To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Annals of Assimilation: Germans Say ‘Ban The Burqa’ While NYC Cabdrivers Say ‘Adios Ingles’

As mainstream Americans finally engaged the vexing issue of income inequality and middle class decline in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, it was often pointed out that some of the Northern European countries were in fact more democratic than we are. Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all have better rates of social mobility, less class stratification, more equal access to housing, higher education and medical care, along with electoral systems that are more responsive, have high voter turnout and are less expensive, limiting the amount of campaign spending and the corruption that accompanies it. These countries also seem to lay more stress on national cohesion and assimilation than America does, at least right now, and also have a greater regard for the importance of maintaining a shared sense of broad national community. America might still think of itself as a melting pot democracy, still singing about e pluribus unum. But in this age of identity politics, we’re having trouble figuring out how to achieve the goal of unity and cohesion in the face of so much cultural pluralism. The old equation just isn’t working like it used to.     

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit one million refugees to Germany, most of them Muslims fleeing chaos in Syria and Iraq, might turn out to be a huge political mistake that could set in motion a profound antidemocratic backlash. Students of modern European history know that this is nothing which is nothing to be shrugged at given Germany’s fascist past. 

But Merkel is on the record as having rejected American-style multiculturalism, and has bi-partisan support for programs and measures that encourage assimilation to German norms and its unique “national identity.” This will in some ways help it address it’s huge absorption problem in ways America no longer can --- or will.    

Back in 2011, Merkel joined Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicholas Sarkozi in attacking the unspoken multicultural consensus. Citing problems the Germany has had in with incorporating several generations of Turkish migrants workers, Merkel contended that Germany had “kidded itself for a while” but had ultimately realized that its attempt to build a multicultural society in which people from various cultural backgrounds live together peacefully, ---“to live side by side and enjoy each other” as she put it---“had failed, utterly failed.”  

Merkel’s –and Germany’s--- rejection of American style “diversity” in favor of a more muscular form of assimilation, backed by a dedication to the idea of a common national culture and shared national values, was highlighted last week in the form of a proposal from ruling conservative bloc politicians to ban full facial veils in schools, universities and while driving, appearing in courts and government offices and when moving through passport controls. The German proposal was a practical echo of France’s largely symbolic battle against the “burkini” on public beaches, although it would not bar Muslim women from wearing shawls or abayas that cover the body and are often worn with a hijab, a head scarf that does not cover the face. 

According to a New York Times report, the German proposal was clearly driven by an intensifying political season and a surge in support for the far right since Germany accepted more than a million migrants last year, in anticipation of another 300,000 more this year.
In announcing the burqa ban, German Interior Minister Thomas de explained that women who want to wear face veils in public should not teach or become civil servants,.  “We want to make it a legal requirement to show your face in places where that is necessary for the cohesion of our society,” he said. De Maizière added said the same day that “the burqa doesn’t fit with our country and does not correspond to our understanding of the role of women.”
The Times explained that Merkel herself had shared her thinking about the partial ban on face veils earlier in the week when she told a group of provincial newspapers that “from my standpoint, a fully veiled woman scarcely has a chance at full integration in Germany.” State level conservative electors running for state level offices next month on strong “law and order” platforms went a step further in condemning the facial veil. “The burqa does not belong to Germany,” said one as another called it “a cloth cage.”
Interestingly, German progressives also voiced support for the full-face ban and did so in the distinctly feminist terms that Merkel and de Mazierre did.  One prominent Social Democrat told the newspaper Bild that even if the Operative effect” of the ban would be “close to zero,” the burqa ban “would send a social signal,” insisting that
The burqa says the woman is property of the man, who can be seen by no one else. That is darkest Middle Ages, the opposite of self- determination. A burqa ban shows what does, and does not, work in our country.
The proposed German burqa ban is clearly being driven by the political gains the German right wing has made in the wake of the admission of a million refugees fleeing political violence in the Middle East.  There has been mounting public anxiety over integrating the newcomers, who are mostly from Muslim countries, particularly after a series of terrorist assaults and a gun rampage last month as well as much publicized sexual assaults of scores of young German women in on New Year’s eve.  According to leaked reports that news organizations were able to obtain and publicize over official efforts to squelch, up to 2000 Muslim men assaulted 1200 German women in Cologne that night.
As the Times explains, calls by conservatives for at least a partial ban on face coverings have swelled as the governing bloc — Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and a sister party in Bavaria — has lost ground to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany. According to the Times. This far- right party has called for a ban on veils and even on minarets on mosques, and it views Islam as incompatible with the German Constitution.  
Meanwhile in New York City, a new law allowing taxi drivers to take the licensing exam in their native language, not English, is sending an entirely different social signal.
The new law elevates immigrant rights over social cohesion and public safety, discouraging the use of English as a common lingua franca in a polyglot city where cabdrivers and residents speak scores of different languages.
The decision to test drivers on rudimentary proficiency in English seems to highlight how much the American immigration equation is skewed in favor of the newcomer and not the society to which they are coming, echoing French president Nichoals Sarkozy’s view in 2001 that "We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him.”

It also seems to highlight how much enthusiasm for traditional melting pot assimilation has waned in favor of liberal “identity politics” and how much progressives of today have broken with the original progressive ethos that encouraged “Americanization,” which would benefit both the newcomer and the society to which he was trying to join.    

The abolition of the English requirement follows on the heels of the last year’s elimination of Geography questions on the cabdriver test, which the Times reports wasalarming” to some veteran riders, “who complained that drivers already seemed less familiar with the streets than they once did.” New York’s actions were the exact opposite of what “drivers-for-hire” are now facing in London: a new English test requirement in the UK for drivers from non-English-speaking countries, which has prompted a rebuke from the private car service Uber. According to the Times, the legislation was intended to level the playing field so yellow-taxi and Uber drivers faced the same licensing requirements.

Scoffing at concerns that abolishing the English requirement would make it more difficult for drivers and passengers to communicate, which were documented in media stories and on online bulletin boards devoted to consumer complaints, Democratic Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who sponsored the bill and is himself a former livery driver from the Dominican Republic, said "They (Uber) don't have any language requirement, and no one has complained that they can't communicate with them." A statement from the Mayor’s office echoed this, insisting ending the test would do no harm to “safe and reliable customer service.”  The statement from the Mayor’s office went on to say that:

The new legislation recognized the reality of an industry that has long been supported by the city's hardworking immigrant community. We do not want to prevent that community from access to jobs to support themselves and their families.

The Times noted that the percentage of native born drivers over the last four decades had steadily fallen, from 62% in 1980, to 36% in 1990 to just 4% today. It also noted that drivers across the industry come from about 167 countries, with among the largest share of taxi drivers coming from Bangladesh (24 percent) and Pakistan (10 percent).

Asked for their opinions, a number of New Yorkers expressed approval for “the city's welcoming attitude toward immigrants.” One millennial from the Bronx said he had no idea they were even testing cabdrivers for English proficiency. "I rarely talk to my driver now unless they talk to me, so it doesn't matter as long as they get there safely,” he said.

But other residents, including some immigrant drivers, dissented. At a taxi school in Queens, the Times found student drivers who did not speak English as a first language who conceded that the old English test had been necessary. "You have to communicate with the customer," a driver-in-training named Pasang Sherpa told the reporter. "You're not working in a kitchen. You're driving a cab; you're dealing with the public." Hector Diaz, 37, a legal secretary who lives in Queens agreed. "If there is an emergency, how are they going to communicate with the passenger?" he said. 

The discourse on immigration and national identity has moved into some truly strange territory this election year where anything short of open borders is now construed as “nativism” or “white nationalism.” I’m sure there are those who would see the question of requiring taxi drivers to demonstrate minimal proficiency in English as a manifestation of Eurocentrism, or “white privilege” as its lately been called.   

But maintaining English as a requirement in such an immigrant-heavy industry as cab driving is not a matter of privilege, or of privileging English speakers, or blocking immigrants from finding gainful employment.  It’s about being practical, and affirming the need for a common language in everyday interactions between people, whether they are seventh generation citizens or people right off the boat. In fact, the idea of not calling for a taxi licensing exam that requires English is a form of “privileging” immigrants. Can you imagine emigrating to a foreign country, especially a Third world country like Bangladesh or Pakistan and trying to work without knowing Bengali or Urdu? Absurd.       
Asking taxi drives to demonstrate English proficiency is also totally in keeping with the progressive ethos—at least as it was originally defined by such progressive assimilationists as Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croly and Jane Addams of Hull House.  

These progressives believed that the Americanization of immigrants was a vital step in making “The Promise of American Life” available to those immigrants, as per the famous manifesto written by journalist and historian Herbert Croly, a major influence on the thinking of T.R, whose Bull Moose Party is celebrating its the 100th anniversary this year. Croly believed that the “promise of American life” was dependent upon fulfilling a set of civic responsibilities and behaviors. Assimilation was one of those civic responsibilities which both the immigrant and the society he joined were obliged to shoulder---the immigrant by actively seeking assimilation and the society around him by offering avenues and opportunities for him to achieve it---ie licensing tests requiring a minimum proficiency in English and affordable English language classes available to the public so that immigrant applicants could pass them.

Far from equating assimilation with racism or Eurocentric cultural hegemony as many do now, progressives back then also understood that society only had so much ability to cope with the disruption that immigration and that assimilation was a successful formula to short circuit nativism by fostering a sense of community and the shared bonds that supported it.  While life in the melting pot could be alienating as Henry Roth illustrated so well in Call It Sleep, the assimilationist  approach that let us do something that no other nation on other ever did in the scale that we did: bring people of fantastically and radically different cultures together and stitch them into one nation, or at least one that functioned like one for a pretty good amount of time through some pretty rough patches.   

If you don’t like right wing upsurges like Germany’s Alternative List, or for that matter Donald Trumpism, you should like assimilationist measures like a burqa ban, or taxi licensing exams that acknowledge that English is the American “link language” and that prospective drivers should be proficient in it. While these kind of measures are largely gestural, as that German Social Democrat acknowledged in the Times report, they go a long way in affirming national identity and sovereignty, worries about which are a large part of what animates these reactionary upsurges. They aren’t the whole fight, but they do tend to drain the swamp, sooth the fever, send the necessary social signal. Indeed, one of the reasons that Trump is so popular is that American liberal progressives have been too rigid and pious---too PC as the Donald might say---to assert a common American civic identity, which has led many to voice the common complaint that they don’t recognize the country they grew up in any more. PC tends to feeds the very right wing backlash it is trying to prevent by suppressing legitimate cultural sentiments on the part of the public which, suppressed for too long, suddenly erupt, and in ways that can be pretty ugly.    

Banning the burqa in Germany, at least in official public settings, is the real face of progressivism. So is taxi English in NYC. If we don't acknowledge that and adjust policies accordingly, we'll be driving blind to Babel.  

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