Up until a few decades ago, it was common to think of the United States as a melting pot. People from all over the world would come to this great country, adopt American values, and learn English while also bringing a piece of their former culture to mix into the broader American culture. It was through this process of assimilation that the U.S. became a richer country, both materially and culturally.
The multiculturalist movement changed this framework. Instead of the melting pot, the U.S. is now more of a salad bowl: together in one place, but each piece separate and distinct. The very word assimilation has taken on negative connotations, as though newly arrived immigrants were forcibly drained of the qualities that defined them and gave their lives meaning. Now immigrants are “acculturated”: they can keep their former culture intact as they only superficially participate in American culture.
As Jan Heyck argues in his latest book, Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire: Multiculturalism in the World’s Past and America’s Future, this second approach leads to far more challenges than does the first. Civilizations that don’t forge a shared culture among their people will suffer from fractionalization: different ethnic communities will fight to assert their dominance rather than work together as equals. By contrast, civilizations that rely on a merit-based system (instead of an ethnic- or a race-based one) and strictly avoid segregating different groups of people will experience much greater harmony and prosperity.
Instead of delving into the weeds of multiculturalism in the U.S., Heyck maintains an outsider’s perspective, using ancient and recent history as a guide to understanding the present. As such, he begins his book with the first real melting pot civilization in history: the Roman Republic and Empire. Early on, the Romans established a “policy of integrating rather than subjugating [their] neighbors” that “provided it with cohesive support both to defend itself and to expand its domain.” Ethnically speaking, this meant the Romans were always a heterogenous population with diverse backgrounds. What made them Romans was their loyalty to Rome, speaking Latin, and their compliance to the Roman system.
Despite suffering regular attacks from foreign armies, periodic civil wars, and the occasional psychopathic emperor, Roman civilization held together and maintained its appeal for several centuries because of its willingness to bring new tribes into the fold. Moreover, it became ever richer, larger, and more advanced through this conscious commitment to asabiyyah, the collective “sense of group cohesion and shared identity that makes societies work.” Most Roman citizens owned property, had access to public amenities, and were socially mobile.
Only when this system of integrating new people was gradually abandoned did decline set in. In the fourth and fifth centuries, massive waves of immigrants came into the empire and bypassed the normal process for citizenship. As Heyck puts it, “Unlike communities that the Romans absorbed in the past, these refugees were neither integrated nor granted citizenship. Instead they were allowed to settle in enclaves, maintaining their own languages, loyalties, and leadership.” Consequently, the empire split and contracted, eventually dissolving into countless feudal kingdoms.
Heyck goes on to contrast Rome with its opposite, the Aztec Empire. Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 1500s, the Aztecs in Mexico were easily the most advanced and powerful civilization in the Western Hemisphere. And despite their relative lack of technological development in comparison with Europeans, they could have more than held their own against a bedraggled, numerically inferior group of Spanish conquistadors.
Unfortunately, the Aztec Empire was not an integrated one but rather a collection of tribes that paid tribute to the dominant Mexica-Tenochca people. This meant that Hernán Cortés merely had to turn some of these tribes against their leader and foment a civil war in order to conquer, and that’s exactly what he did. Heyck explains that it was due to its lack of asabiyyah that the Aztec Empire fell so fast and not because of disease, inferior weapons, or because they revered the Spaniards as gods.
With these two examples serving as reference points, Heyck demonstrates how this pattern has repeated itself throughout history, regardless of a civilization’s level of development or geography. If a nation or empire encourages segregation and discourages a shared cultural identity, it will suffer and inevitably collapse under the weight of ethnic tension and violence. This happened in the Islamic Empire, which adopted a Roman-style universalist approach in its early centuries, even tolerating different faiths and cultures, but gradually became more like the Aztecs, reducing conquered people and churches to exclusive tributaries called “millets.” This happened to Balkan nations like Yugoslavia, which experienced multiple episodes of ethnic strife and threatens to combust again today. This occurred in many former colonies in Africa, specifically Rwanda, which degenerated into genocidal chaos because of the arbitrary division between Tutsis and Hutus, ethnic designations that Belgian colonists assigned a century earlier. This is the sad story of Sri Lanka, a country set for rapid development that instead stagnated and regressed because the Buddhist Sinhalese felt compelled to terrorize and marginalize the Hindu Tamils.
But even as Heyck gives examples of ethnic violence resulting from exclusivist, multiculturalist policies (poorly mixed salad bowls), he also offers a present-day example of the contrary: Botswana. What was once an unremarkable British colony in Southern Africa, Botswana has become a model of racial and ethnic harmony. Part of this is due to the example set by its founding couple, King Seretse Khama (a black Botswanan prince) and Ruth Williams (a white British clerk), who embodied the country’s ideals. But the Botswana’s concerted push for colorblindness played a yet greater part in its success: “Unlike many other former colonies in Africa, Botswana would not just end white domination and restore black people’s rights; it would strive for true equality that would ignore racial, ethnic, and tribal distinctions.” In practice, this meant no affirmative action programs, racial quotas, or reparation schemes.
Heyck’s analysis throughout Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire leads him to develop a simple tool for evaluating economies and political stability around the world. In short, the more ethnically fractionalized a country is, the more domestic violence, poverty, and corruption it will have. Thus, countries that are mainly homogenous and have low ethnic fractionalization, like those in Scandinavia, tend to do well, whereas diverse countries with high ethnic fractionalization, like Brazil and Congo, do poorly.
Although this would seem to suggest that diversity is a challenge to be avoided, the examples of Rome and Botswana show that ethnic fractionalization can be reduced with the right policies. That means not only eliminating causes for division and sectarianism between citizens but also avoiding a socialist system that pits various groups against each other in a zero-sum competition for public benefits and political influence. The ideal for any society, according to Heyck, is to safeguard equal opportunity, free markets, and strict colorblindness.
In light of today’s continual onslaught of multiculturalist messaging, Heyck’s argument is more than welcome. For all its fanfare and apparent popular support, identity politics, particularly on the left (but also on the right, it should be noted), only worsens social division. No amount of accommodation will satisfy the group that feels disadvantaged; so long as the members of that group see themselves as something apart from the whole and judged (positively or negatively) by their race or ethnicity, they will always be resentful. The same applies to those doing the accommodating. Sure, some will think their policies and words of affirmation effectively compensate for their privilege, but this only makes their privilege all the more apparent; the rest will gradually come to see other “less privileged” groups as nothing but a wearying, unwanted burden.
As simple and clear as Heyck’s argument is, what he prescribes is not easy. As the recent outcry over ending affirmative action in university admissions illustrated, overcoming a history of division and cutting through the narratives pushed by those who personally profit from a divided society will require a sustained collective effort and almost unlimited patience. Nevertheless, if crafting a new melting pot can save the country and the West as a civilizational whole, it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing.