Help Wanted

This country was once needier than it is today. Neediness is not an attractive characteristic, neither of people nor of nations. Yet we were better off wanting things the rest of the world had to offer than we are now, when we need so little from everyone else.

The most obvious thing we once needed was people. Underpopulated, this country extended a welcome to others who not only enriched our economy but strengthened our culture—where would our literature and music be without the immigrants and their children? More than that, every victim of an oppressive environment who reached these shores expanded the number of liberal democrats in the world by one.

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

But now we have Lou Dobbs. Forget, if you can, his nativistic populism. This is a man who radiates self-satisfaction. There is no question in his mind that America needs nothing from the rest of the world. In wanting to close the country, Dobbs closes his mind. A society that no longer needs people has no need to question anything it does.

Resistance to immigration is just the most visible form of resistance in general. We seem unwilling to acknowledge a need for compassion, a need for cooperation with our allies, a need to admit error, a need to learn from experience. We believe that strength is more important than humility, failing to understand that humility is a form of strength.

Self-sufficiency is a wonderful thing, but it comes with a price. Dependency can be crippling, yet it can also be revealing. The American idea worth striving for is not supreme military power—where has that gotten us in Iraq?—nor is it economic autarky, not in this globalized world. The idea for which we should strive is interdependence, recognizing that we need others just as others need us.

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Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is at work on a book about why liberalism matters.

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