Yet large areas of central Los Angeles, rural California, New Orleans and Washington have become de facto apartheid communities like the French suburbs, with segregated concentrations of either illegal immigrants from Mexico, unassimilated first-generation Hispanics or impoverished African-Americans.

One remedy is a return to the assimilation, integration and intermarriage of the past that once characterized the success of most immigrants who arrived in the United States prior to the rise of ethnic separatism of the 1960s. Unfortunately, abstract deference in white America to racial tribalism often serves as psychological cover for an unwillingness to live among, or send one’s children to school with, the “other.”

The English language is our common bond. More than ever it is the first bridge between widely diverse immigrants. Bilingual education and a multiplicity of languages in official documents have not only proved wasteful but also eroded first-generation immigrants’ facility in English, the sole language that can guarantee them economic security.

Guest workers are yet another bad idea. We see that from the bitter experience of helots in France and Germany–and our own past. Modern “bracero” temporary laborers will only breed lasting resentment–“good enough to work here, but not enough to stay”–and depress the wages of poorer citizens.

Our immigration policy is in chaos. We have millions of illegal immigrants, thousands of whom are in our penal system. Our borders are less secure than France’s. There is not even a Mediterranean Sea between America and the source of most illegal entrants.

Instead of allowing in so many illegally, and then ignoring them as they fend for themselves, America should take in far fewer immigrants, ensure that all come legally and with rudimentary English and knowledge of the United States. And then we must all work together at rapidly making them into full-fledged fellow citizens. ~Victor Davis Hanson, The Chicago Tribune

Victor Davis Hanson is one of those unusual fellow travelers of the neocons who finds mass, unassimilated immigration to be a worrisome and potentially explosive social and political problem. As far as it goes, his article gets many things right, and even if he must bow to conventional Francophobia to make his point it is a welcome change from the usual sort of rot on immigration that Hanson’s colleagues have to offer.

His acknowledgement of the depressing effects of immigrant labour on the wages of native workers is an important admission of the reality that most elite Republican pundits openly dismiss as a myth or scare tactic (in reality, these pundits, mostly well-to-do from the East Coast, couldn’t care less whether the wages of working Americans are falling, so long as their standard of living isn’t noticeably affected). He is right to recognise the similarities between our multiculturalism and identity politics that ‘balkanise’ the country and France’s superficial celebration of diversity (of course, all celebrations of diversity are superficial, but some are more superficial than others).

But let’s not get carried away. There are three important flaws in Hanson’s argument that muddle his appeal for restrictions on immigration. The first, main problem is the tired invocation of civic identity and political ideals as the glue of the nation: “Yet our core American values of democracy, human rights, private property, a free economy, an unfettered press and unbridled inquiry are not optional or up for discussion.”

Actually, I wish that “democracy,” “human rights” and “unbridled inquiry” were up for discussion, since it is not self-evident to me that what Hanson means by these things are either “core American values” (of course, all these things are practises or concepts, not values–sloppy ‘value’ language strikes again) or that they are desirable. But the real problem with this formulation is that it boils down being American to adhering to a set of political beliefs.

All the things listed above may be desirable and worthwhile, but they are not what make us American. The Swiss excel in all of the things listed above, indeed they surpass us in all or almost all, but that does not make them American and those are not the things that make them Swiss. This fallback to civic identity is a continuing weakness of American identity. It makes that identity broad, highly flexible and adaptable but consequently also makes it extremely shallow and insubstantial. To redefine America in simply ideological terms is to attempt to make a success of an “ideological nation” where none has ever succeeded.

He later explicitly rejects as “racial tribalism” any emphasis by white Americans on what I assume must be their European (and, of necessity, Christian) heritage. He wants a “multiracial society under the aegis of Western culture,” which implies naturally enough that these other races do not normally embrace Western culture. That would suggest that the continued predominance of Western culture in this country has quite a lot to do with the continued predominance of the peoples who have historically borne and created that culture. By all means, he seems to be saying, let’s live under the aegis of Western culture, provided that we’re not particularly interested in where that culture came from or which peoples helped to make it.

Another problem with his analysis is the idea that “ethnic separatism” began in the 1960s. It is an assimilationist falsehood that ethnicities freely and frequently commingled in this country in the course of their assimilation (hence Hanson’s interest in intermarriage as part of the assimilation process–for neocons, ethnic integrity must always be broken down), and it is particularly false for the period, c. 1880-1965. It is normal for ethnic communities to remain separate from one another, especially for the first two generations (and in some communities much longer–consider contemporary Chinese, Armenian, Greek and Slavic Orthodox and Ethiopian ethnic communities for starters), and prior to the three great homogenising shocks of WWI, WWII and the combined effect of the Civil Rights and Housing Acts on white ethnic Americans these separate communities retained much of their distinctiveness.

If there was more “ethnic separatism” (and this is pretty clearly a euphemistic and rather inaccurate use of “ethnic” to mask the racial separatism to which he is clearly referring–why else pick the 1960s?), it was partly a function of using abstract and universalist principles to militate against the constitutional and institutional structures of the country. Universalism is extremely useful for setting people against each other, where each group has its own competing claims of rights against every group and each individual his own claims against the group. The language of rights itself can serve to heighten consciousness of racial and ethnic difference, as this difference becomes a symbol of competing claims to power and preference. The very ideals Hanson invokes to serve as the mortar of American identity are the very things that are today accelerating the separatism he regrets.

The third and perhaps most subtle problem with Hanson’s analysis is the notion that assimilation has something to do with “inclusivity.” It sounds very nice to say that America has historically been inclusive, but this would be to mistake openness and inclusivity. A polity may accept the physical presence of immigrants and thus be very open to newcomers, which would fairly describe the United States prior to the (necessary) restrictions of the 1920s on immigration. This is very different from saying that there was any hint of inclusivity. It was prejudice against immigrants, exclusion and, in a word, perfectly natural xenophobia that served as the motivation for new immigrants to become American, as these natural social reactions by the natives served to spur newcomers to adapt themselves publicly as quickly and fully as possible to their new surroundings.

There was no question, except where space was extremely limited (such as in, say, old Brooklyn or the lower East Side), of living cheek-by-jowl with other ethnic communities, just as there was never any question of natives and immigrants living side-by-side. Ethnic neighbourhoods have formed in our cities for a hundred years because immigrants tended to stay to their own for some measure of security and support and because native Americans preferred, when possible, not to live with immigrant communities. This attitude did not blunt assimilation, but hastened it. Indeed, it is possible that without such an exclusionary attitude the country could have long ago fallen into open and violent inter-ethnic conflict. One thing mitigating such a danger in the past was the general racial and religious homogeneity of the population, native and immigrant, which did reduce barriers to assimilating newcomers.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what Hanson calls “racial tribalism” is a normal preference for one’s own and those like oneself based on the sound assumption that seeking to incorporate significantly different races and cultures, especially if it were on the basis of something as flimsy as political concepts, is a guarantee for damaging social and political conflicts. No sane society desires such conflicts, and it is a natural response of any majority in a society to attempt to take preventive measures to avert them.