Reprinted from City Journal.
California is a concentrated example of the time-honored idea that America is an immigrant nation. From its beginnings as a territory through the twentieth century, California comprised a riotous variety of ethnic groups, nationalities, and religions. The whole world, it seemed, was coming and contributing to the state’s ethnic tapestry: Mexicans, Irish, Australians, South Sea Islanders, Italians, Basques, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, Volga Germans, Filipinos, Hmong, Laotians, Punjabis, Vietnamese. And for a long time, immigration worked, because everyone was expected to assimilate, more or less, to the American paradigm.
For an example of how that assimilation took place, consider the rural San Joaquin Valley, where I grew up. Since it offered plenty of opportunities to own farmland and to find agricultural work, the valley became a place where the theory of assimilation met the practice. Assimilation didn’t mean that an immigrant had to discard his native culture or language. Indeed, most immigrants took pride in their origins, as evidenced by fraternal organizations, religious guilds, holidays, festivals, recipes, native costumes, and scores of other ways of honoring their homelands. Some, like my Italian grandmother, kept their native tongues and never became fluent in English. Some, like my wife’s Volga German grandfather, never even became citizens. Yet whatever the degree of assimilation, most accepted a fundamental truth: that whatever affection they had for their homes, for their native tongue, or for their old ways and customs, those cultures had in some significant way failed them. Thus they had made a difficult, costly choice: to become Americans. If America’s core principles—such as individual rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and religious tolerance—conflicted with those of the old country, then the latter had to be modified or abandoned.
The choice was hard, at times even brutal. Racism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice could make the work of becoming American notoriously difficult. But people understood that to have a nation composed of immigrants, there had to be a unifying common culture in the public sphere. Transmitting that common culture was the job of the schools. My mother’s mother came from Maschito, an Albanian village in southern Italy. Many Maschitans settled in Fresno, where every year they celebrated the feast of their ancestral village’s patron saint, Santa Elia. But I never heard a word about any of this in school. We were busy learning about George Washington and the Constitution, Valley Forge and the Gettysburg Address, the nation’s history and heroes, its virtues and ideals—and, crucially, those core American principles. It was at school that the immigrant learned American history and celebrated the leaders who had created the country, fought in its defense, and embodied its most cherished values. In short, he learned how to be what he or his parents had freely chosen to become: American.
This process has been compromised over the past 40 years as the ideology of multiculturalism has colonized schools, government, and popular culture. Today, immigrants learn to embrace a sense of entitlement and grievance and to demand that schools and government acknowledge and atone for America’s sins. School curricula have degenerated into ethnic cheerleading and feel-good symbolism. The effect is to divide, not unify, to pit group against group as each tries to out-victim the other in a zero-sum competition for political clout and slices of the public fisc.
Pages: 1 2