“You can take a man out of a country,
but you can’t take a country out of a man.”
In Ed Wood’s notoriously bad 1950’s science-fiction movie, Plan Nine From Outer Space, there is a scene in which the film’s star, the decrepit Bela Lugosi, is shown walking into a room; the following scene shows the same character coming into the room from the other side of the door. But while it is Lugosi who walks into the room in the first scene, the actor who plays the character in the second scene is clearly not Lugosi. Between the filming of the two scenes Lugosi had died, and Wood, with his usual ineptitude, was obliged to cast an extra as the same character—of course, without explanation.
Those familiar with Plan Nine may be reminded of it in reading John J. Miller’s new book on the assimilation of immigrants and the threats to assimilation that he sees, the two scenes in the movie—with and without Lugosi—serving perhaps as a metaphor for what Mr. Miller and his brand of pro-immigration conservatism imagine happens to immigrants as they pass through the Golden Door of the United States. While they usually don’t die in the process, they do become entirely different characters, and we (or at least Mr. Miller) can watch them walk through the door on one side as foreigners and emerge on the other as Americans. Of course, in the movie that’s not what was supposed to happen, while, in the real world (as opposed to the imaginary one conceived of by Mr. Miller), it doesn’t happen at all.
Mr. Miller appears to be in favor of virtually unlimited immigration to the United States by just about anyone or anything that can walk, crawl, swim, fly, or flop across the borders, but he believes also in the assimilation or “Americanization” of immigrants. His main targets in his book are two sets of people who oppose either assimilation (the multiculturalists of the left) or immigration itself (whom he dubs the “neo-nothings” of the right). The “neo-nothings” include most of those who write for this magazine on the subject of immigration—myself (guilty of “racial paranoia”), Chilton Williamson (whom it is tempting to “write off as a crank from the nut wing of the conservative movement”), former National Review editor Peter Brimelow, and “one of our gloomiest prognosticators,” Thomas Fleming. Mr. Miller has adapted his devilishly clever sobriquet “neo-nothings” from the anti-immigration “Know Nothings” of the early 19th century, but only after some pages of tittering over his new term does he inform us that they were called Know Nothings not because they were ignoramuses but because they were supposed to say “I know nothings” about the secret political society of which they were members. That is not what Mr. Miller means about us.
Our problem is that we harbor “a particularist view of American culture,” in which “to become an insider [i.e., to assimilate], a person must undergo a longterm and complex process of socialization that should begin at birth. Americans are a people,” in the neo-nothing view,
not because they are dedicated to a proposition, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, but because they share in a distinct national culture that is ultimately rooted in an assortment of commonalities. These commonalities are based on kinship, religion, territory, language, or other characteristics. Forget all the high-flying rhetoric Americans hear on the Fourth of July.
Aside from a few quibbles about this formulation, he’s right. That is exactly what “neo-nothings” (otherwise known generally as “paleoeonservatives”) believe and why they are opposed to the kind of mass immigration Mr. Miller not only favors but thinks is imperative.
In Mr. Miller’s view, “The United States can welcome immigrants and transform them into Americans because it is a ‘proposition country,'” a “universal nation” in Ben Wattenberg’s happy phrase, and the proposition by which the American nation defines itself, that all men are created equal, means that the “very sense of peoplehood derives not from a common language but from their adherence to a set of core principles about equality, liberty, and self-government. These ideas . . . are universal. They apply to all humankind. They know no racial or ethnic limits. They are not bound by time or history. And they lie at the center of American nationhood. Because of this, these ideas uphold an identity into which immigrants from all over the world can assimilate, so long as they, too, dedicate themselves to the proposition.” Mr. Miller, it is by now evident, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
In the first place, it is not true that the “proposition” that “all men are created equal” and the ideas derived from it are universal and “not bound by time or history.” If they were so, there would never have been any dispute about them, let alone wars and revolutions. No one fights wars about the really self-evident axioms and derived propositions of Euclidean geometry. Mr. Miller’s propositions are very clearly the products of a very particular time and place —late 18th-century Europe and America—and would have been almost inconceivable 50 years earlier or 50 years later. Nor have they ever appeared in any other political society at any other time absent their diffusion from Europe or America. Moreover, they are based on concepts of anthropology and history, including an entirely fictitious “state of nature,” a “social contract,” and a view of human nature as a tabula rasa, that no student of human society or psychology took seriously after the mid-19th century.
In the second place, America as a nation is not based on or defined by these ideas, and Mr. Miller’s own account of the history of immigration and naturalization in American history makes this obvious. You don’t have to suffer from “racial paranoia” to know that, until 1965, immigration and naturalization laws in the United States tended to exclude or restrict non-European entry or citizenship, while, aside even from those restrictions, the American national identity has centered around various obvious identities of community, kinship, class, religion, territory, and region, not to mention the equally obvious linguistic and political heritage of Great Britain. The egalitarian universalism Mr. Miller thinks is the defining core of the American nation logically implies a unitary mass democratic state, and in some passages Mr. Miller suggests that this is what he wants and believes in. It certainly does not justify the federalist political anatomy of the United States, states’ rights, and the balanced structure and powers of the federal government itself Those essential features of the American political order are comprehensible only as adaptations of the British (or what the Framers thought was the British) constitution. Insofar as the abstractions of equality and universality have been meaningful in American history, it has been because they presupposed this common culture and common political tradition in which their limits were clearly understood. Ignore or destroy the “commonalities” of our real national identity, and the universal propositions Mr. Miller gloats over will be as meaningful as they were in the constitution of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Miller and his fellow universalists would say that all these particularities are merely violations of or deviations from the universal code that defines the nation, but he never offers any reason to believe that very many Americans until the 1960’s accepted universalism as the defining code of the nation, or any explanation why his “proposition” (a one-sentence fragment of the Declaration) should be the key to the code—let alone a demonstration why political universalism is itself desirable or true. If few Americans took it seriously, or if almost all of them continuously violated it, in what sense can it be said to have defined the identity of the nation? Like almost all other manifestos of universalism, Mr. Miller’s relies on assertion and repetition, not evidence.
Of course, when Mr. Miller talks about a “proposition country,” he (again) doesn’t know what he is saying. Phrases like “proposition country” or “universal nation” are contradictions in terms, oxymorons. Countries and nations are by definition territorial aggregates of populations with shared characteristics, some of them inherited, some of them historical. What he really means when he writes that “the United States is a proposition country” is that the United States ought to abandon (as it has been abandoning since the 1960’s) its particularistic features and redefine itself along ideological lines. In that way it could take an honored place alongside the other ideological states of the 20th century, most of which have by now crumbled in war or revolution after several generations of tyrannically trying to fit the real nations to the false ideology.
But by ignoring, denying, and dismissing the particularisms that define American nationhood, Mr. Miller makes “assimilation” easy. All you have to do to assimilate is come here and assent to the proposition. In his account of assimilation, however, Mr. Miller seldom discusses what that assent—aside from the most elementary political participation as voters in the mass electorate—involves, let alone the countless political and social implications of the bland vagary that “all men are created equal.” In one passage, however, he is almost eloquent in his discussion of what being an American really means. In a paean to McDonald’s as the great assimilator, Mr. Miller writes,
There may be nothing more American than working beneath the golden arches. For immigrants, McDonald’s is a great place to learn about basic American work habits: filling out an employment application, showing up on time, taking care of a uniform, functioning on a team, keeping things clean, dealing with customers, operating a computerized register, making change, and speaking English.
Paleoconservatives as well as many who take the proposition more seriously than I may wonder what taking care of a uniform and filling out job applications have to do with having been created equal, but everyone will wonder what they have to do with being an American. As for speaking English, Mr. Miller is properly concerned about the failures of bilingual education and properly eager to abolish it, but why should adherents of the proposition have to speak a common language? Isn’t the proposition valid in other languages too? Mr. Miller says, “It matters because it is our common language No nation is complete without a culture, not even a nation that dedicates itself to a proposition. The English language is without question a vital part of American national culture.” Of course, as quoted above, Mr. Miller earlier says that our national identity’ “derives not from a common language,” but if the language is a “vital part” of our culture, that isn’t quite true. And if the language is vital, why are certain other features, also deeply imbedded in our culture, not vital as well?
Mr. Miller thinks that multiculturalism somehow denies or rejects the universalist proposition just as much as neo-nothingism does. Maybe some of its proponents do, but on the whole it is Mr. Miller’s own universalism that drives multiculturalism. Multiculturalists are just a bit more logical than he, since they grasp, as he does not, that (a) only if we are a universal nation can the immigration of people of many cultures be justified and (b) cultural variation is irrelevant to whether the proposition works precisely because the proposition is universal; it is supposed to work in any culture, and thus the presence of many cultures should not pose a problem for it. Moreover, Mr. Miller never tumbles to the obvious truth that multiculturalism, while the product of a few academics and educators, owes what influence it possesses to the mass immigration he idolizes. He quotes Senator Ted Kennedy as justifying bilingual education on the grounds that “the United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world . . . surely our educational system should not be designed so that it destroys the language and culture of children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds.” hi the absence of large numbers of Spanish-speakers, there would be no reason to have bilingual education; in the absence of many immigrant cultures, there would be no reason to teach or push multiculturalism.
Mr. Miller concludes his book with a list of measures that he believes would facilitate assimilation: color-blind law, reducing illegal immigration, abolishing bilingual education, and so forth. I have no objection to any of them, but neither he nor very many of his fellow pro-immigration conservatives ever do much of anything to promote them, while some go out of their way to oppose them. What Mr. Miller never tells us is why we should have any immigration at all, leaving the reader to infer that his enthusiasm for the alien derives from a deep-seated and probably not entirely conscious resentment of the real American nation. The multiculturalism that he denounces and the decomposition of the nation that it produces are the logical and practical results of the kind of immigration policies that he and his faction of conservatism demand, while all his invocations of a universalism that is nothing more than the 200-year-old chatter of Parisian salons and an “Americanization” that locks immigrants into a homogenized slavery to a transnational corporate economy of mass consumption will do nothing to keep the nation and its people intact and much to advance their destruction. If and when Mr. Miller grows up and comes to terms with the real American nation, he may begin to understand the extent of the betrayal he has helped to perpetrate. What walks through the Golden Door with his blessing and assistance, it turns out, is still Bela Lugosi.
[The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined the Assimilation Ethic, by John J. Miller (New York: The Free Press) 293 pp., $25.00]