A recipe for a healthy debate on migrants

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In the past, shameful legacies made it difficult to debate central political issues around national identity and immigration. The erosion of these paves way for valuable debate.

Is the US more like a melting pot, tomato soup or tossed salad? The unhappy collection of similes is drawn from Samuel Huntington’s recent book Who are We? Professor Huntington asks whether national identity can co-exist with distinctive immigrant subcultures. This is not only an American dilemma. It is rapidly becoming a central political issue in Europe.

The imagery of the melting pot is an American tradition. Henry Ford once staged a pageant in which players entered wearing travesties of national costumes and left clad in the American flag. But this vision has recently given way to the tossed salad of multiculturalism. A variety of ingredients retain their own identity but contribute their flavour and texture to a harmonious whole.

Prof Huntington argues that the reality of American history is better described as tomato soup. The blending of new ingredients adds spice and richness but the essential character of tomato is never compromised. In Prof Huntington’s view, that character was defined by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who settled the US, wrote its constitution and founded its institutions.

American culture is at once distinctive and recognisably European. National identity can accommodate a range – but not an unlimited range – of community values. But some issues allow little blurring of the edges, such as education. Is the purpose of bilingual schooling to enable immigrants to adapt more rapidly to the community they have joined or to make it unnecessary for them to do so?

The multicultural position is supported by a coalition of liberal intellectuals – who believe, as Ronald Dworkin, the philosopher, argues, that the state should not favour one conception of the good life over another – and leaders of minority groups, who achieve prominence and influence in the salad which they would lose in the soup or melting pot.

Silent majorities think differently. Very few people really think the state should not choose between alternative conceptions of the good life. And many members of minority communities want to be assimilated even if their leaders do not. As Prof Huntington observes, most immigrant parents want their children to be fluent in the language of tuition at Stanford University rather than the one spoken by its caretakers.

But people are intimidated from expressing these views. It is just about permissible to laugh at school teachers who fear that carol services will cause offence. But when David Goodhart, the left-leaning editor of Prospect magazine, suggested that European social welfare systems were founded on shared identity rather than abstract principles of justice, he was denounced as racist by the chairman of Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality.

It is easier to keep one’s head below the parapet. Criticism of multiculturalism has therefore been left to extremists and crackpots: extreme rightwing parties have consequently gained more electoral support than they expected or deserved, while disagreements over Turkish entry into the EU have often been coded references to disagreements about domestic policy.

But in Europe the silence is ending. The Netherlands, long welcoming of foreigners, will now impose a test of Dutch language and culture on permanent residents. Denmark’s government has courted popularity by restricting immigration. France’s ban on headscarves in schools is a symbolic assertion that its model is based on tomato soup, even if no French person would eat it. Acknowledgement of the superiority of French language and culture, not ethnicity, is the essential badge of Frenchness. When Angela Merkel, leader of Germany’s opposition Christian Democrats, declared that “the notion of multiculturalism is falling apart”, her remarks were echoed in the assertion by Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor, that Germany cannot accommodate parallel societies.

For half a century, the shameful legacies of racial segregation in the US and genocide in Nazi Germany made it difficult to discuss central political issues. The erosion of taboos creates an opportunity to debate and establish the kind of society most Europeans and Americans want: non-racist, welcoming of immigrants willing to contribute to its society and proud of its history, its culture and its values.

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