State of the Union

Scrutinizing Immigration, the Henry James Way

In The New Criterion, Stephen Miller offers a fascinating reconsideration of Henry James’ view of immigration. Challenging the traditional understanding of James as a typical WASP anti-Semite, Miller argues that James saw the new immigrants of the late 19th century, who included Italians and Slavs as well as Jews, as a generally positive influence on American society.

Miller acknowledges that James believed himself and his old-stock compatriots to be dispossessed by the “the wild motley throng” on the Lower East Side. But he points out that James also posed the question with which American nativists have always struggled:  “Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that, in a country peopled from the first under the jealous eye of history?—peopled, that is, by migrations at once extremely recent, perfectly traceable and urgently required. . . . Which is the American, by these scant measures?—which is not the alien, over a large part of the country?”

Miller goes too far in moderating James’ views. Although he avoided the bigotry that afflicted Henry Adams and other members of his circle, James was not particularly optimistic about America’s polyglot future. James did think that the immigrants would be transformed by their new country, and in this sense become Americans without entirely shedding their old identities. At the same time, he understood that American culture would also be transformed by them. In the process, it would lose the essentially New England character James revered.

It is hard to say that James was mistaken. While Miller rejects James’ fear about the degradation of language, for example, James foresaw that the American idiom would drift away from the influence of its geographic source, and take its inspiration from the streets rather than the pulpit and the drawing room. Surely James exaggerates when he predicts that, “The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful in the globe and the very music of humanity . . . but whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English.” But I am not sure that he was wrong, either about the global appeal of the American language or its novelty.

On the other hand, Miller reminds us how seriously interested James was in the new immigrants. Many of James’ contemporaries relied on stereotypes of stupid Italians, greedy Jews, and so on. James actually took the trouble to meet and speak with them, sometimes in their own languages, before submitting his judgments to the press. This was not simply because he wanted to learn firsthand about his subject. It was also because he regarded the transformation of the immigrants into a new kind of Americans as an unprecedented feat of cultural alchemy that deserved to be understood even if it could not be approved.

For this reason, James’ writing on the “New York Ghetto” and related topics have a humane quality that escapes most immigration critics today. Although they are heavily freighted with abstractions, statistics, and anecdotes plucked from the headlines, few briefs against the Senate bill and associated measures give any sense of who today’s immigrants are, what they hope to accomplish, and how they have been affected by the experience. It’s too much to ask every pundit to be a Henry James, and even James was a literary observer rather than an investigative reporter. Nevertheless, we can learn from example of “the Master”.


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Jennifer Rubin’s Facile Immigration Reform Boosterism

As someone who is hopelessly noncommittal about comprehensive immigration reform (at bottom, I hate everybody: the cheap labor-hungry business class, La Raza, and the nativist right alike), I was shoved in the direction of the opposition by Jennifer Rubin’s platitudinous putdown of the “zero sum rightwing.”

Rubin begins with a half-cocked theory:

In some sense the argument goes back centuries to Adam Smith and the mercantilists. It is ironic that the voices on the right who claim to be pure conservatives evince views that the father of capitalism denounced.

Mercantilism is what we threw off by the American Revolution and what The Wealth of Nations replaced: Mercantilism is the ideology that nations must protect their wealth from infringement by other countries using techniques such as tariffs.

“Techniques such as tariffs”! “Techniques” that accounted for the vast majority of federal revenue well into the 19th century. “Techniques” that were championed by Abraham Lincoln and—let’s go ahead and call him the “father of American capitalism”—Alexander Hamilton.

After this auspicious warmup, Rubin then farms out her blog post to Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh, “who tells me the analogy is correct” (thank God for that!). Later she argues: “anti-immigration voices who decry Big Labor and minimum wage (not to mention ‘living wage’) proposals for setting labor rates too high (and thereby contributing to unemployment) don’t seem to understand that immigration restriction does the same thing.”

This is another illustration of ideological android reasoning: human beings are widgets, and all policy disputes are basically math problems. Reality, as David Frum explains here, isn’t so neat and clean:

Whatever else you say about the U.S. economy of the 21st century, it cannot be described as suffering from labor shortages.

Yet however little workers earn, there is always somebody who wishes they earned even less. And for those somebodies, the solution is: Import more cheap labor. But not just any cheap labor—cheap labor that cannot quit, that cannot accept a better offer, that cannot complain.

Dating to the Bush-era attempt at legally integrating the country’s 11 million undocumented workers, I’ve been tepidly in favor of codifying the inevitable: we’re not going to boot them out of here, so we might as well solve the problem. But the facile boosterism of the likes of Jennifer Rubin isn’t helping. At all.


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Terror, Immigration, and Blowback: a Mess That Needs Sorting

A few years ago I wrote a  favorable review of Christopher Caldwell’s book on Islamic immigration to Europe for Mondoweiss, the important post-Zionist website. Most of mondo’s readers are progressives, and most are pretty sanguine about multiculturalism,  Muslim immigration into Europe, etc. A regular Mondoweiss commentator, Indrees Ahmad, counterattacked with vigor and probably a fair number of Mondoweiss readers wondered why a reactionary, skeptical about multiculturalism piece was doing on the website. (Idrees, whom I’ve gotten to know a bit since, is an extremely talented Anglo-Pakistani scholar, an author of a brilliant forthcoming book on the politics pushing America into war in Iraq.)

No subject splits me down the middle like this. I just returned from five days in in Paris, where I found that I oppose Muslim rioters, Muslim terrorists, and Muslim free-speech intimidators as fervently as any yob from the English Defense League. When I read of the British soldier who was hacked to death by some self-styled Nigerian jihadist (who speaks fluent English and was raised in Britain in a Christian home) I think, basically, Britain would be every bit within its rights to deport a million Muslims. As for Stockholm and its rioters, forget about it. The Swedish ministers who thought it a good idea to import rapidly a population of Somalis into a fairly healthy homogenous society should probably be tried for treason. And the Somali rioters, give them ten thousand dollars and an airline ticket be done with them.

And yet, and yet. It is hard to dismiss entirely the argument of the London jihadi—your soldiers can’t be safe when your drones, your soldiers, kill innocent Muslims every day. We in America are almost completely shielded from the violence we inflict; unlike the Vietnam war, this one isn’t televised. It is waged by professional soldiers who “protect our freedoms” as the beginning-to-sound-tiresome phrase goes, far from our sight. We honor them on Memorial Day by dressing major league baseball players in desert camouflage hats for an evening, a gesture born of guilty conscience. Few of us really believe anymore the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have much to do with our freedom, even if we pretend otherwise. Such  falsehoods have become emotionally necessary, to absolve us of having this huge class of less fortunate young Americans face danger all the time so that most of us don’t have to. Indeed, we barely have to know about it. Read More…

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France Has an Extrême-Droite When It Needs a de Gaulle

Arrived in Paris Tuesday with few intentions beyond watching some tennis (French Open qualifying, the inexpensive and crowd-free formula for spectating a high level of the sport), eating well, and hanging out with my wife after her several hectic weeks of preparing our daughter’s wedding. But it was soon clear that the European civilizational crisis (cf. Death of the West) while often easy to ignore, is very much with us. In a suburb of Stockholm, some immigrant youths have fought the police four successive nights (“youths acting youthy,” summarized Steve Sailer, sardonically), while in London yesterday two African Islamists hacked a soldier to death with a machete. In Paris on Tuesday afternoon a 78-year-old far-right activist and historian, Dominique Venner, entered the sanctuary at Notre Dame, deposited a suicide note at the altar, and shot himself in the mouth.

Venner was a serious figure in France’s extrême-droite, a phrase with different and far richer connotations than “extreme-right” in America. A major current of French intellectuals opposed the Revolution, quite understandably, and kept at it, rhetorically, throughout the 19th century. A French Right standing for traditional authority, order, aristocracy, the nation (and skeptical about fraternity, equality, and the various French republics) has been a constant and serious force, able sometimes to speak for nearly half the country. The far right hasn’t been violent since the early sixties—when right-wing officers of the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète tried to spark a coup against De Gaulle for letting go of Algeria—but as a current in French political life, it is always there. Today its main concern is immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, and in its current political incarnation, the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, has jettisoned the party’s submerged but never absent anti-Semitism for a militant pro-Zionist and anti-Muslim line. Le Pen garnered 18 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, and the FN is a fairly serious minor party, receiving 13 percent of the first-round votes in the legislative elections and holding quite a few local offices. Hostility to immigration is a “populist” cause, and many of the FN’s voters used to vote communist; nevertheless there is an aristocratic and intellectual aura to the far right dating to the Revolution, and not entirely absent from today’s FN. It is this of which Dominique Venner was a part.

The goals of the suicide are easy enough to imagine. Part is surely vanity—Venner’s blog, I’m sure, has received more attention in the past two days than its entire previous existence, and every intellectual wants to be read. He was old and recently diagnosed with a grave unspecified illness. His concrete goal was to pull together two disparate groups of disaffected conservatives, the opponents of gay marriage (as in the U.S. a sizeable, somewhat shell-shocked minority) and the opponents of immigration. In his suicide note he tries to connect the two causes: Read More…

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Rubio’s Plan to Shrink the Republican Vote

Has the bell begun to toll for the GOP?

The question arises while reading an analysis of Census Bureau statistics on the 2012 election by Dan Balz and Ted Mellnik.

One sentence in their Washington Post story fairly leaps out:

“The total number of white voters actually decreased between 2008 and 2012, the first such drop by any group within the population since the bureau started to issue such statistics.”

America’s white majority, which accounts for nine in 10 of all Republican votes in presidential elections, is not only shrinking as a share of the electorate, but it is declining in numbers, as well.

The Balz-Mellnik piece was primarily about the black vote.

Sixty-six percent of the black electorate turned out, to 64 percent of the white electorate. Black turnout in 2012 was higher by 1.7 million than in 2008. Hispanic turnout rose by 1.4 million votes.

But from 2008 to 2012, the white vote fell by 2 million.

This is the crisis of the Grand Old Party: Read More…

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Amnesty: Hammer of the Welfare State

The big immigration news yesterday was the Heritage Foundation’s much-anticipated report claiming amnesty for illegal immigrants will cost $6.3 trillion, which the author says is a “very, very low estimate.” It’s a strange piece of white-paper-as-agitprop that other conservative groups have already condemned, as well as politicians like Jeff Flake and Haley Barbour, significantly because it undermines the rest of the institution’s push for dynamic scoring—that is, accounting for economic growth—elsewhere in the federal budget. They don’t calculate the potential revenues of legalized immigrants once they’ve started to advance in society and make more money, and fail to take into account that illegal immigrants are already a strain on the social safety net. Jim Pethokoukis and Walt Hickey are both numbers guys, so I’ll leave the rest to them.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to kill the Rubio package, but the study has more to do with giving Senators scary-sounding factoids to cite during this week’s Judiciary Committee hearing. Andrew Stiles pulls some out:

Because the average illegal immigrant is about 34 years old, restricting access to benefits during the interim phase would have only a “marginal impact” on the long-term aggregate cost. The study found that, under current law, illegal-immigrant households produce a combined fiscal deficit of about $54.5 billion per year. After legalization, that number would fall to $43.4 billion, but would climb to $106 billion once households become eligible for welfare benefits, and would increase still further to around $160 billion during the retirement phase.

In total, current illegal immigrants would receive around $9.4 trillion in government benefits and services over the course of their lifetimes, the study found, and would pay about $3.1 trillion in taxes, resulting in a net fiscal deficit of $6.3 trillion. “This should be considered a minimum estimate,” the authors write, because it likely undercounts the total number of illegal immigrants that would ultimately be legalized and as a result would become eligible for welfare and medical benefits. “Those who claim that amnesty will not create a large fiscal burden are simply in a state of denial concerning the underlying redistributional nature of government policy in the 21st century,” the authors conclude.

That’s a bit of a dodge, since even most pro-amnesty conservatives and libertarians do recognize the welfare-state problem. Milton Friedman lays it out simply in the above video, and pretty much all sides of the immigration debate, including an author of the Heritage study, have invoked his memory. An even more succinct version is this RedState headline: “Open Borders + Welfare State = Disaster.”

Read More…

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The Blind Spot of Conservatism

About a third of the way through The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher paints a moving portrait of a community tending to one of its own:

The news hit the West Feliciana community like a cyclone. As the day wore on a hundred or more friends mobbed the hospital. Some offered to move in with the Lemings to care for the children while Ruthie fought [her cancer]. John Bickham told Paw that he would sell everything he had to pay for Ruthie’s medical bills if it came to that. At the middle school the teachers did their best to get through the day, but kept breaking down. All over town people prepared food and took it by the Leming house, which, this being Starhill, sat unlocked.

“We were surrounded by so much love,” Mam recalls. “It was the most horrible day of our lives, but we could feel the love of all these good people. There was nothing we could have wanted or needed that wasn’t done before we asked. And they were there. Do you know what that means? People were there.”

The inspiring collective response of this small Louisiana town seems to me a paradigmatic real-life example of the kind of civil society that Yuval Levin (as well as TAC’s Samuel Goldman) champions here as a Burkean rebuke to harsh conservative rhetoric about the “culture of dependency”:

We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.

I don’t want to speak for Rod here. Nor do I want to superimpose on The Little Way, a deeply personal meditation on social and family bonds, a polemical or partisan quality that it in fact mercifully avoids. But I don’t think I’m misreading Rod at all in saying that technocracy is not what enabled his particular illusion of independence. That illusion stemmed from the desires of his own heart: a desire to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural America and discover the wider world; to pursue a life of the mind; to experience, as the British playwright David Hare put it in his screenplay for The Hours, the “violent jolt” of life in the metropolis.

Our culture stokes this desire, and in no small way our economy depends on it. When politicians tirelessly invoke the “American Dream,” when we celebrate social mobility and “churn,” we are encouraging millions of young Rod Drehers to leave their Starhills and become “boomers,” as the poet Wendell Berry (via Wallace Stegner) describes those whose ambition compels them to leave home.

To make the point in the context of our ongoing clash over immigration, do we not at least unwittingly celebrate the dilution of communities when we hold up as heroes those who leave behind their friends and extended families to pursue employment in America? To borrow the simple phraseology of Rod’s mother, a young man who leaves a village in Latin America or South Asia is no longer there. Read More…

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How America Can Deal With Militant Islam

“I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people,” said Edmund Burke of the rebellious Americans.

The same holds true of Islam, the majority faith of 49 nations from Morocco to Indonesia, a religion that 1.6 billion people profess.

Yet, some assertions appear true.

Islam is growing in militancy and intolerance, evolving again into a fighting faith, and spreading not only through proselytizing, but violence.

How to justify the charge of intolerance?

The Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas. The Sufi shrines of Timbuktu were blown up by Ansar Dine. In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, Christian converts face the death sentence.

In Nigeria, the Boko Haram attacks churches and kills Christians, as in Ethiopia and the Sudan, where the south seceded over the persecution.

Egyptian Copts are under siege. Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Iraq have seen churches pillaged, priests murdered. In Indonesia, churches are being shut on the demand of Islamists. Sharia law is being demanded by militants across the Middle East, as Christianity is exterminated in its cradle.

Has Islam become again a fighting faith? Read More…

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Will the GOP Commit Suicide by Amnesty?

Marco Rubio at the Chamber of Commerce, March 2013 | Sarah_Elliott / Flickr
Marco Rubio at the Chamber of Commerce, March 2013 | Sarah_Elliott / Flickr

During President Eisenhower’s first term, 60 years ago, the United States faced an invasion across its southern border.

Illegal aliens had been coming since World War II. But, suddenly, the number was over 1 million. Crime was rising in Texas. The illegals were taking the jobs of U.S. farm workers.

Under Gen. Joseph May Swing, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched “Operation Wetback” and began rounding up and deporting Mexican border-crossers by ship and bus. By the end of Ike’s second term, illegal entries had fallen by 90 percent.

Eisenhower, who had tapped his nuclear hole card twice—first, to force the Chinese to agree to a truce in Korea, then to halt their shelling of the offshore islands in 1958—was a no-nonsense president.

Measured by population and gross national product, Eisenhower’s America was but half the size of today’s America. Yet, in the 1950s, we were in many ways a stronger and more self-confident country.

We had universal military service, and few complained. As for the deportation of the Mexicans, they had broken in, they did not belong here, and they were going back. End of discussion.

Contrast the rigorous response of Ike’s America to an invasion across our southern border to the hand-wringing moral paralysis of our political elite in dealing with 11-12 million illegal aliens in our midst. Read More…

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Two Cheers for Multiculturalism

Here a very local event foreshadows more profound consequences of changing American demographics and mores. The University of Pennsylvania student newspaper, edited by Jennifer Sun, has refused to publish a bigoted anti-Islam ad by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The ads (which are meant to portray as representative of all Muslims some extreme instances of Muslim criminality) had been rejected by some student papers, accepted by others. I think it’s fairly obvious that no student paper in the current — say post-1960s — era would run a similar ad targeting any ethnic or religious group besides Muslims, one which seeks to take some instances of criminal behavior and make them stand for the group as whole. Sun issued a statement noting:

As a fellow student, I’ve been grateful for how diplomatic student leaders from the Muslim Students Association and PRISM [Penn's Interfaith Student group] have been when they approached us with their concerns. This advertisement hit hard, but the last intention we have is to insult or offend our fellow classmates.

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that critical cultural decisions at an Ivy League campus are being made by people who aren’t necessarily white Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, or indeed, African-American. The Ivy League has been diverse for a while, with many Asians; I’ve noted elsewhere that Students for Justice in Palestine groups are active in many elite campuses, where Muslim students often form a core contingent. But here the children of new immigrants are not just present, but assuming cultural leadership. This new America isn’t reflected yet in Congress, but it will be.

I can see potential pitfalls of course, but overall this seems a pretty favorable phenomenon. Bigotry against Islam has long been the only remaining socially acceptable form of American bigotry, and it played a big role in greasing the skids towards the disastrous Iraq war, as it does in the reflexive deference to Israel in the U.S. Congress.  White Protestants who could no longer publicly despise (as many of their ancestors did) Catholics, or blacks, or Jews, found they could hate Arabs and be sanctified by Bernard Lewis and Abe Foxman. Several trillion dollars and thousands of lives later, Americans may have begun to realize these attitudes come with a price. Look at Penn, and welcome the new day.

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