What all the wise men promised has not happened,
and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”
In this highly informative book, Chilton Williamson, Jr., walks us through the tortuous history of American immigration policy. Along the way he draws attention to critical milestones, such as the 1924 Naturalization Act and the congressional legislation since 1965 bearing on immigration and nationality. Williamson relates these and other legislative attempts to deal with immigration to a social and economic context. But even more importantly, he looks at the cultural and emotional circumstances surrounding “immigration reforms.” This historical thinking is entirely justified. Not all immigration legislation has followed economic logic in the manner of the Naturalization Act of 1924. When in the early 1920’s the United States had enough unskilled labor and many feared the socially disruptive effects of further lower-class immigration, particularly on radicalized American workers, Congress moved to reduce the immigration rates. In 1965, when Congress supported expanded immigration from what turned out to be the Third World, it clearly was not following any general economic interest. It may have been supplying some businessmen with cheap labor, but this came at the expense of the minorities and immigrants already here, and increased immigration raised the cost for social services, which fell on the population as a whole. The new immigration policy was also justified in terms of enhancing American diversity, but Williamson properly asks why this should be considered particularly desirable. By the mid-60’s, the United States was already an ethnically diverse nation facing racial strife and escalating social violence. Though the country had problems, a lack of diversity was not one of them.
Williamson maintains that one can only understand the 1965 act by looking at how clergymen, journalists, and politicians were reconstructing the American self-image. Americans were being burdened with a false guilty conscience about not having practiced their heritage of caring globalism, a heritage that was mostly fictitious and had nothing to do with the way immigration had been viewed in the past. What had been a strictly utilitarian means for settling a vast frontier land and providing infant industries with workers was now turned into an ideology, one that prohibited national distinctions or democratically agreed on limits to further demographic change. Williamson notes that popular acceptance of the 1965 act was shaped by the “potent myth” of redemption being given to political sinners. No matter where it led and how deceitfully it was presented, Americans had to stick by that commitment to openness. It was depicted as the final tribute to a slain President, John F. Kennedy, who had called for a repeal of the 1924 Naturalization Act in his ghosted book A Nation of Immigrants. Kennedy’s brothers, Robert and Edward, had kept this fact before the public in pressing for a new immigration law. Besides, it was the recognized “gods of the [civil rights] pantheon” who became the tutelary spirits for a future borderless America. Religious and political leaders, Williamson shows, seized on the parallel between pulling down racial barriers at home and throwing open America’s borders. Unlike other critics of immigration, Williamson does not make the questionable assertion that increased immigration was simply a trick foisted on the unsuspecting. He offers a histoire de mentalité that sets the entire issue in perspective.
One outstanding merit of his book is the graceful style in which it approaches a controversial topic. First and foremost a man of letters, Williamson does not seem concerned about winning legislative battles or devastating political opponents. Despite his stated intent, at least in conversation, to take no prisoners, his book is unfailingly courteous even toward those with whom he sharply disagrees. He points out that honest mistakes were committed by some legislators who underestimated the effects and size of increased immigration. He also takes pains to allow the other side to speak for itself; and while he places opposing views and clumsy predictions against the historical record, he desists from personal judgments.
All of this must be kept in mind as one considers the hysterical responses to Williamson’s book found in the mainstream press, and most particularly in the Wall Street Journal. In a July 26 review in the Journal by a John J. Miller, Williamson is accused of a surly xenophobia that is nowhere to be seen in his text. Miller misrepresents the testimony that Williamson cites concerning the difficulty of absorbing Irish and German immigrants in the early 19th century. The citations given and the observations made do not prove that Williamson hates Germans and Irish or that he believes they should not have been allowed into the country. Rather, he is presenting an a fortiori form of reasoning that should be easy to grasp: because it was hard to assimilate, even before the welfare state, groups that were relatively similar to earlier immigrants, it would stand to reason, etc. Such thinking used to be taught in logic classes, but obviously not where Miller received his “education.” Otherwise he would understand that Williamson is not psychically maladjusted but illustrating a demonstrable thesis, that even under favorable economic and cultural conditions, large-scale immigration creates problems for the host nation. Miller also castigates him for a lack of faith in two fideistic assumptions. First, Williamson will not admit (oxymoronically) that “new traditions can develop organically”; and second, according to Williamson, by 2050 the political character of America may have changed to reflect a shifting cultural base. Miller assures us that no matter who may be here in the future, “we can remain devoted to the same political and social institutions.” Unfortunately for this childlike faith, one would have no trouble documenting how entirely correct Williamson’s view is.
More shocking than Miller’s botched review is the refusal of the establishment press to treat seriously a widely held and earnestly argued position on immigration. This is not to say that liberal-neoconservative journalists must agree with Williamson and with other commentators who make the same case. But by assigning Williamson’s book to someone who will safely pan it, they react irrationally to a set of arguments they will not even confront. In the past, I have noted the degree to which intellectuals and mediacrats now practice the “pathologization of dissent.” Those who raise questions that the establishment press or the faculty of Harvard University find ideologically unacceptable are accused of being “bigoted” or “sick.” By doing so, one can avoid the real issue at hand, or, in Williamson’s case, the lack of faith in someone else’s dream.
[The Immigration Mystique: America’s False Conscience, by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (New York: Basic Books) 202 pp., $23.00]