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Free to Return By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 15, 2002


THE UPROAR OVER THE INS approving student visas for two of the September 11 hijackers should initiate a conversation about immigration that goes beyond any one agency's sins.  Immigration both legal and illegal is the elephant in the room that will only make a mess if we don't come to terms with it.

I speak as someone who was born and raised and still lives in immigration's ground zero--the San Joaquin Valley of California.  Long before the exotic "other" was discovered by white intellectuals hungry for noble-savage authenticity, we in the rural Valley were living the "diversity" so many academics and pundits tout from their upscale neighborhoods.  Around our ranch maybe two out of ten people were white, and nine out of ten were poor.  Yet "white" and "non-white" don't even begin to communicate the complex diversity we lived with.

Most of our neighbors were Mexicans, but there were also sizable numbers of black people, most of them from the South.  There were also Chinese, Japanese, Sikhs, Punjabis, and Filipinos.  The people a university admissions officer would call "white" were diverse to a degree to make that adjective meaningless: Italians, like my grandparents, Portuguese from the Azores, Basques, Armenians, Volga Germans, Swedes, and Dust Bowl migrants from the South, like my father, who came to California from Texas on a freight train during the Depression.

Most of these immigrants were proud of their origins, as evidenced by fraternal organizations, religious guilds, holidays, festivals, recipes, native costumes, and scores of other ways of honoring their homelands and keeping their alive their native cultures.  Yet most realized and acknowledged a fundamental truth: that whatever affection they had for their homes, those cultures had in some significant way failed them.  Thus they had made a difficult, costly choice: to leave their homes and find a new one, to leave their old identities and become Americans.

How they negotiated their new and old identities was up to them, and that negotiation was one of the most important functions of those organizations and clubs and festivals.  Each immigrant made his own choice about how much of the old country to keep and pass on to his children, and how much of the new to embrace.  Some kept their native tongues, others (most eventually) lost them.  Some, like my wife's grandfather, a Volga German, never even became citizens.

The critical point, however, is that the negotiation and the choice, the decision about how much to keep and how much to lose, were the business of the people themselves.  The public culture of schools and government was American, and the price of entry to this country was the acceptance of those core American values. If those values contradicted or conflicted with the values of the homeland, then the latter had to be modified or discarded.  Anybody who didn't want to make that sacrifice was free to return.

The choice was hard, at times even brutal, but back then people understood that to have an "unum" from such various "pluribus," there had to be a unifying common culture of political values and ideals that in the public sphere trumped any others.  You were free to opt out, just as you were free not to learn English.  But that choice meant a limitation on your political and economic opportunities.

Transmitting that common American culture, and its history and heroes, its values and ideals, was the job of the schools.  There it was that the immigrant learned how to be what he or his parents had freely chosen to become--an American.  And that process involved learning English and recognizing that it was the tongue of American public life.  Was the process difficult?  You bet.  Racism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice all at times made the work of becoming American brutally hard.  My uncles were whacked with a ruler for speaking Italian at school.  But over time the process worked.

But something has happened in the last thirty years to compromise this process.  The ideology of multiculturalism colonized the schools and popular culture, and its message is precisely the wrong one for those trying to forge a common national identity out of a multitude of cultures.  Don't be fooled by multi-cult PR that it just wants to "respect diversity," as though immigrants like my Italian grandparents needed anyone to validate who they were.  Multi-cult is really a melodrama of white Western wickedness expressed in racism, colonialism, genocide, sexism, slavery, and many other sins.  The immigrant "other" (excluding, of course, Europeans) now is a privileged victim who is entitled to public acknowledgement of his victim status and obeisance to the superiority of his native culture, equally a victim of Western historical malfeasance.

Now immigrants are taught to embrace a sense of entitlement and grievance that leads to demands that the public culture of schools and government acknowledge those sins and atone for them.  The effect is to divide, not unify, to pit group against group as each tries to out-victim the other.  Curricula now degenerate into ethnic cheerleading and feel-good symbolism.  The essence of being an American is now reduced to a flabby "tolerance" that in fact masks a profound intolerance and anti-Americanism.  Democratic politics becomes identity politics.

The result is the bizarre spectacle we see every day, one that wouldn't be tolerated in France or Mexico for five seconds--people who have risked life and limb to come to America, some illegally, publicly chastising this country and asserting the superiority of their native lands.  The dysfunctional aspects of their cultures that led them to abandon them in the first place are ignored in multi-cult's cultural relativism and greeting-card "diversity."  Meanwhile the average American is mystified and angered at this ingratitude and hypocrisy, yet if he expresses it the liberal elite, few of whom are on the front lines of immigration, chastises him as "racist" or "xenophobic" or "nativist."

One can already see in California the future of this Balkanization-- more and more inter-ethnic conflict, and more and more ignorance about what constitutes America and its political ideals and values.  Meanwhile, the vacuum left by the abandonment of that common fund of ideals and history is being filled by a crass popular culture and consumerism, which increasingly constitute the common ground of being American.  I'm not sure a sound national identity can be based on a shared appreciation of fast-food and vulgar music videos.

Immigration can work, and has worked in this country.  But in order to work the schools and government must commit to teaching and reinforcing the common culture that immigrants must learn and accept to be Americans, leaving it up to immigrants themselves to preserve and transmit the ways of the old country.  For the hard brutal reality always remains--if the price of becoming American is too great, then don't come here.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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