Sunday, May 07, 2006

Assimilate to what?

Given that bringing up immigration summons the cry for assimilation, let's consider a pertinent question I don't often hear answered: to what should immigrants assimilate?

The verb to assimilate has five meanings. Physiologically, it refers to consuming and incorporating nutrients into the body after digestion and the process of anabolism. Figuratively, it refers to incorporating and absorbing knowledge into the mind. The word also means to cause something to resemble another. In linguistics, it refers to altering a sound by assimilation, as happens when a language adopts foreign words (for example, the Spanish lazo and the English lasso).

The fifth meaning, also figurative, is what people have in mind in the immigration debate: to absorb immigrants, or a culturally distinct group, into the prevailing culture. Yet in all the meanings of "assimilate" something is consumed, absorbed, incorporated (literally, to become part of a body), after some process of digestion and alteration.

All of this, means B becomes somehow enmeshed in A.

In the case of a country, for example the United States, the question is: What is that A and why does it deserve pre-eminence? The answer is more complicated than it sounds.

History tells us that the first U.S. inhabitants were the Indians. The European colonists did not assimilate into Indian society. Are anti-immigrant advocates suggesting that we at last show some respect for the native inhabitants? Somehow, I think not.

History also tells us that what is today the United States became the colonial territory of three European powers: England, France and Spain. Which one of these countries' cultures deserve predominant respect? On what grounds?

Let's try history again. In thirteen of the North American English colonies, a civil war broke out in the 1770s, with the population so divided that an estimated 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at the end of the conflict. Moreover, cultural roots among whites were about evenly divided at that time between England and Germany, to the point that the issue of a national language for the United States was deferred in all the foundational discussions as too divisive.

(We might be singing "O, sagt, k├Ânnt ihr sehen" on the Fourth of July had the Deutsch, or "Dutch" prevailed, but then we're forgetting the "other Persons" of the Constitution, who were African and spoke multiple languages.)

So the English of the 1780s had deferred the language issue knowing they might not win; half of them wanted King George, anyway, the Germans didn't want to learn English (some of them still don't speak English at home).

Then they purchased land from France (the Louisiana territory) and Spain (Florida). By the 1840s and '50s, the third major European group of the early United States arrived: the Irish. They were certainly not English. They fled a famine induced by the British, the inventors of genocidal germ warfare, to dispossess the native Irish Catholic farmers of Ireland.

Remind me, in this mix of Africans, English, French, Germans, Irish and Spanish ... by what reason was only the culture and language of the English to be accorded legal supremacy, when even the English dared not debate it for fear they would lose a vote?

But wait, then there's the entire Southwest and West. That was stolen outright by war and conquest. The predominant language and culture there was not English. Why should the territory from Texas to California have to assimilate the culture and language of the last and most unlawful newcomers, the Anglos?

Much the same question could be raised about almost any corner of the Earth.

Take Israel. Jewish scripture says God gave them the land thousands of years ago. But those lands weren't uninhabited. If Jews can leave for 1,900 years and still lay a territorial claim upon their return almost two millenia later, what about the ancient Caananites and their descendants, who didn't leave at all? Who should assimilate to whose culture and language?

This is what 50 years of war in Palestine has been all about, proving once again the irrational, tribal and nonsensical nature of all the notions that one culture has an inherent right to dominate.

People have the inalienable right to their own language and culture. Asserting that right is in the best tradition of the United States (even though in many chapters of the nation's history it was not observed), as it is of the United Nations and of Lady Liberty, whose powerful gaze watches over both from her island.
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