Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Immigration and Adaptation


Many Australians are currently worried about the globalisation of people. It's easy to forget that it has always occurred. The United States took many of the world's surplus people throughout the 19th century, absorbing 20 million over 40 years, 1880-1920. In the decade prior to World War One, 8 million people steamed past the Statue of Liberty engraved with the words "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". They became a giant labour force that transformed the US from an agricultural society to the biggest industrial power on earth. Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand took smaller numbers. Today people from Africa, Central America and the Middle East chase better lives in Europe. Everywhere the ethnic composition of developed countries changes before our eyes.

The Americans have been the most successful at integrating the widest range of cultures. Russian and Polish Jews fleeing pogroms; German socialists on the run after 1848; Irish escaping the potato famine; Italians, Greeks, Turks, Scandinavians and now Latin Americans. All were, and still are absorbed into the ever-changing fabric of American life. But rapid change causes tension. Old customs and attitudes are challenged. History suggests that setting a reasonably firm set of parameters within which immigrants must operate, coupled with an open labour market, no easy access to welfare, and entree to the democratic process work best for everyone. As a graduate student in the US in the early 1960s I was struck by the stress in schools on honouring the flag, and learning American history, especially the War of Independence, the Constitution and the Civil War. Migrants were welcome, but they had to understand that their new country had bottom lines. They could access the huge privileges of their new home so long as they adapted swiftly. Public education was in English; ethnic dress gave way to American clothes, especially amongst the younger generation; a diversity of religion was tolerated so long as no one preached superiority; migrants were expected to work, were free to move around, marry "out", and settle where opportunities existed. The result is a hugely diverse nation. Wisconsin and Ohio have people of German origin; California of Latin Americans; Chicago and Boston of Irish; New York of African Americans. Riots there have been, especially in the 1960s when Blacks felt ghettoised and deprived of opportunities. But all wanted to be a part of society.

Recent riots in France and Australia, and earlier in Britain, stem in part from newer fads foisted on officials about immigration and acculturation. Some of the more radical human rights agendas of recent decades have preached the notion that all cultures are equal, even when they obviously aren't. Listening to feminists advocating tolerance for migrant clothing such as chadors and burkas, age-old symbols of female oppression, foisted on some Muslim women (and incidentally the cause of much eye trouble), would be amusing if the effects on the migrants themselves, and others who know what the clothing stands for, weren't so irritating. Paying easy welfare, encouraging newcomers to group in suburbs, maintain their language and customs, and allowing them to preach difference, even hate in their mosques, are recipes for disaster. There must be a price, not a high one, but a cost nonetheless, if one settles in somebody else's land. It's a need to adapt quickly.

None of this means I endorse the thuggish xenophobia of locals, wherever they are, be they drunken skin-heads or proto fascists in East Germany, Paris, Bradford or Sydney. But tolerating second-generation Lebanese men intent on enforcing head-dress on their women, and attacking those wearing bikinis, suggests that Australia, like some other countries, is intent on separatism and internal disharmony. The glue that holds modern societies together contains essential ingredients. Ending visible symbols of backwardness among migrants is a good place to start. Treating migration as a contract between the arrivals and their hosts where they are expected to work, be taught in English, and integrate themselves into the new society, are fundamental.

In the world of modern terrorism where the threat comes mostly from Muslim attitudes of superiority to the rest of us, it flies in the face of commonsense to argue we should lie back and enjoy it. Successful societies ensure that everyone shares values and contributes to the greater good. Tolerating separatism and sectarianism is a recipe for disaster. It's just another example of political correctness from the muddleheads in our midst who ignore history.