Dancing with Immigrants

Posted on 2012 August 30


The great fear of a conservative is that the world will change, and not for the better. Conservatives guard the culture, hoping to prevent it from oozing away into mush. Liberals, on the other hand, fear the world won’t alter fast enough. For them, cultural change is a powerful way to effect social change.

This puts the two groups on a collision course when it comes to immigration. Recent arrivals — who gather toward the left end of the political spectrum — tend to favor the inclusion of yet more people like them from foreign lands. Conservatives resist all that inclusiveness, lest it upend decades of carefully nurtured stability.

To a conservative, immigrants strain social services, flocking from beyond the border to freeload on hard-working taxpayers. Worse, they bring their strange languages and religions and attitudes with them, upsetting the lifestyle that conservatives have grown to prefer. They see those huddled masses as unwashed, illiterate, unskilled, and, well, beneath them. There are valid points folded into this view, but it also contains a dollop of … how shall we put it? … racial insensitivity. And it omits a towering truth about America: all of us are — or descend from — immigrants. Our ancestors, too, were unwashed. Yet, after a few generations, those hordes prospered here, and half or most of them became … conservative.

Allow me to digress. I enjoy dancing. I especially like a style called West Coast Swing. It’s part of the Swing family of dances that includes Lindy Hop (the “Jitterbug” of the 1930s) and East Coast Swing and Shag. Most Swing is danced to big-band jazz, just like the old days when they were invented. West Coast Swing, though, has always been danced, since its creation, to whatever pop music was the style of the day. In the 1940s its soundtrack was jazz; in the ’50s, early Rock’n’Roll. In the ’60s, it was the Beatles and Rock music. In the ’70s it was Disco. And so on, until today you find West Coast Swing dance floors filled with people whirling and prancing to Pop and R&B and Hip Hop by artists like Usher and Katy Perry and Pink and Ne-Yo and Beyonce and Justin Timberlake and Adele.

The problem with West Coast is precisely its advantage: it always adjusts itself to the latest music craze, its style shifting somewhat but its essence remaining the same. It’s a problem because people discover, and fall in love with, West Coast Swing during a particular moment in popular music, but then West Coast flows away from them as it adopts the next form of music. Older dancers decry this, claiming that the music they first heard while dancing Westies is “true West Coast music”. This makes them seem like fuddy-duddies. It makes them look … conservative.

Okay, all you smarties, what’s the connection between West Coast Swing and immigration? Yes, you there in the front row.

“Conservatives like to dance?”

Interesting answer, but not quite where I was going … Um, how about you there on the aisle.

“Conservatives are dumb and should get out and try new things?”

Well, they’re not, and they should … Okay, you in the back? What’s your answer?

“When new things happen to old things, the old things often adjust while retaining their essential character?”

Well put! You get an “A”. And see me after class — you should write this stuff for me.

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes. Immigration does reshuffle the deck somewhat, but the game stays basically the same. Despite all the changes brought by newcomers — entrepreneurial Scots of the nineteenth century; Asian immigrants out West; Black musical culture; Irish and Italian and Slavic foods and expressions and attitudes; tacos and tamales and Salsa and Banda and Dos Equis — America has absorbed them all, adapted the most robust parts of those cultures, and added them to the goulash that is our society. Somehow we all end up still speaking English, still a democracy protected by our Bill of Rights, still a people who strive to prosper. And somehow we produce, from the newly arrived, the next batch of … conservatives.

So while I agree with the Right Wing that we needn’t simply offer freebies to everyone who wants to come here and help themselves, I also agree with the liberals who understand that new blood brings benefits and not mere stress. And I propose that the United States is more than big enough to meet the ongoing challenge. It’s the Land of the Free; it’s a beacon to the world; it’s supposed to make room for new citizens. Rather than fearing them, we should adopt them into our culture, add their contributions, and then continue forward, essentially the same society but deeper and more robust.

Besides, conservatives shouldn’t worry about people talking in, you know, Spanish. It’s a regular, logical language that’s fairly easy for an English speaker to learn. (Except for the weird gender problem — i.e., day is masculine and night is feminine — who knew? But don’t get me started.) Besides, Spanish is spoken by people who share much of the original European culture that underpins the American one.

Conservatives should worry instead about the future, when — to cope with the changing world beyond our borders — they’ll have to learn a much more difficult language … Mandarin.