The Agenda

Ross Douthat and Christopher Caldwell on the Politics of Assimilation

Re: the Cordoba controversy, Ross writes:


In this vein, I’m curious what Friedersdorf and others think about the argument that Christopher Caldwell makes in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” in the course of tackling the question of why Muslim immigrants have assimilated so slowly in much of the European West. Basically, Caldwell suggests that European elites have been so guilt-ridden about their past crimes, and so intent on avoiding anything that even resembled chauvinism or bigotry, that for decades they failed to put any sustained pressure on their steadily-growing immigrant populations to eschew religious extremism or phase out illiberal cultural practices. And worse, their efforts to marginalize what they considered (and still consider) the bigoted attitudes of their countrymen didn’t actually do away with anti-immigration anxieties: They just denied them a place in the political mainstream, which meant that they’ve manifested themselves instead in extreme and counterproductive outbursts (minaret bans, the political careers of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Geert Wilders, etc.).

This seems like a story worth keeping in mind during the current Cordoba Initiative controversy. Would Friedersdorf and others really like to live in a world where the two-thirds of Americans who oppose the project just had their sentiments ignored, because of the bigotry woven into the anti-mosque cause? That approach seems to have been tried and found wanting in Europe, with unfortunate consequences for the elites, and the masses, and the Muslim immigrants themselves. [Emphasis added.]

This reminds me of several conversations I’ve had about the Cordoba Initiative and the recent same-sex marriage ruling in California. I can’t speak to Conor’s views, but I think it’s safe to say that many people really do believe we should ignore the sentiments of large numbers of citizens. Some are libertarians, with an instinctive fear of populist excess, and others are liberals who embrace populist language when it is directed at those characterized as rich and powerful but not when it is directed at those characterized as poor and vulnerable. This helps explain why some on the left have reacted very differently to DP World and to Cordoba. DP World was a large multinational business enterprise, and demonizing it on specious national security grounds seemed politically advantageous and not too unpalatable for those who see themselves as champions of minorities of conscience. 

One libertarian friend asked me why it’s a problem to marginalize or ignore majorities that hold “bigoted” views. Like Ross and Chris, I pointed to the way in which ferocious xenophobia has gained political currency in western Europe after mainstream political parties ignored concerns about cultural tensions and crime. My friend then suggested that the consequences had been perfectly manageable, and that things might be worse if the “bigots” had been handed reins of power, or been included in coalition governments, etc. We quickly moved, to my chagrin, to talking about the Nazis. It’s at that point I realized that we were talking past each other. (I should note that I’m using scare quotes around “bigots” because my understanding of the word tells me that it should be used when animosity is involved. While some critics of the Cordoba Initiative are motivated by a generalized animus towards Muslims and other religious minorities, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of most of them, or for that matter of most critics of same-sex marriage.) 

My basic take is that it is generally a good thing for the views of large numbers of citizens to be part of the larger public conversation. This allows others to gauge those views and to make judgments about them, and it helps dissipate the anger that tends to build among people who would otherwise feel excluded. My libertarian friend interpreted this as a straightforward utilitarian claim — i.e., so the anger will dissipate and these people won’t become violent extremists, ergo we will save lives. That’s not quite how I would put it. This isn’t really a hypothesis we can rigorously test. Rather, it is a gut instinct.

Like J.S. Mill, I believe that advocates of cultural change should make their case to the wider public, not just to elected officials or judges or other people with the power to ignore or overrule public sentiment. If nothing else, the Cordoba controversy has demonstrated to American Muslims and, more broadly, to liberal individualists that they still have a lot of persuading to do. Accusing those who harbor deep suspicions of American Muslims of bigotry, ignorance, or stupidity isn’t going to persuade anyone. Depressingly, I’m not even sure that’s the goal. Instead, the goal seems to be to shame and stigmatize one’s opponents as part of a “war of position” over which message will dominate mass media, the schools, and other institutions that govern cultural reproduction. Those who embrace this strategy, implicitly or explicitly, can justify it to themselves pretty easily by defining their opponents as irrational or subrational Nazi-like hate-mongers. This might be the most effective strategy for people who want to change the culture. But I find it extremely coarsening.   

All that said, I remain an optimist. The anger that defines our public conversation at this bewildering moment will fade, assuming our society grows richer. That is why the issues I care about center on whether or not our society has the institutions it needs to grow richer

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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