I wrote this as a comment on Professor Bertram’s blog at Crooked Timber but got the dreaded “comments are closed” message. Seemed a shame to waste it.
Many of the comments at Crooked Timber said that the fears for Western Civ were actually thinly disguised appeals to racism. I disagree.
I’m not a right-winger and I have a cosmopolitan and mostly pro-immigration outlook but I think we can, using empathy, do a better job of understanding what right-wingers are afraid of.
Let’s start with Orwell’s thoughts on patriotism.
I would guess that most people in the West, when they talk about Western Civ, are using it to refer to a particular place and a particular way of life and they are afraid — justified or not — of losing that way of life. I think all (or, at least, most) of the talk of racism both from the right-wingers themselves and from the comments at Crooked Timber confuse a poorly articulated devotion to a particular way of life with a hatred of people with different colour skin.
So are their fears justified?
I’ve been, variously, both an immigrant in a new country and a native in an area with high levels of immigration. As an immigrant to California, it was certainly true that we immigrants tended to cluster together and to cling to aspects of the culture from the old country. Just in the time that I was there, we immigrants managed to get all their kids to play soccer and all the pubs to serve IPA. That was great for me as I like both soccer and IPA but many in the native population resented this greatly. The first time that I witnessed an American couple getting VERY ANGRY that the pub they just entered served neither Budweiser nor Miller Lite, I quietly wondered “What have we done to this country!?”.
On the whole, I think the USA does a great job of assimilating immigrants and — with a few glaring exceptions — by the second or third generation, the culture of immigrant families is indistinguishable from the culture of native families and they tend to share the same devotion to the same particular way of life.
One obvious exception is Mexican immigration into California where there are whole cities that share very little culture with the host country (yes, yes. I know the history of California and its relationship with Mexico). I think this is what right-wingers are most afraid of: that their particular way of life will be replaced by another and they will be left culturally adrift.
Likewise, when I lived in the East End of London in the 90s, there was a great deal of immigration from Bangladesh. When our pie & mash shops and local boozers closed one by one to be replaced by Indian restaurants, there was much sadness from the inconvenienced natives. Fortunately, I love Bangladeshi food! I did grieve the loss of the Lord Rodney on Mile End Road though.
I believe this sense of cultural loss is entirely understandable and, though the ‘losers’ struggle to articulate it and it sometimes gets tangled up in hateful ideas like Islamophobia and racism, “our side” could do a better job of responding to it with sympathy rather than mockery and disgust.
My ideal model for immigration is a potluck dinner. If you come to my party, I’d love for you to bring a new dish or a song from the old country for me to learn and, at the end of the party, your samosas will become a part of the culture that we all share along with fish ‘n’ chips, doner kebabs and chicken tikka masala. On the other hand, if you sit in the corner on your own and keep your samosas to yourself, I might resent it. Also, if you bring so many of your friends to the party that it no longer feels like my party, I might resent that too. I want my party to be a single, evolving culture that we all share rather than multi-cultural and I’d prefer that the culture adapts gradually to our new friends rather than changing all of a sudden to something I don’t recognise.
To conclude, I believe that racists do exist, especially on the far-right though, fortunately, their influence is waning. And I believe that there really are people who fear for the replacement of Western Civilisation with Sharia or Confucian morality or whatever but I think those people are quite rare. Far more common are the people who have a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life that they are afraid of losing. I think a sympathetic immigration policy should take that into account.