If anything good comes out of this election, it may be that we’ll finally approach some sensible dialog about what some call “the national question,” immigration.
The question is, what kind of a nation are we and what kind of nation do we want to continue to be – if we do want to continue.
The answers boil down to, either a nation with an acknowledged common culture or a polyglot mega-state something like the European Union if you like the idea. Or Yugoslavia if you don’t.
What we have is W.E.I.R.D. Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic.
The United States is one of the weirdest of the W.E.I.R.D. Here is where the people Edmund Burke called the most protestant of Protestants and the most dissident of dissidents settled.
What they created was a national culture almost unique in the world. An identity based not on blood ties, but on our relationship to a body of literature.
Among peoples of a book, Jewish identity is based on a centuries-long literary discussion about man’s relationship to God. Icelanders identity is defined by the tales of heroic ancestors in the Sagas.
Americans are defined by our relationship to a literary discussion of the relationship of men in society. The canon is not well defined but certainly includes the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Federalist (a kind of operating manual for the Constitution) plus influential works such as John Locke’s treatises on government and the nature of property.
The result was a radical departure from all previous ideas of national identity. The notion that you can become an American, as much an American as anyone born here.
That would seem to settle the question. Come on board it’s really great!
Except it isn’t working that way.
For most of the history of our nation immigration came overwhelmingly from Europe. Though they had to learn what it means to be American, they came from cultures sharing a common origin which was like it or not Christian. That is, a religious tradition that taught you were personally responsible for the state of your soul.
The outliers were Jews, who nonetheless shared certain crucial assumptions about the dignity, worth, and inalienable rights of the individual. They worshiped a God of liberty and justice.
During the Western expansion we first accepted large numbers from non-Western cultures, Chinese and Japanese. And it appeared to work well. Who would have thought the insular Japanese would assimilate so thoroughly?
Forward looking Americans began to believe in our ability to assimilate any number of exotic foreigners, perhaps presaging a worldwide age of liberty and universal respect for the rights of man.
And it was precisely at this point that two things happened that called it all into question.
Wealth and industrialization made world travel easy and cheap. Technology fed images of the wealth of the West into every corner of the world. Soon masses of people were clamoring to come and share in it.
That’s not the problem. We’ve done this before. The famine Irish were more wretched than any Syrian or Somali refugees we’ve seen so far.
The first problem is these people come with no conception of what it is that made us this wealthy: free enterprise, sensible laws governing labor and business, and a general acknowledgement that what you make is yours to keep minus a tolerable levy for the upkeep of the country as a whole.
We’re now accepting people who appear to believe what we have is the result of luck – or worse, theft. People who do not care to assimilate, and in fact reject the idea out of hand.
The second problem is we appear to have lost the will to insist on it. That native-born Americans have lost sight of what created this outpouring of wealth unprecedented in human history.
We can’t bring ourselves to say anymore, “Come and bring the richness of your culture. We welcome it. But you must leave behind your old loyalties and your old hatreds. You must learn a new way of thinking about yourself and become a new kind of person. We ask much, but in return much is given.”