Two kinds of nations

March 21, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS There are, to draw a gross but necessary distinction, two kindsof nations, immigrant nations and non-immigrant nations.

The anti-immigration backlash in the United States today, which the Buchanan campaign has exploited, occurs in an immigrant nation which from time to time has closed its borders, but which still understands its immigrant vocation.

However, the American commitment to that vocation is immensely complicated by the racial element in American immigration today, which suggests that by early in the new millennium the U.S. will cease to be a predominantly white nation.

Changing colors

The U.S. Bureau of the Census announced last week that a projection of present demographic trends indicates that by 2050 about half the American population will be non-white. The prospect of so dramatic a change in the composition of American society has an imponderable but undeniable influence on current American attitudes, as Mr. Buchanan has made evident. The projection itself quite possibly will contribute to an altered trend which will retard the change, but which is unlikely to reverse it.

Race is one element in national identity, a non-essential one, although in the United States, extremely potent. France, the second great immigrant nation, is relatively free from racial prejudice. There, anti-immigrant sentiment has less to do with race as with culture and religion.

North African Muslim immigrants, in the first generation at least, have tended to resist cultural assimilation. Among their children and grandchildren, because of unemployment the strong assimilative influences provided by the workplace are lacking. Some young men are being recruited to an Islamic fundamentalism which provides them with identity and purpose. Young French-Algerians from just these circumstances were implicated in bombings in Paris late last year.

In Germany, where anti-immigrant feeling is also a significant problem, cultural assimilation of the immigrants is not today an accepted solution. Many second- and third-generation offspring of Turkish workers originally recruited to perform the heavy labor of Germany's postwar economic "miracle," who have been educated in Germany, may speak only German. They are largely assimilated to German culture, but still face all but insurmountable obstacles in acquiring German citizenship.

There are more than two million Turks who live in Germany without German citizenship. Germany at the same time has each year been granting citizenship, in a quasi-automatic way, to something like 200,000 "ethnic Germans" from the former Soviet Union and from Eastern Europe, many of whom speak no German and have little or no cultural connection with Germany.

Since the time of Bismarck, the Germans have conceived of themselves in ethnic terms, even though there is no scientific justification for thinking that the German people are any more ethnically homogeneous than most of their neighbors.

They are a less homogeneous people than the Scandinavians or Hungarians, but their conventional view of themselves, as the leader of the Christian Democratic group in the Bundestag, Wolfgang Schauble has said, is as "a community of destiny and ancestry." German identity "does not derive from commitment to an idea but from membership in a people." This position is contested in the current German political debate, but remains the basis of German legislation on immigration.

Toward a new identity

The immigrant nation, in contrast, possesses an ideological motive for assimilation, since it sees itself as the national vehicle of a new kind of society. This has been the case for both the United States and France since the 18th century. Both have taken for granted that immigrants would want to trade "outmoded" ideas for new ones. Cultural assimilation remains French policy today, functioning mainly through the national school system, and few in the public debate dissent.

In the United States a powerful current of thought says that public policy which promotes cultural assimilation amounts to cultural aggression. Canada and Australia have adopted this idea too, which may reflect the problem both Canadians and Australians seem to have in answering the question of why Canada or Australia should exist.

I was once told by a Canadian intellectual that he not only did not know what the Canadian identity is, "but even if I knew it, I wouldn't want it." Australia has a more robust sense of self, and yet in the last decade has sought unconvincingly, to outside eyes to reidentify or reposition Australia as an "Asian" country, distancing itself from its European origins.

All of this is powerful and potentially incendiary stuff, since assimilation and multi-culturism are matters crucial to a nation's identity, and national identity is connected with the human's primordial sense of individual identity and vulnerability.

There is a pathology of nationalism, but nationalism, race, and cultural identity also secure peoples' sense of themselves. Historically, the most vicious nationalisms and instances of racism have arisen in those societies least confident of themselves, or the most divided.

Nationalism is never so intense as among people whose national identity has been cast into doubt, or is challenged by a minority within. The most frantic nationalists are marginalized people. These seem banal things to say, yet many today seem not to understand.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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