banners being waved about cultural values.  America is and will always be ‘The Land of Opportunity’.  Regardless of who comes or goes, what political party is in office, the business of America is business.  All else – our fashion, cuisine, and artistic and intellectual endeavors – are secondary.  France – regardless of who come and who goes – should retain its high valuation of intellectualism and the high arts as necessary and welcome contributions to society (I say should because its radicalized Muslim immigrants hold views antithetical to even this generic principle). Germany will always be fundamentally Protestant in outlook. 

Yet, the older powers that be in the Elysee still retain an old-fashioned gestalt of Jean-Paul Sartre sitting at Le Café des Deux Magots – the Paris recently limned in Woody Allen’s recent Midnight In Paris.  As Allen concludes, every generation thinks the present one is worse than those past, and that there is greater sanity, value, and heroics then rather than now.  Immigration – refreshing the cultural and gene pool – is out.  Backward-looking, unrealistic policies are in. 

The problem is made infinitely more difficult because of the demographic profile of the very countries which are most defending conservative cultural values.  

Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/douthat-incredible-shrinking-country.html?_r=1 about Japan which because of extreme xenophobia and the almost insurmountable barrier of language continues to be hermetically sealed:

“THE Children of Men,” P. D. James’s 1992 novel, is set in a future where the world’s male population has become infertile, and an aging Britain is adapting to the human race’s gradual extinction. Women push dolls in baby carriages. Families baptize kittens. There are state-run “national porn shops” to stimulate the flagging male libido. Suicide flourishes. Immigrants are welcomed as guest laborers but expelled once they become too old to work. The last children born on earth — the so-called “Omegas” — have grown up to be bored, arrogant, antisocial and destructive.

James’s book, like most effective dystopias, worked by exaggerating existing trends — the plunge in birthrates across the developed world, the spread of voluntary euthanasia in nations like the Netherlands and Switzerland, the European struggle to assimilate a growing immigrant population.

“Gradually but relentlessly,” the demographer Nick Eberstadt writes in the latest issue of The Wilson Quarterly, “Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction.”

The expressions of this phenomenon are indeed scary:

These trends are forging a society that sometimes evokes the infertile Britain in James’s dystopia. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and there were rashes of Internet-enabled group suicidesin the last decade. Rental “relatives” are available for sparsely attended wedding parties; so-called “babyloids” — furry dolls that mimic infant sounds — are being developed for lonely seniors; and Japanese researchers are at the forefront of efforts to build robots that resemble human babies The younger generation includes millions of so-called “parasite singles” who still live with (and off) their parents, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of the “hikikomori” — “young adults,” Eberstadt writes, “who shut themselves off almost entirely by retreating into a friendless life of video games, the Internet and manga (comics) in their parents’ home.”

Douthat suggests reasons for this phenomenon:

Japan is facing such swift demographic collapse, Eberstadt’s essay suggests, because its culture combines liberalism and traditionalism in particularly disastrous ways. On the one hand, the old sexual culture, oriented around arranged marriage and family obligation, has largely collapsed. Japan is one of the world’s least religious nations, the marriage rate has plunged and the divorce rate is higher than in Northern Europe.

Even despite these frightening trends, Japan refuses to admit immigrants.  In other words, the dark, foreboding handwriting is on the wall, and no one is willing to even look at it, let alone read it.

Other countries like France and Australia have offered incentives to the native population to reproduce.  A recent article in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/28/ageing-australia-young-immigrants reports:

Policymakers in Australia have to balance the public's desire for continued tightening of immigration controls versus maintaining a steady population growth against a background of an ageing population. It is predicted that by 2036 more Australians will be retiring from the labour force than joining it. By 2050 there will only be 2.5 working Australians for every citizen over 65 – in the 1970s that figure was 7.5. The main solution policymakers seem to have come up with is to throw money at the problem.

In 2002, perhaps in response to Australia's Total Fertility Rate (TFR) reaching an all time low, the government introduced a baby bonus scheme. For every child born or adopted by a citizen or permanent resident of Australia the government will award them $5,000. Australia's TFR has risen since then, yet it still remains below replacement levels of 2.1 births per woman. If the baby bonus wasn't enough, the government is now introducing a jobs bonus, where employers will be offered $1,000 for each employee they hire and retain over 50 years of age. These seem like desperate measures from a government running out of ideas.

Desperate measures indeed, and not even well-conceived.  Anyone who has had children and who takes childrearing seriously knows that the $5000 is nothing compared to the lifetime investment in a child; and for those who have children indiscriminately, the money is wasted.

In conclusion, the battle over immigration is superficially one about jobs, tax burdens, and social divisiveness; but it is really about preserving a perceived way of life, a Woody Allenesque romantic dream of Le Temps Perdu. Yet the greatest vitality of cultures comes from their inclusiveness; and for those who are worried about making a buck or where to get their baguettes, those timeless truths will never change.


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