Assimilation and a Banlieue of Our Own


I’ve been meaning to note something important in this Mark Patinkin column from last Sunday, but it may be too subtle a point than I’ll have time to explore to satisfaction.  So, herewith a few hundred words to mark the idea either for future reference or to work the nag out of my system.

On the whole, Patinkin’s got the right idea, but he misses subtleties that may be central to disagreements about the ways in which our country should address cultural and ideological differences.  Take this sentence, for example:

Instead they were treated unequally, mostly segregated in tenement-filled ghettos, called banlieues, built for them outside the cities.

That phrase, “built for them,” isn’t quite correct.  The banlieues are an old sort of inner suburb, not unlike the “municipal zones” that Walter Russell Mead describes in the article about Brussels to which I linked, this morning.  Patinkin goes to far in emphasizing that the French failed to allow immigrants to assimilate.  An important part of the equation is that they gave them room to choose not to assimilate.  This process will ebb and flow, but it’s more of a battle than a one-sided acquiescence.

The French didn’t win the struggle against the reactionary forces within the immigrant communities that sought to build their own fiefdoms.  In some contexts, assimilation isn’t a warm and fuzzy mater of tolerance, but a deliberate choice of force, as would have been required in order to prevent the development of “no-go zones.”

This is precisely the point at which standard liberal thinking flips around on itself — where Patinkin writes, “the original deterrent to homegrown terror [is] avoiding alienation.”  To the mainstream liberal, this invocation means letting those from other cultures maintain much of their heritage and adjusting the American norm to accommodate it.  Meanwhile, liberals and progressives have little concern with forcing their views on an ever-more-centralized scale, like the Supreme Court mandating the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples across the entire country (with a crackdown on private business owners who disagree) or the Obama administration using executive orders to tweak a partisan nationalization of healthcare and then a bureaucratic crackdown to hobble the opposition that arose against him.

They believe their worldview, from race to sexual matters to the environment, is simply factually correct, and nobody (at least nobody who shares their heritage) should be permitted to differ, much less to implement public policy according to differing beliefs.  That’s a recipe for alienation if ever there was one.

We’re getting the worst of both sides of that intellectual contradiction.  With identity-politics running rampant on campuses and in the pop culture, we’re allowing groups to create their own, privileged banlieues in which they don’t have to acknowledge disagreement, and with centralized establishment of the progressive faith overruling federalism and democracy, we’re alienating the majority.

It’s an alignment between identity groups and the cultural elite, meant to hamstring those in the middle and block those who would traverse across the middle from the bottom.

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