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Immigration, individualism and Italian ices

MY ELDEST daughter and her husband returned Sunday from a trip to Italy. Big deal. Her Mom and Dad walked through Little Italy in lower Manhattan over the weekend, which is just as good, and cheaper.

No jet lag. All the authentic Italian eateries you could want, from pasta to espresso to exquisite pastries. Sure, it’s a little touristy, but so is the other Italy.

And if you get tired of it, just walk a little further down Mulberry Street, cross Canal, and bada-bing! You’re in Chinatown. A whole other country, as Forrest Gump would say. Sidewalk tables with old guys gesticulating and hurling Italian at each other give way to old Chinese guys playing chess at park benches. The sudden shift, the stark cultural, ethnic and linguistic contrast, is stunning to anyone who is accustomed to living in... well, America. No assimilation, no melting pot, no tossed salad, or any of those other metaphors that make me hungry (did I tell you about the pastries?).

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what we came for, the ethnic pageantry. That, and the Italian ices. We went there to experience something we can’t get in West Columbia — unless, of course, we were to enter a Mexican tienda for one of those Cokes that taste better than the ones bottled for sale in this country (or so I’m told).

Which brings me to David Brooks’ column earlier this week, endeavoring to explain all the passion over illegal aliens.

I appreciate that he trashed the notion that this is some sort of simplistic left-vs.-right flashpoint. You can find just as much anxiety among “progressives” who worry about wages and working conditions as among know-nothings who simply don’t like foreigners.

But ultimately, when he tried to explain what the dichotomy was as opposed to what it wasn’t, he got it wrong:

Liberal members of the educated class celebrated the cultural individualism of the 1960s. Conservative members celebrated the economic individualism of the 1980s. But they all celebrated individualism. They all valued diversity and embraced a sense of national identity that rested on openness and global integration.

This cultural offensive created a silent backlash among people who were not so enamored of rampant individualism and who were worried that all this diversity would destroy the ancient ties of community and social solidarity. Members of this class came to feel that America’s identity and culture were under threat from people who did not understand what made America united and distinct.

Mr. Brooks should read the comments on my blog sometime. He’ll discover that the most adamant individualists — the strident libertarians, who tend to bridle at the very word “society,” much less the idea of paying taxes — are most likely to call our senior senator “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”

What is America’s “identity and culture”? We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those English-speaking white men who drafted our Constitution. But America is also about opportunity for all. It is about bigness, and the ability to absorb. It’s about pizza and hamburgers and chili con carne. We’re not threatened by that stuff, we dig it. Bring it on! Our appetite for the big, messy smorgasbord of cultures sloshing around and swapping juices is our thing; it’s what we grow on.

OK, that sounds kind of like the first group Mr. Brooks described — except for the “individualist” part, which is key. If I can be categorized, it’s as the opposite, a communitarian. My attitudes toward the richness of the American stew arise from the same impulses that Mr. Brooks described when he wrote recently, in a piece headlined “The Human Community,” that Tony Blair’s commitment to Iraq arose from his communitarianism.

I’m surprised at Mr. Brooks.

America doesn’t define “community” in terms of everybody looking, speaking or eating alike. We leave that kind of self-defeating smallness to ethnic cleansers in the Balkans, or traditionalist jihadists in the Mideast. We’re selling something else, and it’s so big and rich and free that you can’t stop it. Once you narrowly define a thing and say it’s this and not that, you limit it, and this country is not limited.

It’s an essential part of who we are that you can’t easily pin down who we are.

A place like Little Italy or that tienda on Sunset would seem to run counter to that, to embody ethnic homogeneity and specificity to the point of rejecting essential Americanism. But they don’t.

If we were satisfied with McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and white bread sandwiches from the chain supermarket we’d be who the French think we are, and they’re wrong about us.

We have a place like Little Italy because we can afford it. We’re big enough, and sure enough of who we are, to have it all.

Last Saturday, we continued through Chinatown and walked across the bridge to Brooklyn. On the way over, we kept passing Manhattanites coming back from Brooklyn carrying pizzas. It’s one thing for a tourist to make the trek, but to walk to the next borough and back for a pizza? What was that about?

When we got there, we saw where they were going. The place sat alone on a dreary block right under the bridge. There was a long line outside just for takeout. People from Asia, from Europe, from Africa, all waiting eagerly, and untroubled about the long walk to get there. Apparently, the pizza was just that good.

I still don’t know how to philosophically characterize all the passion over immigration or how to address the very legitimate concerns (beyond the passion) about the many ways our immigration “system” fails to work.

But I know that as long as the pizza is this good in this country, they’re going to keep coming.

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