Yearning to Breathe Free? What Nerve!

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010 · 0 comments

in Articles,Culture

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WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 26, 1996

YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE? WHAT NERVE!

JOHN J. MILLER

One of my grandmother’s earliest memories is of the Statue of Liberty. She first spotted it as a four-year-old girl, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary, sailing into the New York Harbor in 1911. Like so many other foreign-born Americans, she attached a special meaning to Lady Liberty, her first vision of the country that would become her permanent home.

And that really bugs Chilton Williamson Jr., author of “The Immigration Mystique” (BasicBooks, 202 pages, $23). The statue, he reminds us, was unveiled in 1886 “as a monument to the principles of republicanism and to the amity between the French and American nations, not to immigrants and immigrationism.” So there. Grandma should have known better.

But how could she? Immigrants have twisted and trashed American culture for well over a century, says Mr. Williamson. Instead of fitting themselves into America, they have refitted America for themselves. The result is a perversion, something that seems like America but really isn’t. The Statue of Liberty’s transformation into an icon of immigration is the symptom of a much larger dilemma.

Mr. Williamson makes all the usual complaints about immigrants: They steal jobs, depress wages, hurt the environment, etc. These, however, are ancillary concerns. The real problem, he says, is that immigrants are surrounded by a romantic “mystique” that awards them an undeserved place within the American identity. The notion that they have become American in any meaningful way is wrong. “Immigration is a failure because assimilation, contrary to national myth, never really occurred.”

This is an extraordinary claim, especially since Mr. Williamson isn’t just talking about the post-1965 wave of immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. He’s referring to the Irish of the 1840s: “The case of the Kennedys . . . goes to show how imperfectly the assimilation of the potato-famine immigrants, as measured by their resentment of the Anglo-Protestant majority, had proceeded since the middle of the nineteenth century.” I’m no fan of the Kennedy clan, but this is ridiculous.

The Irish are not singled out for abuse. Immigrants from Italy, Poland and Russia also take a beating. Mr. Williamson gripes about the national-origins quota laws of the early 1920s — which essentially blocked further immigration from eastern and southern Europe — for a failure that he is virtually alone in identifying: “The tragedy of the Quota Laws was not that they offered too little, but rather that they came too late — after the horses had run into the barn.”

Matters only got worse as these barnyard animals tried to find their stalls. The children of eastern and southern Europe — the author names Irving Berlin, Frank Capra, George Gershwin and others — may have helped forge 20th-century American culture as we know it, but not for the better. “It was immigrants and the sons of immigrants,” Mr. Williamson sniffs, “who fabricated the national preference for a kind of song never heard in America before, or anywhere else for that matter: music that had no roots, certainly, in American folk ballads and expressive lyrics.”

Homegrown American culture started going down the tubes. By slowly losing its Anglo-Saxon moorings, Mr. Williamson writes, the U.S. became overwhelmed by a mass culture of layabout materialism: “By the 1920s, Americans . . . were jaded by the familiar, and accustomed to responding automatically and indiscriminately to novelties, among them hot dogs, spaghetti, pizza and oriental food.” We can only wonder what Mr. Williamson thinks of burritos.

Animating the book is a belief that “the United States has a right, not to mention a duty . . . to determine the ethnic and racial composition of the people a half-century hence, and to ensure the stability of its social and political institutions in the foreseeable future.” Amen to the second point. But what about the first one? What social engineer should have the power to determine the “correct” number of, say, Korean-Americans for the year 2050? I have a feeling that under Mr. Williamson’s blue blood regime, my grandmother would not make the cut. More important, however, is the question of why we should care about the ethnic and racial composition of the U.S. in 2050 so long as future Americans are devoted to American social and political institutions.

Mr. Williamson offers no real answer, just a series of unsubstantiated assertions about immigration’s cultural wrecking crew. He completely ignores the very conservative idea that new traditions can develop organically. If vast numbers of Americans have come, over time, to believe that their country is a “nation of immigrants,” who is Chilton Williamson Jr. to tell them that they are mistaken?

Mr. Miller, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is vice president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

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