Victor Davis Hanson
April 28, 2015
Is immigrating from less-developed countries to the West a good or a bad thing, for host and guest? Is the immigrant angry at, or nostalgic for, the country he left? Is he thankful to or resentful of the country he has come to? Does the Westerner know why the other seeks him out or why he himself chooses not to emigrate to the non-West? These questions and dozens like them are not so much never answered as never even asked. The result is chaos.
Thousands of refugees from the mess in North and East Africa are hiring smugglers to ship them across the Mediterranean into the southern ports of Europe — often with tragic results, as boats sink and passengers drown. Any visitor to Athens quickly notices that tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Albanians have arrived illegally in Greece in hopes of reaching more prosperous Western European countries. In fact, the downtown of almost any European city is full of impoverished non-Western immigrants. Yet in ten years, some of those same Middle Eastern immigrants will demand space for new mosques, while they would never have allowed a church to be built in their homeland, and many newcomers will have complaints against their hosts about their own lack of parity with the established citizenry. Such is the strange effect of contemporary Westernism upon immigrants.
The failed Arab Spring, the Balkan unrest, and the Islamic wars in the Middle East have created a sort of chaos in which millions of people have no desire to stay home and face violence and death. What the non-Westerners see on cable television and the Internet are scenes of a carefree, wealthy West where things seem to work in a way they do not at home — and without any editorializing on why that is so.
In other areas, recent war and revolution are just the latest chapters in an old book of endemic poverty, high birthrates, and failed governments that incite their poor to seek entrance by any means necessary into Europe. The migrants’ assumption is that being a poor visitor inside Europe is preferable to what they had at home. Someone with a menial job in Paris or on public assistance in the United Kingdom feels lucky because of what he knows housing, medical care, public safety, and nutrition are reduced to in India, Pakistan, Libya, the Philippines, or Syria. The most zealous Muslim often chooses to live among Christians, agnostics, and atheists rather than under an Islamic theocracy at home — even as he sometimes damns his host and praises the country he will never return to.
Something similar is snowballing on the southern border of the United States. Illegal immigration from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America has been a challenge for the United States for over a half-century. Many of the symptoms are similar to Europe’s experience with unlawful immigration — as we saw last summer, with busloads of children heading northward across the border.
Government has abjectly failed in Latin America. These governments are at most indifferent to their people’s departure, and often encourage them to leave. Elites callously see multiple advantages in losing their own people, especially when remittances arrive in the billions of dollars and provide sustenance for those whom the government cannot or will not assist.
The exodus is sometimes seen as a safety valve: Potential dissidents and revolutionaries head northward rather than going to Mexico City to demand social justice and reform.
Within the United States, communities of poor immigrants can serve as powerful lobbying groups for even more immigration — as they do now in Europe as well. Amnesties and blanket naturalizations eventually create bloc voters. In the United States, anchor children draw in more immigrants. The home government is never blamed for forcing out its own; the new host is always faulted for not being more welcoming.
Under Western democratic government, the demand for social services for recent indigent arrivals alters political realities. Tired parties of the Left, especially in Britain and the United States, find new political opportunities in allowing in huge influxes of poor non-Westerners, whether legally or illegally. Demands for near-instant parity energize ossified calls for larger government, higher taxes, and more regulation — always a good thing for a leftist redistributionist.
Given the role of high tech and massive government aid in redefining Western poverty, the endless argument for ever more massive expansions of social services becomes more difficult without new populations of desperate Asian, African, and Latin American poor. Indigent immigrants ensure statistical imbalances and lead to charges of Western failures in fairness and equality. To take one example, without constant illegal immigration, the diverse Latino population in the U.S. would soon reach parity with the majority population — in the pattern of the past Italian-American immigration experience. But somehow, if an Oaxacan immigrant has inadequate access to health care, education, and legal representation in his first year of unlawful residence in the United States, he then can become fodder for a blanket indictment of Western nativism, racism, and xenophobia — and he and his advocates are acutely aware of that anomaly.
The phenomenon of population transfers from an impoverished south and east to a richer north and west has gone on for more than a century. Static population growth in an aging and shrinking West has created a demand for cheap imported labor. Demographers have long studied the ironies of population growth and culture — specifically, how rich societies, which can afford more people, shrink, while poorer ones that cannot in fact grow. Indeed, the more affluent and more leisured a society becomes, the more likely people are to defer marriage and children. Family size shrinks, and Western populations as a whole gradually diminish without immigration.
The opposite seems to be true as well. The poorer the non-Western society, the more likely women will be to stay in traditional roles as wives, mothers, and housekeepers, and the population will grow larger, stay younger — and remain poorer. All that is old news. Affluent societies have more capital for fewer people; their poorer counterparts have less for more.
But something apart from its mostly illegal nature is disturbing and new about immigration to the West today — largely ideology, and attitudes about assimilation and integration.
Western societies have altered their traditional strength of introspection and self-criticism into a banal sort of nihilistic self-hatred. The richer and more leisured Western societies have become, the less confident they are about the values and history of their own culture, which has so blessed them. Only the bounties of capitalism allow one the leeway to damn it. The schizophrenia has reached such an absurd level that Americans are unable or unwilling to recognize why they do not wish to live in Mexico, or why millions of Mexicans wish to live in their country, and the British do not recognize why they do not emigrate to Pakistan, while millions of Pakistanis wish to live in Britain.
Westerners accept that these one-way correspondences are true. Nonetheless, they are incapable of articulating the social, economic, and political causes for the imbalances, namely the singular customs and heritage that make the West attractive: free-market capitalism, property rights, consensual government, human rights, freedom of expression and religion, separation of church and state, and a secular tradition of rational inquiry. Much less are they able to remind immigrants from the non-West that they are taking the drastic step of forsaking their homelands, often rich in natural resources, because of endemic statism and corruption, the lack of the rule of law, religious intolerance, misogyny, tribalism, and racism — the stuff that does not lead to prosperous, safe, and happy lives.
From such ignorance — or moral cowardice — bedlam arises, of the sort we are seeing in the Mediterranean and on the United States’ southern border. Sheepish Westerners ask little of immigrants while providing them low-paying jobs or public assistance. Newcomers as a rule seldom learn promptly the language of their adopted country; they are not expected to act as guests who strictly respect the laws and mores of their hosts rather than demanding to implant their own, which they have just rejected with their feet. They sense that trashing the West stokes the guilt of the Westerner and works far better than emulating his habits.
They also detect in Western diffidence about European and American culture a sort of cowardice, and they understandably massage that lack of confidence, as if the reasons why thousands leave the Middle East, Pakistan, or Mexico were neo-imperialism, colonialism, and corporatism — that is, Western culpability — rather than self-inflicted pathologies. They are confident that such charges will resonate in the West, providing some strange sort of psychological penance to Western elites ambivalent about the sources of their own wealth, leisure, and privilege. These are the ingredients of a disastrous salad bowl, as opposed to the successful melting-pot culture of the past. Admitting only legal immigrants on ethnically blind criteria of education and skills is seen by the nervous Westerner as discriminatory and therefore unfair.
Still, all this dishonesty puts open-borders advocates in a dilemma. In theory, any restriction of immigration, any insistence that it be solely legal, any secure border enforcement is pilloried. But here follows a disconnect. Why would critics of Western governments’ supposed insensitivity demand that they extend such insensitivity to the multicultural “other”? To take one American example, why would ethnic-studies programs on the one hand teach largely the racism and nativism of America, and the forgotten glories of indigenous civilizations in Mexico, while on the other hand politicizing our immigration policies as largely a racist attempt to keep people of color out? Is the U.S. then toxic or attractive? Is it because Mexico is so wonderful that millions choose to leave it? Or, in longer-range terms, why would Mexican nationals emigrate and wish to stay unassimilated, only to replicate the Mexico they have forsaken? One of the most disturbing aspects of the promotion of illegal immigration is the left-wing advocate’s visible anger at the U.S. — as if to say, “Millions from superior non-Western societies have a right to live in an unattractive West.”
Immigration to the West will remain a moral and intellectual embarrassment until Westerners insist that newcomers arrive in numbers that can be assimilated. Immigration to the West will remain a moral and intellectual embarrassment until Westerners insist that newcomers arrive in numbers that can be assimilated, that they meet meritocratic criteria that are ethnically blind, and that they come legally and on the terms adjudicated by the host. Europeans and Americans need not be chauvinistic, but they do need to be candid about why people leave one country for another. From such knowledge comes realization that the best way to stop mass, illegal immigration is for other societies to emulate Western paradigms so that there is no need to emigrate — after all, Japanese and Singaporeans do not hide in cargo boats to reach California. But to do all that, Westerners need first to understand their own culture and then to defend it.
Europeans and Americans need not think that the West must be perfect to be good. And they should recognize that millions in the non-West increasingly are certain that the West is far better than their own alternatives — even if they are as unsure why that is so as they are careful to keep quiet about it.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, CAPS Advisory Board member, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.