Sunday, May 2, 2010

Reflections on West Rogers Park

Growing up in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood, I saw individuals of every race, religion, culture and class live, work, shop and study together in peace. With little outward conflict, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs shared the same neighborhood.Kosher Delis thrived next to Pakistani Kabob houses and the Croatian Culture Center brushed up against a Yeshiva and everyone shopped on Devon Street. Individuals from groups with millenia of hatred and bloodshed at the worst were indifferent to each and at the best formed lasting friendships. There are many lessons we can learn from studying the success of West Rogers Park as well as the failure of most other nations in maintaining peaceful relations between diverse populations. Whereas the diverse empires and autocratic states of the past and present maintained order through the heavy hand of the state, the United States did so while expanding social and economic liberty. In order to meet this challenge, the United States must reflect on these historical lessons with the utmost candor and intellectual honesty.

From my experiences in West Rogers Park, I am confident that individuals of every race, religion, culture and class can get along, provided that certain political, economic and cultural structures are maintained. However, as a student of history, I am extremely skeptical about the capacity of diverse groups to peacefully co-exist. A brief survey of history (and current events) shows that racial, religious and cultural diversity has led to endless conflicts both within and between nations. The extent and persistence of inter-communal conflict leads me to believe that it is an innate, evolutionary based defect in human beings. Regardless of the cause, conflict has been the rule, rather than the exception. In no way am I saying that human beings should accept the spiritual sickness of racism and ethnic conflict. We must strive to eliminate conflict and violence with the utmost idealism, however when formulating viable paths and policies we must work with the facts on the ground and not the world as we wish it to be.

So, the first qustion we must ask is, why do Jews, Moslems, Hindus and other groups get along so well in West Rogers Park in particular and the United States in general, but not in their own nations? The answer is that because on Devon street they are largely engaged as individuals in a system of limited government. Whereas, in India, Israel, Lebanon, etc. they are largely engaged as groups in a conflict for power and resources. Within most nations this conflict is played out in the ethno-political spoils (patronage) system. In most diverse nations, political affiliation is almost exclusively determined by ethnic and religious background. For example, in Lebanon, the Kataeb Party is Christian, the Future Movement is Sunni and Hizballah is Shi'ite and cross-confessional parties are few and far between. In this system, ethnic groups seeking to influence the laws and (re)distribution of wealth and opportunity via the interventionist state. In more homogeneous or assimilationist nations, the interventionist state re-distributes wealth according to socio-economic logic (to the poor, elderly, etc.) and political logic (to individuals and businesses that support winning candidates and parties). More corrupt states emphasize the latter and cleaner states emphasize the former.

In an ethnic spoils system, wealth and employment is seized and redistributed wealth across ethnic, cultural and religious lines. Ethnic disparities in wealth have always been an area of contention in diverse societies, however when the state rather than the market determines economic outcomes, a greater potential for inter-communal violence exists. In the Kenyan elections of 2007 - 2008, the ethnic Kikuyu supporters of incumbent president Mwai Kibaki engaged in violent clashes with the ethnic Luos and Kalenjin supporters of presidential challenger Raila Odinga. Both sides new that if their ethno-political representative won, their people would receive the spoils: government jobs, contracts and even cash. In nations where the rule of law is better established, outright seizures of wealth are rare, however ethnicity plays a major role in the assignment of public employment and educational opportunities. For example, in Malaysia, after winning the elections, Malaysian dominated politically parties instituted aggressive affirmative action programs that assigned great public employment and educational opportunities to the politically dominant (but poorer) Malay majority, as the expense of the economically dominant Chinese minority. Not surprisingly, this contributed to violent inter-communal clashes of 1969. Before we examine the growth and evolution of the ethno-political spoils system in the United States, it's necessary to outline the republican (philosophy and not party) ideals that dominated American political and social life.

Although the United States has fallen short of many of its republican ideals, it has come closer than any nation in achieving them. Unlike corporate systems that approach its citizenry as groups (class, race, ethnicity) the American Republican ideal is to approach its citizens as equal individuals governed by uniform laws. Needless to say, the original definition of a citizen (white, male landowner) was painfully exclusive, but it continuously expanded to include all native born and naturalized American citizens. And in contrast to the ethnic spoils system, the republican ideal involves the social, political and economic engagement of diverse individuals, rather than groups. In no means does this imply that citizens should act as isolated individuals, but as individuals cooperating with like minded citizens for the pursuit of their vision of the common good. The ideal is that one would focus on the broad welfare of their fellow Americans, rather than act as partisans for the narrow interests of their ethno-religious communities. The focus would be to foster the common pursuit of individuals bound by common social and political values, rather than bound by blood. At times this pursuit is more geographically based, as seen when members of a neighborhood work together to improve the quality of their local schools, parks and political discourse. And a less geographically centered example is seen when individuals work together to protect endangered species, the environment or advance the principles of economic freedom. Conflicts of competing values and visions inevitably emerge, however the risk of accute conflict and violence is far less than with ethno-political conflicts.

In no way does the classical vision of American Republican rejects having the members of an ethno-religious community work together to improve the economic and social lives of their compatriots. The American past and present is filled with endless examples of mutual aid societies formed by immigrant groups to address the challenges that their people faced. And groups such as the NAACP strove to help African-Americans advance in the face of virulent racism and crushing poverty. However, fundamental difference exist between mutual aid societies and the ethno-political movements that have risen in importance. Mutual aid societies represent the best of free association and civil society, whereas most ethno-political organizations are implicit advocates of a coercive ethnic spoils system.Whereas mutual aid societies are largely self financing, ethno-political parties generally rely on public funds. For example, members of a mutual aid societies voluntarily pool their resources together to provide scholarships for the members of their community. In contrast, ethno-political partisans demand that the government set aside X number of university admission slots and scholarships to members of their community. Whereas mutual aid societies seek to foment the creation of wealth, by provide credit to the entrepreneurs of their community, ethno-political partisans generally focus their efforts on redistributing wealth via the expansion of entitlement programs, which are often community specific. One example being Chicago's Hispanic Housing Development Corporation. Lastly, whereas mutual aid societies promote equality under the law for its members, ethno-political partisans often lobby for legal privileges or excemptions from the law for its members. On Devon Street most of the hard working immigrants understand that their wealth and welfare is the product of their individual labor, so their is little motivation to compete as groups in the political arena. Accordingly, elections may end in disappointment, but never in bloodshed.

Unfortunately, American politics has shifting in that direction, as we see when Congressman Gutierrez (D-IL) demands that Obama enact immigration reform because of the support that Latinos offered to him in the presidential election. And former mayor of New York City, Ed Koch displays similar sentiments when he stated "supporters of Israel who gave their votes to candidate Obama -78 percent of the Jewish community did - believing he would provide the same support as John McCain, this is the time to speak out and tell the President of your disappointment in him." The key point is that the said politicians did not argue that their said positions should be pursued because they were conducive to the welfare of all Americans, but rather that they were owed to the members of their ethnic compatriots based on the support that they offered Obama during the election. Liberal supporters of an ethnic spoils system will respond that having the president pursue the pet policies of each member of a coalition of diverse ethnic and economic interests is equivalent to the pursuit of broad, national interests. I strongly disagree with this, because no government will ever have sufficient resources to satisfy the narrow interests of every special interest and any attempt to do so will end in conflict and / or a massive national debt. We are witnessing the latter and once our creditors force us to cut our expenditures, we will witness the former. Peace and prosperity can only be maintained by the promotion of common interests, founded on the rule of law.

Most left wing narratives present the hegemony of one group or culture as the source of conflict in diverse states. From this worldview they call for the elimination of the hegemonic dominance of Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in the United States, an end to the ethos of assimilation and the fostering of multi-culturalism. The key word is assimilation because even as the demographic dominance of Anglo-Saxons receded, diverse immigrant groups largely assimilated to the values and visions of the American Republic, which at their core reflected an Anglo-Saxon ethos. Catholic Irish and Italians, Greeks, Jews and Japanese, (just to name a few) may have maintained many of their religious, cultural and culinary traditions, but by the second generation, the vast majority had adopted core American values and visions and held a love for the United States that was equal to or greater than that of their Anglo-Saxon neighbors. This assimilationist ethos clearly was a major factor in the success of the American Republic in maintaining peace and prosperity among extremely diverse populations. And conversely, history shows that as hegemonic rule is challenged and disparate identities are emphasized, conflict will almost certainly erupt. This is seen in Iraq, were the fall of secular, sunni dominated, ba'athist rule heralded bloody inter-communal clashes between Shi'a, Sunni, Kurds, Christians and Turkmen. And it would appear that peace will only occur once another group asserts hegemonic control, or Iraq splits into several ethno-religious states.

To fully understand this topic we must touch upon the essential, yet deeply controversial topic of demographics. More specifically, as the demographic and geographic concentration of a group increases, the extent to which it assimilates and the manner in which it relates to the larger society dramatically changes. Since it is considered taboo to critique other ethnic groups, I will use my own people, Jews to demonstrate some fairly universal principles. Recently I read an article that discussed Jews who immigrated to small southern towns. The reason why their stories are not more widely known is because owing to their relatively minor demographic presence and geographic concentration they assimilated and intermarried to the point were they ceased to be a distinct group. In areas in which the presence of Jews were greater, they could continue their existence as a distinct group, yet most assimilated to the dominant norms and behaviors. This is even seen with Orthodox Jews in West Rogers Park who in spite of their distinctive garb, traditions and insular nature, conform to the laws, language and norms of the land. They realize that if they do not learn and master the economic and social environment they quite simply will not be able to put food on the table. But, as the demographic concentration increases, groups are increasingly able to avoid assimilation, gain excemptions from laws of the land and in some cases gain special legal and economic privileges. This is seen in Israel, where the Ultra Orthodox were able to gain an excemption from mandatory military training, lavish welfare benefits and generous subsidies. In effect they are able to use their political power to redistribute wealth from the more productive, secular society. And as demographic concentration reaches a critical point, some groups begin to use their growing political power to impose their will on the larger society. In Israel, Ultra-Orthodox political parties are aggressively pushing to ban driving and flying on Shabbat for all Israelis. We can assume that once this was accomplished, they would impose their dress and dietary codes on the general public. This explains why in contrast to their Israeli counterparts, few secular American Jews harbor animosity towards the Orthodox.

In light of the paramount role that demographics play in political and social life, we must breach the great taboo and discuss the unprecedented demographic shift that the United States is experiencing. Specifically, some demographers anticipate that the by 2050 the United States will become a majority-minority nation, in which no one ethnic group predominates. Before we do so, I must emphasize that in itself the demographic shift is not troubling, because the author strongly affirms the equality of all races and creeds. But, in the context of the decline of the assimilationist ethos, the growth of ethno-identity-politics and the redistributionist state that we previously discussed, we must ask ourselves if this shift will increase the risk of inter-communal conflict that is present in most diverse nations.

Many will respond that this is unduly alarmist because prior immigration waves were just as large as our current one. But, when one looks carefully at the numbers, one will find some significant differences. The first thing we notice is that prior immigration waves were more diverse, in the sense that no one country of origin predominated. In 1950, the largest groups were from the British Isles (15.12%), Italy (12.6%), Germany (11.32%) & Poland (8.89%). In contrast, our current immigration wave is dominated by Hispanics, so much so that between 1980 to 2010, Latinos grew from 6.4% to 15.5% of the population. Hispanics are no less able to assimilate than prior immigrant groups, however as previously discussed, demographic concentration of any ethnic group limits their capacity or desire to socially and economically assimilate. This is especially true, because the destination points of prior waves were more geographically disbursed, whereas the present wave is concentrated in the southwest of the United States, as well as a few major metropolises. Secondly, addition, prior waves were separated from their nations of origin by an ocean and by costly transportation, which facilitated assimilation. In contrast, the present wave lives adjacent to and can easily travel to their nations of origin. Thirdly, in prior waves upwards of 50% of immigrants returned to their nations of origin, with those who were most able to economically and socially integrate remaining. In contrast the expanded welfare state allows those who are unable to assimilate to remain. And lastly, prior waves were followed by immigration time-outs or 30 years or more, which helped facilitate the assimilation of individuals and groups that were already here. Even in the face of a major economic downturn, no such time-out has been called in the United States. Many will point to the universal fluency in English of the second generation, as well as the consumption of pop culture as evidence that assimilation is occurring as as rapidly and profoundly as with prior waves. However, when we look at a notable divergence in educational and economic outcomes, as well as political orientation, we must call this into question.

The blame for faltering assimilation and increased inter-communal does not lie with any ethnic group; immigrants respond to the cultural ethos and policies presented to them by their new nations. In prior generations, immigrants encountered an America that was confident in its values, visions, institutions and identity and accordingly parents encouraged their children to assimilate. With no uncertainty, the schools were expected to teach their children what it means to be American, while they the parents would teach their children about their faith and traditions. So, clearly the blame lies with the members of America's educational, economic and political elites who woefully ignore the ample lessons that the history of the American Republic and other diverse societies has to offer. Rather than foster the robust participation of individuals in a vibrant civil society, they have encouraged groups to compete in ethno-identity-politics infused with a sense of resentment. Rather than encourage individuals to participate in a free market that abounds with opportunity, groups are encouraged to compete in a spoils system fuelled by a boundless sense of entitlement. The politicians nad educators that are undermining many of the fundamental principles of the American Republic should take note that peace and prosperity found on Devon Avenue and the United States is the exception and not the rule of diverse societies.

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