One Nation, Inhospitable?Round One -- Response
Posted November 6, 1996
I applaud Professor Kennedy's comments on the welfare state (I would add transfer payments like education), affirmative action, and the general collapse of assimilative will in American society. But I can't really agree with his somewhat reductionist, sub-Marxist dismissal of "nativism" as simply an epiphenomenon of hard times. In fact, I think it illustrates the extraordinary difficulty that intelligent liberals now have in recognizing the power and legitimacy of human differences. (This wasn't always the case. At the end of the last century, Goldwin Smith's Canada and the Canadian Question was unflinching in its treatment of the problem Quebec posed to Canada, although Smith was a disciple and personal friend of W. E. Gladstone.)
The point is that people just get fed up when they think their society is being changed on them. This is undeniably what is happening in California -- and that's why the immigration issue is now manifest there, even though the economy is (pace Professor Kennedy) actually in an upswing.
Immigration moves in major swings. It was low through most of the eighteenth century, when the American population grew mostly through natural increase. Mass European migration really began only in the late 1840s, immediately triggering Know Nothing nativism, and then surged again in the 1890s, when restrictive legislation was stopped only by a Presidential veto. There followed a protracted struggle and more vetoes, interrupted by the First World War, culminating in the restrictions of the 1920s. Meanwhile, the immigration of Asians was cut off as soon as it materialized. Moreover, there is a clear record of legislation against the arrival of immigrants who were either diseased or potential public charges extending right back into colonial times. Even in the much-celebrated Ellis Island period about 15 percent of arrivals were rejected on these grounds. Ironically, the United States has probably never been as unprotected against disease and potential public charges as (especially with the collapse of the southern border) it is today.
A lot of rosy myths grew up during the immigration lull in the middle of this century, many of them created by the offspring of immigrants themselves. The traditional American attitude was much more cautious.
In the real world, the principle of national-origin quotas makes perfect sense. And I believe it must ultimately be reinstated -- or the United States as we know it will be destroyed. (If it isn't already too late).
Forum Overview Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty
Round One -- Posted November 6, 1996
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.