Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Confessions of a Blood and Soil Conservative 

It was half-past one on a Friday afternoon. The part of lunch that involved food was over. All that remained were drinks, jokes and arguments. The bankers gathered around the back table at the Pound & Pence Pub had already begun to loosen their ties. A few had already had enough to drink that their eyes had gone glassy. Jackets were off, revealing gym-honed torsos beneath extravagantly patterned cotton shirts tucked into unpleated, uncuffed pin-striped pants. Blackberries dangled from belts, or else sat on the table. Every now and then one of the devices would shimmy across a few inches across the table, vibrating the arrival of a new message. Earlier this would have caused a momentary disruption, as the owner checked his machine to see if the message demanded immediate attention. Now the voices of these bankers had grown loud enough that they didn’t notice the spastic buzzing and crawling. As another round of drinks arrived, it was obvious that most of these men—there were no women gathered around the table—wouldn’t be making it back to their office that day.

At least four different conversations were going on at once. There was the market conversation—something about whether it had been wise for the firm to purchase a swap involving credit risk of international hotel chains. In the patios of the bankers this was referred to as “taking a view” on the hotels. There was the sports conversation—although with both the Yankees and the Red Sox seasons complete, this was a somewhat muted conversation. There was the women conversation, and the less said about that the better. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I found myself in midst of the fourth conversation, the one that was dominating the center of the table, the one about politics.

More specifically, we were arguing about immigration. The table was roughly evenly divided between those who thought America’s immigration policy was far too restrictive to meet our economic needs and those who wanted to see more attention paid to protecting our borders from penetration by illegal aliens and potential terrorists. The third position was neither a compromise nor a synthesis of these two. In fact, it directly confronted both of them by asserting that what was really needed was an almost complete pause in mass immigration—a pause that needed to last for several years during with no more than perhaps a couple of hundred thousand foreigners would be permitted to immigrate each year, and these would be carefully selected from countries with cultures and economies most compatible with our own.
This third position, of course, was mine. And, of course, it was mine alone.

As the conversation progressed and more drinks led to ever bolder restatements of each side's principles, it became clear that the disagreement between the “open borders” types and the “national security” types was much shallower than they had initially assumed. Both believed that our country was fundamentally a creedal nation, an experiment or project dedicated to a proposition about human equality and accepting its corollaries affirming the values of liberty and democracy. Being an American involved little more than accepting these values. What’s more, this propositional nature made us a uniquely great country because it meant we had overcome arbitrary attachments to land, kinship, religion and tradition.

The difference between Open Borders and National Security was a prudential judgment about how far to trust newcomers to our land. For the National Security types, association with jihadist Islam or a willingness to violate our immigration laws created a presumption that those values had been rejected. For the Open Borders types, the desire to live in the United States combined with the effort of actually immigrating here created a presumption that those values had been accepted.

My attempt to shake them from this agreement about the nature of our country began with the observation that a dedication to a creed characterizes a religion and not a nation. And the nice thing about a religion is that you can practice your beliefs anywhere you happen to be. If being an American involved believing the right things about equality, liberty and government, than why should that have anything to do with immigrating to America? Couldn’t these creedal Americans go right on professing the creed in their native lands?

Despite the impression that the alleged propositional nature of our country made us a shining exception among the nations of the world, it would in fact put us in very bad company. As Irving Kristol pointed out a couple of years ago in the Weekly Standard, the great ideological nation of yesterday was the Soviet Union. This is not moral equivalence—of course I would rather live in a nation defined by the ideology of our Founding Fathers than that of Karl Marx. But there are important lessons to be drawn from this correspondence. In the first place, an creedal or ideological conception of national identity can have dire consequences for those who would dissent from the creed. As a point of pure logic, if assenting to a national creed defines what it is to be an American, dissenters from that creed are worse than un-American. They are aliens in our midst, regardless of whether they were born here or not. The creedal nation, in short, alienates or excommunicates, to return to the religious analogy, our heterodox native brothers and sisters while naturalizing a world of strangers who assent to our orthodoxy.

Fortunately, we are unlikely to begin shipping dissenting natives to a gulag because the description of America as an ideological nation does not really fit what it means to be an American. As I’ve already indicated, it misses the localness of our nationality—our understanding that being an American somehow involves a connectedness with actually living, at some point, in a place called America. Even the immigration enthusiasts tacitly acknowledge this when they say we should welcome more immigrants into our land. Other problems arise. Why should we restrict the voting franchise in ways that prevent so many of the creed’s foreign friends from voting in our elections? Why do we tolerate government restrictions on foreign co-confessors that we would not tolerate at home, such as the laws in Western Europe which have outlawed political parties or banned politically incorrect books? Why does residency and citizenship in foreign lands immunize our fellow co-confessors from so many of the taxes leveled upon us by our government? Why are we so much more concerned when American hostages are taken, or American troops attacked abroad? Why, in short, is the ideological conception of nationhood not a recipe for a universal administrative state?

This objection only appears to be extreme. I am not arguing that our immigration policy will lead inevitably to the dissolution of our country as an independent state. My point is this: very few things about our idea of what it means to be an American are intelligible under the theory of America as a creedal nation. The central question—the National Question—is one that the creedal theory cannot answer—why is America these particular people and not everyone? Why is it this place and everywhere? Why does our government continue to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens, between Americans and non-Americans, between us and them, here and there?

Historically, the reason America exists is because we no longer wished to be ruled from over there. That is, we made a national decision to distinguish ourselves from the world by declaring our independence from foreign powers. Indeed, this is part of the reason any nation exists—to divide and protect Us from Them. Why should we undertake this divisive endeavor? We’ve known that answer at least since Plato composed his Republic, which in Book II describes the formation of the state as a response to danger of plunder by foreigners. We create nations as an assertion of self-rule because the alternative is rule by others, which all too frequently means exploitation for the benefit of others. To paraphrase John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, historically we created America to throw out that cops that ain’t our people.

This kind of historical answer can only be the start of a fuller answer because it raise a further question: where does this feeling of “we” come from? Here again, we are driven into history, although in a different way. Our sense of togetherness as a national “we” comes, as the brilliant online writer Larry Auster has said, from “the experience of a particular group of people living together in one place under common institutions and joined together by their history as such, and by the beliefs, attitudes and habits, the loyalties and aversions, the personal and family ties, and even the distinctions and disputes that have grown out of that history.” That shared experience has given rise to something that is more than the sum of those things—a transcendent sense of shared national identity.

One of the great advantages of this concept of transcendent national identity is its flexibility. Since it is not attached merely to one set of beliefs, social arrangements or institutions, it can accommodate change in those institutions over time. It is not, however, infinitely malleable. Although we can accommodate newcomers, we must assure that both we do not indulge them so as to retard our ability to adjust to them and their ability to become us through shared experience. That means we must take care that we do not welcome too many immigrants or immigrants for or with whom sharing the national experience will be too difficult, and we must periodically suspend this process of welcoming newcomers in order to assure that the national identity remains strong enough to undertake the necessary adjustments.

One of the great disadvantages of the concept of transcendent national identity is that it is unlikely to make sense to people who have lost a taste for transcendence. To some, this is all so much hokum and baloney. They want the meaning of America to involve something more concrete, something that can be expressed in an equation, syllogism or statistic. This is a common view among social planners, people who want to make our world more legible, more rational, less arbitrary. Unfortunately for this type, our world cannot be reduced in this way. As we have seen in the attempt to reduce the National Question to the question of ideology, these descriptions do not fit what it is they are trying to describe. These maps do not match the territory.

In the October issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus quotes leading same-sex marriage advocate William N. Eskridge. Transforming the law to fit with the gay experience, Eskridge says, “involves the reconfiguration of family—de-emphasizing blood, gender and kinship ties and emphasizing the value of interpersonal commitment.” Something like this is going on with the project of remaking America as an ideological nation. The opponents of this attempt to reconfigure the family claim that it amounts to the abolition of the family. I won’t claim that reconfiguring America will abolish America, but it would require the loss of our nation identity as we have known it.

"We might first," I said to the bankers, "want to make some very extensive inquiries into what exactly it is proposed we will receive in return for this loss."

At this point I think I began singing, probably some sort of nationalistic dirge I remembered from a copybook of poems written during the decline of the British Empire. I had clearly had too much to drink. There were shouts for me to relinquish the floor and protests against my inability to carry a tune. Someone shouted that what we’d get in exchange for our identity was money, and lots of it. Speaking of which, someone else said, if I was going to keep on talking shouldn’t I at least buy the next round of drinks?