Several months ago I spoke briefly at the Baltimore Bar Library against passage of the Maryland Dream Act, the state version of the federal initiative that has been hanging around the capitol for a dozen years now. My remarks were countered by two supporters of the act, a pair of earnest young men: both Catholic, one of them on the payroll of the Archdiocese of Baltimore as its point man and troubleshooter in the effort to shield the bill from unenlightened and mean-spirited critics like me.
In the course of my allotted 20 minutes, I noted that, in the West, generally, and in the United States, in particular, the pro-immigrant cause is steeped in heavy sentimentality and bathos. When I stood down, my first rebutter stated immediately that he himself was unapologetically sentimental about the Dream Act, and intended to express his emotion here and now. We had an audience of about 25 people, among whom I didn’t appear to have made any friends. Most if not all of those who commented subsequently on the proceedings identified themselves as being affiliated with some pro-immigrant organization or another, and the majority were obviously Hispanic. After the archdiocese’s bird dog delivered what he clearly considered his knockout argument—that Church teaching on the subject of immigration is on his side—I asked him to explain why, even if that were true (it isn’t), the policy of a secular state should be expected to reflect, prima facie, John Paul II’s Catechism on any particular subject and added that I myself am a Catholic, at which he snorted audibly and stared as if he’d been handed a pig’s breakfast to eat. The burden of his and his associate’s argument, however, was that it is “unfair” that the children of illegal immigrants should be penalized for the illegal actions of their parents. (Here I wished to interrupt to quote the biblical warning regarding the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons, etc.) The two insisted that the “fairness” of exempting the illegal offspring from the penalty of the law of the land should be obvious to all present. Later, when my turn came again, I asked the archbishop’s man, “Fair to whom?” Apparently, neither he nor the archbishop had ever considered that extending the privileges of legal residency to aliens looking, when you come down to it, to get something for nothing might be “unfair” to U.S. citizens and to their children and grandchildren. Or, to generalize the argument, that illegal immigration as a social and political phenomenon might be radically unfair to the nation as a whole. At any rate, I never got an answer to my question.
The archbishop seems to have the Midas touch: The Dream Act was ratified by the voters of Maryland last November 6. Perhaps he will have a go at Roe v. Wade next time.
Illegal immigration, like immigration as a whole, to the United States is driven even more by the greed and dishonesty of the chambers of commerce and politicians’ lust for still more power conferred on them by scores of millions of poor, ignorant, paradoxically resentful, and easily manipulated Third World people than it is by the desire and determination of the immigrants themselves. The next most powerful influence is sentimentalism: popular sentimentality (relentlessly provoked by the media) about America being “a nation of immigrants,” and democratic sentimentalism (encouraged at a more sophisticated level by what one contemporary writer calls Kantian Christianity) that sets the welfare of individual immigrants above the collective good of the commonwealth itself. Here is why the political debate on immigration seems so often like government-by-soap-opera, where bathetic personal anecdotes of poor and suffering immigrants arriving here in simple search of “a better life” so often trump the interests of both the receiving country as a national community and the individual citizens who make it up. George Santayana said, “Life demands a great insensibility, as well as a great sensibility.” (This is the one type of sensitivity that multiculturalists violently resist.) Second to monetary greed and power-hunger, the immigrationist movement is propelled by liberal democratic sentimentalism. So are democracy and democratic culture.
H.L. Mencken professed to believe that poetry is only the statement of the palpably not true. He was wrong about the genuine article, of course, but his definition of poetry applies exactly to another of his deep-seated dislikes: democracy. Sentimentality is the emotional, unreasoning embrace of untruth as truth, and nothing is more demonstrably untrue than the assumptions on which democratic theory and practice rest.
From Hobbes forward, but after Locke particularly, liberalism has taken for granted, whether in a literal or a poetical sense, a social contract between individuals for the purpose of securing them and their property and for promoting their personal freedom. For classical liberals, the theoretical aim of society is not society realized as a commonwealth but society as a collection of discrete individuals, each, so to speak, composing his own society of one, whose security the association guarantees. The United States of America was founded, roughly speaking, on this principle, formulated more attractively as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” by colonists from the mother country and their descendants. In the first 20 or 30 years of the life of the new republic, Americans were highly skeptical of immigration, no matter the source; the Founding Fathers themselves agreed unanimously that American citizens, constituting one homogeneous people, were better off keeping things that way. Already by the 1820’s, however, true immigrants—immigrants as distinguished from colonists—were beginning to arrive from Western Europe, until by the 1840’s their numbers were great enough to provoke a public reaction against them powerful enough to create and sustain its own political party, the so-called Know Nothings.
Then the Confederacy lost the War Between the States, and the new colossus reorganized and continued to industrialize itself in the North, while conspiring with the new titans of industry to encourage mass immigration from Southern and Eastern European stocks for the purpose of flooding the Union with cheap, uneducated labor. Further, because every colossus demands its adulators and its worshipers, and because an increasingly secularized America recognized the need for a new sentimental state religion, the political, business, and booster classes chose “Freedom” as the national ideology, symbolized by the national bird clutching fasces of arrows in its claws. The main components of Freedom were, inevitably, democracy and free enterprise, which fit nicely with the Lockean notion of freedom celebrated by the Declaration of Independence: a document that never enjoyed legal standing, and in truth amounted to no more than the bad poetry of metaphysical falsity debunked by Mencken. This religion of Freedom allowed Americans to imagine themselves as “a nation of immigrants,” a society dedicated to incorporating strange-talking, odder-looking, and often worse behaved immigrants (anarchists, atheists, bombers, strikers, revolutionists, and all-around troublemakers) within the boundaries of the American version of the Lockean compact sacred to classical liberalism. And Freedom was a self-flattering banner for the young empire to march under around the turn of the new century and later to carry into world war in Europe, where Freedom was now presented as “Democracy” on an international scale. The ne plus ultra in the Lockean sentimentalist individualism celebrated by Freedom, however, was postponed until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act effectively as well as theoretically extended Lockean liberal democracy to everyone in the world who wished to come to the United States to enjoy its benefits for himself. In approving the bill, Congress acted with ideological disregard for the future of the old American Commonwealth: a nation in fact as well as in name, whose collective welfare, happiness, and security as an extended family were imagined to transcend the sum total of benefits enjoyed by, or granted to, its hundred-and-some-million inhabitants who were not individuals simply, but citizens as well.
As the popular histories of Great Britain, France, the United States, Nazi Germany, and Cuba (among so many others) show, nations and peoples are clearly susceptible to cheap and cynical sentimentalization. Still, sentimentalizing individuals is far easier—which is why nationalists over the centuries have personalized the homeland as John Bull, Marianne, Uncle Sam, Mother Russia. It is also why immigration enthusiasts, the immigration lobbies, and the media have always promoted their immigration policies by personifying the mass phenomenon of immigration through poignant, inspiring, and horrifying personal accounts of immigrants, singly or as families, making their heroically determined way, against all odds, to religious or political sanctuary, prosperity, and “Freedom.” What matters in human terms is so obviously the triumph and well-being of suffering individuals, by comparison with which the welfare of socially, ethnically, intellectually, and religiously homogeneous native civilizations is a mere bourgeois abstraction, hard to describe and harder still to measure and assess. And—especially—to dramatize. How do you “prove” that the type of society praised by Burke is not only subjectively preferable, but also objectively superior, to that imagined by Locke, or reified by the United States in the 21st century? Meanwhile, “experts” cite polls that are supposed to demonstrate the overall happiness quotient, undiminished by the demographic transformation of the former American republic, of 300 million people.
Claude Polin has explained how democracy, like everything else that is grounded on sentimentality, is basically selfish. And if democracy isn’t sentimental in concept and in practice, then democracy is nothing. The belief in the equality of all people in any sense other than in the eyes of God is sentimental. The idea that people deserve to get what they want is sentimental. The idea that all people are competent to manage their own lives, let alone help direct the course of a nation (that is, of other people’s lives), is sentimental. The idea that democracy is compatible with any system of belief fairly describable as a religion is sentimental. Most sentimental of all is the notion that the Lockean individual is, or deserves to be, the moral center of the universe, whether he lives in Nuevo Laredo or in New York. Noah Webster’s 1828 edition gives the following as its tertiary definition of sentiment: “The sense, thought or opinion contained in words, but considered as distinct from them.” In other words, sentiment, as applied to democratic sense, thought, or opinion, means the palpably not true.