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.
Unfortunately, California has taken a leading role in this malign process. Senate Bill 48, sponsored by San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno and currently pending in Sacramento, would require “instruction in social sciences to also include a study of the role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and other ethnic and cultural groups, to the development of California and the United States.” And to make the therapeutic intent clear, Leno’s bill also mandates that “the state board or any governing board shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation.” The result of this social engineering is to reduce the essence of being an American to a flabby tolerance.
Such legislation legitimizes the bizarre spectacle that we see every day in California: people who have risked life and limb to come to America, some illegally, publicly chastising this country and asserting the superiority of their native lands. For example, most California state university campuses have chapters of a group called MEChA, the “National Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan.” Aztlan is the mythical territory, comprising northern Mexico and the American Southwest, that was allegedly stolen and plundered by Americans. MEChA promotes a politicized Mexican identity called “Chicanismo” that “involves a personal decision to reject assimilation and work towards the preservation of our cultural heritage.” As such, MEChA “is committed to ending the cultural tyranny suffered at the hands of institutional and systematic discrimination that holds our Gente [people] captive.” If you need further evidence that this ideology is hostile to American culture and identity, just read a poem published recently at California State University Fresno in La Voz de Aztlán, a state-subsidized campus newspaper that functions as MEChA’s house organ: “America the land robbed by the white savage / the land of the biggest genocide / the home of intolerance / the place where dreams come to die / the place of greed and slavery,” and so on for another two dozen lines.
The traditional model of immigrant assimilation that helped create California cannot work if our public schools and universities subsidize anti-Americanism. One can already see where such balkanization leads: more inter-ethnic conflict and more ignorance about what constitutes America and its core principles. Meanwhile, consumerism and a crass popular culture, which increasingly constitute the common ground of being American, fill the void—and I’m not sure that a sustainable national identity can be built on a shared appreciation of fast food, bad movies, and vulgar popular music. Immigration can work again in this country. But for that to happen, schools and government must recommit themselves to teaching and reinforcing the common culture and political principles that immigrants once learned to become Americans.
Bruce Thornton is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of Classics and Humanities at California State University Fresno. His new book is The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America, published by Encounter Books.