In his latest work, Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, Victor Davis Hanson offers a report from immigration’s front lines. An unusual but appealing mix of argument and autobiography, Mexifornia provides a compelling—and frightening—portrayal of the transformations that decades of mass immigration have wrought in the cultural and political fabric of California. Hanson’s anecdotal account of his own life there—from attending grade school with mostly Mexican-American classmates and working alongside Mexican laborers on his generations-old family farm, to confronting Mexican trespassers stealing fruit or dumping garbage on his property—proves a most effective vehicle for conveying the deep costs our current wave of immigration has brought to his state: crime, poverty, inferior education, ethnic separatism, the creation of a new racial underclass, and a vague but insidious atmosphere of lawlessness and fear.
Critics of immigration have, of course, worried about these consequences since at least the 1980s. Hanson’s book is more interesting for his spirited attack on a pair of unlikely allies who bear special responsibility for our current immigration mess: the corporate and libertarian right, and the multiculturalist left. Corporate America, eager for the quick profits of cheap labor but indifferent to the long-term costs for the country, has imported a class of diligent and cheap workers. Somewhere around age forty, however, these once-strong immigrant bodies give out, no longer able to sustain the physical grind of menial labor, leaving behind an ever-growing class of uneducated poor who are dependent for their survival on state assistance or crime and are permanently excluded from the prosperous world of middle-class America, with only their bitterness to bequeath their children. (Given the tendency to dismiss as racist all criticisms of immigration from the right, it is worth emphasizing the considerable empathy with which Hanson describes the plight of these Mexican immigrants.)
Hanson is even more critical, however, of the “race industry” on the multicultural left. Their program of bilingualism and ethnic separatism, combined with an unshakeable faith in the deep racism of mainstream America, divides the state into warring ethnic groups and denies to immigrants the opportunity for the only kind of education—in history and civics, literature and mathematics—that could equip them for success in their new country. Noting persistent Mexican educational failure under the multiculturalist regime, Hanson pointedly writes, “[I]t is now legitimate to question the very motives of some in the . . . movement: do they wish the best for the children of aliens who are poor, or continued spoils for themselves who are affluent?” Indeed.
We should not imagine, though, that Hanson’s indictment applies only to agribusiness and multiculturalism. They may have most actively pursued the policies behind our current problems, but many more are complicit in the fiasco. Indeed, confronted by Hanson’s criticisms, we all stand in the dock—all of us ordinary Americans who have made “the Devil’s bargain . . . to avoid cutting our own lawns, watching our own kids, picking our peaches, laying our tile, and cleaning our toilets.” If we think that only others are to blame, we deceive ourselves.
If the decay runs this deep, what are we to do? Apart from maintaining the disastrous status quo, Hanson offers three alternatives. We could permit continued high levels of legal and illegal immigration, but embark on a serious new program of Americanization, replacing bilingualism and multiculturalism with an insistence on quick assimilation; we could forgo assimilation and make our peace with multiculturalism, but crack down on illegal immigration while also curtailing legal immigration; or—Hanson’s preferred approach—we could both restrict immigration and insist upon assimilation by those immigrants who do come.
Having surveyed these possibilities, Hanson ends on a note of guarded optimism: “To recover our state, our region, and ultimately our nation, we still need not do everything right.” Yet his own arguments underline the difficulty of any of the three alternatives he proposes. This becomes clear from his discussion, in the book’s most interesting and provocative chapter, of American popular culture as an engine of assimilation. In spite of having abandoned traditional efforts to assimilate immigrants, we have been granted a reprieve from chaos, Hanson argues, only because American popular culture has proved extraordinarily powerful at incorporating people of all backgrounds into a single global culture that is accessible to all because it rests upon lowest-common-denominator appeals to basic human passions. “Globalization can now unite any two people from the most disparate backgrounds in taste, appearance, and manner of daily life.” This has serious costs, because it substitutes “schlock” for real culture, “exchange[s] standards and taste for raw inclusiveness,” and at best “gives America a few years of respite before we must deal with the catastrophe that we are not educating millions, not teaching them a common and elevated culture, and not addressing the dilemma of open borders.”
At the same time, this popular culture is relentlessly and radically democratic and egalitarian, creating a historically unprecedented situation in which age-old barriers of race, class, and sex are destroyed among a mass of people who wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same television shows, and buy the same consumer goods. Without these homogenizing effects, Hanson suggests, we could not have gotten away even this long with our unwillingness to promote a more substantial common culture in the face of mass immigration.
Unfortunately, these effects of the popular culture raise deep questions about the possibility of Hanson’s various alternatives for righting the ship. Any approach that merely seeks to cut immigration levels without addressing the issue of assimilation seems bound to fail, for it would leave the task of Americanization to the popular culture. But, as Hanson notes, such “superficial immersion in American culture is no substitute for real civic education about American history, culture, and values.” Sustaining a valuable culture does not happen automatically; it requires real work. As Hanson writes, “Our elites do not understand just how rare consensual government is in the history of civilization.” If we wish it to endure, we must actively seek to maintain it.
So the only real alternatives are those that include genuine attention to the task of preserving a common culture capable of sustaining self-government. Yet Hanson’s discussion of popular culture leaves one deeply pessimistic about the possibility of launching a new program of assimilation. For as familiarity with the historic American culture vanishes behind “the high-decibel magnetism of popular entertainment and its ferocious dumbing-down to the level of easiest comprehension and acceptance,” into what exactly do we propose to assimilate newcomers? And who, apart from Hanson and a few others, will know how to do the assimilating? Who will even want to?
Any proposal to give immigrants a “real civic education about American history, culture, and values” presupposes that significant numbers of Americans still know what those are. But Hanson’s discussion of the popular culture calls that assumption into question. Despite its optimistic close, Hanson’s entire book describes a country in serious moral decline—from the lawless illegal immigrants themselves, to the “race hustlers” who preserve their own power by creating an ethnic clientele of unassimilated dependents; from the agribusiness corporations, chasing quick profits without regard for long-term public consequences, to the ordinary American citizens who, out of laziness or selfishness, insist on cheap gardeners and nannies while leaving their grandchildren to deal with the social effects of illegal immigration. If the possible solutions that Hanson proposes seem, on the evidence of his own arguments, unlikely, that is in part, at least, because he offers no indication of how such decline can be reversed.
In light of this moral decline, it is useful to consider what resources religion has to offer in building support for a renewed defense of a common American culture. Whether Hanson himself would agree with the following observations, I do not know, since he does not discuss religion. Nevertheless, his account of our immigration dilemma suggests three main obstacles (the enumeration is mine, not his) to a reassertion of America’s cultural and political identity. A culture informed by a Christian sensibility can potentially help counter all three.
The first obstacle is cultural relativism, with its denial that “some other cultures and nations have been not merely different, but often far worse at providing freedom and security for their people.” Christian moral principles, by contrast, provide ethical standards for judging between governmental systems or ways of life that do better or worse jobs of permitting human beings to flourish. At the same time, because it emphasizes human fallibility and counsels humility, a Christian outlook guards against triumphalism. It permits us to affirm and defend what is good in our own tradition without insisting that all people everywhere adopt precisely the same tradition.
Hanson’s second obstacle to a renewed insistence on assimilation is the corrosive effect of the popular culture already described. By undermining standards of taste and discernment and appealing (through the drive for profit) to those basic human passions shared by the broadest possible audience, it gradually substitutes a culture that is cosmopolitan but low for one more distinctively American. A Christian ethics, by reasserting the importance of standards, can exercise a check on this downward slide and thus reopen a space for maintaining a richer culture, one that elevates us above our lowest instincts. In doing so, it can help us understand (in Burke’s famous phrase) that “art is man’s nature”—that we become more fully human precisely through the cultural traditions that distinguish us from other peoples, with their own distinctive traditions.
Finally, there is the question of whether we are willing to defend our own way of life. Even if we recognize its value, after all, it need not follow that we think ourselves justified in maintaining it, particularly when doing so requires—as it does in the immigration context—summoning the coercive power of the state (and a relatively privileged state, at that) against needy and vulnerable outsiders in search of a better life. The trend of much contemporary political thought—especially those versions of liberalism (they are not its only versions) that regard all political assertions of cultural norms as “impositions”—is that we are not so justified. The Christian moral tradition, to be sure, regards the use of force against such people as requiring justification. Yet it also reminds us that in addition to our universal obligations to all human beings as humans, we also have, as creatures of time and space, special obligations towards those people with whom we stand in special relationships—family, neighbors, countrymen. In so doing, it helps us see that the preservation of our common life can indeed be a justifiable political endeavor.
Insofar as Christianity remains a vital force in American society, then, it provides potential resources for defending Hanson’s proposed policies—and for justifying, at least sometimes, the defense of our common life. Whether that defense is justified in any particular case, of course, calls for careful political and ethical reflection. But if Victor Davis Hanson is right, we had better not reflect too long.
Peter C. Meilaender, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Houghton College in New York State, is the author of Toward a Theory of Immigration (Palgrave).