A Review of John Miller's The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined the Assimilation Ethic (New York: The Free Press, 1998)
pp. 1, 13-15 in Immigration Review no. 33, Fall 1998
Assimilation must accompany immigration.
Nothing could be more obvious, but nothing is more in need of repetition than this, the central message of John Miller's The Unmaking of Americans. The book comes at a good time, when the concept of assimilation is starting to be rehabilitated — not only have California's voters repudiated bilingual education but, thanks to the efforts of the late Barbara Jordan's Commission on Immigration Reform, even "Americanization" is no longer a four-letter word.
Miller, now a reporter for National Review, surveys the theory and practice of Americanization during the last great wave of immigration, then looks at the rejection of Americanization (not to mention America itself) by much of the elite over the past generation. The history lesson is valuable, especially since Miller makes use of popular literature from decades past which few contemporary readers of public policy books would ever encounter.
He concludes with a list of overdue policy changes that would help re-establish Americanization as a central feature of our immigrant policy. Miller's 10-point Americanization agenda draws together common-sense policy recommendations from a variety of areas, and adds a few new ones, to offer a more-or-less coherent approach to incorporating newcomers into America.
Refreshingly, Miller's book is genuinely pro-immigrant, unlike some other proponents of high immigration whose unspoken motto appears to be "More slaves, please." What's more, Miller has done extensive reporting, especially for the chapters on bilingual education and on Americanization in the workplace. This sets his book apart from a similar effort by Peter Salins, the breezy and superficial Assimilation, American Style (reviewed in Immigration Review No. 28, Spring 1997), and gives Miller's book more in common with a very different work, The Case Against Immigration, by Roy Beck (reviewed in Immigration Review No. 26, Summer 1996).
Despite its strengths, The Unmaking of Americans suffers from a blind spot that renders it incomplete. The core problem lies in the author's insistence on divorcing assimilation from the details of immigration policy (who and how many we let in). Miller's goal in writing the book appears to have been not only to remind us that assimilation must accompany immigration, but also that we must never consider cuts in immigration in response to the assimilation crisis he describes in such lurid detail.
Granted, he makes some cogent points about the relationship between immigration and Americanization. It's irrefutable that "the roughly 25 million immigrants who are already here" (it's grown to 27 million since the book went to press) need to be Americanized, even if we were to stop immigration altogether. Furthermore, even an immigration flow of 200,000 or 300,000 per year still requires a vigorous policy of Americanization.
However, in response to the observation that crippled Americanization mechanisms require the admission of fewer people who need Americanizing, he has no good answer. All he can offer is clichés: "And what about the proud American tradition of being a nation of immigrants? Is the United States suddenly to abandon a key part of its Americanizing heritage because some political extremists have decided to make a lot of noise about multicultural education?" You'd think there would be more to the argument than this, but neither Miller nor any other defender of high immigration has been able to offer anything more substantive.
On the other hand, there is a strong case to be made that it's not 1910 anymore — both the immigration flow and American society have changed in ways that make immigration cuts a necessary, though not sufficient, part of any renewed Americanization program.
First, today's immigration is different from the previous wave from the 1880s to the 1920s, and Miller never examines these differences, even to dismiss them. Although the foreign born represent a somewhat smaller proportion of the population than in 1910 (10 percent vs. 15 percent), the total number is twice as large. While Americans and immigrants were equally unskilled three generations ago, the foreign born are now three times more likely to be high-school dropouts than natives. Immigrants are more clustered geographically than in the past, with the top four immigrant states accounting for a 20 percent larger share of the immigrant population than just 25 years ago. And perhaps most problematic, the majority of post-1970 immigrants are from a single ethno-linguistic group — Spanish-speaking Latin Americans — representing a degree of ethnic concentration unprecedented in our nation's history. Each of these differences complicates the Americanization of today's newcomers.
Not only is the immigration flow different, but so is America. More has happened in the past century than simply the passage of 100 years; the spread of religious and moral skepticism among the public at large, the weakening of community, and the decline of patriotism are fundamental changes wrought by modernity that make the re-establishment of a muscular Americanization project more difficult.
Of course, Miller devotes much of his book to execrating the manifestation of modernity most important to assimilation — multiculturalism (which, for these purposes, includes bilingualism). He rightly identifies it as a deviant ideology incompatible with Americanization. Ironically, however, he doesn't take multiculturalism seriously enough.
Miller's trivialization of multiculturalism is clear from the false dichotomy he repeatedly posits in order to represent his views as reasonable and moderate. He positions himself between multiculturalists of the Left and nativists of the Right, both of whom reject the Americanization of immigrants — the first because it is undesirable, the second because it is impossible. As tidy as this sounds, these two poles are not comparable. The right-wing proponents of an ethnically defined American identity (cutely labeled "Neo-Nothings"), whom Miller holds up as prominent participants in the debate, are marginal and easy to make fun of, but not representative of any major current of American thought. There are indeed people who seriously think the wrong side won the Civil War or that spaghetti is an alien abomination, but they can't even get picked up by the Washington Times, let alone National Review or Commentary. Miller's inordinate reliance on writers for Chronicles for his examples of "Neo-Nothings" puts Rockford, Ill. (where the magazine is published) closer to the center of American intellectual life than a fair reading of the facts would warrant.
At the same time, Miller fails to appreciate how deeply rooted are the assumptions underlying multiculturalism. In rightly emphasizing that immigrants themselves are not responsible for the assimilation crisis, he observes that "The real culprits are American institutions that advanced the interests of Americanization in the past ... but no longer do so today." But rather than a superficial phenomenon, which Miller suggests is confined to "self-appointed political and civil rights leaders" and ridiculous academic conferences, like one he describes in San Diego, multiculturalism is deeply rooted in every American institution — the schools, courts, media, churches, corporations, charitable institutions, chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations, local governments, etc. Despite recent encouraging signs, uprooting anti-assimilationism from American institutions will require a cultural revolution — and in the meantime, what about the un-Americanized immigrants and their children our institutions are producing?
It's not that Miller doesn't appreciate the dangers of high immigration without an active policy of assimilation. He writes, "If the schools miss their chance [to inculcate American language and values], un-Americanized children grow up to become un-Americanized adults — at which point their Americanization becomes much more difficult and unlikely." Since this is the case, and since even the rosiest of scenarios would not predict the immediate nationwide implementation of Miller's recommendations for change, why continue to admit a million immigrants a year?
In the long-ago age of budget deficits, some Republicans in Congress brandished the motto "cut spending first" — in other words, balance the budget by reducing the size of government as much as feasible before raising taxes. A sensible immigration/assimilation policy would follow this example by having as its motto "end multiculturalism first," i.e., restore the integrity of our civic culture before allowing high immigration.
One needs only to read some of the Americanization material Miller quotes to sense how far we have to go in the long twilight struggle against multiculturalism. After a bitter 1912 strike involving immigrants, the town fathers of Lawrence, Mass., launched a vigorous Americanization program. One local group published a pamphlet, "Lawrence — Here She Stands: For God and Country!" The public schools developed an "American Plan for Education in Citizenship," which included lessons in history to teach "love and loyalty for America" and promoted things "which the American spirit holds dear." How many schools today, public or private, would admit to teaching "love and loyalty for America," or recognize that an "American Spirit" exists, at least in any positive sense?
Elsewhere in the book, Miller describes the North American Civic League for Immigrants, "a group of philanthropists, social workers, writers, and industrialists" who promoted Americanization by, among other means, a series of public lectures and pamphlets on such topics as "The Story of the American People," "Abraham Lincoln," and "George Washington." It should go without saying that few philanthropists, social workers, writers, or industrialists nowadays would think of teaching immigrants anything about these subjects, and if they were to do so, the immigrants would be presented with such a sickening tale of racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, and genocide that they would be justified in wondering why anyone would want to become an American.
Thus the missing item in Miller's "Americanization agenda" is immigration reform. This omission doesn't invalidate the other policy recommendations, but it does render The Unmaking of America an incomplete roadmap for future policy.