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Why We Can’t Have Real Conversations

Ross Douthat, History’s Greatest Monster™ (America magazine screenshot)

Ross Douthat’s column this week in The New York Times said that a meaningful immigration compromise requires having hardcore immigration restrictionist Stephen Miller at the table. Excerpt:

The critics are right about this much: Having someone like Miller involved is a change from the way prior immigration negotiations have proceeded. As Jim Antle points out in a column for The Week, those negotiations have been consistently bipartisan, bringing together John McCain and Ted Kennedy, Marco Rubio and Chuck Schumer, now Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin — but “they have mostly taken place between people who are fundamentally in agreement on immigration,” who favor both amnesty for illegal immigrants and reforms that would probably increase immigration rates.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t represent the actual divisions in the country. Americans have become more pro-immigration since the 1990s, but there is still a consistent pattern when you ask about immigration rates: About a third of Americans favor the current trend, slightly fewer want higher rates, and about a third, like Miller, want immigration reduced.

And there are various reasonable grounds on which one might favor a reduction. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population is near a record high, and increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics. There are questions about how fast the recent wave of low-skilled immigrants is assimilating, evidence that constant new immigration makes it harder for earlier arrivals to advance, and reasons to think that a native working class gripped by social crisis might benefit from a little less wage competition for a while. California, the model for a high-immigration future, is prosperous and dynamic — but also increasingly stratified by race, with the same inequality-measuring Gini coefficient as Honduras.


Naturally, Douthat exposed himself as a Nazi symp, according to Crazy Liberal Twitter. A typical example, from a guy with over 36,000 Twitter followers:


But Respectable Liberal Twitter also lost its mind:


This is incredible. Seriously, it is. As Bouie tweeted subsequently, one of Douthat’s great sins is that he recognizes that bigots should have a seat at the table as immigration is worked out. Well, look:

  1. Douthat says that there are actually non-bigoted reasons to want immigration restriction;
  2. Douthat says that whatever one’s own rationale to oppose immigration, the fact of the matter is that a massive number of Americans do — and, this being a democracy, their opinions, you know, matter;
  3. Douthat points out the inconvenient truth that diversity really does sow distrust.

Look at this 2007 piece from the Wilson Quarterly, about Harvard scholar Robert Putnam’s findings. Excerpts:

Few concepts are more celebrated in modern America than racial and ethnic diversity. Yet casual talk-show racism and fierce hostility toward the current wave of Hispanic immigrants make the glorification of“difference” seem glaringly out of step with reality. Although it is alluring to think that living in diverse communities fosters tolerance and social solidarity, Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam, author of the influential book Bowling Alone (2000), which warned of Americans’ growing social isolation, says the evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. The more we are brought into physical proximity with people of another race or ethnic background, the more we withdraw into our shells, he ­writes.

A complex statistical analysis of data collected in ­half-­hour inter­views with 30,000 Americans in 2000 found that people who live in heavily racially and ethnically mixed communities “distrust not merely people who do not look like them, but even people who do,” Putnam ­says.

Diversity triggers a tendency to hunker down and to have less confidence in local government, community leaders, and news media, the study data show. In homogeneous North and South Dakota, 70 to 80 percent of survey respondents said they trusted their neighbors a lot. In diverse Los Angeles and San Francisco, only about 30 percent said the same ­thing.


The effects are similar regardless of age, gender, economic status, political philosophy, or race. Living in a diverse community has a slightly greater negative impact on conservatives than on liberals, but the effect is “significant” among liberals too. Its impact on whites, Putnam says, is “definitely greater,” but it is “visible” among ­non­whites as ­well.


Putnam says the country should look to what worked in the past to foster social solidarity, from building community centers and athletic fields that immigrants and natives can enjoy together to making English-language training more accessible. Because the long-run benefits of immigration and diversity are national in scope, the federal government should help local governments bear the short-term direct costs of increased ­expenditures on education, health care, and other needs.

But Putnam’s former Harvard colleague James Q. Wilson, the ­well-­known conservative thinker, dismisses his long-­term solutions as “wishful thinking.” It’s almost impossible to forge social cohesion among diverse groups, Wilson says. The few institutions that have succeeded, such as the U.S. military and some churches, possess two key ingred­ients that neighborhoods lack: au­thoritative leaders and ­discipline.

More important, Wilson argues, Putnam has a cramped understanding of solidarity. His ideas draw on ­rights-­based notions about how we must learn to manage relations with others and respect differences. That’s only half the battle, according to Wilson. People get a sense of belonging from the things they share with others, such as an ethnic heritage or moral beliefs. If your neighborhood is populated with people whose values and beliefs are close to your own, you’re naturally more likely to join in community ­life.

Putnam thinks that diversity can help create community. Wilson counters that it’s a competing value, albeit a worthy one. “As when it comes to other arrangements in a democracy, balance is all.”

This, apparently, is racist to say. Is social science racism? Is reality racist?

Look at how Salon reports on the controversy over Douthat’s column:

This is libelous. This is a straight-up lie. But any lie told for the sake of the Cause is justified, I guess.

See, this is why I usually don’t even bother engaging with people who scream “Racist! Hater! Bigot!” anytime you disagree with them — even if, as in Douthat’s case, you are simply making a case for political pragmatism. I mean, if Ross Douthat — ardent Never-Trumper Ross Douthat! — is your idea of a white supremacist, you are a crazy person who has no business near political power, and who are implicitly encouraging people to the right of Nancy Pelosi to vote Republican to keep you away from it.

Let me remind you of a conversation I had with an academic friend who defected with his wife from the communist East bloc in the 1960s. He said that life in the West these days is reminding them both of what it was like when communism came to their country. Why? I asked. Because today, people in the media and elsewhere will say whatever they have to, no matter how untrue, to ruin you — and nobody cares. All that matters is the revolution. Truth is what serves the cause.

UPDATE: Not all liberals. For example, here is liberal Shadi Hamid, making sense.


UPDATE.2: Here’s the latest David Brooks column. It argues in favor of increased immigration, saying the areas of the US suffering from the worst stagnation are those with the least immigration. He also says:

What about the rise of social distrust? Restrictionists often cite a 2007 Robert Putnam study finding that more diversity leads to less trust. But Putnam tells me they are distorting his research. He found that diversity’s benefits outweigh its disadvantages, that trust declines over the short term as places grow more diverse, but that over the long term Americans find new ways to boost social solidarity.

What new ways? I’m not trolling here. I’d really like to know. Readers, please share links if you have them.

More Brooks:

What about assimilation? Restrictionists argue that the melting pot is broken. But the definitive survey of the literature from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine finds this is not true. Most descendants of immigrants stop identifying with their ancestral homelands and simply think of themselves as white. In the 2010 census, 53 percent of Latinos identified as white, as did a similar percentage of Asian-Americans with mixed parentage.


Progressives say Republicans oppose immigration because of bigotry. But it’s not that simple. It’s more accurate to say restrictionists are stuck in a mono-cultural system that undermines their own values: industry, faithfulness and self-discipline. Of course they react with defensive animosity to the immigrants who out-hustle and out-build them. You’d react negatively, too, if confronted with people who are better versions of what you wish you were yourself.

That’s very harsh. Which does not make it false. Conservative readers, if you are going to criticize the Brooks column, you’re going to have to do it in my space without resorting to the same kind of rhetoric that the hysterical left uses to demonize people who say things with which they disagree.

In context of the overall column, that final paragraph is clearly meant to criticize poor and working-class right-wing whites who are opposed to immigration. It’s interesting to consider that this is the same argument that conservative whites have used to dismiss blacks who blame discrimination when they fail to succeed at levels achieved by other racial groups.

Again, it doesn’t make what Brooks has written here wrong — in fact, I believe there is something to it — but I have to wonder: would The New York Times publish a column that said black people who react with “defensive animosity” to non-blacks who “out-hustle and out-build them” are reacting negatively because they are being “confronted with people who are better version of what [they] wish [they] were [themselves].”

That’s not a question for David Brooks to answer, but for the newspaper’s editors. If the Times wouldn’t do that, even though they publish a column chastising failing white people for their resentment, saying that they’re blaming others for their own failures, that tells us something about the paper’s own bigotries.

Personally, I think the Times should publish both kinds of columns, provided that they’re backed up by facts and logic. As Jordan B. Peterson told the British TV interviewer, if we’re going to get to the truth of any matter, we have to risk offending, and being offended.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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