By Clarence Page

Among their other headaches, some of Europe's biggest leaders are troubled by the lukewarm state of their countries' melting pots.

As in the United States, a combination of economic recession, terrorism fears and electoral politics has made scapegoats out of immigrants and government multiculturalism policies. Unlike the U.S., they don't have a melting-pot tradition. Instead they've tried a brand of multiculturalism that's getting bad reviews.

State multiculturalism has had "disastrous results," says British Prime Minister David Cameron. It has "totally failed," says German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Clearly yes, it is a failure," agrees French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Has "multi-kulti," as the Germans call it derisively, indeed failed Europe's great leaders? Or are they simply not doing it right?

Multiculturalism means different things to different people. On its best days, it is a salad bowl or mulligan stew alternative to the melting pot. In this country, it means a respect for cultural differences while remembering that, most of all, we're all still Americans, part of a cultural mainstream that is worth assimilating into, even if our leaders sometimes make mistakes.

Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy, among others, are recognizing that their multiculturalism policies have brought respect for cultural diversity but have failed to integrate and assimilate diverse ethnic communities, particularly Muslims, into the mainstream.

When Merkel says Germany's experiment has failed, for example, she is talking about her country's "gastarbeiters," or guest workers of mostly Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish stock. Invited since the early 1960s to fill labor shortages, they have stayed longer and grown larger in population than expected without fully integrating or assimilating.

Now Merkel is facing a tough re-election campaign, with voices on the right grumbling about immigrants while German industrialists want even more immigrant workers. As a result, Merkel took pains to say that all immigrants are still welcome, but she also asks, among other requests, that they please try to learn some German.

Cameron called for a "more active, more muscular liberalism" in a recent Munich speech to counter the current "doctrine of state multiculturalism" that has led to alienation and even jihadism among young British Muslims. Instead he called for the active promotion of democratic values, the rule of law, freedom of speech and equal rights.

That begins to sound like the American model. Our debate has centered in various ways on how cultural differences can be respected without causing our melting pot to boil over.

Sometimes we have panicky outbursts of xenophobia like Arizona's recent legislation to outlaw ethnic studies. The state's new Attorney General Tom Horne wrote the law when he was the state's superintendent of schools. He thought the Mexican-American studies classes offered in Tucson's schools encouraged too much separatism and resentment toward mainstream American culture. Unfortunately, his remedy probably alienates immigrant communities even more.

So does Oklahoma's referendum that voters approved in November to outlaw Shariah law, even though there was no known effort to impose the Islamic legal code in their state. At least a dozen other states are reported to be considering similar legislation, despite its distinct aroma of Islamophobia.

In short, there's a thin line between efforts that encourage full participation in mainstream American culture and those that punish one particular culture. We can oppose arranged marriages, animal sacrifices, speech censorship and other cultural practices that conflict with American laws and freedoms without disrespecting the home cultures of those who sincerely want to be Americans.

Doing multiculturalism right calls for striking a balance between a respect for diverse cultures and a respect for the common culture we all share. Regardless of their origin, immigrants to this country tend to be driven by a desire to find opportunity and stir themselves into our melting pot. Even if the first generation resists, their children tend to embrace the America of "Sesame Street" and Big Macs with great enthusiasm.

By contrast, Europe has allowed large communities of immigrants to grow in little ethnic enclaves that endure from one generation to the next with remarkably little assimilation, compared to their American counterparts. Each side accuses the other of refusing to mingle and assimilate. Don't blame multiculturalism for that failure. Blame people. People will have to fix it.


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