Western popular culture and migrant assimilation

When I lived in Stockholm in the 1960’s, I was sometimes mistaken for a gastarbeiter. A couple of drunks called me names and told me to go back to where I came from. One night the remarks morphed into a brief fight that the cops had to break up. When it came out that I was American, the man who’d taken a swing at me apologized profusely and invited me home to dinner. Some students also apologized, and tried to reassure me that the guy’s behavior wasn’t typically Swedish. I agreed, but suggested that the real test would come when Sweden’s immigrant population topped 10%; then the troubles might start.

Now the future is here – in Sweden, in most of Scandinavia, in most of Western Europe.  When I tell this story to European friends, they nod sagely, but all they can offer in reply is an amorphous sense of good will and an undercurrent of bewilderment.

It is a bewildering problem, not least because it raises questions about “folk,” nationality, citizenship—what makes a Swede Swedish, a Dane Danish?—that haven’t been looked at for decades. And because the cliché about the US as a “nation of immigrants” is to a large extent true, America may not be a very useful model in analyzing the immigrant question in Europe. Nevertheless, let me offer a recent article from the New York Times (Nov. 21, 2006) under the headline: “The Comic is Palestinian, the Jokes Bawdy”:

Maysoon Zayid grabbed her audience immediately as she limped into the spotlight wearing a green T-shirt with a plunging neckline that advertised her one-woman show, “Little American Whore.”

“For those of you who don’t know me, I am a Palestinian-Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey,” Ms. Zayid, 30, told the packed house recently at the Gotham Comedy Club in Chelsea at the fourth annual Arab-American Comedy Festival.

Women and men alike howled as she made raunchy jokes about the trials and tribulations of menstruation and sex for a Muslim woman. They chuckled when she talked about her father’s resemblance to Saddam Hussein. “When they hang Saddam, I’m going to be, like, ‘Daddy!’” she said….

Her Palestinian parents were concerned at first. What if she had fallen into a dishonorable profession? Then, after seeing a story about her on Al Jazeera, the Arab cable network, they were relieved. “They saw I was legit and not wrapped around a pole,” she said….

Ms. Zayid, who has a home in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, recently returned from Hollywood, where she lived while working on her one-woman show. She hopes it may end up becoming a movie….

It’s easy to dismiss this article as typical American shallowness, but what it seems to me to be really about is the power and pervasiveness of American pop culture, and its use as a tool of assimilation and social equalizer.

In the space of one generation, Ms. Zayid has become a “typical” American. To get ahead, to become famous, she’ll do and say anything – make fun of her parents and her illness, wear a t-shirt “with a plunging neckline,” reveal her darkest secrets. In her more serious moments she may be dedicated to building the Palestinian state, but her fondest ambition, at least according to the article, is to make it in the movies. Even her parents seem to have adopted American values: at first doubtful about her profession as a comedienne, but after they saw her on TV all was forgiven.

Now one may not approve of Ms. Zayid’s values, but the fact is that to a great extent they’re shared values, even national values. She isn’t alone. For better or worse, immigrants adapt to America quickly. As hard as parents may try, in a matter of years  they’ve lost their kids to McDonald’s and American Idol. Some elders may cling to their former names, languages and customs, but their kids walk around listening to hiphop on their iPods and wanting what everybody else wants. It’s hard to deny that popular culture and consumerism – all the “Americanisms” that make many Europeans cringe – go a long way in blurring distinctions between groups, at least among the children of those groups. Ethnic communities may not intermarry much in the States, but they all seem to strive after the same things.

I’m not suggesting that assimilation in the US of immigrants via popular culture is always a good thing, or has direct application to the European situation.  Even as a nation of immigrants, the US still has a long way to go to get over its national shame – its forced immigrant slaves. Also, the differences in both unemployment rates and access to welfare benefits make the economic situation of immigrants in Europe and the US significantly dissimilar. Nevertheless, the experience of immigrants in the US may serve as a useful contrast to the relative isolation of their brothers and sisters in much of Europe.

One thing that is beginning to happen in Europe – and ought to be nurtured as much as possible – is public debate on the issues of assimilation and prejudice. Governments take steps, often good ones, to aid in integration, but until now they’ve generally been reluctant to debate publicly underlying social tensions.  That is why the recent controversy in France and the U.K. – and echoed in Sweden by the statements of Nyamko Sabuni, the new Swedish integration minister – about women wearing hijabs seems to me a good thing no matter where one comes out on the issue, because at least it gives voice to sentiments that otherwise might manifest themselves in something as misguided as the Danish Jyllands-Posten’s call for cartoons.

The ultimate question that Europe has to face is that of citizenship itself. If there is no seductive American pop culture to attract immigrants toward the center, how should immigrants identify themselves? Is a native-born Iranian who’s lived in Sweden most of his life a Swede or an Iranian? More to the point, can his children, most likely born in Sweden and speaking only elementary Farsi, by any stretch of the imagination be called Iranian? What about the Iraqi, or Pakistani, or Somali who’s kept himself isolated in the host country? Does he deserve to become a citizen? The answers to these questions aren’t obvious or glib. In fact, behind the questions are concepts that have as much to do with morality as perception: what are the criteria that a nation should use to reward some immigrants with citizenship, but not others?

This year the new Democratic majority in the US Congress is likely to re-introduce a bill that almost passed last year—a law that acknowledges the presence of over ten million illegal aliens, and ultimately makes it possible for them to apply for citizenship. In a sense it’s an unfair proposal, because it will devalue those people trying to immigrate legally in favor of the ones who’ve snuck across the borders. But at least it makes public what everybody already knows, and offers it up to debate, which is not a small thing at all.   

This article was posted in Transit/ion and tagged .

Comments are closed.

^ top