Neoconservatives’ denial of the immigration problem

Here is the latest in the reprints of my articles that were published in the pre-Internet era. This article appeared in a cover-story symposium, “Demystifying Multiculturalism,” in the February 21, 1994 issue of National Review. It is an in-depth examination of the rhetorical strategies by which neoconservatives avoid the immigration issue, even as they denounce multiculturalism as a threat to our nation. For the neoconservatives, multiculturalism (which is a leftist ideology) is bad, while mass Third-World immigration (which is just people seeking freedom and opportunities) is good, and therefore has nothing to do with multiculturalism.

Lawrence Auster
National Review, February 21, 1994

WHEN Linda Chavez remarked recently that America’s fast-expanding immigrant population presents “great challenges” to this society, she was, if anything, understating the case. Adding to the already profound social disarray in this country, the continuing influx of well over a million legal and illegal immigrants per year, 90 per cent of them from Third World countries, is feeding a host of cultural ills that may well prove incurable: the loss of a common language, common literature, and common national identity; the dismantling of the common American citizenship in favor of group rights and quotas based on race; the decline of skill levels and the development of a permanent two-tier society; the growth of “victimology” and the demonization of white men as oppressors; the overwhelming of basic social institutions, particularly schools and law enforcement, in southern California, Florida, and elsewhere; the effective loss of U.S. sovereignty to foreign-based criminal gangs in places like New York City’s Washington Heights; murderous interracial conflict in the major cities, as exemplified by the L.A. riots. Underlying all these problems is the steady decline of Americans of European descent from majority toward minority status, with the concomitant redefinition of America as a “multicultural” nation—an oxymoron if there ever was one.

Whatever one’s opinion on the subject, large-scale immigration is clearly a phenomenon of the most far-reaching consequences for this country, demanding the closest scrutiny. Yet, while there have been some moves in Congress to restrict illegal immigration, the conservative and Republican establishments have shunned frank discussion of the negative effects of legal immigration. Most remarkable has been the unyielding denial by many conservatives that the massive Third World immigration they support is fueling the multicultural fragmentation they abhor. Why?

What is at stake for these conservatives is not just immigration itself, but the survival of their defining ideology. Just as liberals embrace a utopian world view that makes it impossible for them to confront the ruinous consequences of their own welfare-state and affirmative-action policies, pro-immigration conservatives subscribe to an organizing myth that leaves them unable to explain, or even to talk honestly about, the mounting social catastrophe resulting from immigration. The myth, in the form of an a priori argument, goes something like this: America was built on universal principles of human rights, equality, and open borders; therefore America, by definition, must have a virtually infinite capacity for absorbing racially and culturally diverse peoples into its national fabric; and therefore any serious concerns about what immigration is actually doing to the country are un-American and must be automatically dismissed.

Throughout the Eighties this ideology—condensed into incantatory bromides like “nation of immigrants” and “melting pot,” and accusatory epithets like “xenophobe” and “nativist”—dominated the scene and silenced all effective disagreement. But today more and more people frankly regard the post-1965 immigration policy as a disaster, and are unafraid to say so. The increasingly open and intelligent opposition to a crumbling national idol has created an almost paralyzing dilemma for pro-immigration conservatives. On the one hand, they can no longer simply dismiss the criticisms and still be taken as serious participants in the debate; on the other hand, if they admit the validity of the criticisms, their universalist view of America will be brought into question. Unable to free themselves completely from this view, they have been forced into a defensive pattern of evasion and false concessions—of appearing to deal with their opponents’ concerns while actually doing their best to make the issue disappear. If the ground is ever to be cleared for a serious national debate leading to real immigration reform, these rhetorical maneuvers must be exposed.

ONE WAY to avoid the hard questions on immigration is simply to change the subject. In the Fall 1991 Policy Review, Mark P. Lagon and Michael Lind addressed the growing ethnic and cultural separatism in this country in frightening terms, predicting that the United States might become “a single state containing several distinct nations. That would represent a revolution in American government and consciousness.” Now, since the “several distinct nations” that Lagon and Lind see taking shape are, as everyone knows (and Lagon and Lind did not deny it), largely the product of recent immigration, the authors might have been expected to address that problem. Instead, virtually in the next sentence, they issued this stunning non-sequitur: “Tighter restrictions on immigration will not be the answer. On the contrary, high levels of immigration to the United States will be necessary into the next century, if for no other reason than to provide enough working men and women to support our aging population.” Lagon and Lind did not even attempt to refute their tacit admission that immigration is fueling the cultural divisions they deplore; they just changed the subject to economics.

Another technique often used by pro-immigration conservatives is to state that their support for immigration is premised on some reasonable-sounding condition which, they argue, will avert the harm their critics are concerned about. This condition, however, always turns out to be non-existent; indeed, everyone already knows it to be non-existent. Thus, when several correspondents to Policy Review complained about the logical inconsistency in Lagon and Lind’s immigration apologia, the authors blandly responded: “We favor immigration on the condition that immigrants assimilate rather than disrupt the cultural integrity of the United States.” (Italics in original.) But they had already implicitly acknowledged that, in large part because of immigration, America was splitting into “several distinct nations.” If that’s not “disrupting the cultural integrity of the United States,” then what is? Similarly, Francis Fukuyama, writing in Commentary, predicted that Hispanics would continue to assimilate perfectly into the mainstream American identity “provided—and this is admittedly a big ‘if’—we do not destroy the assimilation engine through misguided multiculturalist policies.” But is there any reader of NATIONAL REVIEW or Commentary who doubts that such destruction of the engine of assimilation has already occurred? Finally, in the most audacious example of this technique, the Wall Street Journal leavens its repeated calls for open borders with the warning that, for this policy to be viable, the welfare state must first be dismantled so as not to attract immigrants for the wrong reasons. Once again, this sounds like a reasonable condition—until we remember the unhappy fact that the welfare state is not being dismantled; yet in the meantime the Journal, blithely ignoring its own caveat, continues to call for open borders.

A curious pattern emerges. The very people who are rightly sounding the alarm about the ascendancy of multiculturalism, group entitlements, and the welfare state, suddenly—when those same leftist ideologies are potentially associated with immigration—act as if they are about to fade into irrelevance. One is reminded of Orwell’s definition of doublethink as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.”

A similar method of short-circuiting critical thought is to concede the existence of some serious problem caused by immigration, thus reassuring the reader that the writer is not an open-borders ideologue but an impartial observer—and then to resume the open-borders litany without ever referring to that problem again. The effect is to leave the reader with the vague sense that the problem has already been taken into account and resolved, when in fact nothing of the kind has happened. Thus, at the beginning of a major article in Commentary a few years ago, Ben Wattenberg and Karl Zinsmeister made the following dramatic admission: “There is no ignoring the unsettled feeling many people experience upon walking into a New York City subway car or a Los Angeles public school—the feeling of being, as the saying goes, ‘in a Third World country.’ … Within a properly tempered political system, citizens should not be made to feel like strangers in their own land.” But having raised that disquieting prospect of cultural dispossession, Wattenberg and Zinsmeister gave no suggestions on how it might be prevented; indeed, they never mentioned the subject again. Instead, they returned to the familiar, swelling refrain (dissolving any lingering doubts in the mind of the average reader) that immigration is an unqualified economic benefit and therefore should be substantially increased.

It says something about the level of the immigration “debate” up to this point that Ben Wattenberg openly admits, even celebrates, the incoherence of his expansionist stand. Once, during a joint appearance on David Brudnoy’s radio program on WBZ in Boston, I pointed out that Mr. Wattenberg had made two contradictory statements: that Third World immigration is transforming the U.S. into a completely different sort of country, a “universal nation”; and that immigrants are not changing America at all, but are “assimilating.” When I argued that he “couldn’t have it both ways,” Mr. Wattenberg cheerfully replied: “You can’t blame me for trying!”

NO DOUBT, some of these conservatives have genuine, rather than merely rhetorical, worries about the cultural consequences of immigration. But on the rare occasions when they express such doubts openly, they immediately retract them. In the opening pages of Illiberal Education, Dinesh D’Souza briefly touched on the forbidden topic of the link between immigration and multiculturalism. “When the United States starts to lose its predominantly white stamp,” he wondered, “what impact will that have on its Western cultural traditions? On what terms will the evanescent majority and the emerging minorities relate to each other?” But having posed that profound and troubling question, Mr. D’Souza did not refer to it again in the course of his book. When he did bring up the “ethnic change is fueling multiculturalism” argument in an article some months later, he simply dismissed the idea as multiculturalist propaganda! Mr. D’Souza’s retreat from such a sensitive topic should not be surprising. To have suggested that the ongoing submergence of America’s white majority might also help submerge the Western cultural traditions of this country would have put him on a collision course with his universalist assumptions.

SO SACROSANCT is the open-borders dogma that even the most thoughtful establishment conservatives will abandon their own analysis of multiculturalism if it starts to lead them to the “wrong” conclusion on immigration. Linda Chavez’s Out of the Barrio provides a fascinating example of this sort of circumspection. In this book Miss Chavez endeavors to refute the assertion, widely promoted by Hispanic activists, that Hispanics are a permanently disadvantaged and discriminated-against group in this country. She accomplishes this aim by demonstrating that the main reason for the darkening prospects for Hispanic assimilation and economic advancement (problems which the activists blame on discrimination) is that an ever-larger proportion of the Hispanic population consists of recent immigrants, whose massive numbers and problems obscure the progress made by Hispanics who have been in the country for generations.

Here it suddenly becomes evident that Miss Chavez’s carefully reasoned analysis has led her to the edge of a precipice: if massive Hispanic immigration is retarding or reversing the assimilation of the Hispanic community as a whole, and thus exacerbating the economic and cultural divisions in this country, then surely Hispanic assimilation and American national unity depend on reducing Latin American immigration. From the vertiginous brink of this insight, Miss Chavez steps back to the safety of establishment-conservative orthodoxy, by uttering the non-sequitur that “nothing can be done” to reduce immigration in any case. Having boldly dissected the ideology of ethnic entitlements, she calls a halt when that same analysis raises doubts about the ideology of large-scale immigration.

Beyond the doublethink characteristic of the open-borders ideology, there is another Orwellian feature at work: the ploy of changing the past. Since it is generally understood that continued Third World immigration is leading to an unprecedented transformation of this country in social, political, cultural, and racial terms, that policy can only be made palatable to the American people by redefining America and its history so that the transformation will not be seen as such. The leftist redefinition of America as a multicultural society has a conservative (and liberal) analogue: the redefinition of America as a universalist idea, divorced from any historical or cultural particularity. Mark Falcoff, writing in Commentary, offers a classic expression of this view. “Uniquely among nations,” Mr. Falcoff declares, “[America] is a ‘proposition country’: it has no history or identity apart from certain eighteenth-century political notions embodied in its Constitution and common law.” (Italics added.)

Repeated constantly by mainstream opinion-makers, the rationalist reduction of America to nothing more than a set of abstract principles (freedom! opportunity! pluralism!) has convinced millions of Americans that they have no basis on which to oppose (or even to feel uncomfortable about) the prospect of unimaginable changes in this country’s ethnic and racial composition. But it has achieved this result only by discarding into the Orwellian memory hole vast components of American history and culture, including nationhood itself. As Francis Fukuyama has noted, throughout most of its history the United States “considered itself not merely the embodiment of universalist principles of liberty and equality, but also a Christian Anglo-Saxon nation. Community was based on a set of moral principles that went well beyond those laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” Along with the religious and ethnic heritage mentioned by Fukuyama, there are many other formative elements of American culture we could point to: voluntary associations and local self-government; the bourgeois values that (until very recently) guided our institutions and set the tone for American life; the English language and the Anglo-American literary and dramatic tradition; classical and European models in art, behavior, and politics; our exemplary national types such as Washington and Lincoln; styles of architecture, marriage customs, and manners—in short, the entire fabric of inherited culture and memory, the way of being, that has historically constituted America as a distinct nation. Under Mr. Falcoff’s dispensation, these organic features of the American experience are lopped off on the Procrustean bed of abstract universalist democracy.

Like the magical creature in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine that sucks up every object in the vicinity until it swallows itself and disappears, conservative proponents of the “American Idea” fail to recognize the suicidal nature of their project: once our notions of political order are completely abstracted from the ethnic and cultural matrix that gave them birth, the notions themselves begin to dissolve under the onslaught of rival particularisms, which rush in to fill the cultural vacuum left by the act of abstraction. Thus our universalist immigration policy, by bringing in cultures and peoples too diverse to be incorporated within a single national and civilizational identity, has inadvertently helped release the very forces of cultural separatism and group rights that the conservatives dread. The attempt to reconstitute the American identity solely in terms of a civic bond defined by universal ideas is therefore doomed; as America’s current fragmentation indicates, a civic bond cannot long endure in the absence of an experienced cultural bond.

HAVING championed the American Idea for so long without seeing its bad implications, it is to their credit that some establishment conservatives have recently begun, if only tentatively and equivocally, to re-examine the issue for the first time. In a thoughtful essay in the August 1993 issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus admits that the abstract “civic nation,” defined by “the synthesis of Puritan religion and the philosophy of John Locke,” presupposes the historical experience of an “ethnic nation”—i.e., of the nation formed during its first 250 years by Anglo-Saxon and Northern European Protestants. Third Worlders, he fears, may fail to be assimilable into the civic nation, “because the civic nation depends upon undergirding habits and presuppositions that are historically and at present inseparable from cultural and ethnic experience. The great truths proclaimed by “We the People’ presuppose some notion of the people involved.” Finally, Neuhaus argues that because of “new waves of immigration … [t]he patterns and communities of adhesion that [once] made it possible to think of America as a nation have become increasingly tenuous.”

Coming from someone who has often spoken of America as a “Project” or “Experiment” rather than as a nation, these are extraordinary concessions. Alas, they all come to naught, as the familiar pattern of ambivalence reasserts itself. Casting aside his important insight that the civic nation is necessarily undergirded by a distinct cultural and ethnic experience, Neuhaus rushes back to his old notion of America as pure civic abstraction, predicting that all of America’s newcomers, no matter how diverse their cultural allegiances and racial identities, will continue to be effortlessly “held together by the shared affirmation … that ‘We hold these truths.’” Forgetting his crucial admission that recent immigration has made American nationhood “increasingly tenuous,” he turns around and declares that “immigrants continue to be a revivifying force in our national life.” To buttress these hopeful conclusions, he misinterprets Linda Chavez’s findings in Out of the Barrio, incorrectly citing her to the effect that almost all Hispanics “enthusiastically embrace the chance to enter into the mainstream American experience.” He even dismisses the worrisome Muslim factor, claiming—on the basis of absolutely no evidence—that the U.S. Muslim population is not the reported four to seven million, but “probably” no more than one million! It is as though, since a large Muslim American population would upset Father Neuhaus’s optimistic view of assimilation, he simply wishes it out of existence.[See footnote.]

Francis Fukuyama engages in a similarly ambiguous exercise in the May 1993 Commentary. First he makes the concession, as we noted above, that America is not simply a universalist democracy but is historically a “Christian Anglo-Saxon nation” based on a common culture. But Mr. Fukuyama then does a very peculiar thing. He defines (or rather redefines) the essence of that common American culture as “family values,” a wonderfully flexible, abstract concept that enables him to argue that any group endowed with “family values” will automatically fit into American society. Of course, this misconstrues the arguments of the immigration critics, who are concerned not with immigrants’ family stability, but with their national and civilizational identity; Mexican or Cambodian immigrants might have the most stable families in the world and still not be American in any meaningful sense of the word. It thus turns out that Mr. Fukuyama’s embrace of an ethnoculturally based concept of nationhood is a distinctly passionless one; for him as for Father Neuhaus, America remains, at bottom, an economic or philosophical abstraction capable of absorbing the entire human race.

Now, in drawing attention to these contradictions and retreats, I am not accusing establishment conservatives of bad faith. What writers like Francis Fukuyama and Richard Neuhaus are engaged upon is a process of rethinking their views on the most important question in politics—the grounds for our association in a national polity; indeed, they have only just begun to glimpse the negative side of their universalist vision of America, a vision which seemed harmless enough when conservatives adopted it in more peaceful and stable times a generation ago. Since thought is a painful process, as Housman famously remarked, it is understandable that this rethinking should not proceed in one logical swoop to a new account of American nationality, but stagger and even halt as the rethinker finds himself reluctant to part with the companionable errors of his youth—errors which experience now reveals to be incompatible with the defense of America against multiculturalism.

To recognize the ethnic and cultural dimension of nationhood does not imply (as Fukuyama and Neuhaus fear) that cultural values cannot, in individual cases and under the right circumstances, be transmitted across ethnic and racial lines. Nor does it preclude spontaneous cultural change from within the society itself; America’s religious ethos, in particular, is more inclusive and tolerant than in the days of Cotton Mather. It does powerfully suggest, however, the need to exercise great caution before introducing ethnoculturally distinct populations into an established society in such numbers that they cannot easily be assimilated. But the doctrinaire universalism which still drives immigration policy has precluded such caution, even as it fends off any serious re-examination of its own underlying assumptions. In the end, notwithstanding some inconclusive second thoughts on the matter, all we are left with is the glowing vision of America as a pure idea—an idea that is asserted ever more dogmatically, and that becomes ever more abstract and unreal, as the actual country we are living in becomes ever more incoherent and conflict-ridden.

- End -

[Note: In fact, as I later conceded to Fr. Neuhaus in an exchange of letters at NR, the conventional four-to-seven million figure for the U.S. Muslim population was exaggerated. According to the best study at the time, the more likely figure in 1994 was about two million. Yet, as I said to Neuhaus, that did not let him off the hook. He had offered the lower Muslim figure as a way of assuring his readers that the Muslim problem was not as bad as alarmists like me were contending. But that implied that if the Muslim population were indeed four to seven million, that would be a problem, which would mean that in order to forestall that problem, Neuhaus should support the very immigration restrictions that he was opposing.]

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 21, 2005 02:54 PM | Send

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