“You know,” he said, “I wouldn’t have let your family in, either.”
Standing in a conference room at the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago, Sam held my gaze in that sideways glance of his, waiting to gauge my reaction.
“I understand,” I said. “And I agree. You shouldn’t have. But I’m here now, so let’s make the best of it.”
I had known Sam Francis for a couple of years by the spring of 1998. Having held the position of assistant editor of Chronicles for a mere eight months or so, I knew that I would be getting to know him far better in the coming months. Outside of discussions of deadlines (Sam routinely asked for an extension because, he averred, he could not possibly make his latest monthly deadline, coming as it did only one month after the previous one), this had been our longest conversation so far, and now I understood why.
I don’t recall why or how I had brought up immigration, but in response Sam had inquired about my ethnic background. I replied as I always do—German Lutheran from Alsace-Lorraine on my father’s side; Polish Catholic from Poznan on my mother’s. It was the latter revelation that prompted the comment that others might have seen as a declaration of war, but which I took as simple immigration realism.
Only minutes before, Sam had delivered the keynote address at Chronicles’ conference on “Healing the Schism,” where we had spent the day examining ways to restore European unity through cooperation between Western Christians and Eastern Orthodox, particularly in light of the rise of insurgent Islam. And yet here he was, declaring that my ancestors’ Catholicism should have been a disqualification for immigration to the United States. It didn’t matter that my mother’s family were Poles, and thus European (not to mention white); Sam had cut to the heart of the cultural challenge that Catholic immigration had posed to a majority Protestant country. His answer was simple: It should never have been allowed.
My reaction may have been what Sam had hoped for (and indeed, the ice had been broken, and from that day forward our conversations flowed freely, and we came to regard each other not only as colleagues but as friends), but it likely was not what he expected it to be. Most conservatives (let alone liberals) discuss immigration in ways that are clearly designed to avoid the sticky question of culture. The problem, we are told, is illegal immigration, not immigration per se; yet as Murray Rothbard often pointed out, if the only thing wrong with illegal immigration is that it is illegal, we can solve the problem by simply legalizing it. The myths of the “Melting Pot” and assimilation, demolished by Chilton Williamson in The Immigration Mystique: America’s False Conscience (1996), are just older versions of the current claims that America is the “universal nation” and that the United States is an “idea” rather than a country that was populated by successive waves of disparate groups of Europeans who often had enough trouble getting along with one another for a century and a half before the floodgates were opened in 1965 to the populations of the Third World.
Sam had no doubt heard the plaint that I continue to hear from so many fellow Catholics, especially those whose forefathers arrived on these shores in the early 20th century: If this or that proposed immigration restriction had been in place when my ancestors came to the United States, I would not be here today—or, for that matter, anywhere, because I wouldn’t even exist. And since we cannot imagine a world deprived of our being, too many of us regard perfectly reasonable immigration restrictions as a personal attack. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination on my part, but I’ve never been convinced that the world couldn’t have got along just fine without me.
A similar dynamic is playing out today in discussions of Islamic immigration to the United States. A few years after my discussion with Sam, a friend of mine called me in a panic. Her sister had become engaged to a Muslim. She had read all of the Reader’s Digest horror stories and seen the 80’s-era movies of the week featuring Muslim immigrants who had married American women and then, a few years later, taken them back to their home countries (or absconded with their children) and forced them into a traditional Islamic lifestyle. She knew that Chronicles had published many articles (some of which I had written) about the dangers of Islam; could I provide her with material to help convince her sister to break off the engagement?
Were there any warning signs, I wondered, that had triggered her concern? No, she said; he wasn’t even a practicing Muslim, and he had no desire to return to the country of his birth. I predicted that her sister, a nonpracticing Episcopalian, was unlikely to be convinced by any articles I would give her, and in the end she wasn’t. They were married in a secular ceremony, over my friend’s objection.
As her sister’s first anniversary approached, my friend invited me to lunch. When the topic turned to her concerns of the year before, my friend declared that we at Chronicles had been wrong about Islam; her sister’s husband was the nicest, most kindly man she had ever met. I gently pointed out that none of our articles on Islam were about her sister’s husband, whom none of us had ever met, but about the civilizational danger posed by the ideology of Islam. She was unconvinced; her personal experience of life with her brother-in-law had trumped the broader question.
And on one level, of course, that is how it should be. What is true of a population in general is not always true in particular; and treating people whom we have come to know as if they are part of an undifferentiated mass is hardly Christian, much less human. But we don’t have just two options, as my exchange with Sam shows. That he would have kept my Catholic ancestors from coming to this country did not mean that he and I could not be colleagues and even friends, provided that I understood that the immigration policy he would have preferred had been aimed not at me personally, but at the preservation of an America that millions of Catholic immigrants had undeniably changed.
The lessons of our personal experience can extend beyond those we would ever consider friends. I wrote last month about Dr. Khalid Siddiqui, who, when Aaron Wolf and I interviewed him in February 2002, was the chairman of the board of directors of the local Islamic school. In our conversation, Dr. Siddiqui made it very clear that he is a rather different man from my friend’s brother-in-law. A Pakistani immigrant and a devout Muslim, he would like to see sharia instituted in the United States; he spoke of his respect for Osama bin Laden; and he declared that no American citizen who is a Muslim can licitly fight on behalf of the United States in a war against an Islamic country. (One wonders what he would have to say about the heroic self-sacrifice of U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan in Iraq.)
When I’ve spoken about Dr. Siddiqui at conferences or in radio and TV appearances, I’ve often been attacked by well-meaning non-Muslims who tell me that Dr. Siddiqui could not possibly believe what he had said to Aaron and me. These skeptics have Muslim friends, or know Muslim doctors or other professionals; that an intelligent man, a naturalized American citizen, could have said these things seems ludicrous to them.
Yet he did say them, because he believes them; and I respect him for his honesty, even as I profoundly disagree with his religion and with the political positions that he draws from his beliefs. And I would go so far as to suggest that my respect for his honesty is more human and humane than the incredulousness of those who essentially call Dr. Siddiqui a liar by refusing to accept that he fervently believes that his religion should have consequences not just for the life of his family and his mosque and his school but that of Rockford and of the United States and, indeed, of the world at large.
Human beings are complex creatures. Sam and I did not agree on everything; the first time that we appeared together on a panel at the John Randolph Club (in Dallas in 1998), he delivered a speech in favor of white nationalism, and I spoke against it. Friends with whom he shared certain beliefs are more likely to emphasize the political side of Sam, to cite certain words of his that supposedly prove other friends of Sam wrong. But when we reduce our friends to one aspect of their beliefs or personality, we don’t honor their memory; we turn them into an ideology—or, more accurately, a reflection of our own ideology. I’ve had friends of Sam all but call me a liar when I’ve mentioned that he used to spend hours talking over the back fence with his black neighbor, or recounted the last meal that my wife and Aaron and I shared with him, breakfast in the airport at San Antonio after the 2004 meeting of the John Randolph Club, where Sam ate chilaquiles for the first time in his life, and told the young Mexican waitress how much he enjoyed them. He wasn’t simply being polite; though he was rushed for time, Sam cleaned his plate.
Sam and I were friends both because of the things on which we agreed and in spite of the things on which we disagreed. We understood each other, and part of being a reasonable human being is attempting to understand not only our friends but those, like Dr. Siddiqui, who will likely never be our friends and may even in some ways be our enemies. Accepting others for all of their faults as well as their virtues keeps us from turning them into caricatures, and allows us to discuss political disagreements, such as over immigration policy, without turning them into personal attacks.
I have seen Dr. Siddiqui twice since our trip to the Islamic school in 2002. The second time was shortly after the new mosque was opened, and the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford held a presentation on Hispanic conversions to Islam—a thinly veiled attempt to recruit first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants who had fallen away from their ancestral Catholicism. I went with the idea of writing a column about the presentation and ended up sitting next to Dr. Siddiqui as we ate our Mexican food, prepared with just a hint of Middle Eastern spices, and chatted amiably about the many things on which we disagree.
I last saw Dr. Siddiqui in the operating room at Rockford Memorial Hospital, when my wife was delivering our youngest child via C-section. A neonatologist, he was there to perform the usual tests on the newborn, and we were equally surprised to see each other. When the time came, he performed his job professionally, and I was grateful to him for doing so.
Had the immigration policy I prefer been in place when Dr. Siddiqui came to this country, he would not have been there. Yet I have no doubt that Dr. Siddiqui, a practical man, does not lie awake at night worrying about what might have been, any more than I do—or than Sam did.