Friday, August 20, 2010

A Clash of Cultures from Paris to Postville

I recall a conversation with a progressive friend of mine about pretty serious riots in France involving Muslim immigrants. The discussion prompted the broad question: what was France thinking when it invited in several million deeply traditional and largely uneducated North African Muslims? A large number of their children were clearly not socially or economically assimilating themselves into the fabric of French society. The end result being growing alienation within Muslim communities and tension with the French Christian majority. My progressive friend cleverly responded, "they should deport the racists who stir up trouble." This response reflects the deeply held progressive narrative of racist white majorities creating social tension through their hatred and harassment of innocuous minorities. Indeed, there are many examples were this narrative holds true, such as the brutal persecution of African Americans during the Jim Crowe Era. But, more often than not, the truth is far more complex and ambiguous with few outright villains or victims. And throughout this discussion, we should keep in mind that in the realm of social interaction, perception is reality. In other words,
social reality is determined less by the intent of behaviors and more by the manner in which individuals and groups interpret those behaviors.

NPR had a very interesting piece about Stephen G. Bloom's book, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, which was named the Best Book of the year by MSNBC, The Chicago Sun-Times, the Rocky Mountain News, The Chicago Tribune, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. To listen to this piece click on the following link:

To view a more extensive (and interesting) documentary, click on the following link:

In the book, Bloom documents the influx of Hassidic Jews into the rural and overwhelmingly white and Christian town of Postville Iowa. On one hand the Hassidic influx brought in economic revitalization via a large kosher slaughterhouse and other investments. On the other hand, social tension that emerged between the Hassidic minority and the Christian majority, which thankfully never resulted in violence or vandalism. The author, who is Jewish, tried to the answer the question of whether "the Iowans [were] prejudiced, or were the Lubavitchers simply unbearable?" What is most surprising is that he attributed much of the tension to the behavior of the Hasidim, in particular their insularity and their disdain for the social and at times legal norms of the town. Newcomers were perceived as being unwilling to partake in the broader social life and respect the norms of the community. While I do believe that some of the townspeople had underlying anti-Semitic inclinations, I am inclined to accept Mr. Bloom's analysis is that the complaints of the townspeople were almost identical to those that secular Israelis direct towards their Hassidic brethren. On a broader level, we are witnessing some basic law of communal life in action:

1. The more diverse groups maintain their distinct culture and fail to adopt shared values and traditions, the less integrated they will be into the broader community. The question is not one of good or bad, but of cultural compatibility.

2. Diversity and community are two positive phenomena that at times are incompatible.

3. Diversity and demographic shifts will result in increased social tension.

In comparatively tolerant, democratic and economically free societies like the United States, this will rarely take the form of outright hostility, instead manifesting itself in mutual social segregation. In less tolerant, more socialist oriented societies the risk of violence is far more pronounced.

I believe that like Postville, most instances of inter-communal conflict in modern, democratic societies do not conform to the dominant progressive narratives of villains vs victims. Most instances are not black and white (no pun intended), but are grey examples of the tension that arises when the incompatible values and conduct of diverse communities clash. And in most cases both communities can simultaneously have legitimate grievances. Returning to the initial example of France we can ask the questions: Is the French majority legitimate in their desire for Muslims to better assimilate towards the cultural and behavioral norms of French society? Yes. Is the Muslim minority legitimate in their desire to maintain their distinct culture, values and identity? Yes. Are Muslims rightly offended by cartoons that denigrated their prophet? Yes. Are the French right to be concerned that many Muslims may be openly hostile to values their cherish, such as the right of freedom of expression? In light of the riots that emerged over the Muhammad Cartoons, I would say - Yes. And do Muslims have legitimate grievances against the racism and discrimination instituted by a minority of Frenchmen. Yes. Although both sides have legitimate desires, when they clash, as a general rule the French position should take precedence for three reasons. One, their presence in France predates the presence of Muslim immigrants. Two, if North African Muslims feel that France is limiting the pursuit of their cultural and political expression, they can return to their countries of origin, whose laws and institutions reflect Arab-Islamic country. Three, the French socio-cultural model has been vastly superior to the Arab-Islamic one; the prosperity, peace and freedom that it has produced are what attracted the Muslims migrants in the first place.

The inter-communal tensions in the United States are not nearly as acute as what we find in Europe. One important reason is because the majority of Americans believe that identity is defined by language, loyalty, culture and conduct, whereas most Europeans place a far greater emphasis on birth and blood. In other words, I consider my Chinese or Hispanic neighbor 100% American if they speak English, are loyal citizens, share certain basic values and adhere to certain basic standards of conduct. On the other hand, few Germans will consider their third generation Turkish neighbor fully German, even if they are fully assimilated.

In the United States, one area of concern is the growing tension between whites and Hispanics. One one level the nexus of the clash is seen in the ongoing battle over immigration policy, which on a deeper level it reflects a clash between differing visions of rule of law, sovereignty and assimilation. Most Americans are troubled by large scale undocumented immigration, because they view it as an erosion of the rule of law and national sovereignty. And they perceive the widespread Hispanic opposition to immigration enforcement as an unwillingness to respect the long established laws, customs, culture of the land. Equally, many Hispanics perceive the drive to enforce immigration laws as racist and xenophobic attacks against them.
We can debate the merits of enforcement versus amnesty centered policies and the intentions of their proponents, but in the realm of social interaction, perception is reality. Rational or irrational, a perceived insult stings as sharply as an intended insult and just as quickly leads to inter-communal conflict.

Just like the previous example of French Christian and Muslim Migrant conflict, we see examples of a clash of legitimate communal desires. Was it reasonable for undocumented immigrants to cross the border given the dire economic circumstances in their nations of origin and the unwillingness of most American employers and politicians to enforce the law? Yes. Are American citizens justified in being troubled by the widespread disregard for their laws? Yes. Are Latino citizens right to flex their political muscle to defend the undocumented members of their family and community from tough enforcement measures? Yes. Is it understandable that many Americans view this as a troubling example of putting narrow ethno-political interests over the general welfare of the nation. Yes. Are Latinos right to be troubled that the United States would allow many of their brethren to spend years in the United States working hard, building businesses, setting down roots, raising families, only to deport them based on a sudden policy reversal? Yes. Are Americans right to be offended when people knowingly violate their rules and then complain about the consequences? Yes. The growing span of the conceptual divide between most Americans and Latino becomes evident when we discuss issues of the millions of children who are legal American citizens, but whose parents are undocumented immigrants. To most Latinos that is one of the most clear and compelling arguments for a broad amnesty. However, to many Americans that is a clear example of why the United States must end birthright citizenship (as virtually every European nation has done). We can endlessly argue over who is right and who is wrong, but the inescapable fact is that we are witnessing a clash of communities with no clear cut victims or villains.

A major source of the perceptual difference stems from the greater value that rule of law holds in Anglo-Saxon culture relative to Latin-American culture. If you doubt this, I recommend that you read up on the history and current affairs of Latin America. And for good and for bad, in Hispanic culture the welfare of family and friends almost always trumps civil society and national interests. This explains why friendship and family life is so rich in Latin America, but corruption and nepotism is endemic. The violation of laws and regulations have become so endemic in Latin Americas that it has overcome the capacity or will of the state to enforce them. And were politicians to execute an about face and enforcement the laws, they would actually create greater social and economic disruption, so most support the de-facto amnesty of non-enforcement. This is eerilly similar to the manner in which the American government addresses the issue of large scale undcoumented immigration.
To argue over the relative merits of Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic or any other culture is a largely irrelevant undertaking, the topic at hand is the social tension that inevitably emerges when assimilation falters and cultures clash. Clearly the progressive narrative needs to be rewritten or thrown away; the driving force between this clash is not racism and few of the actors in this drama are true villains or victims. Of course progressives are right to promote tolerance and resist racism, but when formulating immigration and social policy, we must look at the facts on the ground. We must look at how individuals and communities are, not how we wish them to be. We must study history to understand how groups in diverse communities interact, not how we wish them to interact. Whether you are in Paris or Postville, the starting point of fostering peace and prosperity in diverse communities is to be brutally honest in our assessment of the world, while holding firm to our idealism.


  1. Eric in MinneapolisAugust 26, 2010 at 11:48 AM

    I think you've fallen into a dichotomous way of thinking about the world, which is rarely ever helpful and increasingly polarizing around both artificial and alarmingly eliminationist rhetoric. I would suggest that after each one of your entries, you go back and every time you use the word "progressive" substitute the word "Jew" and then reread. The basic problem should be plain enough after that.

  2. Eric, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do not view the world in dichotomous terms; I am merely documenting what I believe to be the growing philosophical and political dichotomies in the United States. Unfortunately
    polls show that the divide does have ethnic overtones.