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Multiculturalism is no failure

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette says Germany's Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism a failure
  • U.S. conservatives use remarks to slam multiculturalism as bad for U.S.
  • He asks: Was the problem with German immigrants or ethnocentric culture?
  • Writer: Immigrants must try to assimilate, and Germany, like U.S., must welcome them

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Who's disenchanted with multiculturalism?

Let's start with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently threw in the towel on the socio-ethnic experiment. Merkel declared in a speech to a group of young people that multiculturalism has been totally unsuccessful in Germany.

"The approach of saying, 'Well, let's just go for a multicultural society, let's co-exist and enjoy each other,' this very approach has failed, absolutely failed," she said.

Those comments continue a theme Merkel touched on a few weeks earlier while discussing Germany's Muslim population during an interview on CNN.

"We've all understood now that immigrants are a part of our country, [but] they have to speak our language, they have receive an education here," Merkel said while appearing on CNN's "Connect the World."

Merkel's comments have conservatives in the United States all atwitter. Some lavished praise on the chancellor, as if they hoped that her epiphany could somehow spread to the United States.

In this country, multiculturalism is commonly understood to mean an attempt by institutions or government to move beyond simply tolerating cultural differences to actually celebrating them. Under the word's umbrella, you might find everything from bilingual education and foreign-language ballots to ethnic celebrations, Asian-American history month and African-American studies programs on college campuses.

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To be honest, multiculturalism is mostly about symbolism and helping liberals feel morally superior to the rest of us. It's certainly not a cure-all for centuries of discrimination, exclusion and mistreatment of minorities by the majority.

And neither is it the sign of the apocalypse and threat to Western civilization that some Chicken Little academics, politicians and media figures like to think it is.

Discussing Merkel's comments, conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager insisted that, besides other negative side effects, "multiculturalism diminishes American identity." contributor David Frum said that the "immigrant population is disproportionately connected to almost all of the social problems of modern Germany," especially crime.

Conservative economist and social critic Thomas Sowell went all in by suggesting that, "in countries around the world, and over the centuries, peoples with jarring differences in language, cultures and values have been a major problem and, too often, sources of major disasters for the societies in which they co-exist."

All this hyperventilation produces more heat than light.

Even if Merkel is right and Germany's stab at multiculturalism is a bust, what hasn't been addressed either by Merkel or her groupies is the question of who is the blame for the failure: immigrants or Germany?

If immigrants are to blame, then it's worth sermonizing to that population that assimilation benefits the assimilated most of all. Living in Germany, they're going to do better and go further if they acclimate to the culture, learn the language, adopt the customs, study the history and fully integrate into civic life. They need to do all this not to put their fellow Germans at ease, but for their own good and that of their children.

It's the same message I share with Latino immigrant communities here in the United States in columns and speeches. They don't always like to hear the lecture. Many of these people have been in the United States long enough to know enough to demand their "rights." But what they need, and what I'm happy to provide, is a reminder that with rights come responsibilities.

On the other hand, if Germany is to blame for the failure of multiculturalism, then the onus is on the rest of society to figure out what went wrong and try to fix it. It's not for the good of the experiment, but for the country's own good. Because of its history, Germany should know enough to tread lightly on these issues.

There ought to be a serious and honest evaluation of what life is like for Turkish Muslims living in Germany. We need to know: How much discrimination do they face? How much access do they have to the country's institutions? How integrated into German society are they?

Show me a group of people who are cloistered in ethnic enclaves and refusing to assimilate, and I'll show you a group of people who have often been marginalized and don't feel welcomed into the mainstream. They retreat to their own neighborhoods as a defense mechanism.

And if that's the problem, it doesn't help to encourage even more ethnocentrism and hostility toward immigrants by suggesting that they're defective, defiant or dangerous. In fact, according to media accounts, some of the immigrants who heard Merkel's remarks said they made them feel even less welcomed.

Americans know this story by heart.

The reason there's a Little Italy or a South Boston or a Germantown is because Italian, Irish and German immigrants were excluded from certain jobs, neighborhoods, universities, social clubs, etc. No one was greeted off the boat with a ticker tape parade and a steak dinner because, despite what it says in the brochure, this "nation of immigrants" has always hated immigrants.

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And whether they came legally, illegally or with a letter of reference from the Queen of England, we've always greeted them with the same refrain: "There goes the neighborhood."

The people who believed that nonsense 100 ago were foolish, small-minded and blinded by prejudice, and the same goes for those who believe it today.

There are plenty of things to fear in this world. Multiculturalism isn't one of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.