The usually sensible New York Times columnist Ross Douthat careens into a conceptual immigration ditch in trying to divide Americans into those who welcome immigrants as long as they profess allegiance to this country's iconic creedal ideals and those who "often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes." In two different entries last week – "Islam in Two Americas" and "Assimilation and Nativism" – he made an unfortunate and ill-founded distinction between those for whom "allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides" and those who expect "new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly" and one might add "or else"!
Given this dichotomy, it is apparently not possible to both honor America's commitment to its basic creedal ideals and want new immigrants, over time, to adapt our language, learn our customs, subscribe to our cultural practices, and develop a real emotional attachment to this country – its traditions, culture, and institutions.
The immediate impetus for Douthat's invidious distinction is the controversy over plans to build a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Towers. Reaching back hundreds of years into American history, he recalls that those who favored assimilation "persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics." The implications regarding present-day Muslims in the United States couldn't be clearer.
But the mosque debate is not primarily about religion or assimilation, or whether new immigrants should "become Americans" or simply learn to support "The Creed." It is about standing with the country's experience of itself as having been the subject of a brutal, unfair, sneak attack – period – and how to memorialize that day and it targets – Americans. The idea that this attack requires of Americans that they show how tolerant they are truly adds insult to injury.
Douthat's distinction between those he presents as more open-minded and supportive of immigrants and those whose objections to the mosque recall the darker history of American nativism and discrimination misses the point completely. For most Americans, questions about the mosque have little or nothing to do with whether Muslims, or any other immigrant group, should learn English, support and practice America's cultural norms like the work ethic, and develop an attachment to this country based on the opportunity and freedom it has and continues to provide to millions of new immigrants every decade, in spite of the always-present need to strive to realize our ideals.
The questions have everything to do with whether Muslims in America understand and share – through emotional empathy and attachment or the more cerebral form, identification – the experience and understanding of what the 9/11 attacks meant to most Americans.
In failing to appreciate this Douthat inadvertently casts a large spotlight on one of the biggest failings of the view that "allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides."
Creedal allegiance is important, but it is no substitute for the connection that comes from feeling that I am an American and what happens to my fellow countrymen and women matters to me, even if it was not my own direct personal experience.
And it is no substitute for the feeling that in understanding and sharing to some degree the pain associated with the attack on my new country, I will spare my fellow countrymen lectures about their need to atone for their past lapses toward new immigrants by proving their tolerance.