“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
America prides itself on being a land of immigrants. “Give me your tired, your poor,” begins Emma Lazarus’ poem. For most of American history, the immigrants were remarkably similar to their predecessors: trans-Atlantic migrants, Christian (or, in the case of Jews, from majority-Christian societies), and European. Prior to the Second World War, the only significant exceptions to this rule of thumb were the Chinese and Japanese of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the miniscule numbers of Christian Arabs who began settling in places like Dearborn, Michigan. Their numbers were not enough to make a difference in the popular conception of this country, nor in the idea of the citizen’s duty toward it.
And so America has never truly had to face existential questions of what immigration might do to a nation. This is not to say that it was not at points a burning concern: the Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century were profoundly worried – the point of mob violence – at the Catholic influx; and the Exclusion Acts targeting Asians were reflective of the racism of the period. At bottom, though, we know that the attendant fears were unjustified. America and the American identity stayed broadly the same: rooted in Judeo-Christian concepts of morality, Anglo-Saxon concepts of governance, and what Max Weber would consider a “Protestant” ethic. This did not appear to change no matter how many Italians, Irish, Greeks, Norwegians, or Russian Jews were added to the mix.
How things change.
The old pattern of immigration had two things in common: first, it was almost wholly legal, cross-oceanic smuggling being then and now perilous and rare; second, it was allowed according to a very different set of criteria than we have today. The primary concern of the drafters of immigration law prior to the Second World War were concerned with basic questions of pragmatism and identity: Whom can we absorb economically? Whom can we absorb culturally? The result was a quota system that allowed in, relative to those wishing to immigrate, disproportionate numbers of Europeans. The Immigration Act of 1924 allocated immigration quotas by country specifically in proportion to preexisting communities within the United States. While this is not necessarily an ideal methodology (and certainly the 1924 Act itself had some objectionable provisions and premises), the bottom line remains that its framers sought to preserve the existing makeup of American society as a means of preserving existing American identity. Immigration was therefore framed to bolster the ranks of the self-identified American – not merely politically, but culturally – and the distances traveled meant that the separation from the mother country in an era of steam and coal seafaring was usually a permanent one.
Something happened in the 1960s to change all this. As part of a broader loss of cultural and national self-confidence, the idea that immigration policy should prefer Europeans, Christians, Jews, or other readily assimilable groups was dropped in favor of more equitable quotas for almost every nation in the world. Now, despite the protestations of those who equate Americanism with whiteness, let it be said that this specific policy change has not meaningfully harmed America.
But it could. We have been blessed with two phenomena in the wake of this policy shift. First, our immigrants, for the most part, come to work, and to partake of a concept of a preexisting America that they actively wish to join. Second, our free market system (comparative to most of the rest of the world, anyway) dulls and sometimes supplants the cultural differences that might otherwise be a source of conflict.
Still: dulls, not erases, and sometimes, not always. Man is not, with apologies to the libertarians, a purely economic animal. The truth is that as we let in increasing numbers from communities that do not share the same cultural premises as the American mainstream, the chance for conflict increases proportionately. We need only look to Europe to see the grim results of an alien cultural bloc transplanted into the heart of a society at odds with the values and mores of the immigrants’ homelands. Islam and the tribal ethic together, placed into the post-Christian context of a socialist Europe, have given us insurrections in France and Belgium, the ritual slaughter of public figures in the Netherlands, rush-hour massacres in London and Madrid, 9/11 killers from Germany, and dire threats to Danes everywhere. The list goes on. Now, Europe is not an exact parallel to the American experience: Muslim immigrants there, especially in Germany, have long been something of a helot class, unable to aspire to mere citizenship. If America has escaped the worst of the European experience, it is partly a factor of numbers, and partly a factor of the drive to Americanization.
But as that drive falters, the danger from those who would be affected by it grows. When Germans sank American ships in 1917, popular pressure virtually erased overt German culture from the United States within the year. Fast-forward to this decade: when Muslims massacred 3,000 Americans, the President rushed to a mosque, and Yale subsequently enrolled the spokesman of the atrocity’s sponsoring regime. None of this is to yearn for a society that would dub the humble pita Freedom’s Flatbread. But it is to note that the social impulses which force the assimilation of even the most alien of immigrant communities is fading, and has been for some time.
This is not simply an academic concern. We already have examples of troubling behavior from Muslim communities in the United States. If we are not in Europe’s straits, why tread that path? If we cannot bring to bear internal and informal mechanisms to ward off this problem, why not external and formal ones? With that in mind, why not simply demand that new arrivals from the relevant faith take an oath, enforceable in a court of law, that they do not and will not support the concept of violent jihad, the idea of the dhimmi, the killing of Jews, et cetera? Surely this is a reasonable request to make of a person.
The objection will be raised that this is discriminatory and hence unjust. It is assuredly the former. But the latter is the result of a construct of the recent past that needs to be discarded. If there is a case that predisposing or prejudicial beliefs are somehow exempt from the judgmental gaze of government, it is yet to be made. The FBI surveys groups espousing white supremacism for a reason: why not groups espousing jihad? Does the religious nature of the belief place it under the protections of the Constitution, even as it seeks to destroy the very liberties of that Constitution? Is there any precedent in American history for this singling-out of a faith?
The precedent is the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, which effectively disestablished the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints until that entity gave up its doctrine of polygamy. The Mormons were effectively declared an organized-crime outfit: their properties were confiscated, and their leaders were driven underground. It took three years, but in 1890 they abandoned polygamy, Utah became a state, and the Mormons, despite Krakauer, have been good, patriotic, and peaceful Americans ever since. One, Mitt Romney, even has a shot at being President shortly. They were forced to join the civilized world by the United States government, which cared more for the norms of American culture than the values of the Mormon faith – and rightly so. Looking back, it is difficult to deny that this vigorous action – in which no American was killed, deported, put into camps, or hunted down – was to the ultimate benefit of the country and the Mormons.
If we could act with that degree of sanity, self-preservation, and humanity in 1887-1890, why not now? If we cannot, it is not because Muslims now – or any other immigrant community now – are worse than Mormons then: it is because we have lost the self-confidence to do it.
Who gets in? Who gets to come into the United States? Who gets to become an American? We must have immigrants. We need them. But we need the right kind. Peter Schramm, founder of the John Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, tells a particular story of his youth. He and his family fled the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. As they prepared to leave, he asked his father where they were going. “America,” came the reply. “Why America?” asked the young boy. “Because,” said his father, “we were born American – just in the wrong place.”
That is the kind of immigrant we need. This essay, no doubt, seems to be mostly about Muslims. Do not miss the more fundamental point: that the United States has every right, and a positive duty, to ensure that new Americans are the right kind of Americans. And the right kind of Americans are the ones who share our values, aspire to our norms, and wish to live among us as us. There are plenty of those, and they are not confined to any one race, color, or country. If we know where many of them are not, well, we would be remiss to not regard those corners with due caution.
Having asserted the right of the United States to control its borders as aggressively as it sees fit, the reader may note that the crux of the immigration issue in America remains unaddressed: not Muslims, whom we address here as instructive example, but Hispanics. They are an issue and a plight unto themselves, and I will turn to them shortly.
This article was first published on the Enchiridion Militis website