Sunday, July 21, 2019
Immigration and American Exceptionalism
Robert P. George
That the United States of America is an exceptional nation seems to me to be a proposition whose truth is too obvious to debate. What other nation in the history of the world was, quite literally, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”? There is no other nation. And our nation was not only, “so conceived, and so dedicated,” it has proven to the world that “a nation so conceived and so dedicated can [indeed] long endure.” The history of our nation is the story of “We the people”—the American people—struggling (sometimes struggling against each other) to protect, and honor, and live up to the exceptional principles around which we have integrated ourselves and constituted ourselves as a people. And while our record is far from unblemished, we have not been left unblessed with success.
No one needs me to remind him that part of what is unique about the United States is that our common bonds are not in blood or even soil, but are in a shared moral-political creed. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is clearest in the fact that people really can, in the richest and fullest possible sense, become Americans. And millions upon millions of people have done so. Of course, one can become a citizen of Greece or France or China, but can one really become a Greek, or a Frenchman, or Chinese? An immigrant who becomes a citizen of the United States becomes, or at least can become, not merely an American citizen, but an American. He is as American as the fellow whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower.
Now, how do immigrants become Americans? In practice, it goes beyond becoming an American citizen, and even formally signing on with the American creed. The additional key ingredient, I believe, is gratitude. It is, typically, an immigrant’s feelings of gratitude to America for the liberty, security, and opportunity our nation affords him and his family that leads to his appreciation of the ideals and institutions of American cultural, economic, and civic life. From this appreciation comes his belief in the goodness of American ideals, as articulated above all in the Declaration of Independence, and the value of the constitutional structures and institutions by which they are effectuated. And from this belief arises his aspiration to become an American citizen together with his willingness to shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship and even to make great sacrifices for the nation, should it come to that.
My own immigrant grandfathers came to the United States about a hundred and twenty years ago. Like most immigrants then and now, they were not drawn by any abstract belief in the superiority of the American political system. My father’s father came from Syria fleeing oppression visited upon him and his family as members of a relatively small ethnic and religious minority group in that troubled country. My mother’s father came to escape the poverty of southern Italy. They both worked on the railroads and in the mines. My maternal grandfather settled in West Virginia, where there was a small Italian immigrant community in Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Morgantown—a trio of cities along the Monongahela River a little south of the Pennsylvania border. He was able to save enough money to start a little grocery store, which soon became a flourishing business. My paternal grandfather spent his entire life as a miner and laborer. He died of emphysema, no doubt as a result of the pulmonary health hazards of coal mining in those days. Both men were exceedingly grateful for what America made possible for them and their families. Their gratitude was not diminished when times got hard—as they did for all Americans—in the Great Depression.
Although both my grandfathers encountered ethnic prejudice, they viewed this as an aberration—a failure of some Americans to live up to the nation’s ideals. It did not dawn on them to blame the bad behavior of some Americans on America itself. On the contrary, America in their eyes was a land of unsurpassed blessing. It was a nation of which they were proud and happy to become citizens. And even before they became citizens they had become patriots—men who deeply appreciated what America is and what she stands for.
Like so many other immigrants, my immigrant grandparents particularly appreciated the opportunities that America made available to their children. My father’s father had a sister—she too an immigrant—who had a son named John Solomon who wanted to be a lawyer. He finished college and then completed law school at West Virginia University. The law school in those days was located on University Avenue in Morgantown near the center of the campus. It was a grand building that one entered by walking up a broad set of stairs. When my cousin John’s mother—we knew her as Halte Gemile—came to attend her son’s graduation ceremony, she stopped to kiss each step as she ascended those stairs. Such was her gratitude. Of course, her son was thoroughly embarrassed by this display. My father, who was there, tells me that his cousin John turned to his mother at about the fourth step and pleaded: “Please mom, you’re acting like an immigrant.” Indeed, she was.
I talked a moment ago about how gratitude for liberty, security, and opportunity leads immigrants to an appreciation of American ideals and institutions, and in turn gives rise to an aspiration to American citizenship and a willingness to bear its responsibilities and even to make great sacrifices. Four of my paternal grandparents’ five sons were drafted into the U.S. military to serve in the Second World War. My maternal grandparents’ only son was also drafted. All of these men served in combat and returned with decorations. Their immigrant parents were immensely proud of them—proud of them precisely because they fought for America and for what America stands for. They considered that their sons were fighting for their country—not for a country in which they were resident aliens or guests. They were fighting for a country that was not only great, but good. A country whose ideals were noble. A country to whom they were immensely grateful—and not merely because it provided a haven from poverty and oppression. A country whose principles they had come to believe in.
When their boys were fighting, they knew that it was entirely possible—all-too-possible—that ultimately they would be called upon to give what Lincoln at Gettysburg described as the “last full measure of devotion.” You can imagine the anxiety this would cause in an Italian family whose one and only son had been sent into the brutal combat of the Pacific theatre. But however much sleep was lost as a result of fear and even dread, they remained proud that their son was fighting for his country, for their country, for America. Nor did the fact that Italy under fascist rule was on the other side of the conflict give them so much as a moment’s pause. The gratitude, leading to appreciation, leading to the conviction and commitment at the heart of true American patriotism left them in no doubt as to where their loyalty belonged.
I have the sense that my uncles’ service to the nation at a time of peril was not only an expression of their Americanism, and the Americanism of their immigrant parents, it was a profound confirmation and ratification of it. If they had any doubts in their own minds about whether they were truly and fully Americans—as American as their fellow citizens whose ancestors really had arrived here on the Mayflower—military service erased those doubts. I dare say that the same was true, as has always been true, just in case any native-born citizens had any doubts about whether their immigrant neighbors were, in truth, good, loyal Americans. The willingness of immigrants and their children to take the risks and, in many, many, many cases to be counted among the fallen, leaves the question of allegiance and American identity in no doubt.
Of course, some Protestant Americans wondered whether non-Protestants—and especially Catholics—could truly become Americans. They were concerned that hierarchical and non-democratic forms of church governance would hinder the ability of non-Protestant immigrants to appreciate and fully give their allegiance to democratic institutions and principles of civic life. Some even believed that Catholic immigrants would have to be de-Catholicized by the public school system and other mechanisms in order to become patriotic Americans. The natural and understandable Catholic reaction to this—the establishment of Catholic parochial schools across the country—only heightened Protestant worries. But part of what eventually made these worries go away was the record of service and heroism of Catholic and other non-Protestant soldiers (including countless products of parochial schools) fighting for democracy and against authoritarian regimes and totalitarian ideologies in the First and especially the Second World War. Catholics saw no contradiction between their faith and their allegiance to the United States of America. On the contrary, religious commitment tended to support patriotic conviction. Faithful Catholics wanted to be, and not merely to be seen to be—though that, too—the very best of good American citizens. And as they saw and see it, that doesn’t require the slightest dilution of their Catholic faith.
Now, I have been talking about how gratitude launches immigrants on the path to becoming Americans. It has happened to millions. There are countless permutations of the story, but they are permutations of the same story. I suspect that as you hear me tell the stories of my grandparents, many of you are thinking of stories, not at all dissimilar, of your grandparents, or great grandparents, or great great grandparents, and how they became Americans. The amazing and wonderful thing is that a family story like mine of immigrant ancestors becoming Americans, sharing in the blessings of American life, and taking upon themselves their share of the nation’s burdens, is not the exception; it is the norm. (Of course, the story of Africans brought to America as slaves and then subjected to segregation and discrimination even after slavery was abolished is a radically different one—a story of injustice and a stain upon our nation’s history. Yet the great efforts to right these wrongs and live up to our national ideals of liberty and justice for all are also part of our American heritage.)
But now let me turn to the other side of the coin. As we know all-too-well, today not all immigrants become Americans or even want to become Americans. Identity politics of the sort that is fiercely promoted by opinion-shaping elites in many sectors of our society—has been embraced by some immigrants and may be embraced by more. This is not simply a matter of hanging onto customs, traditions, and ethnic or religious identities and passing them on to the next generation. Immigrants have always done this, and it is fine and good—a source of strength for our nation. Rather, it is a matter of rejecting the idea of a primary and central political allegiance to the United States and its ideals and institutions. Often this rejection is rooted in a denial of the goodness of America and even an assertion of America’s wickedness. Sometimes it manifests itself in a view of American history as a history of nothing but racism, exploitation, chauvinism, abuse, imperialism, and other injustices. For people who view things this way, the United States is hardly an object of gratitude. On the contrary, it is the sinner, the debtor, who must abase itself before the world, make amends, and give recompense. It is not owed gratitude or allegiance, it owes. Putative victims of its oppression and their descendants are entitled to feast from its bounty with no gratitude or loyalty required in return.
If, as I have argued, it is gratitude that launches immigrants on the path to becoming Americans, it is attitude that impedes and prevents immigrants from embarking on the journey. Grateful immigrants become Americans; immigrants with attitude do not. What do I mean by attitude? I mean what the kids mean: a bad attitude—an attitude of hostility to America and to her principles; an attitude of superiority; an attitude of entitlement; an attitude of unrelenting grievance. An attitude promoted, as I say, by influential people in education, journalism, and even government. An attitude abetted by misguided policies, such as forms of bilingualism that have the effect—though I am not claiming they all do (“bilingualism” means different things)—of discouraging mainly Latino young people from fully mastering the English language; policies that turn the ideal of pluralism into an attack on national unity and common bonds. Policies that foster a culture of entitlement—one where all the emphasis on is on rights, and none is on responsibilities; one in which assistance provided by states or the federal government to those in need is perceived not as a manifestation of the generosity of the American people, but as payment (inevitably said to be meager and inadequate) on a debt created by the allegedly predatory and exploitative acts of previous generations of Americans.
Now, where a culture of opportunity flourishes, immigrants will feel, as my grandparents felt, gratitude for the opportunities they are afforded to lift themselves up, and make a better life for their children, by dint of hard work and determination to succeed. However, it appears to be a brute fact of human psychology that where a culture of entitlement prevails, gratitude even for charitable assistance will not emerge. In part, of course, this is to be explained by the fact that upward social mobility is dampened in circumstances of a culture of entitlement. This is the phenomenon known as welfare dependency. I observed its soul-destroying effects on many non-immigrant families in West Virginia as I was growing up. You see, dependency is an equal opportunity soul destroyer. And this, in turn, leads to resentment as people persuade themselves that the reason they are not getting ahead is that those who are already better off are cheating or manipulating the system to hold down people at the bottom of the ladder (who are dependent on entitlements). So the culture of entitlement ends up reinforcing the attitude that impedes the gratitude that enables immigrants to become Americans.
I want immigrants to become Americans. I want them to believe in American ideals and institutions. I want them to “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I want them to believe, as I believe, in the dignity of the human being, in all stages and conditions of life; in limited government, republican democracy, equality of opportunity, morally ordered liberty, private property, economic freedom, and the rule of law. I want them to believe in these ideals and principles not merely because they are ours, but because they are noble and good and true. They honor the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of all members of the human family. They call forth from us the best that we are capable of. They ennoble us. Our efforts to live up to them, despite our failures and imperfections, have made us a great people, a force for freedom and justice in the world, and, of course, an astonishingly prosperous nation. It is little wonder that America is, as it always has been, a magnet for people from every land who seek a better life. It is no wonder that in America barriers are proposed to keep people from entering our nation illegally; not for preventing people who are here from fleeing.
But the transmission of American ideals to immigrants and, indeed, to anyone, including new generations of native-born Americans, depends on the maintenance of a culture in which these ideals flourish. The maintenance of such a culture is a complicated business—one with many dimensions. I have already talked about how social welfare and other policies, if unsound, can undermine these ideals. I have also mentioned the emergence of ideologies, flourishing today in elite sectors of American culture, which weaken them. These ideologies--above all the toxic ideology of identitarianism (which one finds among extremists of all types, including white nationalists)--must be taken seriously and confronted. This is the great intellectual and pedagogical mission before us. The task is thrust upon us by what can only be described as a massive loss of faith in the goodness of America and her traditional beliefs among opinion-leaders in key positions of influence. This loss of faith discourages patriotism and national unity--often provoking a reaction that amounts to little more than a disgraceful parody of these noble ideals.