Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire isn’t necessarily a denunciation of multiculturalism. It isn’t a scathing indictment of the changing demographics of the US, like Samuel Huntington’s Who are We? Rather, author Jens Heycke makes a fairly precise argument about what works and what doesn’t work in a multicultural system of government.
There are two kinds of multiculturalisms: “hard” and “soft.” The former involves divisive government policies such as racial preferences and set-asides based on ethnic group membership. The latter encourages assimilation. Out of the Melting Pot takes a dive into historical examples of multiculturalism done right and multiculturalism done wrong according to this general criteria. Each historical example focuses on a different culture and encompasses a concise chapter.
There are heavy implications for the United States…
Heycke provides voluminous historical detail in which multiculturalism has been tried. Some societies, such as Ancient Rome, did multiculturalism well. Others, such as Rwanda, the Ottoman Empire, and Yugoslavia, didn’t do so well, to make an understatement. There are heavy implications for the United States. Ultimately, the lesson of Out of the Melting Pot is not necessarily to avoid multiculturalism, but rather to avoid pitting groups against each other with affirmative action, racial preferences, and other preferential treatment.
It used to be taken as axiomatic that America was a melting pot. In fact, it was presented as a wonderful thing. At least this made sense and used to be self-evident in terms of our national identity. But it’s been a decade or two since this notion has become taboo.
How subtly the concept of assimilation became unacceptable, just as the political winds shifted from the ‘90s to our current minefield of political correctness with regards to our conception of who we are as a nation. Heycke explains how this change occurred, and how the melting pot became a “microaggression.” From there, we switched to multicultural mode.
One of the most successful multicultural empires was ancient Rome. Rome integrated former enemies into allies by extending to them the possibility of Roman citizenship. However, Heycke is quick to point out, such persons were expected to assimilate to Roman culture and speak Latin. Rome was successful in its multicultural project because they were so confident in their own culture such that they were not shy on imposing it on others. Rome was a true melting pot, as evidenced by the Romance languages we have as part of its legacy.
If they didn’t really see themselves as Romans, they could hardly be expected to be loyal to Rome.
Toward the 5th century AD, when Rome stopped assimilating its auxiliary barbarian forces, is when the trouble began. Visigoths, Francs, and other barbarian groups stuck together, and a mutual distrust hostility emerged between them and the Romans. If they didn’t really see themselves as Romans, they could hardly be expected to be loyal to Rome. It is akin to our modern identity politics.
According to Heycke, it was not necessarily disease or superior technology that made Cortes so successful against Montezuma and the Aztecs; it was rather the fractiousness of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs did not foster a sense of “shared identity” as did the Romans. Their subjects, therefore, had no incentive to fight for them; but rather were eager to join Cortes in toppling the Aztec empire. While Cortes has been villainized in our public schools these days, at least in Heycke’s account one can appreciate Cortes’ savviness in building this coalition. Sometimes the coalition that Cortes built is cited as a way to minimize his victory; as if to say it wasn’t really his work, but rather other indigenous groups. Well, he had the foresight to make the plan, and so Cortes was the brains behind the operation.
Early Islamic State
One might expect from a book in the conservative sphere with a thesis against multiculturalism to not be particularly laudatory of Islam. In fact, Out of the Melting Pot portrays the Muslim conquest of Arabia and parts of Europe in sympathetic terms. The Muslim conquest was perhaps not as bloody and ruthless as we might have supposed. Instead, it was in part due to Islam’s ability to assimilate people into the faith regardless of tribal faction:
“In contrast to the pre-Islamic deities, the God of Islam does not care about tribes or races; and he doesn’t want people to either…” (53).
Islam during the period of Muslim conquest was even open-minded about other religions, including Christianity and Judaism. It is a similar interpretation as made by Islamic scholars such as Reza Azlan about the inclusivity of Islam in the early Islamic state. Does that make Islam a melting pot or a fractured multicultural force? The Islamic empire was a melting pot insofar as it seamlessly melded into its institutions those of diverse racial, geographic and even religious backgrounds. Unlike the United States in 2023, they did not make divisive distinctions along the lines of race. Of course, Islam became less open minded about other belief systems in later centuries, after the initial Islamic expansionist period.
The Ottoman Empire and the Balkans
The Ottoman system of multiculturalism, on the other hand, resulted in some especially disastrous outcomes. In this system, Islam was privileged. Muslims and Christians who wished to really advance were rather compelled to convert to Islam. This divisive system ultimately led to the Armenian genocide in the 20th century.
The Balkans is a notorious example of a pernicious brand of multiculturalism. The Serbs and Croates devolved to barbarity against one another after being pitted against each other, first under the Ottoman Empire and then as a Soviet block.
Rwanda’s genocide can be viewed as a result of racial preferences and the demonization of a group perceived as being more successful. Such was the tension between Hutus and Tutsis: an education system that was more meant as a way to spread grievance rather than learn the facts. One student describes it:
“So the way the teacher could teach a history, was not really a history, but hatred history” (100).
Just like our education system teaches about “white privilege,” the Rwandan education system taught that the Tutsis had privilege, and had oppressed the Hutus. This was used as a justification to continue with affirmative action programs for the Hutus:
“...although Hutus earned only a little less on average than Tutsis, they insisted on maintaining group preferences for jobs and education; their insecurity and defensiveness over losing those preferences deepened the divide. To justify continuing preferences favoring Hutus, school curricula dwelled on the historical privilege enjoyed by the Tutsis, further expanding the divide” (105).
After the genocide, the Tutsi government was magnanimous– to make an understatement. Heycke does reference some reprisals, but one assumes it was not proportionate to a million murders. The Hutus who had partaken in the genocide were asked to confess, but were not severely punished. The main goal was reconciliation. By prohibiting reference to group identity, and instead emphasizing that they are all Rwandans, the country had a remarkable turn around, and is now one of the most pleasant and successful countries in Africa.
Out of the Melting Pot explains how affirmative action policies and racial preferences within multicultural societies tend to become permanent:
“A common characteristic of racial and ethnic preference (i.e., “affirmative action”) programs is that they quickly become entitlements whose beneficiaries will defend them ferociously; they are consequently extremely difficult to rescind” (99).
This goes a long way to explaining the rather vicious debates over CRT and school curricula in the United States. If we don’t perpetuate racial grievances, there would cease to be a justification for racial preferences (which supposedly don’t exist, according to many leftists online) and other diversity infrastructure and bureaucrats.
Forget about rescinding affirmative action, we cannot even get the left to acknowledge that it exists. Affirmative action, or racial preferences, is a theme in Out of the Melting Pot. One is amazed how international affirmative action is, and how it serves various constituencies with other racial dynamics at play than in America. I was not aware at how racial preferences have been prominent in countries with…no white people.
One imagines similar disparities in the US, though our leaders and institutions are just too hypocritical to admit it or to publicize it.
In Sri Lanka, for example, affirmative action at one point became so extensive as to specify what test scores various groups would need to enter the same school: medical school applicants who were Tamils needed a 250; whereas Sihalese only needed 229, as Sinhalese were benefiting from racial preferences from the government at the time (124). One imagines similar disparities in the US, though our leaders and institutions are just too hypocritical to admit it or to publicize it. Once the Tamils realized that they could not get ahead in Sri Lanka by their merit any more, what were they to do?
“Tamils understood that their ability to compete fairly for jobs and education would always be at the whim of whoever held office, and the country could quickly revert to quotas and other divisive measures” (129).
We have certainly already reached this precipice in the United States, wherein one’s merit has arguably become less relevant than one’s group identity in questions of college admissions, jobs, and promotions. Those with children in the college application process may have little cause to argue with that notion. It just isn’t something that’s talked about very often nor very openly.
The penultimate chapter discusses ethnic fractionalization (EF). Heycke shows that a country’s EF tracks with a host of negative outcomes, such as lower GDP, lower investment in public goods, and a tendency for people to hunker down rather than to engage in the community. Furthermore, for complex reasons, countries with high ethnic fractionalization also tend to have less economic liberty, which retards economic growth severely. Examples on the economic freedom side, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, show exponential growth post WWII; whereas countries with little economic freedom, such as India, have growth which has flatlined. Those Nordic countries that still do well under more socialist programs only succeed because they have less ethnic fractionalization:
“But the less a country is like a family [...] the more difficult it is to make socialism work” (171).
Will developing countries, though, heed this advice? Favoring your own klan is sadly a very difficult human proclivity to route out.
So what does all this mean for our current multicultural experiment in America? In fact, Heycke is optimistic. I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance in ferreting out why he is optimistic. Having laid out the devastating examples of Rwanda, the Balkans, and Sri Lanka; well, it isn’t exactly an advertisement for the benefits of ethnic diversity. Furthermore, in the chapter on ethnic factionalization, Heycke shows a strong correlation between ethnic diversity and poor quality of life and economic growth. Heycke concedes:
“Among more fractionalized countries, peace and prosperity are exceedingly rare but attainable” (176).
The best we can do, he advises, is to be more united, and emphasize our national identity rather than our group and ethnic identity. Unfortunately, all of that is already baked into the cake. What he terms “hard multiculturalism” isn’t going anywhere in the United States, whether it’s racial preferences, fractious group-identity, and even racial animosity. I agree with Heycke that there are benefits to diversity; yet I found his full-throated optimism a bit surprising, especially considering the preceding chapters.
If we don’t start unifying rather than emphasizing group distinctions and doling out racial preferences, Heycke warns that we will become a country with high ethnic fractiousness like Brazil or Nigeria. This rings true: Our government is becoming more corrupt, living standards are dropping, and “civil discourse is bitterly focused on group membership” (182). At least Out of the Melting Pot explains how we got here.
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Another, more basic version of this review appears in Reedsy Blog