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.
- 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.