German Chancellor Angela Merkel was just named Person of the Year by both Time magazine and the Financial Times newspaper. The refugee policy she put in place has received praise from all over the world. So it surprised me when Merkel gave a speech on Monday calling multiculturalism a sham and a failure.
I live in a city where people from all over the world live together and different cultures are celebrated (in fact, last weekend I attended a German-themed festival a few blocks away from where I live). I work with people from all over the world. I enjoy foreign films and TV, and most of the music concerts I attend consist of bands and music from other countries. English was the third language of my first wife. I eat lots of ethnic food. I love multiculturalism!
But as I read her explanation, I found that I agree with her. My initial surprise was caused by the fact that she uses a somewhat different definition of multiculturalism than I do. What she was calling a failure is allowing people to move to a new country and keep all of their old culture, language, social norms, and even laws. Merkel’s point is that when someone settles in a new country, they should respect that country’s laws, and should assimilate into the values and norms of their adopted country.
That doesn’t mean they have to give up their culture. A person learning a new language does not have to forget their old language. Likewise, people can remember and celebrate their culture while embracing a new one.
I thought about the multiculturalism I enjoy, and I realize that the people I interact with who were originally from other countries have assimilated. Despite often having accents, they all speak good English and they strive to fit in to the US. I enjoy ethnic festivals and music, because those people are sharing their culture with me. They are not holed up in a neighborhood that is a version of their home country.
What makes America great is that it is a melting pot. People from other cultures strengthen our country because their cultures blend in, making something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Many of the things that we consider uniquely American originally came from other countries. Hot dogs and apple pie come from Germany and England, respectively (indeed, the original name “frankfurter” comes from Frankfurt and “hamburger” comes from Hamburg, and we all know where the “sandwich” comes from).
But the foreign laws and social strictures that conflict with those in an adopted country must be adapted. For example, people from cultures that discriminate harshly against women must learn new ways.
Ironically, I find that people who assimilate into a new country are often more interested in preserving and honoring their old culture. For example, I enjoy traditional music and dance from many countries, but when I have visited places like Bulgaria, Ireland, and Scandinavia I found that it is much harder to find people playing traditional music or dancing traditional dances there than it is here in the US. When I lived in Europe, I had a bunch of friends from Bulgaria, and they were amused by the fact that I love traditional Bulgarian music (and know how to dance to it!). Like many young people, they rejected their traditional ways and preferred modern, popular music.
I think we should help and encourage immigrants to assimilate. I live in a state where they spend lots of money translating government documents and forms into many languages. I think it would be better if they spent that money offering free English classes to immigrants. I might catch hell from my readers, but I would even go so far as to support rules that require immigrants to learn English within a reasonable amount of time (a year or so?) in order to keep their visa or to become a resident or citizen.
I think it is extremely important to preserve other cultures, but I also think it is just as important to preserve American culture. I guess I can’t call it multiculturalism any more (after all, that word implies that you have multiple separate cultures in one country, with no assimilation and little cross cultural movement or sharing).