November 11, 2005,
The French riots have generated some peculiar commentary, with Francophobia, Islamophobia, welfare-ophobia, and determination to be "correct" about race and immigration all muddling up people's heads, including the heads of some conservatives. Everyone has a theory about the cause of the riots, with racism and discrimination at the head of the pack. My own take on the whole thing is one you might call "geological" several strata laid down one on top of the other, each contributing to the nastiness. Permit me to explain.
First, put all thoughts of race, religion, culture, and immigration out of your mind. Consider a society perfectly homogenous race-, religion-, and culture-wise, with close to zero immigration. Will such a society be harmonious and riot-free? Looking around the world of today at the handful of societies that come close to that description, you might think so. "Riots in Japan" is not a headline you often see. In fact you never see it.
This, however, tells us more about the current phase of world history especially, I think, about the successes of state management of welfare and the business cycle than about human nature. There have been thunderous riots in societies as homogenous as you please, including Japan's. China's history, even when you exclude those phases where Turks, Tibetans, Manchus, Europeans, and Japanese were kicking in the doors, was plenty riotous.
Nor is there any guarantee that the present era of social harmony in homogenous zero-immigration societies will continue forever. Michael Young's classic fable The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033 was written in the mid-1950s, when Britain was very nearly as homogenous as Japan is today. It describes social disorders caused by a disgruntled low-IQ underclass in a society where a high-IQ elite a meritocracy has entrenched itself. Race, religion, culture, and immigration are not even mentioned; yet the story's fictional narrator ends up being lynched by a low-IQ mob. We are well on the way to that meritocracy now, as a recent review by David Brooks illustrates.
In 1956, the sons of business executives outnumbered the sons of professors by four to one at Harvard. By 1976, there were nearly as many freshmen from academic households as from business households.
There are good reasons to discuss the social impact of immigration and the problems that arise in multiracial and multicultural societies, but both history and imagination suggest that monoracial, monocultural, monoreligious societies need not be havens of social order and stability. In any society, free or unfree, there will be winners and losers, and the discontent of the losers might rise to riot pitch in all sorts of cases.
The lowest geological stratum, therefore, the most basic potential source for social discontent, is simply human nature and the human condition.
Next up is religion. As I noted in my column on Guy Fawkes, the only thing that separated English Catholics from English Protestants in 1605 was their religion. In other respects they were indistinguishable, were indeed often spouses or siblings. Yet even without the added irritants of race, culture, or foreignness, religious conflict brought mobs into the streets of England for centuries, down to the appalling Gordon Riots of 1780. There is the second geological layer: religion.
Third comes race. That race which for my simple purposes here I'll take to mean mostly common ancestry marked by differences of appearance can be a cause of social problems, is not news to any American. Religion, language, culture what I'm going to call foreignness doesn't enter into it. Most black Americans speak English, practice Christianity, and dress up at Halloween just like every other American. There's nothing foreign about them. With 400 years' residence here, they could hardly be more American. Yet still race is an issue. This whole topic is of course endlessly discussed, and this is not the place to add anything new, even if I had anything new to add, which I don't. I am just noting that race can be an element in social disorder on the rioting scale, independent of other factors. If you don't think so, I can only suppose you have slept through the past few decades.
The top layer is foreignness. It would be a bit more polite to say "culture" here, or "ethnicity." Ethnicity, though, has got all mixed up with race, which I have already separated out. The main markers of culture are language, religion, and "folkways" observance of traditional festivals, diets, marriage customs, etc. Where two communities live side by side in one place, speaking different languages and practicing different religions and folkways, the source of friction is the foreignness they feel in respect of each other an outcome of the natural and near-universal human preference to live among people not too different from ourselves. In the modern world the foreignness is usually real, in the sense that one group arrived recently from a foreign place, while the other believes itself to be autochthonous. "Recently" can cover a lot of ground: Catholic Irishmen feel that the Ulster Protestants, who have been there for 400 years, are "foreign" in this sense. I have heard Irish Republicans wish that the Ulstermen would "go back where they came from." So "recently" can mean 400 years ago.
Major social disorder can arise from seismic movements in any one of these four geological strata: human nature, religion, race, foreignness. More than one might be implicated. In these recent French riots, I think all four have been.
The moral of this story is that maintaining a peaceful, harmonious social order isn't easy even under optimal conditions. To introduce extra causes of disorder into your society by importing great masses of foreigners of different races, speaking different languages, and practicing different religions, is foolish. Under some special historical circumstances, you might pull it off, but the odds are long against you. That it will result in your having a better society is not very probable. That it will end with insurrections like the one we have been seeing in France, is quite probable. That any of this needs saying is a measure of how far postindustrial man has drifted from the simplest, most obvious of truths about human nature and human society.