"Americans could teach Austrians about diversity," USA Today (February 14, 2000), page 19A.


Condemning Austria's inclusion of an extreme right-wing party in its government is fully justified -- and woefully insufficient. Censure by the European Community is welcome -- and utterly inadequate. Anybody who believes that we can embarrass or pressure the Austrians into treating their xenophobic party as a pariah had better think again.

Instead, we must deal with the underlying causes that lead one out of every three Austrians to favor an extreme right-wing party.

My repeated discussions in their language with Austrian political leaders, newspaper editors and university professors, as well as a week-long retreat in Aufbach, at first elicited rather superficial explanations: Unemployment is still up. The two main parties that together governed Austria for nearly a generation in one form or another had grown complacent and stodgy, losing touch with many of their constituents. Given that the main parties acted basically as one, dissenting voices had no channels for expressing themselves.

Furthermore, I was told that Joerg Haider is youthful, irreverent, fresh, daring and dashing. He speaks for and to the disaffected. Moreover, unlike Germany, which largely faced its past in the 1960s, Austria still is in denial. (Austrians, the old joke goes, have convinced themselves that Hitler was German, and Beethoven was Austrian.) Hence, Austrians are less shy about embracing semifascist ideologies. While all of these explanations contain a grain of truth, a bit of probing brings out deeper causes that must be taken into account if we are to help Austria rather than merely dump on it.

Austrians feel beaten over the head, doubly. They used to play a major international role as a bridge between the East and West; now they are becoming a small, nearly trivial entity in the European community. "When the German government acts," goes the frequently heard observation, "the question in Vienna is whether we must waste no time in following suit or can afford to wait a minute or two."

And massive immigration, especially of Romany (Gypsies) and Bosnians, is viewed, not without reason, as threatening Austria's national character and identity. These points are particularly important because the rise of right-wing parties and their followers in Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, France and even Germany are driven by similar forces.

As Americans, we can best share with Austrians -- and other Europeans -- a full understanding of how we came to terms with waves of immigrants of different backgrounds, as well as what the resulting changes were to our national character and identity. It would not hurt if in the process we admitted that our journey was far from easy, and that it, too, resulted in occasional bursts of xenophobia.

Because we now tend to take the sociological architecture we constructed for granted, we often are unaware of how unique it is and how much explaining it would take before the Europeans might learn to live with it.

We often talk about the American society as an increasingly diverse one. Actually, the American sociological design is much more accurately depicted by the terms "pluralism within unity." Thus, we take it for granted that hyphenated Americans can be good Americans, that everyone can be free to pray to whatever God they wish, and that we can remain attached to and follow many of the cultural traditions of our countries of origin. But we also have definite areas in which loyalty to the nation is expected to take priority, including heeding the laws of this land, accepting the democratic way of life and tolerating others. And when a commitment to the United States conflicts with ethnic involvements, especially in war, loyalty to the United States must take precedence.

It is hard for us to understand how foreign such arrangements are to Austrians and many other Europeans. There are no Roman-Austrians or Romanian-Austrians, any more than there are Turkish-Germans or Algerian-Frenchmen. Most Austrians et al still seek either to exclude immigrants or to assimilate them fully, and they grow highly resentful when "these people" maintain their distinct accents, appearances, subcultures and enclaves.

When the concept of pluralism-within-unity was laid out before an Austrian audience during a private meeting, an Austrian leader responded with great emotion: "This is a great idea! But the trouble with our immigrants is that they will not accept our values!"

Obviously, Austrians have a long way to go before they feel that allowing for diversity within their confines will not denigrate their culture; rather, it would enrich it. Indeed, if they were to accept this, they might discover that welcoming people of different backgrounds while encouraging them to accept some Austrian basics would help their aging and stagnant society and would be vastly superior to the lonely road down which they are now headed.

Our cultural attaches and public affairs officers, foundation leaders such as George Soros, and visiting scholars should supplement our expression of dismay by urging Austria to try the American model. All of us, in many hundreds of thousands of informal contacts with visiting Austrians and when visiting in Austria, should do more than express our shock and outrage -- as justified as those reactions are. We should candidly tell them that we struggled with similar challenges and came out of them better for it.

Amitai Etzioni teaches at George Washington University. He is the author of the books, The Spirit of Community and The New Golden Rule.

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