The Age of Tokenism
As our therapist-in-chief knows, statesmanship is much harder than banalities and tokens.


Victor Davis Hanson

In contrast, packing up and going home, as we have from Iraq and will from Afghanistan, offers instant sound bites — something like “ending perpetual wars.” When the videos pop up of Taliban lynchings or a civil war in Iraq — remember the Kurds in 1991 and the Vietnamese in 1975 — we can shrug that this was the inevitable wages of President Bush’s sins, not something that President Obama could have prevented.

No one knows how to break the cycle of Middle East violence, much less how to address the tribalism, statism, lack of transparency and freedom, gender apartheid, religious fundamentalism, and intolerance so ubiquitous in the Arab world and so much at the heart of its wide-scale poverty and violence. To attempt any such discussion would be caricatured as neo-colonialist, imperialist, racist, naïve, or culturally ignorant.

Iraq and Afghanistan have been too costly to serve as models; Libya is now a hushed-up embarrassment; our positions have changed so much on Syria that there now are no positions; and Mohamed Morsi’s achievement in Egypt will have been to create nostalgia for the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak. No need to touch on the events in Algeria. The French, alone, are leading from the front in trying to save Mali from Islamists. Who would wish to wade into these morasses, or even talk about them with any degree of honesty?

It is far easier to focus on the Israelis: They are few. They have not until recently had oil or gas; the world hates them; and their government is lawful and Western. The result is that demonizing Mr. Netanyahu as the nexus of Middle East violence carries no risks, and offers no solutions, and therefore is preferable to the dangers of candidly crafting a policy to attempt to deal with the pathologies of the modern Arab world. If it is a question of attempting to deal fairly with Netanyahu or declaring jihad a personal spiritual journey, the latter wins every time.

Nowhere is tokenism more manifest than in the debate over illegal immigration. No one knows whether there are 11 or 18 million illegal immigrants in the United States. It is taboo to suggest that the nearly $50 billion sent annually to Latin America from the U.S.  is largely from illegal immigrants, or that the remittances increase the likelihood that these foreign nationals must seek public assistance here, which drains local and state economies. Nor would any sane person publicly associate illegal immigration with the alarming DUI statistics in California or point out that it contributes to the record number of hit-and-run accidents in Los Angeles County.

Instead we talk grandly of “comprehensive immigration reform” and the “Dream Act,” but both opponents and supporters avoid the subsequent details like the plague. Everyone knows that there are millions of hard-working Latin American immigrants, who steer clear of public assistance and crime, have worked for years in the U.S., and deserve some sort of pathway to citizenship — contingent upon English proficiency, a trial period of legal residence, and a small fine for having broken the law in coming here illegally.

But we also dare not speak the truth about the hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens, perhaps a million or more, who are unemployed and on public assistance, who have been convicted of a crime, or who have just recently arrived. We know that unenforced laws erode respect for jurisprudence, and that simply granting open access to Latin Americans shorts those from elsewhere who wait lawfully for their turn and who may in fact have capital, education, and expertise that would allow them to contribute to the U.S. far more quickly.

Given that mess, we prefer the banality of “a grand bargain,” without acknowledgment that the Latino elite community would hardly be willing, as the price of a pathway for millions, to agree to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegals who are unemployed, have criminal records, or have just arrived — much less to sign off on closing the border, securing it, and making legal immigration ethnically blind, contingent on skills and education, and roughly equal in its treatment of all applicants. So we blather on.

There are two general types of leaders: the vast majority who talk in banalities while they offer tokens in lieu of solutions, and the rare tragic statesmen like Lincoln and Churchill who tell the truth, endure odium in their lifetime, find solutions, and do not live to see the full appreciation of their courage.

Unfortunately, we live in a low era of tokenism and banality.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in the spring from Bloomsbury Books.