Saturday, July 17, 2010

In defense of assimilation

Assimilation has a bad press. Those who worship at the shrine of ethnic "identity" insult the honor of assimilators, calling them Mankurts, self-haters, rootless individuals, etc. -- and no one rises in their defense. And yet millions of people are always in process of assimilating. But they just get on with it, they rarely philosophize about it, at least in public.

The ethnicists claim that they are authentic, their "real selves" while assimilators lie to themselves and others and deny who they "really" are. But why give such great weight to descent in determining identity? And how authentic is it to dig into and try to reanimate a long-buried past? The objective circumstances of our world make us all complex and contradictory; authenticity requires recognition of that complexity, not an exclusive focus on one factor to the neglect of all others.

Akiva Orr (see argues that religion is the essential core of Jewish identity. If a person of Jewish background has lost faith in God and Torah, he or she will never succeed in reconstructing a coherent "Jewish" identity on a purely secular "ethnic" basis. Such efforts have led to endless confusion and hypocrisy, to the ongoing tragedy of Zionism. Better by far to accept that "the sacred hoop is broken" and take the path of assimilation.

I don't think this applies only to the Jews. For many centuries religion (a slightly different one, to be sure) was the essential core of Russian identity. Now Russians attempt to return to Orthodox Christianity, but not in most cases out of sincere faith in God and Christ, rather as a self-conscious search for ethnic identity. Or they speculate fruitlessly about some "Russian idea" that turns out to be something universal or panhuman, not specifically Russian at all.

The idea of assimilation raises a crucial question that is rarely recognized. Assimilation into what? In the past, the obvious answer was: into the dominant nation of the country where you live. Of course, if they were willing to receive you -- often they were not. To the extent that the dominant nation defined itself by descent, assimilation into it was very difficult and did inevitably entail an element of inauthenticity, because the assimilator was after all of a different descent.

Nowadays there is a better alternative -- assimilation into mankind. Members not only of ethnic minorities but also of ethnic majorities whose traditional identities have been lost, like the Russians, can aspire to such assimilation. It is, of course, assimilation into something that is still in the process of becoming, not something that is already firmly established. As such, the assimilator need not completely renounce his or her former identity but can fuse it into the wider synthesis of the species. That is more authentic as well as more dignified and can be experienced as a gain rather than a loss. (Gershenzon wrote about this.)

Assimilation into mankind, unlike assimilation into a dominant nation, need not rule out taking a special interest in the culture and history of the group from which you are descended. They are also part of mankind, after all. A special interest, not a total mental and emotional immersion that defines our identity. Our identity must center not on being a Jew or Circassian, Russian or Turk or Korean, but on our common human species being. The Mother-Planet, threatened by ecological apocalypse, demands it!

I was asked by someone to write about Circassians in this blog. Now I have done so!

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