Redeeming Bigotry

I see Ross Douthat as playing a particularly strange role in modern political discourse: when the right oversteps the bounds of polite society, and resorts to the politics of raw, unchanneled, and base emotions, Ross Douthat’s there to force a reading with some degree of intellectual respectability. The task isn’t always easy — and too often the result feels strained.  Today’s post is no exception.

Ross describes “two Americas,” one high-minded and virtuous, seeing diversity as an affirmation of its uniqueness, and another, crass and exclusionary, taking the culture the first America helped create as a static force, threatened rather than defined by new ideas.

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. [. . . .] [I]t expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

To Ross, these two ideas compete (and exist) on an equal field. But the first, which Ross calls “constitutional” rather than “cultural,” is the one that lies at the genesis of the American experience, and necessarily exists on a higher plane than the second, as Ross seems to acknowledge. It stands for first principles, and while it grew from a particular culture, rejects a worldview limited only to that culture.

Further, the “second” America — call it “originalist” rather than simply “cultural,” because constitutionalism is (or should be) cultural — exists only as a derivative of the first. It’s almost Platonic: when illuminated by a particularly dim light, the contours of the “constitutional” America project a shadow of the culture that founded it, but one devoid of the depth necessary to understand it, or the rules that it created. Worse, in the penumbra of this shadow lurks bigotry.

But we should tolerate this second America, its caustic nature, and the bigotry it entails, because this bigotry has value to Ross, and to society:

The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American. [. . .]

[W]hile the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.

We probably have to hand Ross a weak version of this point, at least: it’s clear that bigotry can force assimilation. But that’s not the point he needs to carry. Ross needs to prove not only that soft bigotry compels assimilation, but that groups won’t assimilate without it, and that, as applied to Islam, that failure is dangerous, or otherwise undesirable.

It’s not clear to me that he can carry any of these points. What Ross’ “second America” wins by force, his “first America” wins by the principled ease of its inclusiveness. Immigrants still flock to America not to set up exclusive compounds, pockets of the Old Country utterly impermeable to the new host, but to live our life, often with a gloss of their old traditions, but no more. American Muslims don’t, right wing fearmongering nothwithstanding, hope to rebuild the Caliphate inside our borders. They want to be free. For all of his interest in American exceptionalism, Ross seems to lack the courage of his convictions.

Imam Rauf’s example is not, as Ross suggests, to the contrary. Blaming America for the wrongs she suffered on 9/11 is distasteful, but it’s not shocking, novel, or un-American, in the sense that Americans do it too (cf. Maher, Moore). If this is the worst we have to fear from American Muslims — and it is — Ross’ “productive bigotry” seems to be a disproportionate response and one that, as far as global Islam goes, risks triggering the very harm it seeks to avoid.

Ultimately, this is all beside the point, because Ross’ rationalization of bigotry is precisely that: an attempt to attribute to contemptible actors a motive they never had. Sometimes the motive is as important as the act. Supplying post hoc rationalizations makes for interesting thought experiments, and gives Ross a job, which is nice. But it can’t redeem America’s right for its increasing indulgence in extremism and racism.

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3 comments

  1. “Ultimately, this is all beside the point, because Ross’ rationalization of bigotry is precisely that: an attempt to attribute to contemptible actors a motive they never had. Sometimes the motive is as important as the act. Supplying post hoc rationalizations makes for interesting thought experiments, and gives Ross a job, which is nice. But it can’t redeem America’s right for its increasing indulgence in extremism and racism.”

    I think what he’s talking about is what is more commonly known in anthropological circles as the ‘conformity/resistance model’. It’s well-documented and basically explains a push/pull dynamic between immigrant and native populations. One of the best articles I read on the subject in college was called ‘Becoming American: The Archaeology of an Italian Immigrant’. It’s available at Jstor here:

    http://www.jstor.org/pss/25616989

    This article spends a lot of time discussing how material culture can demonstrate the assimilation / Americanization process. The immigrant they are referring to spent a lot of time trying to make himself appear more American and as a result he bettered his family’s fortunes.

    This is the same logic that says that mixed-income housing ‘encourages’ those at the bottom to rise up to meet their neighbors.

    1. To me, that seems more like peer pressure, rather than the naked hostility Ross is defending.

      1. Peer pressure is a form of bigotry. You might have been pressured by your fellow students at NYU to work for a certain lawfirm. I might feel pressured by my coworkers to dress a certain way. My daughters want a certain kind of cell phone. But that peer pressure is rooted in a fear of being shunned if we don’t have/do those things and that potential static we get back is rooted in bigotry / prejudice / whatever.

        Think about that groovy iPhone you have Ames. You and I both know it’s a little bit of a status symbol. I certainly think you deserve it if you can afford it and maybe your reasons for getting it were completely innocent. But maybe, just maybe you also knew it would make you look just a little bit more hip on the subway. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s a lesser form of the same broad dynamics Douthat is refering to.

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