“Winner gets to stay in the country,” I announced as I tossed them the basketball. My teammate, Justin, rolled his eyes. Dougherty, that’s offensive. Then he laughed. But they don’t understand a word. The only thing we could interpret from our Guatemalan opponents were the words “Red Shirt.” That was me. High-school Spanish hadn’t prepared us for the average pickup basketball game in our own town.
We got ready to take our first possession, crouched behind the foul line. As I stared down my opponent, I could hear the train pulling in down the street. I had just read that James Burnham, the first foreign-affairs editor of National Review, took that same train to our town when he commuted from his Manhattan office to his home in Kent, Connecticut. Justin, seeing that I was distracted from the game, shouted, “Go!” I drove to the basket, receiving his pass over my shoulder. Easy lay-up. 1-0, us.
Burnham was one of several ex-communists who defected to conservatism and landed at National Review. A disciple of Leon Trotsky and frequent contributor to socialist publications like New International in the 1930s, Burnham brought his powerful brand of scientific political analysis to a conservative movement that had shown fondness for theological and literary speculations. His Suicide of the West became a classic among movement conservatives. Therein he explained liberalism as the ideology that rationalizes not only the power of our current elite but the dissolution and contraction of Western civilization in the face of communistic and Third World threats. As we discovered our Guatemalan opponents to be surpassingly good jump-shooters, it occurred to me that Burnham’s treatise helped to explain the dissolution of the village that connected me, in a small way, to him. I’d give it more thought later as my immediate concern was my defender’s elbow whenever we boxed each other out for the next rebound. 5-4, them. I wondered how I would explain my exile to my family if things continued this way.
The village of Brewster, N.Y. is part of the larger town Southeast—though everyone in the town refers to the whole as Brewster. The area attracted its immigrants for a few reasons. Brewster sits where I-684, which comes north from New York City, meets I-84, which travels west to Scranton, Pennsylvania and northeast through Hartford into Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, Brewster became a destination for families leaving New York City who couldn’t afford Westchester County. The development brought lots of part-time jobs in construction and contracting.
Apparently Brewster was not the only town experiencing mass immigration from Guatemala. In the Aug. 14 issue of The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell examined the effect of a massive influx of Guatemalans from Tacaná to Georgetown, Delaware and found a great success story. “There is a demand for people from Tacaná who have two decades experience in the peculiar economy of chicken, soybeans, and retirement homes, and two decades of ties to the community out of which that economy grows.” There is some identity theft but no gangs. Hispanic children do better than their white and black counterparts in Georgetown schools. There has been some tension, but Georgetown is reconciling itself to the new residents who may now outnumber the old.
Georgetown’s Guatemalans sound great—at least by Caldwell’s account. But Brewster gets its immigrants from Chiquimula, which I gather must be on the wrong side of the tracks in Guatemala. I’m not sure how Chiquimula prepared its people to shovel snow, yet somehow they do it so well. In the summer the same immigrants ride lawnmowers on the corporate properties and grassy spaces in condo developments along the highways. The supply actually seems to generate the demand for the work they do. Immigrants move into the village without their families. They wait on the curbs in the morning to be picked up. If you are 16 and want beer, they will buy it for you if you give them five bucks. At night they loiter and urinate in the streets. When my girlfriend and I pick up Chinese food, they stare intensely, making her feel vaguely threatened. Part of their culture, I guess. Longtime residents tire of this and move out to the new developments where property management companies truck immigrants to cut their grass.
The town knows that it cannot sustain more growth and has changed its zoning laws to severely limit residential development. But even though expansion around the outskirts of town has been stopped through ordinances, the village population remains unregulated. The town newsletter, which almost never deviates between perk and smirk while discussing school taxes or traffic patterns, recently informed the good citizens, “We all know that the Town is experiencing a problem with illegal overcrowded apartments. While the problem is still primarily concentrated within the confines of the Village of Brewster, we are beginning to see an increase outside of the Village.”
Businesses in the village, like the Whistle Stop restaurant, consider closing as La Guadalupana, a Mexican grocer and restaurant, expands. Amigo’s Gift Shop compliments El Universal and other Spanish-language storefronts. Bob’s Diner, which sits across the street from the train platform and represents the Platonic ideal of diner-ness with its greasy food, small booths, and reassuringly unfriendly staff has been a landmark since Burnham co-founded National Review in 1955. How many times did he eat here before retreating to Kent? Would he recognize this village from his booth?
Quoting Mosca in his work The Machiavellians, Burnham said, “those who have the will and, especially the moral, intellectual and material means to force their will upon others take the lead over the others and command them.” Brewster’s inability to control immigration is part of the larger problem of law enforcement on illegals. Local politicians have called INS repeatedly. “They’re here, you deal with them,” was the response. They’ve called Elliot Spitzer, the chief law-enforcement officer in the state with a reputation for fighting white-collar crime. But fighting contractors and landlords is apparently not high on his list of priorities. Instead of enforcing laws, the state is bribing Brewster by providing more money for “development.” A movie theater shuttered a decade ago may become a local musical theater or art-house cinema, ostensibly to attract more business to the village from the town. A day-laborer center has also been discussed.
Facing so many obstacles, the town is slowly resigning itself to whatever Chiquimula makes of this New York village. Parking tickets are enforced on the high-school kids, but imposing our immigration, zoning, and quality of life laws on the immigrants is a task too great for Brewster. It is apparently better for property values to drop, for iconic small businesses to close, for the streets to become dirty than to be called racists. Putting aside the number of man hours it would take to check the legal status of village residents and the number of upset landlords and contractors, the town lacks the moral resources to enforce its laws on people whom it values so little as members of the community and so much as the bottom rung in the economy.
What Burnham recommended, to take charge of our communities and nation, is useful on the basketball court. Justin and I had the will to win, but in order to overcome our Guatemalan opponents we had to deploy our intellectual and material advantages, setting hard picks, crashing the boards, using our speed and intuitive passing skills. I’m happy to report that we won 11-8 and still reside in the United States. Our opponents never formally accepted the stakes of the game. Sweating in the dusk of summer I, Red Shirt, shook their hands, smiled my gringo-grin, and said, “Good game, I’ll save you the trouble and call the authorities myself.” Justin knew I was joking. The joke’s on all of us.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is books editor of the New Pantagruel.