Friday, August 6, 2021

Incompatible Cultures?

I recently saw that University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Amy Wax continues to ruffle feathers. Wax is a contrarian thinker who does not shy away from controversy. She may even welcome a fight, as seems the case with her comment on Ruth Bader Ginzberg shortly after Ginzberg’s death last September.  Back in 2017, Wax blamed many of America’s problems on the decline of “bourgeois values.” She went on to say that the US would benefit from admitting fewer immigrants from cultures that are “incompatible” with ours. This is a mantra that Pat Buchanan has repeated in such best-sellers as Suicide of a Superpower (2011), and State of Emergency (2006), The Death of the West (2001). Today’s immigrants, he says, come from “cultures never before assimilated." Buchanan offers this critique as unique to contemporary “Third World immigration.” Yet, it's a very old complaint raised throughout US immigration history. 


In the 1850s, many Americans considered Irish and German immigrants as incapable of assimilation. Here the drunken, belligerent Irishman teams up with his German partner to steal an election as their fellow immigrants riot in the background.  Unknown artist (John H. Goater?), “Irish Whiskey and Lager Bier",” courtesy of The Civil War Era


When America experienced its first mass immigration in the mid-1800s, it was said that the Irish and Germans who dominated the influx would never fit in. Protestant America thought the Catholic Irish were ignorant drunks ruled by the Pope. If allowed to become citizens, they would undermine American Democracy. The Germans, especially those who fled the revolution of 1848, were considered radicals and free thinkers who had little respect for American institutions, particularly the Sabbath, which they consistently violated with dance, drink, and song.

Uncle Sam is scolded by the editor of Judge magazine for allowing a horde of unsavory immigrants to enter the U.S. "If Immigration was properly Restricted you would no longer be troubled with Anarchy, Socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!"  Grant E. Hamilton, “Where the Blame Lies,” Judge, April 4, 1891. Library of Congress.

By the time Ellis Island opened in 1892, the countries of immigrant origin had shifted to southern and central Europe. Critics like MIT President Francis A. Walker complained that the newcomers were “beaten men from beaten races.” Having been repressed for centuries by church and state, the Italians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, and others had no experience with Democracy and were, he believed, unfit for American citizenship. This unfitness went deeper than their history of persecution. It was in their blood. Many Americans considered these “new immigrants” racially inferior to the northern European colonists who had established the country.

Of course, the critics were wrong. Today, German-Americans are the country’s largest ancestral group and are stalwarts of mainstream American culture. Irish-Catholics have been instrumental in making the once “Romish” church more Protestant in outlook. As for the Ellis Islanders? More than 40% of Americans have an Ellis Island ancestor. These “beaten men” fought bravely for the U.S. Army in World War I, many as volunteers. They and their women would help nurture America’s “Greatest Generation.”

As long as the United States continues to afford new arrivals with the freedom and opportunity they could not find in their “incompatible” home countries, they, too, will contribute greatly to our society. If by "bourgeois values," Professor Wax means hard work, frugality, family orientation, respect for education, and other socially conservative norms, immigrants pose less danger to America than native-born Americans.    

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