Assimilation, ethnicity and the American lifestyle

The Argument

Authors dissect race, immigration and the mutating power of cultural identity

August 08, 2004|By Frank Wu | Frank Wu,Special to the Sun

Whatever happened to German-Americans? Now as in the past, there are more individual Americans with German ancestry of some degree than citizens of any other ethnic background in the United States. Yet the term "German-American" seems nostalgic today. Other than Oktoberfests sponsored by breweries for tourists, the few remaining signs of German communities are hardly flourishing.

It was not always so. German language schools, newspapers, churches, clubs and businesses thrived from the Colonial era until the world wars. An active Bund movement even supported Adolf Hitler with rallies at Madison Square Garden and throughout the Midwest, though the threat it posed appears to have been exaggerated.

Whether celebrated or condemned, however, the mechanisms of assimilation worked on German-Americans. By choice and circumstance, almost all German-Americans have lost their hyphens. It would take considerable effort to be a German-American in any meaningful sense.

The same is true, more or less, of other European immigrants. Victor Davis Hanson, a professor of classics and gentleman farmer, mocks the notion of calling himself a "Swedish-American" when he neither speaks Swedish nor lives among Swedes, and "know[s] nothing of life in Sweden." In Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, (Encounter, 150 pages, $21.95), he writes, "the only reason for me to identify myself in that way would be to invest in some sort of movement or ideology that brought real attention to or preferences for Swedish-Americans."

By contrast, Hanson says many Mexican-Americans resist the loss of their hyphenated identification. "The obvious explanation is the closeness of Mexico," which ensures that "for each assimilated Mexican, there are always several more who are not." He fears consequences, political as well as cultural, from this failure in assimilation.

In Who Killed Homer?, a 1998 book, Hanson lamented declining attention being paid to the classics. Yet, he is so concerned about the rise of Mexicans and the fall of Greeks that he confuses trends. It would be unfair to blame Hispanic activists for the dust gathering on the Great Books, because contemporary newcomers probably are no worse read than their old-stock peers whose forefathers came on the Mayflower. Indeed, as Hanson acknowledges, assimilation may only promote the crassest consumer lifestyles. Traditions of all origins are overwhelmed by the superficial appeals of reality television and video games. Mexican-Americans and so-called "Swedish-Americans" alike need to leave the shopping mall for the university library.

Hanson has company in his complaints. Those who favor the theory that history is cyclical are likely to appreciate Samuel P. Huntington's recent Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (Simon & Schuster, 428 pages, $27). Huntington wants to rehabilitate nativism and he undoubtedly succeeds in the eyes of those who perceive immigrants as invaders.

Once the orthodoxy held that America could consist only of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Blacks were not legally citizens; Chicanos were repatriated; and Asians were not allowed to naturalize. Those sentiments have given way to a new consensus that America must be multiracial and multicultural. Thus diversity is the emphasis in current textbooks, such as Natives and Strangers: A Multicultural History of Americans by Leonard Dinnerstein, Roger L. Nichols, and David M. Reimers (Oxford, 320 pages, $29.95).

Huntington, like Hanson, is a contrarian throwback. He does not claim that WASPS are any better than others, only that WASPS ought to be a model for everyone else.

Huntington is best known for his prediction of a "clash of civilizations." He expanded his much-discussed scholarly article of that title into a full-length study that was praised as prescient after 9 / 11. In his last book, he asserted that the West would face inevitable armed conflict with China, Islam or both. He implied that immigrants to the New World could be a dangerous element because of their lingering loyalties to the Old.

In his latest book, he is much more explicit in claiming "Mexican immigration is leading toward the demographic reconquista of areas Americans took from Mexico by force in the 1830s and 1840s." Although he has been accused of being anti-Hispanic, it may be more accurate to say that he is anti-Catholic. According to Huntington, "for more than 200 years Americans defined their identity in opposition to Catholicism." The acceptance of Catholics has depended on their "Protestantization," because "that is precisely what Americanization involves."

Hanson and Huntington suspect that immigrants and their children, or at least those who would call themselves Chicano or wave flags other than the Stars and Stripes, are being encouraged to perceive themselves as victims. While sharing many conclusions, Hanson is the more accessible writer; he tells stories, Huntington provides statistics.

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