Why should “a magazine of American culture” take so keen an interest in the question of immigration? That question has been posed all too frequently by journalists who can only think of one answer: bigotry. Sometimes the word is xenophobia or nativism or even anti-Semitism (apparently on the grounds that the bottom-line of all discriminations is hostility to Jews). Questions asked in manifestly bad faith do not deserve an answer except, perhaps, a tu quoque question: What possible motivation is there for an American not to be alarmed by the current immigration crisis?
I have never understood how the advocates of open borders have escaped with their reputations intact. For one thing, new immigrants typically come in at or near the bottom of the economic scale and threaten the job prospects and chances for promotion of the poorest American workers, many of whom are black or Hispanic. One set of liberals (those who have been allegedly mugged by reality) cheered their heads off when Korean shopkeepers shot black looters in Los Angeles, but as much as I favor property rights and self-defense, I could squint my eyes for a moment and see not shopkeepers defending their property but well-to-do foreigners firing at poor Americans. Julian Simon and other capitalist fanatics see, on the one hand, cheap Latin American laborers coming in droves to bust the unions and, on the other, a fresh supply of professional talent—physicians, engineers, mathematicians, and scientists—arriving from Asia. But Asian countries are in desperate need of these professionals, and it seems a heartlessness more wicked than any xenophobia to drain off the brains of an entire continent simply because we are unwilling to arrest the steady decline of higher education in the United States. If we were bigots, we would agree with Julian Simon, and if this country becomes an impossible place to live in by the end of the century, our rich friends will be able to take the money and run. That is the nice thing about disloyalty: it acknowledges no borders and no commitments.
Our interest in questions of national identity and immigration is not recent. Before I arrived at Chronicles in 1984, I had already been discussing the topic, and it was not long before I arranged for an essay by Clyde Wilson on the historical basis of American culture. Within a few years we were raising the question in a variety of ways, and, predictably, we were denounced everywhere, not so much by leftists per se as by the Northeastern political analysts who described themselves as “neoconservatives.” While many of these neoconservatives have come around to our point of view, so far as I can recall, they have never either apologized for their slanders nor accorded us even grudging acknowledgment that our prophecies have proved to be all too accurate.
It is precisely because Chronicles is “a magazine of American culture” that we felt compelled to ask such questions as “What is American culture?” and “What does it mean to be an American?” The pat liberal answers that America is a set of ideas or a nation “dedicated to a proposition” were so obviously fatuous as to require no refutation. A nation, no matter how it is formed, must be something more than a set of government institutions or a political creed. For one thing, laws and political practices are never made up out of whole cloth, and most of the excellencies of the American system can be traced directly to the British institutions that had taken root in the American colonies before their independence. It is also obvious that most nations, including the United States, are bound together by a common language, by a set of literary classics that exemplify a common moral code and the nation’s conception of itself, by thousands and thousands of little “habits of the heart” that constitute the national character.
Since a culture is both the product and origin of a people’s character, it seemed to us that changes in the ethnic composition of a nation would also change its character, its values, its identity. Although most of the immigration debate has been carried on like a price war between two fishwives in the marketplace, we realized very early on that it really did not matter, ultimately, whether the new immigrants were an economic asset or liability. As I used to point out in debates, it might be possible to kill all the current inhabitants of the United States with a neutron bomb and restock the land with very talented Chinese or Germans or even extraterrestrial colonists who would double the GNP in a year. That even those who favor open immigration arc uncomfortable with such a notion reveals the comparative insignificance of the economic dimension of the problem. The debate has been carried out with numbers, partly because modern Americans are suckers for anything that can be represented with charts and graphs and partly because statistics on welfare and taxes are safer than discussions of national identity and moral principles. As it turns out, the best economic analysis also supports those in favor of immigration restrictions, but that, so far as I am concerned, is only confirmation of something we already knew to a moral certainty.
Culture, properly defined, means the cultivation of a certain kind of character. Cultural institutions, therefore, arc the agents that make us who and what we are. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses you and I can say “I am a part of all that I have met”: the books we read, the music we listen to, the pictures we look at, the prayers we say. A culture is the sum of all these things and many more, including table manners and styles of dress. As an American poet put it: “The way you wear your hat, the way you drink your tea . . . “
Aside from the exceptional examples of a few really successful empires—of Rome, Byzantium, and Vienna—vigorous cultures tend to be particular and local, rather than generic and universal. America in the 18th century was a patchwork of 13 separate colonies, each with its own story to tell, each with its own peculiar character determined by the part of Britain from which the majority of inhabitants derived. Even in the old country a Cambridgeshire Puritan had been quite different from the Wessex Anglican whose descendants came to Virginia, and both were easily distinguishable from the Scots and Irish.
Many states were large enough to accommodate at least two cultures. In South Carolina, for example, the Low country was dominated by a strange mixture of English Anglicans, many of whom had arrived by wav of the Caribbean Islands, and the French Huguenots; while the Upcountry was settled mainly by the Scots and Irish, who envied and hated the aspiring aristocrats of Charleston. Calhoun’s great principle of concurrent majorities was derived in part from South Carolina’s successful attempt to make a constitution that protected the rights and liberties of both sections.
Pennsylvania showed a similar pattern of settlement, except that in Philadelphia the tone was set by wealthy Quakers, but up in the hills, where the peace-loving Quakers did not dare set foot for fear of the Redskins whom they were content to love and cherish only from a safe distance, that dangerous backcountry was settled by the violent and fearless Scots-Irish, followed by colonics of more peaceable Germans.
In time, many of America’s local peculiarities died out, leaving only a few fossils in the form of dialect expressions and local recipes. Some Midwesterners still say pret’ner and refer to dragon flies as darning needles. New England cooking is still the worst in the world, followed by the Midwest variant that includes the blandest dishes of the Puritans—boiled dinners—which they combined with some filthy habits they picked up from German immigrants: bland sausages, boiled potatoes, and the endless and inedible varieties of the Midwestern hot dish.
In the Carolinas, however, there is still a great gulf separating the civilized folk of Charleston from the wild men up country, and across the nation there remain broad cultural variations that mark out the Southern region from the Northeast. But vast sections of the United States—most of California and urueh of the Midwest—were so ethnically jumbled by the 19th-century folk-migrations that they ceased to have am kind of culture. Between the two world wars, Glenway Wescott returned to Wisconsin and described the conversation of his fellow-passengers on a train: “They speak a mixture of several kinds of English—Swedish, German, Polish, Irish—immigrants’ children of the second generation having inherited from all their parents at once, all the accents.”
The melting pot, as it has been observed, did not actually work, but Nathan Glazer’s confident description of the “unmeltable ethnics” has not survived either. Most immigrant groups have neither adopted the culture of the old British stock nor preserved their ancestral folkways. This is a pity, since Italian. French, and German immigrants—to take only three examples—come from cultural traditions that arc richer than anything in 20th-century America. But culture—the character of a nation—is always local, always particular. Robert Frost discussed the problems of immigration and multiculturalism in his poem “Build Soil”:
My friends all know I’m interpersonal.
But long before I’m interpersonal
Away ‘way down inside I’m personal.
Just so before we’re international
We’re national and act as nationals.
The colors are kept unmixed on the palette.
Or better on dish plates all around the room.
So the effect when they are mixed on canvas
May seem almost exclusively designed.
Some minds are so confounded intermental
They remind me of pictures on a palette:
“Look at what happened. Surely some God pinxit.
Come look at my significant mud pic.”
It’s hard to tell which is the worst abhorrence
Whether it’s persons pied or nations pied.
Don’t let me seem to say the exchange, the encounter,
May not be the important thing at last.
It well may be. We meet—I don’t say when—
But must bring to the meeting the maturest.
The longest-saved-up, raciest, localest
We have strength of reserve in us to bring.
Today in this “nation pied” whose art at best resembles an insignificant mud pie, we have little either racy or local to bring to a meeting of cultures. At the end of the millennium, perhaps, a majority of Americans are acculturated only by the mass media of television, movies, and popular music, by the mass-produced designer-label goods they buy and consume, and by the vast machinery of government schooling that every year turns out the perfect ignoramuses who pose absoluteU’ no threat to the regime.
For much of this century America has been described as a kind of experiment or a laboratory of democracy in which a new kind of democratic man is being molded by a new democratic culture. Such was the vision of the American Marx, John Dewey, but its finest rhetorical expression was Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life. Croly was the son of English immigrants and the founding editor of the New Republic—an organ of lies and mischief from its first issue. According to Croly, the old provincial America of the colonies, the revolution, and the Constitution would have to give way to a new democratic America that would devour what was left of the original—like a snake eating the skin it has shed: “To be sure,” concedes Croly,
any increase in centralized power and responsibility . . . is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition [i.e., of localism and individual responsibility] must yield before the march of constructive national democracy. . . . The tradition of an individualist and provincial democracy which is the mainstay of the antinationalist policy, does not include ideals which have to be realized by aggressive action. . . . The advocates and the beneficiaries of prevailing ideas and conditions are little by little being forced into the inevitable attitude of the traditional Bourbon—the attitude of maintaining customary or legal rights merely because they are customary and legal. . . . Popular interests have nothing to fear from a measure of federal centralization, which bestows on the Federal government powers necessary to the fulfillment of its legitimate responsibilities.
But what has grown up on American soil, under the nurture of such Croly disciples as Franklin Roosevelt, has not been a vigorous national culture. America is no new Athens or Florence; our culture is not even equal to that of ancient Sicyon or medieval Lucca. We have not even managed to reproduce the civility of the polyglot Habsburg empire, where you can still eat an excellent veal paprikash or Dobosh Tort in Zagreb. All we have grown by all our ferment is a culture of tooth-rotting Coca-Cola, ulcer-inspiring Big Macs, and tight jeans advertised by the jutting rumps of preteen models; our literature is Stephen King, our theater is Seinfeld; our music and poetry are summed up in “Achey-Breaky Heart.”
Many of us know the causes of America’s cultural implosion, but I shall list a few of them: first, the decline of the church as a central social, moral, and literary influence. An ignoramus like Lincoln could manage to sound like a great writer simply by echoing the phrases of the King James Bible that were constantly ringing in his nonbelieving ears. Today even religious zealots—Catholics and Evangelicals alike—have their aesthetic sensibilities trained on liturgies that read like executive summaries of reports from Washington think tanks and on hymns that sound like airline commercials. What they have done to the Bible is unspeakable. From the Good News Bible: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror . . . “
Second, the general collapse of all literary and aesthetic standards at the top levels of society. There are a number of causes for this collapse, but none so important as the abandonment of Latin as the basis of serious education. Today our art, for the most part, is reduced to the cult of ugliness and nonsense, the worship of violence and perversity. Culture, in the sense of high culture, is now something reserved to museums, reprints of the classics, and concert halls where they perform very little that has been written since the end of World War I and virtually nothing composed since World War II. In the 1820’s, concert-goers did not want to hear the stuffy old music of Haydn; they wanted the new stuff—Beethoven, Rossini, Weber. During the Renaissance, the lust for new painting was so powerful that many of Michelangelo’s frescoes are painted on top of important works of his predecessors. Today, our best efforts go to restoration and preservation—quite naturally, since most new things are so hideous, but a civilization whose culture is locked away in museums is a dead civilization.
Third, the lethal effects of immigration and cultural amalgamation that Frost warned against. In recent days, America’s diversity is the basis of a culture war in which the various competing groups—blacks, Latin-American Indians, and Asians—are each claiming a share of the humanities curriculum. Even if the cultural pretensions of Africans and Indians had any validity, which for the most part they do not, their merits would be irrelevant, because for us, as heirs of Western Europe, it is vital that we know our own history, our own culture, because it is this culture, the languages, the literature, the art, the philosophy, the deeds of great men—it is “the memory of all that” that has formed the Western and American character and shaped those principles of moral responsibility and political liberty which are so important to that saving remnant, the members of this club, whatever their ethnic heritage, whatever their education. The struggle over the curriculum is a war for the American identity and multiculturalism is a crusade—or rather a jihad—to destroy the liberties we have retained, despite the best efforts of every president and every editor of the New Republic throughout this century.
Predictably, the very people who got us into our current cultural predicament are coming forward with a solution. Some time ago in a debate on immigration a very good Wall Street Journal editor told me that we could not and should not do anything to stanch the flow of Third World immigrants, but that once they were here, they should be subject to a program of forced Americanization. Other, similar remedies include: national identity cards, citizenship classes, a compulsory public service program for high school graduates, a constitutional amendment making English the official language. Less obvious but more ominous is all the chatter we are hearing about a need for national standards in education. In fact, much of what went on at the Department of Education in the Reagan-Bush years was an ill-disguised campaign to impose a national culture by way of public schools that are to be controlled in Washington.
The object of some of these programs is the minority underclass—black and Hispanic—that has the ruling establishment terrified. Do not be misled by their humanitarian professions to be, in Adam Meyerson’s phrase, bleeding-heart conservatives. Of course their fear of being called racists explains part of their empowerment rhetoric—to say nothing of their desire for votes—but when the hour is late and they have had one drink too many, some of our big government conservative friends will admit, quite candidly, that all their schemes have one object: to keep blacks and Hispanics in their place, first by bribing them with welfare, and second by giving them the cultural equivalent of toilet-training. They are also, by the way, afraid of ordinary Middle Americans whom they suspect of plotting a mutiny.
Let me be just as candid. I have enough to worry about, taking care of my family, attending to my job, and working to bring some sanity to my own people. I have no time to spend on civil war in Rwanda or Chicago, or literacy in Haiti and Los Angeles. If an ethnic group cannot create or maintain a viable culture on its own, it is probably incapable of taking cultural instruction from me. The dismal history of colonization should convince us that the most successful colonies, e.g., in North America, arc those which committed either accidental or intentional genocide, but in Africa white Europeans succeeded only in corrupting and destroying the native cultures without, in most cases, converting the Africans to European culture. I am not sure that such a conversion would have been a good idea. It is the rankest kind of ethnocentricity to suppose that there is only one right way for people to live, and the West’s continuing crusades to impose peace and democracy in Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia are really neocolonialist filibusters against peoples that are not adequately integrated into global markets.
In America, we have tried such schemes of forced assimilation before, but without success. Indeed, much of American social policy is a series of failed cultural experiments practiced upon immigrant groups: the public schooling that was supposed to protestantize the Catholics; delinquency laws and mandatory school attendance that took children away from irresponsible immigrants; Head Start, school equity plans, and all the vast apparatus of social engineering that were designed to tame blacks, Mexicans, Sicilians, and Appalachian whites but only succeeded in destroying what particles and pockets of native cultures these people possessed. So long as they had the benefit of segregated schools run by a black middle class, so long as black preachers were figures of authority and respect within the community, so long as young black males were expected to work for a living, black Americans as a whole were making steady economic and even cultural progress. The so-called Harlem Renaissance took place in the 20’s and 30’s—before the establishment of the welfare state. Tourists still go to visit Harlem, but it is not to hear jazz; now foreigners take tours in armored buses to get a glimpse of the violent and degenerate society they have read about in their newspapers.
Cultural nationalism is an unmitigated evil, and I would not hesitate to call it fascism, if it were not unfair to the Duce. Given the choice between the anti-white, anti-straight, anti-male bigotry of the left and the National Socialism offered by the Republican mountebanks selling virtue in a bottle or a book, I prefer the left, because with them the war is open and waged without hypocrisy. Besides, all their petty nationalisms might even lead to something like literature and art, while the big government conservatives would turn us into a nation of indoctrination camps in the form of the public schools that are at the center of many of their schemes.
The best hope for American culture today resides in the local, provincial, and ethnic remnants that are struggling to survive; they would be the first victims of cultural nationalism. From everything I can see, there is still vitality in the South and it is growing in the West. In fact, we are living in a time when the massive imperial cultures in the world are all breaking up, and ours is no exception. One evil empire has already collapsed, and the days may be numbered for its opposite number in the West. I do not say there is anything we can or should do to hasten the social and political disintegration of these once United States. On the other hand, something quite different is bound to emerge in the near future: perhaps it will be a slowly decentralizing political system that evolves in the direction of 1787; perhaps it will break up into independent states or regional confederacies; perhaps there will be a tribal warfare within the regions; and perhaps there is even the possibility of a stopgap solution of national socialism imposed by the current elite class. Whatever comes, the real vitality of the nation will continue to be found not in Washington or New York or Hollywood, but in little communities and societies: in the states of the South and West, in groups of men and women who reject both cultural nationalism and the policy of nonresistance that has led to the current immigration crisis. As Alain de Benoist has written of his own country, France, the problem is not so much the cultural wreckage inflicted by too many Third World immigrants who are, after all, only looking for a better life, but in the apparent inability of Europeans and Americans to defend their civilization.