A clash of Cultures

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CRE Conference

“A Clash of Cultures”

Park City, Utah

July 14, 2006

E Pluribus Unum Today

By Daniel Rose

The term “culture clash” implies not simply a dispute over preferences but a confrontation of different ways of thinking, different value systems, different ways of looking at the world.
If one prefers potatoes to another’s rice or noodles, sliced white bread to frittatas, or southern fried chicken to murgh mahani, that is not a culture clash but a difference in taste.
When, during the British Raj, a Hindu said, “my culture calls upon me to tie a grieving widow to her husband’s funeral pyre,” and a British officer replied, “my culture calls upon me to execute murderers,” they had a culture clash.
The United States today faces three separate confrontations of culture. The first confrontation, between radical Islamists and the rest of our “open society,” is a culture clash. The second, between different ethnic or religious groups in our society, and the third, involving new immigrants, are not culture clashes so much as sources of social and economic friction that must be resolved as painlessly and as civilly as possible.
Our culture clash with radical Islamists is one that we have yet to face openly and frankly. We have not yet asked ourselves how our democratic institutions, reflecting a “live and let live” attitude of harmonious accommodation between differing outlooks, deals with a culture that seeks separation rather than integration, which inculcates martyrdom in children taught to despise “the others,” a culture which seeks not the social harmony of equals, but domination and the imposition of Muslim law, or Shaaria.
Our conflict with radical militant Islam does not involve the great majority of American Muslims; it can be contained within the context of civil liberties and human rights that underpin American society. But it does involve facing a value system incompatible with American society, one that Saudi-financed, Wahhabi-trained mullahs are attempting to inculcate in native-born American Muslim youth.
That value system, incomprehensible to most Westerners, is reflected in pleas to behead offending Danish cartoonists, in the blowing up of ancient Buddhist mountain carvings in Afghanistan, in the slaughter of innocent civilians by suicide bombers in London and Madrid, or in the murder in Somalia of strangers whose only crime was watching World Cup soccer matches on television.
How to reconcile democratic practices—with human rights and civil liberties as “givens”—with our physical protection in an age of terrorism, is one of the great challenges of our day.
The American approach to religious difference was set by our Founding Fathers in the 18th century, when President George Washington wrote in 1790 to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, “the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
That Washington was a slave owner points up the persistent, radical gap between the promise of American ideals and our performance, and foreshadows our continuing struggle to bring our practice and ideals closer together.
Today, the accepted American view is expressed in the adage, attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “your freedom to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose.”
This view has worked well with the Amish in Pennsylvania, the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn and others. Children incited to martyrdom present a different story.
The search for an appropriate post-9/11 response to the threat of terrorism comes at a time when American society is groping toward a re-examination of who we are and what fundamental values we share.
In the United States today, a number of questions perplex us:
A) What do Americans have in common that distinguishes us from other peoples? At one time, the so-called American Creed would have been the answer; today that answer is being questioned.
B) Can a cohesive open society be based only on a political and social contract among individuals? Today, some feel legal rights should be ascribed to groups as well as to individuals.
C) Individuals and groups can have multiple identities—“ascriptive, territorial, economic, cultural, political, social and national.” To what extent, by law or practice, should we extend to all groups the recognition and approbation they wish—and demand?
D) In an age of stifling political correctness, to what extent can such questions be discussed openly, frankly and dispassionately, without charges of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, classism, etc. being hurled for the specific purpose of avoiding full and frank discussion?
In his 1992 volume, The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. decried the growing calls for tribalism, for a cult of ethnicity that, he felt, “nourishes prejudices, magnifies differences and stirs antagonisms.” He worried that some felt “history and literature should be taught not as intellectual disciplines but as therapies,” and, as a historian, he deplored the practice of “exculpatory and compensatory history.” His interest was in national integration and “the bonds of cohesiveness—common ideals, common political institutions, common language, common culture, common fate—that hold the republic together.”
But our Founding Fathers never faced the challenge of suicide bombers or of Saudi-financed Wahhabi mullahs and their adherents who come to America for the economic benefits but who despise all other aspects of our society.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” said Abraham Lincoln. Today, in an age of shoe bombers, my grandchildren cannot climb the Statue of Liberty as my children and I did; users of the garage at Lincoln Center have to open their car trunks, and all airline passengers must be carefully screened.
Protection is one thing, prevention is another; defusing a fanatic mindset in an open society is a more difficult problem than we have ever faced before.
A massive and continuing campaign to meet lies with truth and to combat ignorance with knowledge must be mounted here and abroad in ways that help strengthen moderate Muslims and neutralize the Islamo-facists who would destroy us. If our government cannot do it effectively, the American charitable world must rise to the occasion. And all must be in keeping with American democratic practices.
The radical Islamist demand to control the education and indoctrination of their children in Western countries raises heart-breaking questions where Catholic parochial schools, Jewish day schools and private home-schooling are universally accepted. An acceptable method must be found to counter falsehood with truth.
Those Islamists recently arrested in Canada for plotting London-style bombings who said openly, “I hate Canada” should cause us to re-examine the question of the rights, obligations and loyalties that citizenship entails
These are difficult times that call for a degree of wisdom, sensitivity and effectiveness that we have not always been able to muster.
Abu Ghraib prison and the abuses at Guantanamo are national embarrassments, although everyone understands the problems they were meant to address. In the past, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Creel Commission of 1917, and the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s were examples of what can result from hysteria. Yet the problem remains and must be dealt with.
Today’s Patriot Act and accompanying regulations and controls are apparently not a problem as much as their implementation by those whose attitude is summed up by the phrase “stuff happens.” A concerned public should demand that “stuff” doesn’t happen.
In his 1981 classic, American Politics—The Promise of Disharmony, Professor Samuel Huntington noted that, “American political ideals and values—the core of American national identity—have been continuously and overwhelmingly liberal, individualistic, democratic. American political institutions have reflected these values but have always fallen short of realizing them in a satisfactory manner.”
He concludes, “Critics say America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”
An American public, alert both to threats (which are real) and to responsibilities (which are built into the fabric of our society) will rise to the challenge, but it must face that challenge soon, before other 9/11’s occur.

The second confrontation of cultures—the one between people—prepared to live harmoniously with others although their cultures differ, is one that America has faced successfully in the past and will undoubtedly do so in the future.

Each new immigrant group—and America’s native born Black population—will in due course find its niche based on the degree to which its mores are compatible with the American mainstream.
Its work ethic, its desire for education, its determination to save and invest, its entrepreneurial talents, its attitude toward child-raising and toward unmarried motherhood, its ability to involve itself in the American political process—these characteristics will determine the group’s ability to compete successfully, the ability of its members to succeed as individuals in a society of individuals.
Collectively, those characteristics reflect a group’s culture. That wise and good man, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, gave the best comment on the role of culture in advancement when he wrote: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society; the central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Individuals, not groups, attend medical school, file patents, open new stores, obtain MBA degrees, earn military medals, buy homes. Cultural traits that encourage those actions will help the individual members of a group advance. And those groups themselves are divided into sub-groups that should be considered separately.
In this age of political correctness, distinctions are considered invidious, acknowledgment of differing outcomes is considered de facto prejudice, disparities in occupational “representation” are seen as prima facie evidence of bias, and frank discussion of social differences is impossible. (The comedian Jackie Mason always gets a laugh when he asks archly if anyone has noticed the tiny number of Jews on National Basketball Association teams and wonders whether lower baskets for short Jews is the answer.)
One can acknowledge the existence of a group known (only in the U.S.!) as Hispanics, but it is unacceptable to point out the diverse attitudes and out- comes of pre-Castro Cubans in Miami, South Americans in the midwest, Mexicans in the southwest, and Puerto Ricans in New York.
One can discuss American Blacks, but it is taboo to examine the differing social and economic outcomes of Caribbean immigrants, of recent immigrants from Africa, and of native-born American Blacks. (Therefore, the general public does not know that recent African immigrants, with a 98% rate of high school graduation, have median earnings 20% higher than the American median.)
Similarly, to analyze and discuss the educational, social and economic experiences of America’s million-odd Chinese and million-odd Asians from India is discouraged.
Therefore, we can only point out that the rural Irish poor who arrived in America in the mid-19th century, the poverty-stricken Sicilians who came in the late 19th century, and the bedraggled Eastern European Jews who arrived at the turn of the century required several generations to enter the American mainstream.
In the interim, they each huddled together for mutual support and encouragement, they each faced barriers to employment and housing, they each were charged with overwhelming the available social services, and they each aroused fear in their neighbors.
To the extent that those groups thought of themselves as victims rather than as protagonists, to the extent that they blamed others for their condition, to the extent that they looked backward rather than forward, they delayed the entrance of their members into the mainstream.
In each case, individual members of the groups learned English, and by the third generation, their children had all but forgotten their ancestral language. By the third generation, the children had become acculturated and were no longer “greenhorns”—they celebrated Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Mothers Day. By the fourth generation, their rate of inter-marriage approached 50%.
The evidence is compelling that past American experience will be re-enacted in the future. The best ways we can speed it up are to make English language training available to all who wish it, to make available sound education and professional training, and to extend job opportunities to willing workers so that they can become taxpayers at the earliest opportunity.

The third and final cultural confrontation our society must face is that of immigration—legal and illegal, present and future.

Our estimated ten million illegal immigrants are the price we pay for not having controlled our borders, but our past failure does not preclude us from determining in the future who should enter the country. Our porous borders must be sealed, if only to keep out terrorists who supposedly enter with impunity. A revised and thoroughly thought-through immigration policy—discussed in the forthcoming presidential campaigns and implemented with bipartisan wisdom—must be part of the package.
Future immigrants should be those whom we specifically want to enter, and the ten million present illegally must have a program by which, in time, they can qualify for citizenship.
The “e pluribus unum” of the past can be the “e pluribus unum” of the future—a nation of individuals of diverse origins sharing common public values.
We live horizontally and vertically—horizontally sharing all public goods, rights and obligations, and vertically, free to spend Sunday morning as we choose—at church, synagogue, mosque or on the golf course. The concept of American “exceptionalism” is a cliché, but it is nonetheless true. The United States has shown that individuals from disparate cultures can live together in harmony; and we can continue to do so.
The car-burning French Muslims who rioted in the suburbs had better public housing and more lavish welfare benefits than American immigrants receive, but they were not welcomed into French society.
The American example still has lessons for the rest of the world.

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