I call them English niceties. They are those mannerisms the English-speaking people share—idiosyncrasies that make life so very pleasant. You notice them not at all when they pervade the culture, and pine for them when they’re gone.
And they are slowly disappearing in America, by and large due to the twin evils of multiculturalism and mass immigration.
Ordinary Americans outside the halls of power will appreciate the fellow-feelings that are stirred in me by my miraculously preserved, distinctly American neighborhood here in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s a place where people still greet one another in English and engage in distinct chit-chat: “Lovely day, isn’t it? Oh, it sure is fabulous.” Or, “You go girl,” when I’m jogging up the mountain.
It’s a haven where certain conventions of civility and decorum are observed; and where the same decorations go up around Halloween and Christmas time.
As an immigrant many times over—from South Africa to Israel back to South Africa to Canada to the US—I’ve become excruciatingly aware of what may seem petty, but is far from it.
As you know, emigration is traumatic. It’s up there with bereavement and divorce. Leaving a country leaves one with an irreparable hole in the heart. Leaving a few countries, as I have, may cause permanent damage.
All the more so when the place you’ve fled, South Africa, is being dismantled and dropped bit-by-bit down a black hole. The almost-overnight disintegration of that Christian civilization at the tip of Africa has sharpened my understanding of how fragile such western outposts are and how quickly they can crumble in culturally inhospitable climes.
American opinion has always been as patronizing as it is ignorant about South Africa. It considered the Old South Africa an exotic, multicultural society because it was predominantly black. But it was nothing of the sort. Settled and shaped by the Dutch in the mid 1600s, the Old South Africa was Christian, conservative, and, broadly speaking, bi-racial. Blacks had long since been missionized. In South Africa, the white man’s quaint, western ways have only lately come under a full frontal assault.
It is in the New South-African “Eden” that tribal exotica—shamanism, for example—is considered a manifestation of an African Renaissance. (Ditto the highest murder rate in the world.)
Immigration into the Old South Africa was relatively low. Growing up there, I didn’t know any immigrants. Bantu, Boer, and later British had been competing over that much-contested corner of the continent for an eternity. My own family had arrived in South Africa at the turn of the last century—Jewish traders (and a couple of rabbis) who fled the massacres and Marxism of Russia.
As a consequence, South Africa was a culturally homogenous, if politically fractious, society. It will surprise some to learn that I experienced the greatest multicultural shock to my system in Canada and the US. The very first time I had been unable to communicate with a neighbor was not in faraway South Africa, or Israel, but in Canada, where I lived among Iranian, Korean, and Iraqi immigrants. (They seemed perfectly charming, but I had no way of telling for sure.)
In South Africa, English and Afrikaner “niceties” once dominated. Still, while black South Africans often had more English than some of my husband’s American co-workers today, they appreciated pidgin exchanges in Xhosa, the dominant Bantu language. To elicit beguiling grins, one had only to greet the petrol [British/South African English for gas] attendant with the words, “Molo Butte” (“Good morning, brother”). To which he would reply, “Molo Sissy,” or “Mama,” depending on his interlocutor’s age.
“Progressive” doesn’t imply progress. Like successive American governments, the “progressive”, lax-on-law-and-order African National Congress government is indifferent to immigration enforcement. And, although South Africa is slowly going the way of Zimbabwe, it still has some distance to go before there is nothing left to loot and distribute. In the meantime, the rest of Africa wants in.
Under the tough-on-law-and-order Afrikaner government, illegal immigrants from the killing fields to the north dared not brave the Boer border guards and their equally ferocious, indigenous assistants: four-legged, wild beasts. If an illegal immigrant made it into the Old South Africa, he was removed, turned back at the gate. Firm but fair.
But blacks now rule the South African roost—and they deal differently with foreigners foisted on them by the state: They kill them. And so it transpired, back in May this year, that gangs of black South Africans swept through the townships of Johannesburg slaughtering or savaging African aliens.
Indeed, Africa moves in mysterious ways. Tribe and territory trump political abstractions. The neoconservative propositional nation, held together as it is by notional ideas, doesn’t much move most Africans. Neighbors are what count.
These brutal actions were underwritten by a deeply felt impulse, to which Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam indirectly—and reluctantly—lent scientific imprimatur. Putnam discovered that the greater the diversity in a community, the greater the distrust and the despair. His unexceptional observation that diversity was devastating communities across America did not drive Putnam to issue an S.O.S. Rather, he sat on his findings for some time before publishing Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century. Like many a social scientist living in symbiosis with the state, Putnam’s loyalties were not with its suffering subjects.
In the multiplying multicultural communities Professor Putnam described herein, people “hunker down”: They withdraw, have fewer “friends and confidants,” distrust their neighbors regardless of the color of their skin, expect the worst from local leaders, volunteer and car-pool less, give less to charity and “agitate for social reform more,” with little hope of success.
Unlike Americans, Africans don’t huddle in front of the television, alternating between activism and escapism, unhappiness and ennui. Instead, t
hey seek and destroy the causes of their misery. (Yet the press in the West maligns the Minutemen more than it does killers of newcomers!)
Cut to my community in the Northwest. Down in the idyllic village three young girls were recently robbed at knife point, in broad daylight, by a man they described as Hispanic. Elsewhere in this little hamlet, a woman stabs a man to death. It is the first murder in five years, almost unheard of in this well-to-do tiny town. Unlike the down-market drift increasingly visible on the streets, demographic details in this case are (of course) suppressed by the local media.
Higher up on the mountain, where I live, “English niceties” still prevail. Occasionally an elegantly swaddled Indian lady will waddle by me on my excursions outdoors. She stares straight ahead, even as she bumps me on the narrow sidewalk. She doesn’t know I exist.
In that respect, the South Asian couple that walks by resembles the East Asian lady. I smile. They come uncomfortably close, but look right through me.
©2008 BY ILANA MERCER