“To be an American is an ideal,” the political theorist Carl Friedrich wrote in 1935, “while to be a Frenchman is a fact.” Iowa’s Steve King doesn’t seem to grasp this distinction. Nor do many of his detractors, who regularly conflate any defense of Western civilization with “white nationalism” or racism.
Commenting on the Dutch politician Geert Wilders this weekend, King caused a furor, tweeting that, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Well, why not? If newcomers embrace the principles and virtues of American life and its traditions, the more babies they have the better. Unless your fears are pinned to skin pigmentation rather than assimilation, what difference does it make?
King went on to defend his tweet with a number of confused and contradictory statements. “It’s the culture, not the blood,” King explained on CNN. “If you could go anywhere in the world and adopt these little babies and put them into households that were already assimilated into America, those babies will grow up as American as any other baby with as much patriotism and as much love of country as any other baby. It’s not about race, it’s never been about race … It’s a clash of cultures, not a race.”
That’s fine. But King, a “champion of Western civilization,” soon waded into disconcerting messaging about taking care of “someone else’s babies” and claiming that “intermarriage” will make America “homogeneous.” When you start talking about human beings in this way, you’re framing the argument in ethnocentric and racial terms — culture as blood — and it undercuts the ideals you’re supposedly defending.
So King deserves the condemnation he’s been getting for making the immigration debate about people rather than their ideas. Yet most coverage of congressman’s statement also seems to take offense at his defense of “Western civilization.” Once it was merely in poor form to claim our system was better. Now, evidently, it’s racist.
Steve King is wrong: Civilization is threatened by racism & xenophobia that divide us & encourage violence. I condemn hate & welcome all
— Judy Chu (@RepJudyChu) March 13, 2017
Fact is, the modern Left debates immigration using the very same ethnocentric and racial ideas as King, but for entirely different reasons. While one side adopts it for exclusionary purposes, the other uses it as a cudgel of relativism. These days, there is precious little difference between ideas and identity on the Left. So we are asked to treat Islam as a racial or ethnic designation rather than a philosophical/religious/ideological one. This way we don’t debate ideas, history, or beliefs, but color. And if you fail to accept the debate on these terms, you will be subjected to vacuous accusations of “Islamophobia.”
Yet, the rise of the far-Right seems, in part, to be a reaction to the Left’s abdication of defending liberalism. I mean, does anyone believe the Dutch became inveterate racists overnight? Or is the competitiveness of Wilders’ party in Holland predicated on a long-term struggles that have generated upheaval across Europe? The flow of refugees into these nations has featured many people with ideologies and theologies that are in conflict with the values of their new homes. Not all, but enough.
As Sam Harris noted in a 2006 Los Angeles Times piece:
… the failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.
When newcomers aren’t asked to embrace your ideas and are sheltered from the responsibility of assimilation, they created “parallel societies,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently put it. Today, American liberals find the idea of demanding, or even nudging, newcomers to assimilate to be disagreeable and disrespectful act. Judy Chu, for example, welcomes “all;” every single person who has desire to come here, no matter what they believe or how likely they are to become Americanized.
Remember how incensed people got when Trump floated his (admittedly, impractical) ideological test for immigrants. This wasn’t a test for color, race, or ethnicity, but one that gauged beliefs — which is not new to immigration policy. The problem is that many assumed philosophical tests would have a disproportionate effect on Islamic refugees — a de facto ban. But if Chileans, Japanese, and Indians can pass American literacy tests but Pakistanis, Saudis, and Iraqis can’t, doesn’t it tell us something about Islam rather than the test or the color of the person taking it?
It must be pointed out that Muslims have, for the most part, successfully integrated into American society. Unlike Europe, we are structurally and geographically built to assimilate diverse populations. But if we’re going to allow more people to come here from parts of world infested with illiberalism, it seems rational to be cautious and avoid Europe’s mistakes. Because the idea that mass immigration – and I prefer a lot more of it than most conservatives — doesn’t come with any attendant problems is simply ludicrous.
Moreover, why would anyone be offended by someone saying that “Western civilization” is preferable to the alternative? No one is forced to come here. So why would any newcomer be insulted if his prospective home expected him to adopt Western values? That’s what we do here. To be American is an ideal. Sometimes, of course, this civilization fails in the most violent or brutal or embarrassing ways. But, in the aggregate, human flourishing does better, by any measure, under this tradition than others. We shouldn’t let people on the Right or Left distort what it means.