MATTHEW GAGNON

The curious case of Leif Parsell

Posted Jan. 12, 2012, at 3:53 p.m.

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.

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