Magazine | October 29, 2018, Issue

A Question of National Character

The Statue of Liberty (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case against Open Borders, by Reihan Salam (Penguin Random House, 224 pp., $27)

A big thesis runs deep through Reihan Salam’s new brief in favor of restricting low-skill immigration. However familiar it may sound at first, the case he makes is truly a game-changer. Despite the importance of culture and religion in people’s lives, and in the character of the American people, those deeply meaningful sources of identity are not, Salam says, enough on their own to form the basis of a shared concept of citizenship now or in the future. In fact, in America, epochal changes are under way that raise the stakes in the conflict over newcomers to unprecedented new heights. And only a new kind of American character can meet the challenge.

The exciting thing about Melting Pot or Civil War? is that Salam delivers his thesis in a straightforward policy package. Anyone with a considered interest in the issue can digest it in a day. The tone of the book is breezy but with ballast. The rhetoric is wryly earnest. Salam shines a clear, direct light because he wants you to see through the thick clouds of public angst surrounding some fundamental facts of life.

Among these facts are two about nation-states. First, any sovereign country has to make some careful decisions about demography — who’s in, who’s out, in what volume, and at what speed. None of these questions can be fruitfully answered without a bedrock grasp of why. Second, in this particular country, there are special constraints on the who, the how, and the why of immigration. Not only is the U.S., like any sovereign country, obliged to pay some regard to the cohesion and well-being of its people, but this country’s immigration policies cannot hit that mark if they undermine the way of life that defines America’s national character.

Here is where things get interesting. Salam makes quite clear that America’s national character is neither white nor Christian, although, setting himself far apart from some others who make that judgment, he doesn’t see Christianity as foolishness or whiteness as oppression. As important as a shared racial identity may have been to America’s character in the past, that aspect of the historical “melting pot” model is no longer tenable. “Most Americans,” he says, now reject a “whites-only conception of what it means to be an American.” Yet they have failed to locate “a broadly shared vision that can take its place.” Salam also signals, implicitly but just as powerfully, that the once-dominant influence of Christianity on the American character is waning fast. On this score, new research from the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins supports him. Since the early ’90s, the share of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has tripled; Ekins found this more secularized Right now breaks sharply with Christian conservatives on political-identity issues, such as race and immigration, that are at the core of who we are as a people.

What does unite us, then? Salam maintains that Americans are incomprehensible to themselves as anything other than a people defined by the influence, experience, hope, and fellow-feeling imparted by a dominant and flourishing middle class. Despite extraordinary new striations of class brought on by mass immigration under dramatically changing conditions in the structure of our economy — and the world’s — our fundamentally middle-class character is still with us and is strong enough to save.

Salam’s big thesis has to do with why it matters so much that America remains a middle-class nation. Aware that this basic idea still has currency with elites and everyday people alike, he does not hesitate to spell out what policies would deliver the goods. They are, in brief: an end to large-scale low-skill immigration, coupled with a blanket amnesty for current residents who entered illegally or otherwise lack papers; a renewed commitment to combating child poverty in the U.S., with public funding to match; and a coordinated international agenda to help make high-out-migration countries great again, or at least good enough that millions choose to remain in their homeland.

Salam acknowledges that a number of these proposals will cause controversy on the right, the left, or possibly both. Then again, what could be more controversial than the current terms of the immigration debate — which pit so-called racists against ostensible America-killers, yet fail to apprehend the true titanic threat to our national character and civic cohesion?

That brings us to the big sobering notion at the book’s quiet core. Subtly but potently, Salam drives home a challenging but inescapable idea: If America is not America without a dominant, healthy middle class, and if America’s middle-class identity was once sustained by a vision of whiteness and Christianity that no longer holds, something else will have to arise to take the place of the ethno-cultural and religious context that once was.

Salam demands careful thinking here. Recall that today’s immigration troubles have grown so unwieldy and pronounced because they are taking place at a time of tremendous change in our economy. That change, he explains, boils down to one thing: the rise of the bots. Automation and digital technology are mounting a multi-prong attack on our character by threatening the defining influence of the middle class. First, they eliminate jobs — not just remunerative jobs for unskilled laborers but, increasingly, also white-collar knowledge work. Second, they reduce the cost of offshoring and encourage it, which one day soon will include “virtual” employees technologically beamed in from abroad. Third, they create a vicious cycle, accelerating their impact by channeling prestige and money toward those who work best and hardest at replacing human roles with algorithms and machines. “The United States’ potential low-skill labor pool is vast,” Salam warns, “yet at the same time, the country’s brightest minds are focused on finding ways to take human workers out of the equation.”

But, in a crucial irony, there is another prong of attack, in a way the worst of all. Digitally driven automation encourages well-meaning, respectable elites to conclude rather obscenely that as the value of low-skill labor craters, ever more low-skill laborers should be invited into the United States — often to provide services for these elites. Salam is withering in his assessment of this mindset. One study he cites shows that the 1980–2000 immigration wave saved women working in demanding professions a whopping seven minutes a week of household labor. As he makes plain, a perverse sort of pity has seeped deep into the public-policy class. Although, or perhaps because, “labor scarcity has been the historical secret to America’s prosperity,” top researchers now believe that the decreasing value of low-skill immigrants is increasing our moral obligation to give them jobs performing, and here’s the catch, the most superfluously frivolous of tasks. “There may well be a powerful moral case,” Salam concedes acidly, “that wealthy Americans ought to replace their air-conditioning units with a rotating cast of earnest young people who would be willing to fan them around the clock. Yet it is hard to deny that doing so would be rather inconvenient.” Not only would the outcome be “a mixed bag at best for consumers”; it would herald “the death of any kind of civic solidarity.”

What would rise in its stead is the one thing the political culture of the West has always uniquely despised, no matter what the particular ethnic or religious conditions: slavishness or servility toward fellow human beings. Even in times and places where slavery existed — especially there — slavishness was of the lowest possible status. Even under feudalism (as Hilaire Belloc details in The Servile State), the goal was to avoid slavishness. Even those who bowed to absolute monarchs did so as dignified subjects, not servile subhumans. Athens is admired for its ancient democracy; Sparta is cherished for paying in blood to rebuke the servile Persians, who worshiped their king as a god.

Although the critical theorist will warn here against the dread Orientalism, there is no denying that a fundamental difference between West and East exists as concerns the category of the servile. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, recently made this plain in a Wired essay comparing attitudes toward robots in Japan with those in the West. In essence, Ito explains that Eastern religion does not involve any fear of becoming the slave of someone or something other than God. There just isn’t a cognate for the West’s concept of slavery. Ito sees no inherent problem with extending rights to robots or taking orders from robots, whereas Westerners, he suggests, hear alarm bells go off at the idea.

Crucially, the policy of sumptuous pity toward low-skill workers that Salam hears as a death knell for America’s middle-class character would result in increased servility toward both robot masters and human ones. That, Salam strongly implies, would not just hurt the middle class; it would fracture the American mind and unleash civic discord of unimaginable scope and ferocity. That is why the solution is a new melting pot of ethnically and culturally “hybrid” Americans — one in which neither whiteness nor Christianity nor some generic and abstract sense of Americanness supplies the heat, but our defining instinct: our deep Western repugnance to servility, whether before man or bot.

To say the least, this is a starkly different kind of case for supporting policies to strengthen the middle class’s economic standing than the ones we are tired of hearing from inside the Belt­way. It proposes a radical recentering of policy and political thought — to protect not only America but the wider West as the world rushes headlong into a bracing future.

James Poulos — James Poulos is an editor-at-large of The American Mind, a contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life. He is the author of The Art of Being Free.

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