A few days ago Dennis Mangan posted at his website, Mangan’s Miscellany, some remarks of mine about a notion he had been discussing: the restriction of immigration on the basis of race. This gave rise to a long comment-thread. The comments were of varying quality, but nearly universal in their agreement that anyone who might suggest, as I did, that race is hardly a desirable or respectable criterion by which to filter out prospective immigrants must be a naive and deluded Pollyanna in the grip of an infectious liberal madness. I was told that to hold such an opinion meant that I was in the “kindergarten stage” of understanding the problem, that I lack “fundamental insight”, that I was an “escapist sloganeer” who, having mouthed “nice-sounding phrases”, imagined that I had “handled the issue”. I learned that I “just want the ideal liberal world”, and that I should “dream on”. I stood in the dock as an exemplar of “liberal, blank-slade [sic] thinking” (Really? moi?? see here, here, here, and most recently, here).
Moving on to actual clinical diagnosis, I learned that I “clearly suffer” from an “infantile disorder” that the blogger Mencius Moldbug (who is, just as an aside, certainly an interesting fellow, and worth reading) has called “human neurological uniformity”, which is:
…characterized by the belief that “modern human subpopulations are neurologically uniform… genetic differences between races… are of no behavioral significance… [and] genetic differences between individuals are of no behavioral significance.” People who do not suffer from this disorder consider that what people look like is, in fact, associated with how they behave.
Although it builds character, no doubt, to offer a thoughtful remark in a public forum and find oneself pelted with rotten vegetables, it is not, as it turns out, an unalloyed pleasure. Perhaps I am too thin-skinned.
Anyway, all of this happened while I was working sixteen-hour days, and had no time even to outline a response, let alone write and post one. Now that I have a few quiet moments, I’d like to make some clarifying remarks. (This is rather a long post, by the way; for that I apologize in advance.)
First, we must see exactly what it is we are arguing about. I think the resolution put forward at Mangan’s would include the following assumptions:
1) American culture, as well as the nation’s prosperity and unity, are now threatened, to a degree never felt before, by immigration.
2) Human beings naturally tend to associate and identify more strongly with race and ethnicity than nationalism.
3) The effect of 2) is far more destructive to the cohesion of the American cultural fabric when the races and ethnicities involved are less like those of the white Europeans who are the rootstock of American culture.
4) There is much about traditional American culture that is worth preserving.
This leads to the following conclusions:
5) If we are serious about preserving and protecting the American culture, we ought to resist the importation of divisive or destructive influences.
6) Given 2) and 3) above, then we should limit immigration according to race.
I agree with 5), but not 6). So now it is up to me to explain why.
First, we must acknowledge that it is difficult to have a level-headed conversation about any innate aspect of human nature that varies among individuals or groups without immediately finding oneself in a highly polarized argument about morality and social policy. There is enough incoherence on both sides to go around: on the left, race (we might also substitute sex here) is universally denounced as a criterion for any sort of exclusion, but is often considered a valid basis for preferences, while on the right, as we see in this discussion at Mangan’s, racial groups often seem to be imagined as monoliths, with whatever statistical tendencies they may exhibit as a group considered to trump the enormous variation that always exists between individual members of the group.
A key aspect of the deep disagreement between the two sides here has to do with a fundamental difference between liberal (by this term I mean modern-day, in distinction to “classical”, liberalism) and conservative views of human nature: liberals tilt toward the view that the undeniable differences amongst humans are generally due to acculturation, and can be molded and remediated by appropriate modifications of social policy, while conservatives take what is sometimes called the “tragic view”: that we simply are what we are, and that traditional societies, having in their long evolution found stable solutions to the enormously difficult problem of building enduring social structures out of such warped timber, ought not to be tinkered with too much, lest they be weakened in unforeseeable ways, and collapse. (Indeed, the conservative view is that these dangers are “unforeseeable” only to those who are blinded, by their Utopian ideology, to inconvenient realities about human nature.)
What is the purpose of the discussion at Mangan’s? It might be simply to lament the passing of “white” American culture — an opportunity for pallid, like-minded mourners to gather to exchange fond remembrances of the soon-to-be-deceased White America — or it might be a serious discussion of prospective US policy. If we assume the latter, then there are further realities to be acknowledged: the history of race-based policy in America and Europe, the moral dimension the topic has acquired, and the fact that America is, far from being a “white” country, already a racially complex place. Any plan that has the slightest chance of actually being implemented, or of having a beneficial effect that outweighs its drawbacks, must take all this into consideration.
The history of race and social policy in recent centuries has not been a pretty story, to put it mildly: slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, apartheid, the Holocaust, the riots of the 60′s, and so on. One way of looking at this is as evidence that racial antipathy is a natural, universal, and permanent human feature, and that to pretend it can ever abate is hopelessly naive. The opposite view is that attitudes can change; that with the right sort of acculturation race can matter less, and perhaps, one day, not at all. There are more and more of us every day, after all, and the world isn’t getting any bigger; either we learn to live together somehow, or just go on hating and fighting each other forever. So we might as well try — and if we are to have any hope at all of succeeding someday, our attitude matters.
So we have, then, another version of the ongoing nature/nurture debate. If racial disharmony, and the splintering of society along racial lines, is an inevitable consequence of immutable human wiring, then the situation really might be hopeless. But is that actually the case?
To be sure, humans are not blank slates. But so great was the backlash against the racist horrors of the Holocaust that it became, in the postwar years, a kind of thoughtcrime to suggest that any aspect of human behavior or cognition might be innate, rather than learned. (When the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson brought out his book Sociobiology in 1975, it set off a storm of outrage, and he was shouted down at lectures and even threatened with violence.) Though it is softening, this attitude persists today: the idea of an infinitely malleable human psyche, with no innate distinctions between the sexes, or between races or ethnic groups, still has a strong attraction for many people. It is almost certainly false.
But neither is the opposite true: that social attitudes about race are simply built in, and affected not at all by ambient cultural circumstances. Nor is it the case that natural social affiliations along racial or ethnic lines must always lead to catastrophic social fracture. We need to look no further than our own experience here in the United States to see that this is true; I certainly need look no further than my own.
I have lived in the Northeast all my life, and have spent all of my adult life immersed in two cultural activities that provide good examples of the sort of social evolution I am talking about (there are countless others, but these are the two I have the most personal experience with): music, and Chinese martial arts.
For many years I made my living recording and mixing music. Although I worked in a great many musical genres, my specialty was a uniquely American form: jazz. Many of the jazz musicians I worked with were old enough to remember when America was a thoroughly segregated society, but by the time I began to work in the studio in the mid-1970′s things had changed enormously. I am sure there are still vestiges of racial tension in the music industry, as there are everywhere, but it would be hard to imagine a more race-indifferent population than the professional musicians of New York or Los Angeles. This is not due to a genetic mutation, but rather to immersion in a merit-based culture that values commitment to the music first, and everything else a distant second.
Likewise, when I began to study Hung Gar kung fu in 1975, my sifu at the time, the formidable master William Chung, was among the very first in the nation to teach traditional Chinese martial arts to “roundeyes” like me. (His willingness to do so caused him a good deal of trouble in Chinatown.) By the time I signed on attitudes were already beginning to soften, but when we took to the streets back then at Chinese New Year for the lion dance, we didn’t see a lot of white faces, and sometimes there were confrontations. But this has all changed enormously in the intervening 33 years: when we go out next weekend, the lion-dance teams will be a patchwork of white, black, Hispanic, and Chinese students, forming what David Sloan Wilson would call a “trait group”: united by our enthusiasm for the tradition we all have embraced. This idea of the “trait group” is a useful and important one: humans are no less loyal to their groups than they have ever been, but we see that they can be acculturated to have different ideas about what constitutes the group.
Likewise, we can see the same evolution in other areas: sports, entertainment, politics, education, and on and on. In all of these areas the US is, quite simply, a far more integrated place than it was 50 years ago. I think this is sufficient to rebut the too-simplistic notion that racial faction is innately so strong a human tendency that cultures must always fracture along racial fault-lines. We have witnessed in America over the past half-century a remarkable trans-cultural and trans-racial annealing. It is far from complete, and far from perfect, but it is very real — and what is more, it proves that such a thing is possible.
But the recent fetish of multiculturalism threatens these gains. How has America been able to absorb wave after wave of immigrants and grow stronger every time? As I wrote in a recent comment on another post, what has made America strong is precisely that idea emblazoned on our currency: E pluribus unum — but lately many of us seem more interested in E pluribus pluribus. There was a time when assimilation was the foremost goal, and fondest hope, of arriving immigrants; their presence was celebrated only to the extent that they succeeded at it, and in this has been the key to America’s enduring, plywood-like strength. But this has changed: it is not unity, but difference, that is celebrated, and even the most intolerant are to be tolerated. Most worrisome of all, even the essential glue that has always held the American laminae together — the English language — is everywhere losing its grip.
In other words, the emphasis has shifted. Previously the trait-group of supreme importance, for both native-born Americans and immigrants alike, was the community of “Americans”, with all that entailed: the English language, democratic traditions and liberties, baseball, hot dogs, and thin beer. Nowadays, though, it seems this emphasis on cultural unity — absolutely essential to the social cohesion, and arguably the very survival, of such a huge and heterogeneous nation — has taken a back seat to “diversity”. Rather than strengthening our allegiance to our shared trait-group, multiculturalism introduces and reinforces dozens or hundreds of others. This is a very risky business indeed. If we were trying to find a way to sabotage and weaken the nation, we could do no better than to unlace in this way the cords of language and national allegiance that bind us together into a single sturdy people. And in many places, as the commenters at Mangan’s point out, society is becoming not more integrated, but more splintered. So we see that the process can move in both directions.
The issue, then, is not race per se; we have seen that it is entirely possible for trans-racial cultural identification to play a larger role than a racial one. Given the horrible toll of racial and ethnic hatred throughout our recent history, it is not surprising that many people have come to hope for a world in which race plays a diminished and fading part — and the history of the past 50 years, and my own experience in the ethnic potpourri of New York City, gives me reason to believe that this is not just a Utopian pipe-dream. This is why the election of Barack Obama, which would not have happened had he not had the votes of millions of white people, was greeted with such optimism and enthusiasm. The fact is that the world is so small, so interconnected, and so crowded that we have to live together; this election is the most encouraging sign yet that we can live together. But it won’t happen if we are more concerned with our racial and ethnic trait-groups than our broader acculturation. If America is to thrive, or even to survive, we must be one people, not hundreds. This is the great peril of multiculturalism.
But what, then, about immigration? We are the destination of choice for everyone everywhere in the world who hopes for better circumstances, and as a result our social services are being bled to exhaustion by an invasive shadow population, as anyone who lives along our southern border will tell you. This is unsustainable. We cannot have lavish social entitlements and open borders; that is swift suicide. And we must not admit those who will not join our loyal trait-group, who are not excited by the opportunity to become Americans themselves. We can afford to admit only those who will help America shoulder its load once they get here, not become part of the burden themselves. We must set a high bar for admission. But we want to be sure that we admit those who should be welcomed: the bright, the talented, the enterprising, those who understand the virtue of the great American experiment and want to share in it, who want to be one of us.
To sum up: yes, immigration should be sharply restricted; we simply cannot afford to fling open the gates. There are a great many people who should be kept out, and a great many more who are here already should be ejected. So, we need an intelligent, stern, and effective immigration policy, a sort of Maxwell’s demon that lets in only the most desirable and energetic particles. But is race the right criterion? No. Here’s why:
1) It is far too blunt an instrument. I am not one to deny that there are average differences between racial groups on a variety of metrics, but I am also well aware that there is enormous variation within each group. I see no value in a policy that would deny entry to a gifted African engineer or Chinese musician, while leaving the door ajar for a German soccer hooligan.
2) As I have argued above, the natural human tendency to separate into racial and ethnic groups is strongly amenable to cultural modification: not all “nature”, nor all “nurture”, but a complex combination of the two. We have seen here in America that this can change, and change fast.
3) Race itself is a terribly slippery concept. Imagine, if you can, an immigration policy that excludes all blacks. Are we then in the position of trying to enforce a “one drop” rule? Just how crazy are we prepared to go with this? There are no “pure” races, and in this ever-more-connected world, humans — at least those humans who are part of an expanding global circle of commerce and communication — are going to become more and more mongrelized. The very notion of race is, I think, going to lose much of its significance over the next century. Race is simply not the point.
4) Such a policy would be, in the minds of almost all civilized people everywhere in the world and here at home, morally repugnant. I realize that this is, to its advocates, merely an indication of the sorry state of civilization, but there it is: the moral consensus these days — and, by the way, a bedrock principle of the culture we are supposed to be defending here — is that people are not to be judged before the law as members of this or that group, but as individuals. There is simply no way that barring immigrants on the basis of race could become US policy in such a climate, and we would be pariahs if it did. And rightly so, I think.
5) Just what is this “white” culture we are trying to defend, anyway? The culture I live in includes jazz, sushi, kung fu, falafel, and yoga, as well as the New York Philharmonic and King Lear. American culture, however European at its core, is a unique amalgam of influences. Every immigrant group has thrown something into the pot. What is different now is a diminishing emphasis on assimilation.
So what should be done? The problems are real enough, and I readily agree that we need to be wary indeed of whom we let in, and that those who are here illegally should be shown the door. Over at Mangan’s, Lawrence Auster asked me: should we allow mass immigration of Mestizos? Of course not. But the point is that we shouldn’t allow “mass immigration”, period. As I said above, we want to admit only those individuals who have something positive to offer, who have the desire and potential to become productive and loyal Americans — in other words, those who will enrich our country, not merely add to a burden that is already unbearable. But these are characteristics that can vary independent of race. We ought to be clever enough to develop supple and intelligent methods of social and psychological evaluation that would do a far better job of winnowing prospective immigrants than the crude remedy on offer by the commenters at Mangan’s.