[lit-ideas] Re: Long Live the Evolution

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 5 May 2004 12:09:06 +0900

On 2004/05/05, at 11:05, andy amago wrote:

> Torgeir: Did the Europeans "assimilate" to the prevalent lifestyle 
> when they
> arrived in America?
> A.A. : Absolutely.  That's the whole point, that they became Americans 
> in their
> new home in which they planned to stay, rather than fantasizing about 
> returning
> to the old country.
> RP: That is why they still hunt buffalo on the plains, build pueblos 
> in the
> Southwest, fish for salmon ifrom the banks of the rivers in the 
> Northwest, go to
> sea in whaling canoes along the coast, and hold potlatches to 
> establish social
> standing. (Well, maybe they do do that last bit.)

The social anthropologist in me comments--Thank you RP!

The bulk of this thread has provided us with yet another example of 
conversation cramped into a free market moralizing model that allocates 
praise or blame to individual choices while paying no attention 
whatsoever to historical context or sociological realities.

Consider, for example, all those remarkably sloppy references to 
"Europeans" as if it mattered not a whit that 17th century immigrants 
to North America, spoke English, Dutch, French, and Spanish and 
represented a wide variety of aspirations and ambitions--Puritans, 
Pilgrims, Planters, Pirates, Missionaries, Conquistadores, to list just 
a few common types--virtually all of whom saw themselves as hacking out 
new lives in a space populated by "savages" (the aborigines whose fate 
would be captured in Ambrose Bierce's famous definition, "Aborigine: 
Persons found cumbering the soil of newly conquered countries. They 
soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.")

Flash forward to 19th-century European immigrants, who formed ethnic 
enclaves in cities and, if left to their own devices in rural settings, 
clung to their own ways well into the 20th century, despite the best 
efforts of WASP-ish do-gooders to promote the melting pot. (I think, 
for example, of the area around Fort Wayne, Indiana, in which my wife 
grew up, where German was the language of instruction in public schools 
until 1948.)

By the second half of the 19th century there were all sorts of  
movements that argued either for assimilation or, alternatively, 
radical segregation, as ways to preserve what they saw as America, a 
nation that had, through the fires of the Revolution, the writing of 
the Constitution, and then the Civil War become (as both sides saw it) 
the very model for what a modern nation should be. Immigrants to this 
America, who played an important part in its further transformation 
from a largely rural and agricultural to a largely industrial and urban 
society, faced choices and opportunities quite different from those who 
landed at Plymouth Rock or settled at Jamestown or even those who 
migrated in the 18th century to places with names like New York, 
Philadelphia,  Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, or St. Augustine.

Having said all this, am I asserting that andy amago has no reason for 
special concern, that Hispanic or other immigrants will naturally 
muddle their way through the usual two or three generations that 
assimilation requires? Not a bit.

There are two key factors to consider: neither of which has been 
mentioned so far. The first is birth rates, the second modern 
transportation and communication technology.

The one central and apparently inevitable fact about every modern 
industrialized nation (or at least the members of the OECD) is that the 
base populations are not reproducing themselves. There is, for example, 
a front page story in today's Asahi Shimbun headlined "Proportion of 
Children 13.9%, Continuing 30-year Decline." It contrasts Japan with 
Italy (14.3%), Germany (15.0%), France, the UK, and Canada (all around 
18%), and the USA (21%). What the USA figure conceals is that high 
proportion of children born in the USA whose parents are 
first-generation and especially Hispanic immigrants. California is 
already the first state in the nation in which the White population has 
become a minority. Less noted but equally telling, it is also a state 
in which the Black population is smaller than the Hispanic population 
and growing less rapidly.

But this is only half the story. What modern transportation and 
communication technology have done is create a world in which it is 
easy for immigrants to stay in touch with friends and family in their 
homelands, which is also a world in which enterprising business people 
are able to offer immigrants products and services that provide "a 
taste of home" while living somewhere else. (There is now a substantial 
literature on the impact of this factor--Googling "diaspora" will lead 
you to tons of it.)

The consequences are visible even in New Haven, Indiana, the suburb of 
Fort Wayne in which my wife grew up, a place as Midwestern as Middle 
America can be.  It was, as indicated above, a solidly German Lutheran 
community well into the 1950s. When we last visited a year ago, the 
language on a billboard on Main Street was Spanish--entirely Spanish. 
The grocery stores stocked six-foot shelves of salsa and the vegetables 
on offer included a big selection of varieties indigenous to Latin 
America. A big item in local news was the successful effort of the 
Spanish-speaking community of Fort Wayne to keep open the big Catholic 
Church downtown. It had been slated for closure, with its congregation 
dispersed to other, suburban churches.

There is no question about it. America's Hispanic immigrants do, in 
fact, challenge the traditional "Melting Pot" model in way that it has 
never been challenged before. What the result will be is still very 
hard to discern. But one thing is for sure--classic white bread 
America, the America in which I grew up, is not a plausible option.

John L. McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
55-13-202 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama, Japan 220-0006

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

"Making Symbols is Our Business"

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