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The New Face of Immigration

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Spaatz, 1 and Chester Nimitz were, respectively, Army, Air Force and Navy commanders who collectively represented America’s secret advantage in World War Two. In taking on dedicated bully boys like the Nazis, America didn’t simply make better tanks, planes and warships than the Germans. America was also in the business of making better Germans than the Germans.

That has always been a particular genius of the United States, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Give us your tired, your poor, your strange accents, funny names, weird food and odd fashions. Into the melting pot they go, where strivers of all stripes can find nourishment for their dreams with extra helpings of individual freedom, that not-so-secret ingredient of American dynamism. The resulting cultural stew might rearrange consonants and vowels here and there (it was originally Eisenhauer), but it produces hearty crossbreeds of invention and tradition, hybrids socially engineered to kick ass and take names. And I’m not just talking about a few World War Two muckety mucks laying the lumber to cousins in the old country.  American immigrants are as varied as Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Eddie Van Halen. The co-founder of Google is an immigrant (Sergey Brin), as is the founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla (Elon Musk).

The result of all this cultural mixing and matching is, at least as the tale gets told, the best of the new and the old. French toast, spaghetti and meatballs, and German chocolate cake are actually as American as apple pie, culinary staples inspired by the old world but given life in the new. That urge to take where we’re from and turn it into something bigger and better is in our genes. Come to think of it, it’s also in our jeans (Levi Strauss was born in Germany). America, as it repeatedly tells itself, is a nation of immigrants, a place where citizenship is derived from a commitment to shared values rather than blood or tan lines.

As a nation of immigrants, then, it’s somewhat baffling that we are increasingly, well, anti-immigrant. I’m not just talking about illegal immigration. That’s never been particularly popular with the American public, even if those attitudes have been kind of schizophrenic (“Deport the illegals! But not until they’ve finished the harvest and roofed my house!”). I’m talking about legal immigration which, at least in some quarters, is increasingly viewed as getting too much of a not-so-good thing. Give or take, about 35 percent of Americans want legal immigration levels decreased, though like much else in the commonweal the aggregate number belies deep partisan differences. Among Republican ranks it’s more like 60 percent.

In truth, the Republic has always had a muddled attitude towards the mixed lot that washed up on its shores over the years. Homegrown Anglo-Yanks weren’t too wild about the Irish and Italians who streamed in during the 19th and 20th Century (come to think of it, the Irish and Italians didn’t like each other much either). For decades, mainline Protestants weren’t too fond of Catholics coming in, and neither Protestants nor Catholics were particularly wild about letting in too many Jews.

The disparate European tribe that collectively thinks of itself as representing America did learn to occasionally put aside their traditional enmities and prejudices and forge common ground on immigration policy. They united to stick it to the Chinese immigrants in the old West, and closed ranks to chuck Japanese immigrants into concentration camps during World War II (though later they did generously allow the Nisei to be drafted into racially segregated combat units that were packed off to fight the relatives in Italy and Germany). More recently immigrants from South America and pretty much any place with a surfeit of minarets in its religious architecture get the Irish/Italian/Chinese/Japanese treatment.

All the E pluribus unum rah-rah, in other words, hides a long history of a firm commitment to a WASP-y unum but a lot of waffling and occasional full-on abandonment of any technicolor pluribus. And that’s without taking into consideration what might euphemistically be termed coercive immigration (i.e. importing slaves) and enforced emigration (i.e. exporting Native Americans to places they didn’t want to go). So no one should be super-shocked that the federal government is getting some traction with its plans to limit membership in club America.

What is kind of shocking, though, is just how tight those limits are. If the Trump administration gets its way, there will not only be fewer Muslims and people with non-white skin tones getting past Lady Liberty’s velvet rope. There will be fewer people like me. And as I’m so WASP-y I could practically unfurl wings out of my lats and drop a stinger out my butt, I’m pretty sure there will be fewer people like you too. What’s being kicked around is a points-based merit system, where you get points for having particular skills, qualifications, or a walloping pile of boodle. To qualify for immigration, you have to get a certain number of points. Time magazine mocked up a quiz  so you can figure out if you’d have what it takes to get a shot at being an American. You can take the quiz here. It’s kind of depressing. I didn’t make the cut—too old, my advanced degree is in the wrong field, and I suffer from an un-American deficiency of lucre. All that could be offset by athletic or intellectual glory—you get points for having an Olympic medal and/or a Nobel Prize—but all I had was my second-string high school football career and a college GPA that made my mom proud.

My failure to cut the mustard as a worthy candidate for immigration to America surprised me because, well, I am an immigrant to America. From a one percenter perspective, I’ll allow that in retrospect I might not have been the best investment of a golden ticket to American citizenship. I haven’t won any prestigious awards, or started a Fortune 500 company. I haven’t even got my own Wikipedia entry. All I’ve done is work hard, served in the military, paid my taxes, supported my community, embraced the values of the Constitution, and raised a couple of All-American kids socialized to repeat those same sorts of behaviors. You know, the sort of things the vast majority of US immigrants and their offspring, which is to say the vast majority of Americans, have always done. Clearly the government is considering raising the bar on us, so I’m glad we slackers got in before the rules tightened up.

If the government is going this route, though, in the name of truth in advertising they need to update the poem parked at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus’ scribbling about, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” clearly needs a 21st Century edit. Maybe something like: Give me your rich, your Olympians/your huddled Nobel laureates yearning for venture capital/The rest of you losers don’t bother applying.

Doesn’t sound very American. But then again neither do the new immigration proposals.

  1. Spaatz sounds more Dutch than German, but that was because he added an extra “a” right before World War II. He was born a Spatz, which means sparrow in German. Didn’t matter much because his friends called him “Tooey” and to pretty much else he was “sir” or “general.” Regardless, as commander of the Eighth Air Force he was responsible for bombing the snot out big chunks of Europe.

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

William F. Buckley is rightly remembered for his witty prolixity, a certain ability to enliven political discourse by unzipping the Oxford English Dictionary’s big boy pants and letting fly an epic stream of loquacity. Buckley often spritzed this legendary lexical incontinence over various angry sparks of right-wing nut jobbery, a deliberate effort to dampen the influence of dogma drones and conspiracy whackos threatening to hijack conservatism and spirit it off to cuckoo-ville.

While the primary target of his verbal strafing undoubtedly was the political left, he remains an instructive character for contemporary politics exactly because of his consistent willingness to take on his own side.  Buckley arguably did more than any other single individual to shape the modern conservative movement, to supply its cerebral ballast, to trial balloon its more popular tenets, and he certainly provided the campaign’s most influential megaphone (he founded the National Review). The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent mainstreaming of conservatism as a political force was built in no small part on the decades of preparatory work undertaken by Buckley.

Part of that labor was a conscious and ongoing effort to save conservatism from the worst instincts of its own allies. The National Review for decades was the outlet of conservative thought. As editor Buckley was the pilot in conservatism’s cockpit and he had definite ideas about approving the passenger manifest. He excommunicated Ayn Rand, arguing that her “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism” was not just intrinsically objectionable, but incompatible with conservatism. He chased out the John Birch Society crowd by publicly pointing out they were all at least two beers short of a six-pack. Buckley’s basic case against the Birchers was that trafficking in nutty conspiracy theories and interpreting your own subjective wannabes as objective fact is no basis for a sustainable political movement. He described Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, as having “a very special set of views which reality rejects.”*

As a conservative, Buckley instinctively sought to defend the status quo rather than advocate change, but he was curious about the world, had a healthy respect for facts and intellectual inquiry, and was willing to change his mind if persuaded of the case to do so. He once faced down a group of moral majority flap and doodle mongers (Rev. Jerry Falwell among them) incensed at his forceful advocacy for drug legalization. He justified himself thus to his skeptical conservative audience:  “It is a sovereign responsibility of rational people to take empirical data into the general reckoning. I was against the position I am now taking until I became convinced by the data that it was a futile position” (you can see a video clip here). Buckley never lost an abiding conviction that a “conservative seeks to be grounded in reality.

Yeah, I wonder what happened to that. I’m not sure when conservatism decided to stop questioning itself, became so quick to get the wobbles in the face of data and facts, and got so willing to abandon not just intellectual honesty but intellectual curiosity. But it has. Don’t take my word for it, plenty of conservatives are saying more or less the same thing. David Brooks. Charlie Sykes. George Will. Bill Kristol. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, the political vessel which has carried its water for five decades or more, is shot through with phonies, Pharisees, and fib merchants, it is bedeviled by shallow thinking and deep delusions. And the heirs of Buckley know it.

Right now there is a case to be made that Buckley did not really make conservatism safe for mainstream politics, he just helped create a Trojan horse for the distasteful extremes he tried to shoo away. The characters he spent decades trying to fence out of the conservative political project are now in charge of it, their most unsavory tendencies fueled by populism’s oxygen and glowing fire-furnace hot.  At the core of this seems to a lot of angry white guys who define conservatism as little more than me-first nationalism.  I think that it is  more something Buckley would mourn than support.

For example, questioning the cause these days is not considered a healthy exercise in intellectual self-examination, it is apostasy. Inconvenient facts, be they significant (climate change) or trivial (crowd size), are simply substituted with more convenient alternative-facts. Deep thinking on policy has been reduced to a repetitive chant of “tax cuts good, government bad, Democrats evil.” Violence against journalists questioning the party line is trivialized or openly celebrated. Entire swaths of elected conservatives sell out their creed for fealty to a president trafficking in tweet cheats. The national voice of the movement now belongs to bumper sticker bully-boys like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, people whose framework for intellectual debate is insult, incite, indict, then yell, grunt, and repeat. There’s not a lot of characters in that crew that could be described as possessing traits of genuine curiosity, of intellectual seriousness and flexibility, of respectful garrulity, wit, and humor. In other words, it’s hard to see a space where a Bill Buckley type would fit in contemporary conservatism.

And that’s a shame. I say this without an atom of sarcasm or mockery: Having a movement centered on a principled (emphasis: principled) case for the limits of government is a good thing for the Republic. Not because I agree with it—on many issues I just don’t buy the arguments. But because it keeps the other side intellectually honest, because it forces the case for government action to be clearly articulated and justified, and might even prevent unwarranted or harmful statist over-reach. And given the rumblings over in the Bernie Bro and Liz Warren bloc of pie-eyed lefties, the complete hash Trump is making of his presidency, and the GOP’s embrace of much that reality rejects, we’re likely to need it sooner rather than later.

There still exist plenty of principled elected conservatives (Ben Sasse), conservatives with bags of intellectual candle power willing to ask tough questions of their own side (Brooks, David Frum), and platforms where serious long-form policy analysis rather than sound-bite point scoring is still a hallmark of conservative intellectual endeavor (the lads over at the National Review are still chugging along, if not necessarily all in the same direction). So the chances for a revival of Buckley-type conservatism are far from zero, even if they are not particularly good. It’s a matter of numbers, and the Buckley-ites currently do not have them.

So unless there’s some as yet unknown Buckley avatar waiting in the wings, conservatism—and, as long as conservatives are in charge, the rest of us—will just have to ride out its contemporary smoochie-poo embrace of its own distasteful underbelly. What a pisser.

 

*These quotes are pulled from a Buckley essay entitled “What Is Conservatism.” I couldn’t find an online link, but it’s included in The Jeweller’s Eye, a book of his collected speeches and columns that can probably be found under a layer of dust in most large-ish libraries. And before I get button-holed on this, I’m well aware Buckley had some pretty big political skeletons of his own—a big flirt with McCarthyism, for example, and, at least in his early days, some pretty wince-inducing views on civil rights. Still, his willingness to constructively engage with those he disagreed with and a genuine (if far from perfect) embrace of empiricism makes him, in my own humble opinion, a useful and enlightening foil to examine contemporary conservatism.