A Nation of WASPs?

In the past it was not difficult to discern the difference between xenophobia and racism. But a Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington, has muddied the waters. In an article for the magazine he helped to found, Foreign Policy, Huntington has conflated the two ugly sentiments. He dislikes all Spanish-speaking people and their descendants in the United States. He finds Mexicans to be the worst, although he doesn’t like Cubans either. He writes that Cubans ruined Miami and Mexicans have ruined a large part of the rest of the country. In his view, the growing Latino population will divide the United States into two separate nations, one Latino and the other white. Well, not all white; there are Asians, and he doesn’t care for them either. But Harvard professors are different from old-fashioned bigots; they hide their bigotry in xenophobia.

Nativists like Huntington think immigrants are a danger to the future of our country. On the contrary, they are perhaps the only solution to human destiny, which is to grow old and then die. As any actuary can tell the nativists, America is about to run out of the one thing neither xenophobia nor racism can provide: youth. There is no imaginable solution to the problem now other than immigration. The great majority of immigrants are young, including many women in their childbearing years. They are the youth of the world, to borrow a phrase from Rousseau.

What these immigrants will bring to the United States, to the lives of my great-grandchildren and yours, depends in part on the success or failure of the crude nativist arguments of people like Huntington. If they succeed, the United States will wither, becoming a crone among nations. If those who love this country despite its political and social flaws succeed, immigrants and their children and grandchildren and all the generations that follow will enrich the mind as well as the strong back of the United States.

Huntington complains of the poor performance of Mexican and Mexican-American children in school, citing the high dropout rate. He does not mention the success of descendants of Spanish-speakers: the philosophers, attorneys practicing before the Supreme Court, medical doctors and researchers, poets, playwrights, heads of businesses large and small and countless teachers and scholars, as well as cooks, house painters, truck drivers and construction workers; in short, a repetition of the experience of immigrants over the centuries.

There is a danger in immigration, but it is not cultural or racial, as Huntington argues. It begins in the suffering of undocumented people limited to work that does not use the skills of mind they could contribute to society. It continues in the neighborhoods and the schools, where the children of immigrants, particularly Latinos, are cheated of the kind of education that can make them most useful to the nation. This failure of society not only steals possibility from the immigrants and their descendants but from the future of us all.

Huntington bemoans the fact that bilingualism will increase because of immigration from Latin America, as if it were a catastrophe. It is rather a gift. As Europeans say, to speak more than one language is to be civilized. Unfortunately, most Latinos over time will lose some or all of their Spanish. It is the grandmothers who teach the language of the old country, and when there are no grandmothers who speak the ancestral language, it fades.

Huntington complains bitterly that Latino immigrants lack the language skills and understanding of America of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but his work raises questions about the familiarity of Harvard professors with English and history. The first sentence of his article reads: “America was created by 17th- and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant.” Had he been an immigrant from another part of America, he would have known enough Spanish to understand the meaning of the verb “create,” and he would have attributed the creation of America to God or Nature, not to the seventeenth-century British. In fact, there were no British until 1707, only Englishmen. And he might have thought to consult the Oxford English Dictionary on the meaning of “overwhelmingly,” which has imperialistic connotations in this context. Professor Huntington, knight errant in defense of the English language, has struck a blow against the thing he claims to love.

There is also a problem in his understanding of democracy. It was a Greek invention, and the Greeks welcomed newcomers, thinking they might be gods. We should do the same, if for no other reason than to preserve the idea of democracy. To emigrate is a political decision, a revolution in the very depths of one’s soul. Immigrants arrive politicized, prepared by the act of immigration itself to take part in the vita activa of their new country. Their hope knows no limits. The first US soldier to die in the war on Iraq was a Guatemalan immigrant. He was not a US citizen. He did not die for the country of his birth but for the country of his dreams. Huntington may despise such people for their origins, but it makes better moral and political sense to embrace them, for our sake as well as theirs, before the winter of this nation begins.