Regan: Obdurate Nations

Europe is a set of nations acting as an idea. The United States is the reverse.

by Joseph Regan | 1/19/17 12:19am

“Why isn’t Ireland racist?”

“Because they never let [migrants] in.”

This joke encapsulates the cultural homogeneity of many European nations, a force that causes the recent surge of migrants into the continent to be seen as a “crisis.” When winter thaws into spring, millions of immigrants will surge again from east to west. To deal effectively with the renewed masses of hopeful migrants, European states must treat them with the same spirit when allowing them in. European states cannot deal with migrants if they do not first deal with themselves — and that is far more difficult than simply finding accommodation for millions (a tall order in itself).

The problem is an ideological one. Europe is a set of nations masquerading as ideas, but the United States is a set of ideas masquerading as a nation. For the migrant crisis to truly be solved, Europe must become more like the U.S.

Irish people tend to look alike, but so do Italians, Germans and most other groups one is likely to see roaming the streets of any European city. Europe may be less homogenous than it used to be but is still seriously non-diverse. Americans may take issue with ethnic generalization, even with a statement as innocuous as “Romanians tend to look like Romanians.” The reason this upsets us is because here in America, we internalize life in one of the most diverse countries in the history of the world — it is our “normal.”

And it’s not possible to look American in the same way it is possible to look Irish or Dutch. If you dispute this point, consider: if you want to argue that it is possible to look American, at what point is there an established America filled with people to look like? There is a constant expansion and influx of people that makes such a question impossible to answer. It is further impossible because looking like you are from “somewhere” is not a question of individual residence, but rather the result of historical residence by established ethnic group. John F. Kennedy looks Irish because his heritage is Irish. That heritage is associated with particular characteristics because it hails from Europe.

Nations were formed in Europe long before they clamored for and obtained governments based on ideals other than strength or bloodline. To clarify, I use the dictionary definition of “nation:” “a group of people who share a language, ancestry and culture in a particular place.”

A migrant in America and a migrant in Europe experience two completely different realities. It is not only more difficult to become a citizen of European states than to become an American citizen — it is questionable whether a migrant can ever become a part of the nation he or she settles in. They may eventually prevail in the arduous citizenship process, but they will be doomed to always look and sound different. They can attempt to blend in with the national culture, but many are ultimately precluded from it on the basis of that otherness. Examples, such as Algerian Frenchmen, butt against this trend. However, the spectre of colonization hangs over their assimilation. In the United States — itself a colony that threw off European occupation — there is not one way to dress or look American.

In America, there may be those who mistakenly argue that native birth makes them more American than someone who must become a citizen or is attempting to become one. This is ignorant. If you are not following the liberal, inclusive ideas that established the United States of America, you are essentially not American yourself, for those ideas are the fundamental basis of America: we are a nation of immigrants, of pluralism, of acceptance. Each European state has its own governing documents espousing democratic ideology, but the nation of people that ratified it so precedes the modern states’ existence that there is a cultural weight which must be confronted if the migration crisis is to be resolved. The problem for a migrant in Europe is that cultural fluency and citizenship are not enough — native status is de facto required.

The problem of race in America exemplifies the difference in scale of the problem for European acceptance and American acceptance of migrants. The color of a person’s skin, for a grossly unjust amount of time, determined how much access a person had to the rights America’s founding documents provided for its citizens. Racism is not dead, but the idea that race makes someone less American is losing its grounding. In Europe, it is not necessarily wrong to say that a migrant is not French. In America, a racist may hold other races to be inferior, but no one should be able to claim someone is un-American based on race. However, in France, the burka ban introduced in southern towns was instituted because “the garments impinged upon French culture and way of life.” The weight of centuries of homogeneity has merged the particular look and the very idea of French culture into a monolith. This is true for many European nations.

American culture is a collection of traditions as many as the varied places they came from. The essence of France is the ancestral history of Gallic peoples, a long and remarkable national story. Another way of representing the problem is that American cuisine is as diverse as our culture; French cuisine is predetermined around certain gastronomic factors in a way American cuisine, being American, simply could never be. France is just one example, but the pattern persists throughout Europe.

The migrant crisis brings a reckoning to Europe because the countries must choose the path of nations or the path of states. They can accept as many migrants as they want into their national boundaries, but societal acceptance will never come until the weight of each European nation’s cultural history is addressed. Until a foreigner from the Middle East hawking roasted chestnuts on the streets of Paris is considered as French as the immigrant from Europe who made frankfurters ubiquitous in New York City is considered American, the migrant crisis will not end for Europe. It is a question of acceptance but of a kind deeper than the nominal acceptance so far offered.