The Failure of Pluralism

The Boston bombers highlight one of the challenges of the new attitude toward immigration.

Around the turn of the last century, Theodore Roosevelt offered some blunt but friendly counsel to the large numbers of immigrants then making their way to America. "We have no room," he declared in 1894, "for any people who do not act and vote simply as Americans, and as nothing else." He noted that large numbers of immigrants had become "completely Americanized," and they stood upon the same plane as "the descendants of any Puritan, Cavalier, or Knickerbocker among us." But, he added, "where immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, do not heartily and in good faith throw in their lot with us, but cling to the speech, the customs, the ways of life, and the habits of thought of the Old World which they have left, they hereby harm both themselves and us." Immigrants who remain "alien elements, unassimilated, and with interests separate from ours," said Roosevelt, become "mere obstructions" to the current of American life. He summed up, "We freely extend the hand of welcome…to every man, no matter what his creed and birthplace, who comes honestly intent on becoming a good United States citizen…, but we have a right, and it is our duty, to demand that he shall indeed become so, and shall not confuse the issues with which we are struggling by introducing among us Old-World quarrels and prejudices."

By today’s standards of political correctness, this TR manifesto, as it might be called, was an almost breathtaking demand for assimilation on the part of the country’s immigrants. It assumed a prevailing American culture to which newcomers would have to adapt if they wished to be successful in the New World. This view, prevalent and unremarkable in TR’s time, eventually was challenged by those who embraced what they called "cultural pluralism"—the idea that assimilation into a prevailing American culture was neither possible nor desirable and that America should encourage all to retain whatever cultural thoughts, impulses and sensibilities they brought from their lands of origin. That is the prevailing view today among intellectuals and policy experts.

These historical musings are prompted by the horrific human destruction wrought in Boston last week by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose stealthy bomb assaults certainly seemed motivated at least in part by Old World impulses and sensibilities. Though many politicians and commentators seem intent on brushing aside the fundamental questions of immigration and assimilation posed by those pitiless acts, they really can’t be ignored. We must ask ourselves how we invited into our midst children from another land who would grow up to wreak such havoc upon innocent Americans going about their daily lives in their own country.

Journalistic coverage has focused, and no doubt will continue to focus, on every aspect of the lives of these two young men of Chechen origin—their family histories, their experiences on the edge of a horrendous ethnic and religious conflict, their difficulties making it in America, their parents’ separation, Tamerlan’s religious odyssey, his psychological dominance of his younger brother. All this is relevant and warrants attention. But none of it is likely to answer in any satisfying way the question on everyone’s mind: Why did they do it? As the old 1930s radio show used to ask, "Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?"

But if we step back and look at it in a larger context, the questions take on a broader scope—and perhaps a more ominous tone. These two brothers proved themselves incapable of heeding the Roosevelt manifesto, of leaving behind Old World quarrels and prejudices, of somehow fitting their intensifying Muslim faith into the everyday customs and mores of a welcoming American society. As Tamerlan told a campus-publication interviewer before his brutal assault on innocents, "I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them."

This raises a serious question about the level of success demonstrated by Muslims generally in assimilating into the Western societies that have received them over the past generation or so. The answer is that it is not a very high level of success at all. Of course hackles are inevitably raised among devotees of cultural pluralism whenever such broad generalizations are expressed. And these critics are correct in noting that the vast majority of Muslims blend into their adopted Western societies just fine. But large numbers of Islamic immigrants have had difficulty accepting the underlying precepts of their adopted Western nations, and currents of hostility run through the Muslim communities in those nations, including the United States.

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