The distinction between rich and poor was large in 1900, less large in 1950, larger again now. My husband’s tax accountant friend keeps arguing that taxes made the difference – so we need more of them. Well, maybe, he knows a hell of a lot more about taxes than I do. Of course, that seems counterproductive. Equally obvious is that large percentages of immigrants will add to the bottom rungs of an open market economy and their assimilation over the next generations (if immigration is lessened for a generation or two) is likely to lessen overall disparities.
(I know, this whole post ignores the fact that some want to overhaul the core legal values of our nation and believe less in joining than forcing submission. That intensifies, perhaps, my point – but I’m making a different one. This considers a tradition which I think remains valid for some immigrants – those who want to become a part of a nation defined by a free market in commerce, religion, and speech. I’m just saying here, perhaps a strong border and stopping immigration for a while is a good idea, even if you believe (as I do) that part of the vibrancy of America is its ability to assimilate others.)
Moving to a new country and developing the skills (including language) necessary to succeed is demanding. When Rubio describes his parents’ progress, we recognize the narrative – wanting better for their children, they were willing to sacrifice much, but their habits as well as values were ones likely to succeed in a free economy. He and they recognized that the payment from those first jobs (as for adolescents) was as much knowledge – of language, of culture, of work customs – as monetary. Those differentials the progressives complain of may reflect the cost of assimilation – a cost paid for by both the workers themselves and the overall economy.
Assuming all workers are equal is one of the strange “equality” applications. We learn. Was I worth the same as a fifth grader biking out to deliver papers as when I stood in front of a classroom, after decades of training? Was I the same writer when a beloved old teacher wrote “ILLITERATE” across a sophomore paper in 1965 or a wonderful James critic wrote, 6 years later, on a Golden Bowl one “A+, What more can I say? “ (Nothing like throwing away old papers for humility and pride.)
Our metaphors (melting pot or salad bowl) reflect differing concepts, though such references are now fault lines in the ever present culture wars.
Food is a spot where wage differentials and assimilation meet. Clearing out my books, I came across one I’d meant to send to a daughter interested in food history: Harvey Levenstein’s Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. This time, I went beyond the cover and found it full of information and observations about the American diet from the 1600s to 1930, the role of the marketplace, agriculture, technology and home economists. (His last chapter a bit scattered as he must have realized he needed – and later wrote – a post 1930 one.)
Food traditions reinforce the influence of the Anglosphere – long after the Revolution, American cuisine was heavily influenced by the British, even as American fruits and vegetables arrived on the Continent. (My grandfather was convinced tomatoes, embraced by the Italians, were poisonous.) The English lay down the meter and form, other cultures then played variations within that overall structure. Probably the book had remained unopened because Levenstein’s earlier work was on unions. Later works were on French cooking. The two interests contributed to some observations, which aren’t surprising or new, but could stand restating. One is implicit: if we want unity, we probably need to let the parts stew until they are thoroughly mixed in the culture. That probably means some periods of low heat without adding much but an occasional spice.
And this reminds us Jim Bennett’s deservedly famous observation: “Democracy, Immigration, Multiculturalism — Pick Any Two” – explained in detail at Albion’s Seedlings: “Assimilation”. The cost of assimilation may seem high – but less than the cost to the country – and the émigré – of its absence. An important (and hard to define) cost is the émigré’s joy of feeling at home in that culture, but another cost is to a worker’s productivity and therefore the nation’s. Discussing the effect of WWI and its aftermath, Levenstein notes in passing the difficulty of applying economic conditions alone to food history. What was lost and what was retained was complex, affected by culture, ambitions, economy, technology. He was prompted to study the phenomena because, as a father, he had already recognized food choices as rational and irrational. This is writ larger than the family table, of course: the elusive definition of vitamins led to a “vitamin consciousness” in which “rational concerns [were] fostered by irrational advertising.” But then, as he observes in the introduction, what could be more irrational than dying from lack of food even as a prisoner refused to eat what his captors did?
He observes that
wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers remained wide in the years during and after the war, but the great gap between the living standards of the two main component of the working class, the immigrant unskilled and the native- or northern European born skilled, narrowed. Immigration was effectively cut off by the war, and after a brief spurt in 1919-20, by Congress. Although cheap labor continued to migrate to the industrial centers from the South, Canada, and Mexico, the pressure for jobs at the bottom which had helped keep the wages of unskilled low was thereby considerably relieved. From 1914 until 1929, then, the real wages of American workers improved significantly” (174-5).
As the economic pressure relaxed, in some ways homogeneity increased. Meals were defined by ethnicity but also by culture – advertising, availability, ease. Economics were important, perhaps, but those years also led to a blending of cultures at the table. The number of foreign born in a state like Nebraska was large in 1920 (I’ve seen it cited as over 50%). By the 1950s, the greatest concerns were shared – a hail storm, a tornado or gatherings for the high school games and music events. Of course, with the pattern so firmly set, the occasional outlier (the war bride, the Cuban refugee) was easily assimilated. What we saw as multiculturalism growing up (a delight in differences my parents often remarked upon) was lightly laid atop a powerful emotional bond cemented in World War II where those villagers fought beside urban dwellers in the great melting pot of the war experience.
By 9/11 levels of immigration had grown. That day, which I’m sure in some baby boomers’ minds was an affirmation of the heroism and unity of their parents’ experience in the forties and perspectives in the ’50s, appears to have been a return to the chants and revised history of the sixties for others. (I suspect George Bush and Bill Ayers, not of different eras, had totally different frames for these events.)
Today, responses are conflicted and often angry. The large number of immigrants in the last 30 years – like those at the turn of the century – may well pull back from assimilation as they first step into this chaos. We need to know the nation’s identity if we expect others to respect it and join it. Many do, but I’m not sure the majority does.
Slowing immigration is self-conscious, self-aware, understands human nature and the stakes. It isn’t xenophobic, merely aware melding is a multi-generational task. If a nation is worth assimilating to, it must be able to define, assert, defend its own identity. (And what is an identity without borders?)
And as for the good of assimilation: why would we immigrate to a place to which we didn’t want to assimilate, that our children might say, yes, they are . . . in this case, Americans. We might like to visit many another place and see many another culture, but part of the pleasure of a visit is that we don’t feel at ease. The pleasure of home is we do – and isn’t that ease the result of assimilation?