311 Who Are We?

During the American Revolution, in his celebrated Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur asked:  “What, then, is the American, this new man?”  It was an apt question for America’s Founders, as it is for us today, for we, unlike the Greeks or Germans, do not derive our sense of national identity from our ethnic roots.  To Crèvecoeur, Americans were Europeans transformed by their new land—the “great American asylum” provided by abundant, fertile soil—where they could become free, self-employed, successful farmers.  They experienced a “great metamorphosis” which made them truly “new” human beings.  “Everything has tended to regenerate them,” he said:  “new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system.  Here they are become men:  in Europe they were as so many useless plants.”  In short, he asserted:  “it is here, then, that the idle may be employed, the useless become useful, and the poor become rich.”

During the next two centuries, the United States would continue to welcome immigrants from Europe who generally sustained the vision of the nation’s Founders, and Americans generally shared a core commitment to the “land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride.”  Within the past half-century, however, that enduring sense of identity has been challenged and is possibly collapsing.  Among the many legislative acts spawned by Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” was the Immigration Act of 1965, primarily crafted by Senator Ted Kennedy.  Discarding the prior preferences given Caucasian immigrants from European nations, the act opened the nation’s borders to Third World peoples who were likely to enroll in the welfare state’s programs and thus support the Democratic Party.  Kennedy and his progressive allies deftly celebrated the virtues of “diversity” and its prospects of strengthening the nation; so decades before Barack Obama promised to “fundamentally change America” one of the main vehicles for such change had been firmly established by his ideological forbears.

To provide a scholarly assessment of this change, the late Samuel P. Huntington wrote Who Are We?  The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York:  Simon & Schuster, c. 2004).  Huntington was a professor at Harvard for 50 years, and his earlier work on The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was distinguished for taking seriously the religious nature of the Christian-Muslim conflict long before the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.  He argued that the great conflicts in the 21st century will take place for cultural—rather than economic or ideological—reasons, and we must recognize that we now live in a “multipolar, multicivilizational world.”  Concerned for the survival of the West, he insisted we must recover its moral fiber.  Thus antisocial behavior, family fragmentation, disinterest in local associations, the loss of a strong work ethic, and the distressing decline of intellectual excellence, must be reversed if the West is to survive.  “The future health of the West and its influence on other societies depends in considerable measure on its success in coping with these trends.”  Civilizations, history records, are difficult to construct but easy to destroy. 

Since nations can be quickly destroyed, we Americans must deal wisely with the threat of massive immigration.  In fact we have a unique national culture well-described by John Jay in The Federalist Papers:  “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint chubbiness arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established liberty and independence.”  Huntington basically revisits and updates Jay’s list of national characteristics, stressing they are precisely what we need today and urging us to “recommit” ourselves to “the Anglo-Protestant culture, traditions, and values that for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions that have been the source of their liberty, unity, power, prosperity, and moral leadership as a force for good in the world” (p. xvii). 

Huntington believed that, as a result of developments since the 1965 Immigration Act, the United States is “less a nation than it had been for a century” (p. 5).  Revealing this is the contrasting poems Robert Frost wrote for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 (celebrating the “‘heroic deeds’ of America’s founding with God’s ‘approval’”) with Maya Angelou’s recitation at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration (mentioning 27 racial and ethnic groups without saying the word “America”)!  To Huntington:  “Frost saw America’s history and identity as glories to be celebrated and perpetuated.  Angelou saw the manifestations of American identity as evil threats to the well-being and real identities of people with they subnational groups” (p. 6).  Clinton himself of course sided with Angelou rather than Frost, celebrating multiculturalism and diversity and heralding a “‘great revolution to prove that we literally can live without having a dominant European culture’” (p. 18). 

But Clinton’s “great” multicultural “revolution” seriously threatens to disunite us, for a nation requires an identifying culture—not a collage of many cultures.  Unfortunately, folks like Clinton and Angelou misunderstand what actually makes America a nation.  They probably do so because they accept “two propositions that are true but only partially true and yet often are accepted as the whole truth.  These are the claims, first, that America is a nation of immigrants, and second, that American identity is defined solely by a set of political principles, the American Creed” (p. 37).  To refute the first of these propositions Huntington says the Europeans coming to colonial America were “settlers” who made a society, not “immigrants” who entered into an already-existent society seeking to benefit from it.  Thus in the 17th and 18th centuries European settlers created an homogenous “Anglo-Protestant settler society” that “profoundly and lastingly shaped American culture, institutions, historical development, and identity” (p. 39).   The second proposition—that America is a composed of a “Creed”—is another half-truth.  Before the American Revolution, colonists identified themselves in terms of ethnicity and culture, and especially in terms of religion, and though ideals such as liberty and equality were duly celebrated following the Revolution the people continued to identify themselves in terms of culture and religion continued to identify.  Indeed, the “American Creed” modern liberals celebrate is is basically “Protestantism without God, the secular credo of the ‘nation with the soul of a church’” (p. 69)

To Huntington the “cultural core” of the United States was Anglo-Protestant, for “Americans have been extremely religious and overwhelmingly Christian throughout their history” (p. 83).  English speaking Protestants established both the 17th century colonies and the 18th century nation.  This was especially evident during the First Great Awakening, when “for the first time” people from all the colonies shared a “social, emotional, and religious experience.  It was a truly American movement and promoted a sense of transcolony consciousness, ideas, and themes, which were subsequently transferred from a religious to a political context” (p. 109).  Sustaining the dissenting tradition of the Puritans, a “‘Dissidence of dissent’ describes the history as well as the character of American Protestantism” (p. 65).  So too the vaunted American “individualism” and “work ethic” stem directly from the dissenting Protestant tradition. 

Since the ‘60s, however, the Anglo-Protestant culture in America has been seriously challenged by significant innovations, beginning with the promotion of a “multiculturalism” which is in “essence anti-European,” denigrating Eurocentric values and opposing “‘narrow Eurocentric concepts of American democratic principles, culture, and identity.’  It is basically an anti-Western ideology” (p. 171).  Such was recently promoted by Fr. Arturo Sosa, the Venezuelan now serving as Superior General of the Jesuits, who called the Catholic Church to “show the multicultural face of the God who revealed himself in Nazareth,” promote “universal citizenship” and ultimately “build a multicultural world.”  Multiculturalism now dominates the nation’s schools, so high school students learn more about Harriet Tubman than George Washington.   Stanford University now requires courses on minorities and women, but not on Western Civilization.  And at the beginning of the 21st century “none of the fifty top American colleges and universities required a course in American history” (p. 175). 

Another major challenge we now face is assimilating the 23 millions of immigrants who have come to the country during the past half-century.  Contrary to the half-truth promoted by “open borders” devotees, immigrants to America a century ago were hardly  the “wretched refuse” of the earth.  In fact, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan asserted, most of them were “‘extraordinary, enterprising, and self-sufficient folk who knew exactly what they were doing, and [were] doing it quite on their own’” (p. 189).  Thus the Irish and Italians quickly assimilated and embraced the cultural core of their new country.  They came to America wanting to become Americans.  Recent immigrants, however, frequently seek to preserve their own culture by retaining their own languages and seeking dual-citizenship status.  And if they do become citizens of the U.S. it is “not because they are attracted to America’s culture and Creed, but because they are attracted by government social welfare and affirmative action programs” (p. 219).  Of especial concern to Huntington is the unprecedented Mexican immigration and expansive Hispanization undertaken by folks who frequently think they are reclaiming lands lost in the 19th century. 

A final challenge to American identity is a “denationalization” process characterizing influential academic, business, and political elites—fully evident in Barack Obama’s expansive claim to be a citizen of the world.  So too the elite executives of Apple and Walmart and Amazon have few national loyalties.  This globalization of business, Huntington says, “is proving right Adam Smith’s observation that while ‘the proprietor of land is necessarily a citizen of the particular country in which is estate lies . . . the proprietor of stock is properly a citizen of the world and is not necessarily attached to any particular country’” (p. 267).

Having diagnosed the problems, Huntington devotes his final chapters to prescribing solutions that might restore the American identity, primarily by promoting commonalities such as the English language and the Christian religion.  In truth, one lays down the book persuaded that we American no longer know who we are and have no clue as to how to regain a sturdy sense of national identity!

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Victor Davis Hanson was for many years a professor (teaching classics at California State University, Fresno), but in he wrote Mexifornia:  A State of Becoming (San Francisco:  Encounter Books, c. 2003) as a life-long farmer tending his family property south of Fresno, still living in a house built by his great-great-grandmother 130 years earlier.  As a child he was part of “a very tiny minority of rural whites at predominantly Mexican-American” schools, and he intimately knows the nuances of the blended peoples and cultures surrounding him.  Setting forth a deeply personal analysis of trends transforming the Golden State, he writes “about the nature of a new California and what it means for America—a reflection upon the strange society that is emerging as the result of a demographic and cultural revolution like no other in our times” (p. xii).  And he provides “the perspective of a farmer whose social world has changed so radically, so quickly that it no longer exists,” a change that comes “entirely because of massive and mostly illegal immigration from a single country:  Mexico” (pp. 1-2).

Mexican immigrants, unlike earlier European immigrants, uniquely challenge the United States because of Mexico’s geographic propinquity.  By virtue of crossing an ocean Irish or Armenian or Chinese immigrants severed themselves from the land of their birth.  But “for the campesino from Mexico there is little physical amputation from the mother country” (p. 21).  And while it is the “poorest and brownest, largely Indian” campesinos who cross the border, the wealthy elites controlling Mexico encourage their movement “northward as a means of avoiding domestic reform” (p. 27).  Once here the campesinos find work eminently suited for young, physically fit men—but work utterly impossible for them a few decades later.  As they age they most likely turn from appreciating the country enabling him to prosper to resenting their niche in American society.  And even more deeply their children grow up feeling angry and alienated—despite the fact that they are infinitely more prosperous than their relatives still in Mexico.  “If we wonder why the hardest-working alien in California sires sons who will not do the same kind of labor, who have tattoos, shaved heads and prison records rather than diplomas, we need look no further than the bitterness of the exhausted, poor and discounted father” (p. 54). 

Hanson has personally witnessed the problems plaguing his community and affecting long-term residents such as himself.   Thieves repeatedly steal his equipment and crops while vandals damage his fields.  The culprits, of course, have no documents and cannot be easily prosecuted even if apprehended.  He can no longer put ongoing mail in his mailbox, and parcels left by the mailman are frequently stolen.  Indeed, “keeping illegal aliens and Mexican gang members off the property is a hopeless task:   in the banter that follows my requests, some trespassers seem piqued that anyone in California should dare to insist on the archaic notion of property rights.  One especially smart teenager tole me in broken English, ‘Hey, it’s our land anyway—not yours’” (p. 64).  

Consequently, Hanson looks back to the world of his youth, praising “the old simplicity that worked.”  Then the churches (both Catholic and Protestant) promoted personal morality and respect for authority.  The schools inculcated both traditional academics and patriotic citizenship.  Assimilation was mandated through compulsory English in the schools and legal traditions sustained by the courts.  The assumption was simple:  immigrants, wherever they came from, were “here to stay and become an American . . . .  He was to become one of us, not we one of him” (p. 79).  The superiority of America was eminently evident in the fact that immigrants left their native lands and chose to settle here.  “The unvoiced assumption—a formulation of classic know-nothingism—resonated with us:  If it is really so good over there, why don’t you go back?  Was this an exercise in American exceptionalism?  Absolutely” (p. 84).  However politically incorrect it may seem, it worked rather well before 1970, as was evident in the “well-integrated middle-age and middle-class residents of Selma” (p. 120).

Since 1970, however, the assimilation of immigrants from Mexico has largely failed.   Thus whereas the elementary school Hanson attended 40 years ago “turned out skilled and confident Americans, its graduates who enter high school now have among the lowest literacy levels and the most dismal math skills in the state” (p. 123).  In large part this is due to the “multiculturalism, authoritarian utopianism and cultural relativism” that now dominate public institutions, especially the schools.  If there’s any hope for a better future, all such “isms” must be repudiated.  Conversely the very worst “course lies in preserving the status quo and institutionalizing our past failed policies: open borders, unlimited immigration, dependence on cheap and illegal labor, obsequious deference to Mexico City, erosion of legal statutes, multiculturalism in our schools, and a general breakdown in the old assimilationist model” (p. 144). 

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Providing a current, journalistic assessment of immigration in Melting Pot or Civil War?:  A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders (New York:  Penguin Publishing Group, c. 2018, Kindle Edition), Reihan Salam writes as the son, “brother, neighbor, and friend of immigrants” who believes we need “a more thoughtful and balanced approach to immigration, including a greater emphasis on skills and a lesser one on extended family ties” (p. 8).  His parents came from Bangladesh to New York, where he was born, part of a tiny Bengali-speaking minority.  “Unlike my parents, who have had to deal with a lot of discrimination over the years, I have been untouched by it” (p. 67).  He plunged into the “melting pot” existing 40 years ago and famously succeeded.  During his lifetime, however, “the number of Bangladeshi-born immigrants in the New York area rose from roughly one thousand to more than seventy thousand” (p. 75).  Unlike Salam,  all too many of these newcomers choose to separate from, rather than assimilate to, the American culture. 

Had Salam been born a few years ago he “would not have been the only kid of Bangladeshi origin in my kindergarten.  Rather, my family would’ve been part of an established ethnic community, complete with robust religious and cultural institutions. The presence of tens of thousands of other Bangladeshi immigrants would have changed my parents’ professional lives, too. They might have entered professional niches dominated by their coethnics, and their fellow Bangladeshis would have provided them with a Bengali-speaking customer base.  At the same time, my family would have had fewer interactions with people outside of our ethnic community, and it’s far less likely that I’d have had as many friends from different backgrounds.”  In fact:  “Earlier arrivals have little choice but to make their way in the broader community, as there is no ethnic enclave for them to join.  Later arrivals, in contrast, have the option of joining, and thus replenishing, already-established ethnic enclaves” (pp. 75-76).  So today the vaunted melting pot barely simmers.  But “we need it back, badly”  (p. 14).

Demographic data indicate that within a few years non-Hispanic whites will be a minority.   Immigrants have entered the nation in record numbers and are procreating, whereas “Native-born Americans are forming families later in life, if at all, and they’re having fewer children as a result.  America is thus in the middle of a birth dearth.  One consequence is that recent immigrants, with their comparatively healthy birthrates, are having an outsized impact on America’s younger generations.  One in four U.S. children under the age of eighteen has at least one foreign-born parent.  Unless native-born Americans start having many more babies, a prospect that for now seems rather remote, new immigrants and their descendants will account for almost 90 percent of all population growth between now and 2065” (pp. 32-33).  Unfortunately, most of these immigrants are poorly educated, low-income folks whose children who will likely remain ill-educated and poverty-stricken.  Thus we need “to recognize an uncomfortable truth.  High levels of low-skill immigration will make a middle-class melting pot impossible” (p. 28).  These immigrants will tend to cling to ethnic or racial distinctives and live in segregated enclaves. 

Various countries, ranging from Sweden to Singapore, have devised various ways of dealing with immigrants, who almost everywhere do the menial work disdained by their affluent hosts.  Pro-immigration advocates often urge an “open borders” policy without calculating the cost.  Anti-immigration spokesmen frequently fail to rightly value the contributions immigrants make or the need to help alleviate poverty and injustice around the world.  So how do we devise and implement the best policies for all concerned?   Salam suggests we first grant “amnesty to the long-resident unauthorized population” and then vigorously curtail all illegal immigration.  Second, we should adopt “a skills-based” system, stopping the influx poorly prepared, impoverished newcomers.  Finally, we must begin “fighting the intergenerational transmission of poverty” so evident in the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  These endeavors, Salem thinks, “will, taken together, help make America a middle-class melting pot” (p. 157).

Melting Pot or Civil War? thoughtfully, dispassionately surveys the turbulence surrounding today’s immigration discussion.  As a pro-immigrant journalist, Salam refrains from reciting the litany of pablum regarding compassion and tolerance.  Instead he helps us better understand and think wisely about the issues confronting us.