Regular readers of National Review Online are no strangers to Victor Davis Hanson. He writes a weekly column for us, as well as writing for City Journal, lecturing, and book composing, among other things. A professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, he is the author of Carnage and Culture, The Western Way of War, and the upcoming Ripples of Battle: How Wars Fought Long Ago Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think. His most recent book, just published by Peter Collier’s Encounter Books is Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. He talked to NRO about Mexifornia, immigration, and his beloved California on Tuesday.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What has multiculturalism and mass immigration wrought in Selma, California, your hometown?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, a town once almost evenly divided between those of Mexican ancestry and others, who all sought to shed their ethnic identifications due to the assimilationist policies of the schools, government, and wider culture, is now composed of somewhere between 70-95 percent Mexican-American and Mexican residents.
Yet no one really knows due to the large number of illegal aliens who reside here. Immigration from Mexico was once as measured and legal as it is now uncontrolled and unlawful. And instead of meeting the challenge of turning illegal immigrants into Americans, our teachers, politicians, and government officials for some time have taken the easier route of allowing a separatist culture, from bilingualism and historical revisionism in the schools, to non-enforcement of legal statutes and a general self-imposed censorship about honest discussion of the problem.
The result is that we are seeing in the area the emergence of truly apartheid communities — like nearby Orange Cove, Parlier, Mendota, and Calwa — that resemble Mexican rather than American societies, and that are plagued by dismal schools, scant capital, many of the same social problems as Mexico, and a general neglect by the larger culture, including prosperous and successful second- and third-generation Mexican Americans who would never live there.
Lopez: The current dilemma in California “has nothing to do with race,” you say in Mexifornia. How so?
Hanson: Here in the Central Valley we have literally thousands of new immigrants of all races from southeast Asia, the Punjab, Armenia, and Mexico who arrived under lawful auspices, in numbers that do not overwhelm local facilities, and with the assumption that assimilation and acculturation alone promise success in their new country.
A multiracial society works. But a multicultural one — whose separatist identity transcends the enriching and diverse elements of food, fashion, entertainment, music, etc. — whether in Rwanda or the Balkans — does not, especially when new arrivals do not learn English, often appear as single males in the first wave, and are cynically exploited in unskilled and low-paying jobs and as a dependent collective constituency by self-appointed shepherds in the ethnic industry.
Lopez: What do you think will happen to California, if you had to make a guess? Any reason to be hopeful about the future?
Hanson: We know that when immigrants from Mexico — as in the case, for example, of Cuba — come legally, and with families intact, and are not followed by a steady cohort of illegal aliens. Within a generation or two they melt into the general fabric and America is better for their presence.
So the trick is to return to legal, controlled immigration, coupled with assimilation — the powerful engine of popular culture — and everything from Jennifer Lopez to Tiger Woods to Sammy Sosa will do the rest in creating shared appetites and habits.
Lopez: If Californians were to read Mexifornia in part as a call to action, what lesson would you want them to take from it? And those of us outside of California, too.
Hanson: Seek the truth, and shed the old fears of being called a “protectionist” by the free-market Right and a “racist” by the manipulative Left. Hand-in-glove, the two have conspired to create an alternative society of illegal aliens who are used by both groups, remain in the shadows of the law, and are fed the half-truths and excuses of “at least it is better than in Mexico” by the former, and “the borders crossed you, not you the borders” by the latter.
If we make the hard, tough decisions now, a number of positive consequences will result in the next two decades: a more united society here at home; pressure on Mexico from dissatisfied Mexicans without recourse who will force needed social and economic change there; improvement in the minimum wage and conditions for unskilled American citizens who need jobs here; and a revised school curriculum that emphasizes real knowledge rather than therapy.
Lopez: Are there people today thinking and talking realistically about immigration?
Hanson: Hardly. Instead, they mutter homilies and smile, and then go into the ballot booth and vent by voting for a number of ballot propositions — denying state aid to illegals, elimination of bilingual education, an end to affirmative action — that are quickly challenged and circumvented by elites in the judiciary, university, and government.
We live in an Orwellian state, where liberal Silicon Valley executives pick up day workers on El Camino Real in Atherton, drive them home for a few hours of trench work, and then dump them off on the street at 5 P.M., as if they are going to parachute back to Oaxaca — or conservative hoteliers, farmers, and contractors who employ for 30 years hardworking illegal aliens until their bodies give out at 50, then expect the state to provide with entitlements what the employer could not with retirement plans, lament the absence of a “work ethic” among the aliens’ children — all as a preliminary to welcoming another cohort, as the tragic traffic in human capital continues in some sort of surreal life cycle.
Lopez: What will the future California chooses for itself mean for the U.S. and U.S. culture?
Hanson: We of the far west here in California, with radical — and sometimes crackpot — ideas, and a huge population are often the future paradigm of America. But we are $34 billion in debt, despite the highest taxes in the nation, great resources from oil to minerals, substantial ports at Los Angeles and Oakland, tourism from Yosemite to Hollywood and Disneyland, the world’s richest agricultural industry, defense and manufacturing, and a once great tripartite university system. So whatever we are currently doing, DON’T TRY IT!
Lopez: Do the students you teach realize what a crisis their state is in? Do they feel wronged? Do they want a different future?
Hanson: Almost all my students are minorities — and not just hyphenated minorities, but of all different sorts, like my nephew and niece who are half-Mexican, or a sister-in-law who is half Jewish, half Mexican. Our top student at CSU Fresno this year — the president’s medallist — the septlingual classics whiz and local celebrity, Sabina Robinson, an African-American who has a mother in Germany, is headed to Princeton for graduate work, where she will join Sal Diaz, another of our students who was an illegal alien.
Race is so baffling now. Due to intermarriage it would take the machinations of the Old Confederacy to attain any exact racial categorization — not that our ethnic-studies department doesn’t try. All of these students are proud of their ancestry, but like most Americans rejected ethnic identification as a meaningful barometer of who they are. They read Virgil in Latin, not necessarily Chicano literature; German or French not Chicano feminism, and avoided our university’s auxiliary but still segregated Chicano graduation ceremony.
Our Asian, quarter-Chicano, or three-eighths white students all sought to be natural aristocrats, whose future privilege would accrue from superior education and civic values, not simply the acquisition of smug rejoinders that put down or conned guilty white liberals, who lived in distant suburbs and mouthed abstractions that were never followed in their own concrete lives.
Lopez: Why are conservatives and the Republican party so seemingly disorganized in California?
Hanson: Well, they mishandled Prop. 187 that ended state aid for illegals but was overturned by the courts. The populace voted overwhelmingly for it, but the Republican party crudely piggybacked the issue, when there was great opportunity to appeal to low-income legal residents and poor American citizens of all backgrounds who can’t compete with illegal aliens wageworkers and need help and attention.
Then instead of turning to successful assimilated Mexican Americans whose hard work and success under prior protocols prove the present system is pathological, they simply panicked and caved in to the ethnic industry, as if millions would flock to “family values, anti-abortion, and religion” when the alternative was a more seductive and profitable victimhood. So now the Republicans appear as cynical trollers for the Hispanic vote without principles. Had they come out and said, “This is a tragedy for everyone involved. We are going to fix it and ensure aliens become the successful Mexican Americans that we all treasure, and to do that we need legality, proportionality, and assimilation — then a Gray Davis would never have had a chance, much less many in the legislature who somehow bankrupted the state in a mere eight years.
Lopez: Would Arnold Schwarzenegger running for governor be a good thing for your state?
Hanson: I like him as an actor, but know nothing about his qualifications or principles. Perhaps the idea he is an immigrant might have social capital here in our state.
Lopez: Mexifornia is different for you: It’s not military history, it’s very close to home, literally. Was it easier or harder to do?
Hanson: Oh, much harder. Peter Collier, the very gifted editor who runs Encounter is responsible. I didn’t want to write it — who would, given the land mines everywhere in the debate? But he called often last summer and made good arguments as is his wont, and suggested that as a historian, someone who is a 5th-generation Californian, and one whose relatives are Mexican American and whose two daughters currently are going with Mexican Americans, and one who teaches minorities, with all that I suppose I could offer a different perspective. My wife, whose family emigrated from Oklahoma during the great migrations that followed the Dust Bowl, encouraged me as well to write about what had so frustrated me for years of teaching and working in the Central Valley — the brotherhood of silence that prohibited honest discussion and allowed untruths to flourish.
Lopez: You write a great deal, lecture, teach. And you are a farmer. These days, how much of the farm responsibilities are yours and roughly what do they entail?
Hanson: I was at Annapolis this year for the entire year. So I have rented my vineyard to Harvey Singh, a neighbor and friend, and my twin brother who farms full time next door helped out as well. And I think that will be more the norm these days — given the depression in agricultural prices, much worse than the scenario I wrote about in Fields without Dreams and The Land Was Everything. My brother and cousin pack fruit a few feet from my door in my shed, and our three children work all summer on the farm, but I’m a putterer now and I might as well confess it — a little weed spraying here, some irrigation and tractor driving there, but nothing like I used to do. I’ll never move off the farm, but farming is over for all practical purposes.
Lopez: You’ve done a good deal of traveling these past two years or so. Anything that has surprised you about the U.S.?
Hanson: I go to Greece this week and will be interested in the annual reception there; it is more anti-Americanism each summer it seems. And for some reason the last three years so many Europeans seem to grate more and more, if one can use such a crude generalization, and realize that I have met wonderful individuals abroad. But I am struck by the disingenuousness displayed to America: public posturing and anti-American cant, but private desires to go to America, look or act American, and to emulate America. I’m so sick of “I like America, but…” followed by inquiries about visits, fellowships, training, etc. Don’t they get it?
Since September 11, I have been amazed at the power and ubiquity of envy — an age-old emotion so profound in Hesiod and Thucydides, but one whose strength I had underestimated and forgotten. Failed societies in the Middle East or in Mexico — or proud but militarily insecure countries in Europe — they are resent their own appetites for things American.
I’ve learned that we are such an insidious, such a complex society — from the Williams sisters playing tennis in Paris, to the Left offering fellowships to America’s critics to come to Harvard, to George Bush’s top national advisers being both African American, to Real TV being damned by elites and watched by the masses — that we seem to drive the world crazy in exasperation. Good! They need to relax and accept that we are the world’s first and most successful multiracial society that is as powerful as it is humane.
And after traveling to about 40 states the last two years, I keep wondering what our enemies were drinking? Did they have any idea of the mettle and toughness of Americans? Did they think the children of Iwo Jima, Pusan, and Hue were going to roll over on the highway to Baghdad? So I’m glad these amazing Americans are all on my side — one is worth a dozen — no a 100 — al Qaedists in a pinch!