There has always been a rather interesting disconnect between what people think about culture and society, and what they are willing to say publicly, particularly among white, suburban, middle class Americans.

In private, and universally across all political identities, differences of culture are becoming increasingly frustrating to these people. “I don’t care where you are from, I just want to be able to order a cup of coffee in the morning and get what I asked for.” We’ve all either heard (or said) that.

There is a sense among these people that America is losing its long-established cultural identity. That instead of a cohesive society that shares language, experience and values, the country is becoming fractured and isolated from itself as disparate cultures intermingle but don’t assimilate with one another.

The common bonds that bind us together are not so common and not so binding anymore. This is a legitimate concern, but sadly one that isn’t talked about openly very often. Americans have been intimidated into keeping their mouths shut, lest they be considered intolerant by polite society.

It seems impossible to grasp for a more culturally unified society without that being taken to mean “white, Christian” society. This is hardly surprising, after all, the ideal of the past many romanticize was one with a universal WASP identity, and one which brutally oppressed people with dark skin and different sounding names or lifestyles.

So when I read of the controversy surrounding Leif Parsell, I was hardly surprised that an opportunity to have a rational discussion about culture in America was lost entirely.

For those unaware, Parsell used to be a reporter for the right-leaning news outlet, The Maine Wire. He was fired after his history of commentary on the Internet — which was deeply focused on questions of ethnicity and culture — came to light.

While most of what Parsell said was taken wildly out of context, there is no denying an intensely nativist sentiment. “I’d rather have a country that had fallen behind India or China, than one that sold its soul to non-European immigrants and lost its culture,” he wrote.

These things, coupled with some of his other online activities, quickly got him labeled as a white supremacist, and any opportunity to talk about modern American culture in a reasonable, constructive way was quashed.

That’s a shame, because earnestly talking about the benefits of multiculturalism (of which there are many) and the drawbacks (of which there are many) — is long overdue. It is also one of the reasons that political issues like immigration remain so abrasive and toxic, and no consensus can be formed.

Integrating people who speak different languages creates unique challenges. Different religions, often hostile to one another, being in close proximity can cause problems. Immigrant populations from other countries moving into homogeneous, established communities can create stress.

None of that means America needs to be — as Parsell believes — overwhelmingly white and uniformly Christian for us to build a cohesive society. Indeed, I’d prefer quite the opposite.

My ideal America includes more people who speak exotic languages. It is one where there is more religious diversity. It is one where immigrants from all over the world who seek a better life come here. Pluralism of all kinds is a value added to our collective society and something that creates a uniquely American culture that no other country can manage.

But it must be tempered and shaped into something we can all identify with. If we are not bound together some way, if we do not have the ability to share our experiences and relate to one another, than we remain isolated and separate.

Assimilation is the key ingredient — the cultural glue, if you will — that makes this possible. Without it diversity becomes a weakness, instead of a strength. The melting pot can never actually survive, if we don’t all melt a little.

My ancestors came to North America from France in 1635; 377 years later, I take pride in my heritage, speak French, refuse to Anglicize my last name and make crepes on Sunday mornings. Being American doesn’t have to mean sacrificing one’s cultural identity or family history.

But multiculturalism can’t succeed unless we are frank and honest about its benefits and the challenges it presents. Let’s take that opportunity now.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...

25 replies on “The curious case of Leif Parsell”

  1. It seems quite obvious that you did not read my comments regarding Americanization.   I suggest you read the statement that I issued, with particular emphasis on the two quotes I included at the end.  You’ll find that our opinions on the subject aren’t that far apart, as my frequent online statements show.  Americanization, as it was practiced in the past, could (and once did) allow any person, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, to become as American as the proverbial apple pie.  Today, American society doesn’t preach such values to natives, much less immigrants.  In suggesting a bifurcation of America into two cultures, Huntington may actually have been optimistic about the maintenance of the “English” part.  We have a core whose civic and historical education, not to mention their basic values, are declining, while overall we are being supplanted by immigrants who we do not bother to assimilate.  Not to mention allowing one lingo-cultural group to dominate (Hispanics, 80% of immigrants.  Not even Southern Irish in the 1840’s were 80% of immigrant flow).   It is is perhaps easy for left-wing bloggers in White Maine to ignore these problems and believe that assimilation “just happens,” and any suggestion otherwise is “racism.” Culture matters, and the greatest lesson of American history is that it can be taught through hard work.  A lesson we have now discarded. 

    1. I read what you wrote, Leif… and you’ll forgive me for being gruff, but I’m the closest you’ve come to having a defender on this issue, so don’t get too upset… the worst I called you was a nativist.

      Nevertheless, what I don’t like about what you had to say was the focus on white European culture as something approaching homogeneousness, and the loss of that dominant demographic characteristic as ultimately a bad thing.

      You do indeed talk about the need for “Americanization” and assimilation of immigrant populations, much as I did… the problem I see is your hostility for the incoming cultures in the first place, your blame of them for “not assimilating” and your focus on the differences of latin culture particularly as somehow incompatible and undesirable.

      I’ll use myself and my family as a good example.  We’ve been here since (as I said in the article) the early 1600s… yet, my father grew up in Livermore Falls, Maine not speaking a word of English until he was five or six years old.  Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, has a similar story to tell, where his English was so bad he took his Husson entrance exam in French.  That is 300+ years of linguistic isolation, cultural isolation, and so on and so forth…

      I have additional ancestors from Norway who have similar stories to tell about immigrating to Minnesota.  They grew up and generation after generation spoke their native tongue.  They didn’t need to even bother learning English since they were farmers and didn’t have much interaction outside their own community.

      The WASP, American identity existed, but mostly among the upper classes.  Our distinctly American identity such as we all romanticize didn’t really truly exist until the industrial revolution, and the growth of mass communication… that linked us together.

      An Irishman, German, Italian, Norwegian, Frenchman, Englishman and Spaniard all immigrating to the United States, for almost all of our history, would have lived in radically different communities, and routinely engaged in ethnic gang wars with each other in major cities.  Look at Southie in Boston, or the various neighborhoods in New York City.

      My point here, is that we’ve never had a very unified culture, language has been just as much a problem for the Europeans as it is for the Latin immigrants today, and what we are experiencing isn’t all that different from what they did… other than different ethnic groups darkening the skin of our people.

      What unified Europeans into the unified, American culture of our grandfathers was the ability to communicate with each other, and shared cultural priorities.  With immigrants from central and south America, that is already taken care of… they are by and large Catholic, hard working people who care about their families… the big barrier is English… 

      Something that can be overcome, but not if we isolate their communities in dark places and perpetuate illegality by making it virtually impossible to immigrate legally, and fail to take a serious approach to dealing with the 10+ million here…

      But ethnic, linguistic and cultural challenges have always been present, and I think you very much ignore the divisions that have existed in American history in favor of a romanticized view of a non-existent superculture… and that mistaken conceptualization of what we used to be, coupled with your desire for what you want us to be, has led you in the wrong direction.

      Your case is “a teachable moment” as Obama has been so fond of saying.  A multicultural society will fail without proper assimilation, that is true… but it is not the worse for people coming here who want to be part of the country, that’s for sure.

      1. Husson did not have to give Lepage an entrance exam in French anymore than Lepage has to bring up other people’s children. I wish we could use the energy like they do and try and do more good for our fellow people no matter what flavor they are. I come from a mixture, mostly Irish and there is a book out entitled “Hard men Hard times” which describes early Bangor and the hatred toward the Irish, but I doubt the hatred was not any worse than the French or Jews underwent in Bangor, we all assimilated just fine, I am just glad I did not go through that, but from people’s posts, I think bigotry is alive and well in Maine.

    2. This totally ignores historic reality. Immigrants to the US, which typically came in waves, did not assimilate at first, despite meager efforts by the government and NGOs to encourage it. Often it is not until the third generation that the progeny of these immigrants were assimilated – by both the established society and the immigrants themselves.

      I’ve always found these discussions about “American culture” of interest – please define it for us.

      1. Gerald, the fact that immigrants previously came in waves, and were always a diverse lot, always helped immigrants to “melt in.”  However, during the last wave, from 1880-1924, it took the massive investment of civic organizations, businesses, and eventually the public school system, to help incorporate these the millions of immigrants and natives who flooded into the cities in this period.  There is no similar educational movement today.  At the same time we face the fact that Hispanic immigration, which represents 80% of our legal flow today (55% from Mexico), is able to present itself as an alternative culture.  It has amplified the effect of the ethnic enclaves onto entire areas of the country.  A movement similar to the Americanization efforts of the past, in combination with a moratorium to give immigrants time to assimilate (ala 1924-1965), could resolve this issue.  Neither is forthcoming. 

        1. Leif, I do believe that the only language used to teach in the elementary schools of the 19th and most of the 20th century in this country was english. It is only in the last 30 years or so when it was mandated that immigrant children were to have dual language instruction. There can and will be arguments made for and against the benefits of this latest phenomenon in education. I for one feel that the old system served us far better in assimilating immigrants into this society.

        2. Leif, where are you getting those figures? I’m not challenging you them — I may later on — the figure of Mexican immigrants is basically right from what I read in a high-level report on the CIS site. Holding up a single Hispanic “alternative culture” doesn’t take into consideration the diversity of that supposedly monolithic culture. The “enclaves,” which do exist, reflect this diversity. I know this because I have lived in predominantly Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. I’ve also lived in predominantly Ukrainian and Polish neighborhoods too.  Diversity exists as it did in the 1910s-1920s when most immigrants were from continental (central, eastern and southern) Europe.

        3. “At the same time we face the fact that Hispanic immigration, which represents 80% of our legal flow today (55% from Mexico), is able to present itself as an alternative culture.  It has amplified the effect of the ethnic enclaves onto entire areas of the country.”

          The National MEChA movement for one rejects assimilation:

          “The adoption of the name Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan signalled a new level of political consciousness among student activists.  It was the final state in the transformation of what had been loosely organized, local student groups, into a single structure and a unified student movement.

          Adamant rejection of the label “Mexican-American” meant rejection of the assimilation and accommodationist melting pot ideology that had guided earlier generations of activists.” 

          http://www.nationalmecha.org/about.html

    3. Times change and you cannot expect the sort of “Americanization” of yesteryear to continue  unchanged today.  “As American as  apple-pie” is now also “As American as a beef taco or fried chicken”.  I may take pride in my distinctly European ancestry but I have always disliked the exaggerated emphasis on America’s supposed Anglo-Saxon puritanical core.  We are in the first place a nation founded on a basis of broad-based revolutionary thinking (British, French, Dutch), not narrow Christian-conservative dogma.  The thinking of our Founding Fathers was in many ways more enlightened than that of some of our political candidates today.  Their revolution continues as a grand experiment in the political integration of a highly culturally diverse population.  As part of that process we are also still dealing with the after-effects of our past sins of slavery, genocide and the colonizing of Mexican territories. Thus America today cannot and should not be seen as an extention  of a European culture that no longer exists.  Europe itself has become a swiftly evolving cultural melting-pot and is facing challenges very similar to our own.

    4. “We have a core whose civic and historical education, not to mention their basic values, are declining, while overall we are being supplanted by immigrants who we do not bother to assimilate.”

      The left’s domination of educational institutions has led to the slow-motion destruction of American culture and purposely so.   It’s a vital step in their re-making America as they envision it should be; history must be re-written, the old virtues and pride in being an American ridiculed.  It’s a monstrous tragedy. 

       

    5. Oh right, Acadian and other French Mainers never had to deal with issues of oppression and assimilation.

  2. Mr. Parsell is free to believe what he wants and speak/write about it as he chooses.  What he can’t do is pretend to be an objective-in-any-way journalist.  How the Maine Heritage Policy Center/TheMaineWire missed the potential problem is beyond me, but they did the right thing by promptly discharging Mr. Parsell. 

    1. I disagree with you on this. We all have a bias or point of view. It is the effort of the journalist to overcome their own bias and dig into a story, even when to do so may touch on the very foundation of their beliefs. Obviously, such a test rarely occurs, but often less dramatic ones do.

      I encounter this every day.

      What I think is most important is that readers are made aware of any apparent biases, do that they can judge what they are reading accordingly.

      I do not mean to imply that a news source has no control over its employees – should it think that are not capable of producing content fitting with the organizations espoused beliefs, well…

  3. I don’t know how old either of you guys are and what part of the country you grew up in. Assimilation didn’t happen overnight. In my fathers home town of Nesquahoning Pa. There were two Catholic church’s, one for the Irish and one for the other ethnic groups. He told me that there wasn’t a lot of fraternization among the different ethnic groups.
    All over Philadelphia there were and still are ethnic clubs that were formed to help particular immigrant groups learn what was required to gain citizenship. There were neighborhoods all over most of the major cities in the east where you knew almost all the residents were Irish, German, Polish, Italian, etc. It wasn’t until post WWII when people fled to the suburbs that you saw much assimilation. Even there in the 50’s the WASP’s looked down their nose at Catholics, Jews, Greek Orthodox, and god forbid if a black family moved into there suburban paradises. I can still remember the near riots in Levitown Pa. when a black family bought a house there in the late 50’s. 

    1. Seems you didn’t read what I wrote above, or my reply to Leif below.

      Though, to answer, I’m 31 and grew up in central Maine… though for six years I have lived in one of the most culturally diverse areas of the country, Washington, D.C.  I’ve had an opportunity to experience both diverse and non-diverse communities, which I have found valuable.

      1. The atmosphere in the DC area has changed vastly over the last 50 years. Assimilation today should be a lot easier in that area, in that Jim Crow laws have largely been done away with. Of course 50 years ago you didn’t have gated communities either. You just couldn’t buy property in some neighborhoods if you weren’t among the desired;)

  4. Nice commentary. I think it’s also important to recognize that the idea of a massive influx of immigrants who are uninterested in or opposed to learning English and integrating with American society is in large part a myth.  There is more demand for English as a second language classes than there is supply in this country.  People have to get on massive waiting lists in many areas just to have a chance to study English- that’s how much interest there is in becoming an English speaker.

    All the bilingual families I know personally are struggling to make sure their children grow up speaking enough Japanese, Persian, etc. to be a fluent adult speaker, and this is not an uncommon position to be in.  Almost all children in America grow up totally immersed in English, and many aren’t interested enough in their home language to continue speaking it beyond the beginning of school.  This is not a gain for American culture- it’s perfectly possible to grow up bilingual and acculturated in two cultures-  its a loss for cultural and linguistic diversity in the country.  I think it’s supremely misinformed to act like the presence of immigrants in the US is somehow threatening to American culture or American English.

    1. I’ve seen the argument that immigrants are unwilling to assimilate too. I agree it’s demonstrably incorrect. 

      A person who wants to retain a part of their culture (faith or language) is not a person unwilling to embrace this culture. Culture is a connection to family. We’re supposed to value family in this country. By an extremely short leap of logic we should value our cultures and the diversity of cultures. 

      I’d like to speak more than one language. I fumble along with one. C’est la vie. 

  5. I like the idea that we all need to melt a little in a melting pot. Very nice. Lots of Americans complain about having to deal with someone who does not speak English very well. For me, I always look at it as the person speaks English far better than I can speak Spanish, French, Chinese etc…Diversity has always been strength in the US.

  6. I think it’s very dangerous to suggest that there was once a time in which culturally we were collective and uniform as people. We’ve never had a uniform culture, we’ve only ever been a nation of immigrants. So to romanticize about the imaginary time is to just lust for a time before civil rights movements in which white heterosexual men were dominate. 

    I can’t imagine a long list of negative consequences of being a nation of many cultures, an asylum to those oppressed or struggling in other parts of the world. Being an American means being able to be you and shape your own ideals for your life — that’s pretty huge and more than enough to bind the 300,000,000+ of us.

  7. I think we should welcome the dialogue that Matt Gagnon proposes. Assimilation becomes an enemy for some of us  when it becomes a tool for supressing cultural differences. But assimilation can also be  powerfully positive force when it affirms cultural differences. Matt identifies himself as a Franco-American. Only in the United States can a French cultural reality also be an American cultural reality, one that is distinctly different from French cultures in Europe or even in Canada. Emerson said that American culture is always about to be and that it is a catalyst for every other culture. He was imagining poetry like Whitman’s at the time, but he could also have been imagining Jazz. Europe cultural realities tend to be more traditional; the Canadian cultural patterns are in many ways also European. When French and American come together, something very powerful becomes possible. As I understand Matt, it is this engagement that he is calling for. Over the years, I have worked at the University of Maine with the University’s Franco-American Centre. All of us at the Centre would welcome the opportunity to participate in the engagement.

  8. Tolerance/intolerance and what people are willing to talk about in public …. the first four paragraphs of this article describes it very well.

    Churches/Religion:  Why is it that a particular church might expound on the merits of a diverse and tolerant congregation, welcoming people from all walks of life, all political beliefs, all races, occupations, and sexual orientation? The reality of the make-up of the “congregation”….. Liberal; Progressive; Gay; Activist;  Scholars; Atheist; Wiccan; Buddhist. It is clearly not a comfy place for a Republican or Conservative; Christian;  or Private Enterprise Owner to drop in for an enlightening Sunday morning gathering of spiritual renewal. Tolerance?

    Schools: Why is Christianity not considered an important part of American History/Culture, while Kwanzaa and  Hanukkah are studied and actually celebrated with appropriate decorations to honor those cultures?

    Homosexuals/Heterosexuals:  Why does a homosexual slacker who is always late or doesn’t show up for work, get preferential treatment, filing a civil rights complaint, which is immediately sensationalized in the media, when he is fired? What are the options for a  heterosexual (white, with no remarkable qualities/orientations)  with the same work ethics?

    Profiling:  Why would it be called “profiling” when a bank teller describes a robber as black, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, and jeans …. and four people matching that description, in a predominantly white neighborhood, are questioned by the police?  Why would the same situation, the only difference being “white” , be a non-issue because the clothing was exactly as described by the bank teller? 

    Disabilities:  Why is it that when a disabled person on welfare trashes a rental property and gets evicted, it’s a sensational civil rights matter? Why is it that when an able bodied person with a job trashes a rental property and gets evicted, he’s just called another loser by a “tolerant” society, and is expected to pay whatever “due process” the judge decides for damages?

    Justice:  Why is it that when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, it’s important that he has “rights”, while arrangements are made by all the parents with young children to drive their kids to and from the bus stop when they used to walk; kids are confined to their own yards on weekends when they used to freely visit neighbors, and locksmiths and security alarm businesses are paid to protect homes for a radius of  four blocks?

    Labeling:  Why does the private small business owner on Main Street America now feel that he must “minimize” his feeling of pride for a successful business (or keep quiet about it), making a profit from laboring 60-70 hrs a week, paying his employees well, paying his vendors on time, paying property taxes, payroll taxes, income taxes, taking an annual vacation to a tropical resort, and having a moderate home and a couple of two year old vehicles?  Didn’t that used to be the piece of American Pie …. the American Dream that natives and immigrants alike pursued? The label of  “greed” in our “tolerant” society has become the norm pertaining to private enterprise. “Personal responsibility” and “self sufficiency” are more often shunned as selfish endeavors. 

    A society void of dignity and pride in the name of (pretentious) tolerance for all mankind is frightening.  But we won’t talk about it in public…. too incriminating.

Comments are closed.