Italy elected a conservative prime minister, and the American media are reacting pretty much as one would expect to a woman who quotes Chesterton and thinks the government should be more supportive of family formation. Politico reporters were on the scene, watching “[Giorgia] Meloni activists embrace in disbelief at what they had accomplished in electing Italy’s most right-wing government since BENITO MUSSOLINI.”
While I realize even most educated Americans, myself included, have few points of reference to draw on regarding Italian politics, I would also note that in historical terms Meloni is further removed from Mussolini than contemporary Democrats are from Jim Crow. And yet, I did not wake up to headlines in November 2020 fixated on the fact that America had just elected a president who as late as 1987 “talked of his sympathy for the South, bragged of an award he had received from George Wallace in 1973 and said ‘we [Delawareans] were on the South’s side in the Civil War.’” (For what it’s worth, Joe Biden never got an award from George Wallace — if anything, it’s worse that he wishes he did.)
Of course, more intelligent people took to America’s most influential media outlet — I regret to say I’m referring to Twitter — to try to make sense of what had happened in Italy. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made a basic and cogent observation about the immigration dynamics that are roiling politics in Europe.
“The path for [sic] forward for parties of the center-left in Europe begins with an acknowledgment that the challenges of collapsed birthrates + migrant integration ARE the central challenges of 21st century Europe, not far-right distractions that will vanish in some restored normalcy,” he wrote.
People on Twitter reacted, as per usual, with a shotgun blast of underbaked retorts. But one stood out for concisely typifying why immigration debates are often dominated by bad-faith actors. “So you’re saying we need MORE of some people and FEWER of other people? Would you like to be more explicit about the exact people you want MORE of and FEWER of?” said Ben Collins of NBC News.
Assuming you like to engage arguments with a modicum of fairness, you didn’t read Douthat, who’s hardly anyone’s idea of a radical, as announcing his racism to the world. It might also be unfair to note that Collins’ retort could have just as easily been directed at the residents of Martha’s Vineyard, but I will extend Collins all the courtesy he gave Douthat.
Regardless, the accusation of racism in immigration debates, whether it’s a calculated response or merely a disgorgement of the left’s conspiracy of intuition, is effective at preventing us from having a rational debate about the cultural and political tensions caused by mass immigration.
The question is a simple one: To what extent are democratic countries with fixed borders in a position to engage in self-determined rules about controlling immigration, and to what extent is citizenship a necessary requirement for receiving the benefits that country provides?
The answers here aren’t easy, and in part that’s because most Western nations have confused the issue by sending out mixed political signals for decades. Post-World War II, an increasingly global economy created powerful economic incentives for the West to welcome mass immigration in order to benefit from cheap labor. While encouraging this mass immigration, there was never a plan to address questions of citizenship or the cultural and political tensions this would inevitably create over time.
Now you could say that the political backlash this state of affairs has produced is reactionary and/or racist, and certainly there are fringe actors in the immigration debate that are both. But in the main, the immigration debate is best explained by a much more anodyne aspect of human nature: the need to show hospitality.
Or at least that’s the judgment of my former colleague Chris Caldwell, who has literally written the book on this subject, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.” Caldwell notes that pro-immigration forces draw on a deep well of sentiment in Western culture that involves admonitions in everything from the “Odyssey” to the Bible to take in strangers. Less examined are the reasons this cultural mandate for hospitality evolved, and here Caldwell quotes the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger:
In order to avoid constant bloodbaths and to make possible a bare minimum of exchange and commerce between various clans, families and tribes, ancient societies set up the taboos and rituals of hospitality. But these precautions do not eliminate the status of “outsider.” On the contrary, they set it in stone. The guest is sacred, but he may not tarry.
Historically, there’s an incredibly fine line between xenophobia and hospitality that is demarcated by laws and customs to make sure everyone’s clear on what is what. And when you’re not clear about those laws and customs, Caldwell observes things can go disastrously bad:
When Gothic tribes concluded a peace settlement with the troubled Roman Empire in 382, they were given hospitalitas (billeting on profitable lands) but not connubium (the right to marry Romans), and the accordance of the former privilege was linked to the denial of the latter. The most spectacular illustration history offers of the kinship of hospitality and mistrust is that of Captain Cook, who was feted, flattered, and worshipped for a month by the Hawaiian islanders in Kealakekua Bay in 1779. When he and his crew returned on an emergency visit to repair a broken mast, they were massacred.
In this respect, it’s very telling that many pro-immigration leftists pretend xenophobia is some uniquely Western sin. The truth is that extending hospitality while still keeping rules in place to protect your own culture and clan is the norm in history, not the exception. While Western culture has had ample faults, it’s notable for evolving cultural norms that went beyond thinking of hospitality in a purely defensive manner. Despite this, history is routinely written to pretend that, say, brutal African kingdoms were, in fact, righteous anti-colonialist crusaders without noting that in reality the British navy altruistically ended African kingdoms’ enthusiastic participation in the Atlantic slave trade.
Regardless, the desire not to confuse hospitality with a permanent welcome is deeply ingrained in our politics going back millennia. As such, the current populist revolt against immigration seems entirely predictable and understandable, and the criticism of it often fails to acknowledge that the frustration was born only after decades of tolerance. More Caldwell:
The difference between hospitality and a full and permanent welcome has been widely remarked by Muslims who arrived in Denmark in the 1970s. Whether well disposed or ill disposed toward Danish culture, they tend to describe their reception back then as almost dreamlike in its generosity, at both the governmental and interpersonal level. But sometime in the 1990s, the climate changed with incredible suddenness to one of suspicion and even hostility. The temptation is to look for some precipitating event, some act of bad faith on someone’s part. …
What happened in Denmark was more inevitable than that. The welcome immigrants received in their first months or years was not the permanent natural order of things. It was the reflexive courtesy accorded guests. Immigrants stayed long enough to lose their ritualized role as “guests,” and, with it, their claim on Danes’ hospitality. (This does not mean they lost their claim on decent treatment, only their claim on the specific form of decent treatment that is hospitality.) Once immigrants lost that role, what were they? Danes like any others, with well-defined constitutional responsibilities and unspoken cultural ones? Danes with special privileges relieving them of those responsibilities? Workers, requiring a new contractual relationship? Or interlopers, requiring resistance?
The problem in Denmark, as in Spain and the rest of Europe, is that no consensus answer to those questions has arisen.
Indeed, it’s hard to reach anything resembling a political consensus on immigration questions if good-faith commentators such as Douthat can’t openly discuss the fact that there are inevitable tensions when people with different languages and customs move to a new area en masse without establishing clear rules for how people coexist.
Accusations about racism and xenophobia can’t elide fundamental questions about the need for clear laws and borders to both minimize conflict and assert our right to self-governance. Personally, I think there could well be a robust debate that includes convincing cases made for Western nations to accept very high levels of immigration — provided the rules are clear and supported by democratic consensus.
I will heed my own counsel and won’t be so bad faith as to presume that opponents of immigration restrictions merely see borders as historical accidents that define economic zones of opportunity anyone can take advantage of. But I do think it’s fair to say the people always attacking the motives for immigration restrictions rarely, if ever, volunteer what limits on immigration they think are reasonable or even want to engage in that discussion.
Still, the historical and cultural need for defining where hospitality ends and permanent residency begins are undeniable. If you really cared about minimizing global conflict and creating political stability, you would welcome that conversation, instead of attacking the motives of the people who want to have it.