Column: What if diversity isn’t America’s strength?
Sen. Lindsey Graham says he scolded the president for saying something scatological about certain countries and their immigrants. “Diversity has always been our strength,” he allegedly said. By my count, this makes Graham the bazillionth person to proclaim some variant of “diversity is strength.”
Is it true? I think the only close to right answer is, “it depends.” Specifically, it depends on what — often clichéd — analogy you have in mind. Diverse stock portfolios are more resilient. Diverse diets are healthier. But that doesn’t mean picking bad stocks will make you richer or that eating spoiled foods is good for you.
I once heard Jesse Jackson explain that racial integration of the NBA made it stronger and better. He was right. But would gender integration of the NBA have the same effect? Would diversifying professional basketball by height? Probably not.
All of these analogies can take you only so far. Thomas Sowell once said, “The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department.”
There’s a growing body of evidence that even if diversity— the kind that results from immigration — once made America stronger, it may not be doing so anymore. Robert Putnam, a liberal sociologist at Harvard, found that increased diversity corrodes civil society by eroding shared values, customs and institutions. People tend to “hunker down” and retreat from civil society, at least in the short and medium term.
There’s a growing body of evidence that even if diversity— the kind resulting from immigration — once made America stronger, it may not be doing so anymore.
I think the real culprit here isn’t immigration or diversity in general, but the rising stigma against assimilation. Particularly on college campuses, but also in large swaths of mainstream journalism and in the louder corners of the fever swamp right, the idea that people of all backgrounds should embrace a single conception of “Americanism” is increasingly taboo.
Anyone of any race or national origin can be an American, but it requires effort and desire from both the individual and the larger society. There’s a shortage of both these days.
But while traditional notions of assimilation are increasingly heretical, there is a kind of anti-assimilation assimilation movement afoot. It insists that we must “celebrate our differences” and make them the essence of our identity. The University of California officially considers terms like “melting pot” offensive and “triggering.” But no one would call the UC system a hot bed of free and independent thought.
What is expected is assimilation into an ideological worldview that simply asserts without proof that one kind of diversity makes us stronger.
So far all of this should be familiar to anyone who has followed the debates over immigration and assimilation. Liberals, broadly speaking, assert diversity makes us stronger. Conservatives, broadly speaking, respond with skepticism or emphasize a different kind of diversity.
What gets less attention is the premise that “strength” is an indisputably overriding priority or ideal.
Strength has always struck me as a strange ideal for a democracy. Strength, like other fetishized ideals such as “unity,” is wholly amoral. Strength to do what?
President Trump constantly extols strength, at home and abroad. He praised the Chinese government for showing strength at Tiananmen. He admires Vladimir Putin’s strong leadership. On the campaign trail, he upended the traditional conservative critique of big government by decrying the “weakness” of America’s political leaders and institutions.
Strength, it seems to me, is a top priority of every nationalist creed. It fits more uncomfortably within American notions of patriotism.
If you read the Federalist Papers, you’ll learn that among the top priorities of the founders was to ensure that the government, particularly any branch of government, not be too powerful. The Bill of Rights is all about constraining the power of government. The Constitution never once mentions the words “strength” or “strong.” Neither does the Declaration of Independence. But both documents talk a great deal about freedom and liberty.
I don’t want America to be weaker, depending on how you define weakness. But maybe the overriding problem with the debate, on both sides, is the assumption that strength is its own reward.
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