Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire: Multiculturalism in the World’s Past and America’s Future, by Jens Heycke (Encounter, 345 pp., $29.99)

Pessimism about the scale and pace of migration into America has become something of a conservative mantra. The concerns center on both the scale of migration—how many foreigners should be welcomed yearly, through what channels, and what characteristics should be sought in that selection—and the corollary but distinct question of whether, and how, those migrants should be “assimilated” once here, however that term is defined. The two questions are often dealt with interconnectedly. In his 2018 book, Melting Pot or Civil War?, Manhattan Institute president Reihan Salam argued for a lower annual intake with a higher skillset because America’s “melting pot” was rapidly fraying and couldn’t be trusted to function properly at current rates, with migrants primarily low-skilled and increasingly coming from outside Europe. Similarly, while wealthier European nations had a tradition of welcoming immigrants from former colonies, both Christopher Caldwell and Douglas Murray warned that the assimilation steamroller would be overwhelmed by the droves of Muslim refugees flowing into fast-secularizing countries that had forfeited a common culture to assimilate them into.

In Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire, Jens Heycke takes America’s current rates of immigration as a given: 11 million legally in the last decade and an illegal population of 12 million and growing, with the non-European share having shot to 90 percent from a low of 3 percent at the turn of the last century. The challenge, in Heycke’s view, lies on the assimilation end: “We must deepen our understanding of what it takes for diverse ethnic groups to go along and share a country, for we are becoming more multiethnic.” That understanding, he claims, used to be encoded in America’s DNA: “The melting pot ideal was never fully realized, but it was shared by most Americans for nearly 200 years.” When exactly it was discarded is hard to pinpoint, but Heycke points to a 1976 Jimmy Carter speech as the turning point: “ America is not a melting pot. . . . It’s more like a beautiful mosaic.” Fast forward to today, where clamoring for assimilation is often taken as a racist dog whistle, especially among elites. “In a few decades,” Heycke writes, “the melting pot has gone from being celebrated as the key to our success to being dismissed as destructive and morally repugnant.” Heycke’s book seeks to overturn that dismissal.

After surveying eight examples of societies grappling differently with diversity, Heycke concludes that “a society’s success and longevity depends on its ability to forge a unifying asabiyah embracing its entire people.” The term is borrowed from Ibn Khaldun and means a “unifying feeling that binds a group and makes collective action possible.” Without asabiyah, Heycke claims, multiethnic societies can easily descend into discord and violence. The theory casts a shadow over our future that Heycke stresses throughout: “Ethnic tension can degenerate into strife, violence, or genocide with ferocious speed.” In Heycke’s count, it has claimed 10 million lives worldwide since World War II.

His survey begins with a series of race riots in the 530s CE across the Byzantine empire. Heycke zeroes in on the Nika riot of the 530s, where competing chariot teams razed the city down to rubble, to show that “people don’t need primordial distinctions to form these divisions: they can seize on something so trivial as sports.” The next example of failing to cultivate asabiyah is Mexico’s Aztec empire. Heycke argues that Spanish conquerors vanquished the Aztecs not because of diseases or technology, but because of the “multicultural particularism” policy that the Aztecs followed, which created a reservoir of potential defectors that Hernán Cortés keenly exploited. Heycke’s next example is the Balkans, whose break-up from a single Yugoslav republic into separate units was the culmination, he argues, of a long record of multiculturalism, a “political creation” going back to the Ottomans and reinforced by Tito’s “nations and nationalities” policy. Tito, an “ethnic opportunist,” abandoned Yugoslavism and replaced it with a Soviet-style “affirmative action empire.” “Fostering distinct ethnonational identities and enhancing them with preferences,” writes Heycke, “led inexorably to conflict and ethnic cleansing.”

In his attempt to shoehorn multivariate phenomena into this single account, Heycke ascribes Rome’s fall to a shift from a melting pot to a multicultural model. Whereas republican and early imperial Rome integrated neighbors into a “shared sense of Romanitas,” affording it vital support “to defend itself and expand its domain,” in late imperial Rome “groups vied against each other to advance their status at Rome’s expense.” Similarly, Heycke hails early Islam for “a level of tolerance and inclusion that no other faith practiced at the time.” This “sense of shared identity and communal cohesion . . . succeeded in integrating former foes into the ummah,” but later regimes gave way to “a melting pot for those who converted to the state-approved brand of Islam and a subordinate status for everyone else”: the millet system and the istimalet. And lastly, while Sri Lanka’s “pluralist and syncretic past” made it “the best bet in Asia,” in the words of its last British governor, ethnic opportunism pushed the Sinhalese majority toward affirmative action, spurring a cycle of violence against the Tamils that sapped the country’s prospects.

Heycke traces the origins of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide that claimed 1 million lives in just 100 days to Belgium’s colonial policy of affirmative action for the Tutsi minority. Upon independence, the Hutu majority reversed those policies, with the selfsame effect of “inculcating both with the sense that they were distinct groups with interests at odds.” The existence of a group distinction in the first place, Heycke stresses, was an “essential precondition” for genocide, where “scores of Rwandans took up machetes and hacked their neighbors to death.” Later that decade, Rwanda’s government markedly changed tack and showed that even the deathliest conflicts can be eradicated with the right policies, namely, a “potent mix” of national unity and economic freedom. Botswana had a less deadly legacy of fractionalization to correct (a milder form of apartheid under British rule). Today, the country is “one of the Africa’s least fractionalized countries” and the second wealthiest, with a constitution that categorically mandates colorblindness and a national ethos of botho, a term that largely overlaps with asabiyah.

Heycke concludes with reflections on the general costs of ethnic division. Some of his data—like the fact that 40 percent of the international variation in living standards is explained by a measure he concocts of ethnic fractionalization—should prompt a rethink on the old-school left. Fractionalized countries “do very poorly at providing public goods” since tax fraud and uncivil use of these goods grows when the nation is pitted against itself. More generally, “allocation of resources is likely to be perceived as a zero-sum game” in these fractionalized contexts. In general terms, “multiethnic governments are vastly more coercive,” since they must invest in preserving each group’s skin in the economic game. While Heycke points to evidence of the ills that befall societies that combine fractionalization with big government, he is equally adamant in stressing that diversity is not a scourge in itself; rather, it is the “invidious promotion of distinctions and divisions.” Recall the distinction between immigration and assimilation?

Heycke’s conclusion states that “of all possible means to debilitate humanity, the all-knowing God chose multiculturalism.” His parting thoughts amount to a prescription for America to dismantle affirmative action, which, on the pretext of combating past inequities and proportionately higher rates of poverty among nonwhite communities, ends up feeding resentment between groups, while eroding whatever claim to merit these program’s beneficiaries may claim to have. “A never-ending preference program that accentuates ethnic distinctions,” writes Heycke, “is likely to achieve the opposite of its intended results.” Preferences also tend to be open-ended and tremendously costly: “Nearly all programs are proposed as temporary measures to address past disparities, but they quickly become perpetual entitlements.” America’s sprawling affirmative action regime meets this description. The Supreme Court will have its say on the matter soon. Meantime, no one who reads Heycke’s book can say he wasn’t warned.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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