Whatever it is these days, it’s connected with immigration. The West Nile virus is suspected of imperiling the future of any number of birds and mammals; milfoil, an immigrant grass from distant shores, is threatening to destroy our lakes as habitat for fish and frog. All of this gives substance to the people who say — even at the cost of being called racists, xenophobes and mean-hearted, bigoted bastards — that immigration can and may destroy life as we’ve enjoyed it in North America.
Past immigrations have done exactly that. Ask any Native American, if you can find one. The great European immigration to these parts, which began in the 16th century, was a geno-catastrophe for American Indians, and proof positive that a mass immigration can and has all but obliterated the receiving society. Indian language, Indian culture and the Indians themselves (who, it is best remembered, welcomed the European immigrants at first) were so decimated that today the descendants of the Europeans devote a little — very little — of their tax money for programs to teach Native Americans the languages they no longer speak and the folkways they no longer know. To the extent that Native Americans embraced diversity long ago, they found out that its practical consequences for them was something akin to geno-suicide.
Some immigrants — like the West Nile virus, or that appalling snail that is threatening to devastate aquatic life in the Great Lakes — cannot be safely absorbed. Think twice before thoughtlessly accepting diversity as an unqualified ecological, social or political good. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
Lest we think this is purely an American problem, we might ponder the words of Anthony Browne, a Brit: “About a quarter of a million people are coming to Britain from the Third World each year: a city the size of Cambridge every six months, an unprecedented and sustained wave of immigration to one of the world’s most densely crowded islands, utterly transforming the society in which we live against the wishes of the majority of the population, damaging quality of life and social cohesion, exacerbating the housing crisis and congestion, and with questionable economic benefits.” Mr. Browne, who describes himself as a Laborite and a liberal, cannot hold back from exploding that, “Of course, it’s all culturally enriching — those restaurants! — but surveys tell us that most Britons do not want to be culturally enriched. It is something they have in common with most peoples. I dare the immigration celebrationists to order the Nigerians to accept millions of Arabs, whites, Indians and Chinese to enrich their culture, or Indians to accept millions of Chinese, Africans, Arabs and whites to enrich theirs.”
Impenetrable enclaves of Muslim Arabs in the United Kingdom and Germany are reported to be recruiting and training terrorist incendiaries. If the arrivals don’t assimilate or don’t assimilate rapidly, members of the host culture grow fearful that they have taken an asp to their breasts. A parallel, though not identical, situation exists in Miami, where certain Cuban exiles and their children seem to be telling the rest of us that they are erecting an exclusionist society in which we are not welcome. It is all the more worrisome, if true, because Cuba can boast of no democratic tradition. Neither Fidel Castro nor his exiled enemies have a democratic bone in their bodies. This is a bit of diversity I personally could do without.
In times past, the United States has received gigantic waves of immigrants whose cultures and histories had no democratic self-rule or even toleration of others. Nevertheless, they were assimilated — but the times were different, as were the reigning social imperatives. Fifty and 100 years ago, newcomers were all but forced to adapt to the English-speaking American way. They made fun of you on the vaudeville stage and in the movies if you spoke with a foreign accent; it was socially acceptable — even desirable, some might hold — to look down on people who talked, lived, ate and behaved differently. The English-speaking Americans of times past who did appreciate other cultures usually made a hard distinction between the peasant immigrants who came here and the educated classes of Poland, Italy, Germany or Bohemia, who didn’t. This kind of behavior on the part of locals was snotty and snobby, but worked to force many of the new arrivals to give up their ways; if not, they left America and went back whence they came. Something like a third of all Greek immigrants went home.
The American commercial culture both lured and drove people toward assimilation. Non-fluent English speakers couldn’t get good jobs, and there were all the goodies — new houses, clothes, abundance of every kind — just sitting behind shop windows for people who enlisted in the system. Now that’s changed. Where once second-generation Americans were embarrassed by their foreign-sounding and -looking parents, we now have well-heeled organizations promoting social separation, doing their best to inhibit children from learning to speak English fluently, laboring to build linguistic, cultural, religious and racial ghettos, where being non-American (as American used to be defined) is a matter of pride and political power. Whereas the ethnic political, cultural and religious bosses of previous immigrations were figures who aided in the transition from being foreigners to being middle-class, English-speaking, suburban-dwelling Americans, now these types seem — at least on certain days — to be dedicated to separation in America.
The above may sound like an argument for exclusion, something the United States has done in fits and starts in the past. Even if exclusion were a good idea — and it is not — from Australia to Germany, national governments are having the devil’s own time trying to carry it out. Here conservatives harrumph and phumph about regaining control of our borders, but even with the Bush administration spending huge amounts on it, the borders leak immigrants in numbers too large for officialdom to count accurately.
With each passing year, our dependence on foreign labor grows. Take George Bush’s dearly sought war with Iraq. Absent the soldiers from Western Europe — who, Mr. Bush has been told, are not coming — where is the United States to get a couple of hundred thousand on-the-ground infantry? Merely bombing Iraq is not going to do it, even if you assume that American air power can end centrally commanded, organized resistance by Saddam Hussein. We don’t have enough soldiers to march in there and sit long enough to carry out regime change.
Native-born Americans aren’t going to do it. You can hear a few politicians speaking about reinstating the draft or conscription. The liberals believe it’s an opportunity to make people choose between shouldering a rifle or doing community service, which sounds too close to involuntary servitude. Those on the Roaring Right, as opposed to the Sedentary Right, may regard renewed conscription as a way to conquer the world. One thing is sure about conscription: The politicians who publicly propose it will get their wish about stimulating young people to come out and vote. It is a career-ender for politicians who back it.
We need automated computer warfare, because there are not enough Americans for the infantry and the dirty house-to-house fighting. The only way we can put large numbers of troops in the field, as they did back in Vietnam days, is to hire the soldiers, much as the English did with the Hessians. Modern-day Hessians are immigrants. Needless to say, an army of foot soldiers who have no connection — linguistically, culturally and politically — with America, past or present, is an invitation to regime change in Washington some time down the road. Mercenaries obey who pays them.
If this seems far-fetched, please recall how hard it has become to get Americans to do the vital work of the society. It seems we are increasingly unable to pass on to our children the knowledge and skills necessary to run our society. Consider the following from The Wall Street Journal: “Nearly 40% of the graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are from abroad. More foreigners than Americans are studying graduate physics at US schools. Michigan State University reports 153 applicants for its graduate program in statistics: seven from the US, 123 from China … Eight of the 11 US residents who shared Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry in the past three years were born elsewhere.”
Thank the good Lord, something like half the foreign graduates of American technical and scientific schools stay here after they get their diplomas. But life and opportunities are getting ever better in China and India and even Russia. If these people decide to go home in large numbers, we are going to be stuck looking at a lot of machinery we don’t know how to operate. It is estimated, for example, that in four or five years we will be short about 20,000 airplane mechanics.
If there is an answer to our looming crisis, other than continued immigration coupled with a huge, persistent, even coercive program of English and assimilation, let somebody tell us what it is.