The worst thought crime is the one you don't realize you're committing.
So it was with NBC News legend Tom Brokaw, who -- for good reason -- didn't understand that assimilation is now a third rail of American politics.
He caused a furor with comments on the venerable Sunday news program "Meet the Press" over the weekend, including, most controversially, his statement that he believes "that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation."
The condemnations were swift and sweeping, and a sign that being a beloved media figure who has never before said anything that could legitimately be considered bigoted is no defense when the furies descend.
It was Presidential Medal of Freedom to white hood in one sound bite. A group called Latino Victory hit Brokaw for allegedly giving "credence to white supremacist ideology."
Typically, his apologies were deemed insufficient and part and parcel of the original offense.
Let's stipulate that using a definite article to refer to any minority group will always strike people as tone-deaf, but what Brokaw was getting at – importance of assimilation to cultural cohesion – should be uncontroversial.
It isn't anymore. The head of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists rejected the very idea of assimilation, which he decried as "denying one culture for the other." It is astonishing that in that formulation "the other" is American culture. We are perhaps the only nation in world history that has sought to "otherize" its own culture.
It's also been a trope to accuse Brokaw, as Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro did, of xenophobia. But saying immigrants should assimilate is the opposite of xenophobia – it is an expression of a belief that they can be and should be fully part of the American mainstream.
The old American ideal of the melting pot is that immigrants become wholly American (learning the language, embracing the folkways and traditions, becoming deeply patriotic), but also make a distinctive contribution to our national culture, which is organic and open to a variety of influences. It is wrong to view this dominant culture as hateful or exclusionary.
As Michael Lind wrote in his brilliant 1995 book, "The Next American Nation": "The common culture of the American nation is a unique blend of elements contributed by Algonquian Indians and Midwestern Quakers and black Americans and Mexican mestizos and New England patricians. The national culture is not a white culture; black Americans have shaped it far more than the most numerous white immigrant group, German-Americans."
In his comments, Brokaw focused on assimilation as a function of individual effort on the part of immigrants. The real problem is that we have fashioned an immigration system that is not geared toward assimilation.
In 1920, when we were absorbing another historic wave of immigrants, the newcomers were evenly distributed across nationalities. No single group predominated. In contrast, the wave of the last few decades has been heavily tilted toward Mexico in particular and Latin American countries in general.
In the early 20th century, we also reduced numbers of immigrants after 1924, facilitating the breakup of ethnic communities and a de-emphasis on ethnic identity.
We have never tapped the brakes on the current wave. A National Academy of Sciences study noted that Spanish-speaking immigrants are acquiring English more slowly than other immigrant groups: "A major reason is the larger size and frequent replenishment of the Spanish-speaking population in the United States."
Reducing levels of immigration would aid in assimilation, if that is still considered a universally desirable goal.
In the play that that gave us the phrase "the melting pot," Israel Zangwill wrote, "Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross -- how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame!"
The Brokaw controversy is a sign that the great Alchemist may soon be looking for work.