Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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A State of Becoming

Victor Davis Hanson

Encounter Books ($21.95)

by Anis Shivani

Victor Davis Hanson, classics professor at Cal State Fresno, conservative military historian in favor with the current administration, and long-time California Central Valley farmer, has taken a crack at charting a middle course on the thorny problem of illegal Mexican immigration. On this issue, both the left and the right hold on to orthodox nostrums that allow for little flexibility of opinion. The academic left dismisses any argument for restricting immigration as racist. The corporate right has its own interest in encouraging unlimited cheap labor. Meanwhile, a serious demographic crisis is brewing that few are willing to confront.

Unfortunately, Hanson's effort to tackle this problem comes nowhere near coherency, consistency, and profundity. His tempting but infuriating little book is marred by repetitive excursions into impressionistic and polemic sidebars, rather than a sustained analysis of the problem itself or a solution of it. As such, it is likely to appeal only to the narrow swath of audience already attuned to his particular brand of cultural polemics, rather than a broad audience willing to question their liberal beliefs about immigration or policymakers struggling with the dilemmas of illegal immigration.

It is to Hanson's credit that he at least poses the right questions:

How did we arrive at a world where thousands of citizens have lounged, embittered, on the dole while harvests go unpicked? How did we ignore thousands here, but demand that thousands more come illegally from across the border? How did we manufacture provocateurs at the university who burn the flag of the land they so desperately want to inhabit, while they proudly wave the fault of the country they so demonstrably prefer to abandon? How did we craft a society where the juvenile chooses the barbarism of the predatory jungle, but when injured or maimed he emerges from the wild to demand as his inalienable right the expensive succor of a compassionate and ordered culture he professes to despise? How did we create an intelligentsia that offers as models the despot Montezuma and the outlaw Pancho Villa, instead of Socrates and Lincoln?

Looking at California's exploding illegal Mexican population, Hanson explains it as the result of a devil's bargain made by California's white and Asian middle and upper-middle class residents. In return for having their harvests picked, lawns mowed, hotels cleaned, and trash removed cheaply, California's elite has made the uneasy accommodation to a kind of residential apartheid, moving away from schools and public facilities Mexican immigrants are likely to use. As the recent controversy over issuing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants shows, no politician in California is willing to strike at the source of the problem. As illegal Mexican immigration causes an unsustainable drain on public services budgets and environmental resources, the false cultural sensitivity of academics and policymakers hampers a rational response to the emergent pressures.

Recalling his own childhood and early adulthood in Selma, a Central California farming community that has become over time predominantly Mexican, Hanson postulates that the brutal pressure to assimilate used to serve an indispensable function. You either adapted to American norms, or you were refused acceptance. The multicultural industry over the last thirty years has inculcated a false pride in Mexican history and culture, blind to the evidence of Mexicans voting with their feet by crossing the border. Yet the academic race industry feeds its constituents such historically unverifiable claims as "the border crossed us, not we the borders." The tricky dilemma, which Hanson seems aware of, is that now that the genie has been let out of the bottle and the old assimilationist model stands fully discredited with academics and educationists, how do we return to the state of affairs Hanson is familiar with from his own days growing up alongside Mexicans eager to become Americans?

While one agrees fully with Hanson's analysis of the critical need for quick assimilation and doing away with such harmful palliatives to self-esteem as bilingual education and Chicano studies, there is nothing original in Hanson's analysis here that can't be obtained from any number of polemics in the culture wars of the last fifteen years. Hanson's idealization of a simpler, more honest time, when Mexicans themselves saw the brutalities of Mexican culture for what they were rather than constructing some false dream of return, suggests a kind of helplessness in the face of the exploding crisis. There needs to be a sustained policy response to sharply reducing the kind of immigration that hurts people on both sides of the border, while preserving and even enhancing the kind of immigration, chiefly not Mexican, that is good for both immigrant and host country. In his brief, popularly worded reflection, Hanson never comes close to articulating what such a policy might be.

Hanson simply isn't hard-headed enough, despite the anti-multiculturalist posture, to take us into truly uncharted ideas to tackle this crisis. His narrative is semi-personal throughout, as he is apparently eager to show no intimate rancor toward Mexican immigrants, despite the many small and big ways they lower his own quality of life and encroach upon his sense of privacy, decency, and generosity. As a conservative historian, no doubt Hanson is attempting to shield himself from charges of racial insensitivity by personalizing the discussion, referring to his own and his family's close relations with Mexicans over a period of decades. Yet this same veneer of racial sensitivity prevents him from asking the toughest questions about what it is about Mexican immigration that leads to a set of unprecedented problems.

The book is shot through with baffling contradictions and internal inconsistencies. The greatest among these is Hanson's varying stance on whether illegal Mexican immigrants are capable of eventual assimilation. On the one hand, Hanson quotes example after example of how Mexicans of an earlier generation, as well as many among the current generation, continue to make a reasonably successful transition to middle-class American life, acquiring at the very least the consumerist trappings that bind one to norms like respect for property and the rule of law. Hanson speaks favorably of his many successful Mexican students, who make the salutary choice of studying the classics and literature rather than indulging in the resentment and bitterness offered by Chicano studies, and then go on to become valuable teachers, civil servants, and professionals. On the other hand, Hanson is concerned by the growing number of unassimilated Mexicans, who don't care to learn and speak English well, have little respect for American history and institutions, believe that crossing the border illegally is only regaining what was unfairly expropriated from them, and succumb to the race industry's insistence that they remain contemptuous of attempts to integrate them.

Throughout the book we wait for Hanson to give us some reliable pattern of where things are headed in terms of assimilation, but other than learning that it's in the race industry's interest to cultivate an embittered and perpetually hostile minority, we don't get a grip on the actual nature of Mexifornia, once it comes into being. Is there something truly pernicious about Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, compared to immigration from any other country? If Asian and other immigrants, legal and illegal, continue to assimilate rapidly, then perhaps the problem needs to be boldly redefined as one of Mexican immigration alone, and addressed as such. While this seems to be the undertone of Hanson's book, this is nowhere made explicit in the terms it needs to be. A particularly half-hearted chapter is called "A Remedy in Popular Culture," which suggests that the uniformity of values brought about by globalized popular culture may be a temporary balm for the cultural divisiveness. But Hanson is aware of the limitations of this remedy, noting that it only smooths the friction for the time being, leaving the actual problem of acquiring Western democratic norms unaddressed. This, in fact, is the tenor of the whole book, a tentative stab at some partial solution, with roots in real concerns, but no real outline of a salvaging philosophy.

Hanson does talk about the specifics of the history between the United States and Mexico, which creates unique challenges to assimilation. The two most revealing chapters of the book are the ones where Hanson dares most to confront the issue in its true extremity. In Chapter Two, "The Universe of the Illegal Alien," Hanson offers a memorable portrait of the enthusiastic, accommodating young Mexican male when he first arrives in America, happy to do the back-breaking work that Southwestern elites shun. Over a couple of decades, however, this same immigrant turns bitter, hostile, and even unproductive, as he is unable to perform at the physical level of his youth, and society has less and less need for him: " . . .[T]he last thing America wants is a Spanish-speaking man fifty years old with dependents but no skills and a bad back." The myth that all immigrants, in any numbers whatsoever, and of whatever class origins, are infinitely assimilable in American society is sharply contradicted by the reminiscences in this chapter.

Chapter Three, "The Mind of the Host," is the best, and by itself makes the book worth the price. Hanson makes the valid claim that Mexican immigration unacceptably and irrevocably lowers the quality of life for all. Hanson recounts how Mexicans crash their uninspected and unlicensed cars into his vineyards and then leave them abandoned, or dump entire trailers full of furniture and other trash by the roadside when fancy strikes them, leaving their white neighbors to pick up after them. Multiply this problem of public nuisance many millions of times, and project it into a future where fifty or a hundred million Mexicans haven't been educated into the norms of civilized Western society, living instead by a false sense of immediate entitlement and perpetual resentment, and you get a sense of the magnitude of the impending disaster.

The fact that there are almost no footnotes, sourced statistics, or scholarly references to back up any of Hanson's impressions doesn't help his cause. Are illegal immigrants a drain on the economy or do they contribute positively? Hanson does a good job of creating a most disturbing impression that, while almost no one wants to acknowledge it, Mexican immigrants might be a huge net drain on society. Their low rates of tax payment probably don't begin to come close to meeting their demands on public schools (especially since the Catholic Mexican immigrant continues to reproduce in numbers far greater than his Protestant white host), hospitals, and the rest of the infrastructure. It could be that the true extent of the economic drain, despite short-term benefits to employers and suburbanites addicted to cheap labor, might be far greater than anyone has yet estimated. But there is little data in the book to build this case.

The left may want to dismiss the whole problem out of hand by saying that similar concerns were expressed about earlier waves of immigration--Irish and Jewish and Italian, and that the Mexican problem will similarly resolve itself without intervention. But this is an absurd argument, ignoring vast differences in the nature and extent of previous immigration waves, and the economic and cultural conditions of the host country then and now. There is something different and disturbing about Mexican immigration in the last few decades. Hanson is one of the few to have presented the problem in these stark terms, without resorting to the nativist sentiments of the populist right.

Should Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, be severely curtailed or banned? If this is a positive public policy goal, with demonstrable benefits to society, how can this be done without interfering with the flow of beneficial immigration, such as from Asia, which almost no one disputes is a net contribution to the economy and culture? What should be done about the many millions of Mexican immigrants already in the country, who are bent, for one reason or another, on never fully assimilating? What will happen when their progeny, unable to find middle-class jobs, become the locus of hostile activity toward their hosts, who by then may no longer be in a tolerant enough mood to accept their demands on scarce jobs and public services? Are the continuing abysmal rates of high school and college graduation among Mexicans a reflection of American society's failings, or a surefire indication of a cultural peculiarity that makes the Mexican immigrant different from any other? And if there is such an unbridgeable cultural difference, what should be the role of public policy in dealing with it?

These are all tough questions, and although Hanson's book is a hesitating first step in the direction of facing the dark side of immigration, a serious attempt to answer them won't be found here. Hanson misses the opportunity, in his fragmentary and repetitive meditation, to integrate his personal experiences with the tough-minded proposals of reformists like Edward Abbey, George Borjas, Dirk Chase Eldredge, Thomas Fleming, and Garrett Hardin. We have made certain deals, untenable over the long-term, to buy into the quick benefits of globalization. The chickens may already have come home to roost.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents