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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Yelling "racist" as an "argument" in the immigration debate

All in a single one-line post, Oliver Willis manages to perfectly illustrate the cheapest, most intellectually dishonest -- and, for those who wield it in the immigration debate, the most self-destructive -- form of argumentation.

Willis references a post by Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly, which quotes a letter from anti-illegal-immigration Congressman Tom Tancredo to his supporters in which Rep. Tancredo asks for help in what Tancredo calls the "struggle to preserve our national identity against the tide of illegal immigrants flooding the United States." In response to Tancredo’s letter, Willis snidely writes:

Hey, Tom Tancredo . . . Just say "white power" and get it off your chest.

So, there’s Willis' self-satisfied decree, in its vapid entirety. According to Willis (and many of Drum's commentators, if not Drum himself), anyone who believes that it’s important for a nation to be comprised of citizens who have at least some joint national allegiance and a minimal common foundation -- never mind a common language in which they can communicate with one another -- is a White Supremacist bigot.

Leave aside the political stupidity of labeling as bigots and racists a huge portion of the electorate which is becoming increasingly concerned about illegal immigration and which agrees with Tancredo’s sentiments. More important than the political self-destruction, Willis’ cheap name-calling -- a crude tactic wielded by many like him -- is substantively vacuous.

There are, needless to say, some people who oppose illegal immigration due to racist or xenophobic sentiments, but you can find some people who advocate almost any perfectly innocuous position who do so with malignant motives. There are, for instance, people who oppose tax cuts because they are socialists, and there are people who criticize Israel and sympathize with Palestinians because they are anti-Semitic, and there are people who favor abortion because they are racists and thereby favor anything which would result in fewer minority babies being born.

But, as is true with each of these issues, the fact that some people ascribe to a certain belief with venal intent does not, in any way, impugn the idea itself, nor does it justify ascribing the bad motive which some adherents have to anyone who ascribes to that belief. Thus, it is no more warranted to label as "racists" those who oppose illegal immigration on the ground that the nation needs a common "national identity" than it is to label as "Communists" those who oppose tax cuts, or label as "anti-Semitic" those who oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank, or label as "racist" those who favor abortions.

Snidely spitting out the "racist" insult as part of the illegal immigration debate is nothing more than a cheap and lazy way to irrationally smear people who espouse a certain view for the purpose of shutting down debate. And in this case, the smear Willis attempts -- that to believe in the importance of "national identity" is to make you a "white power" racist -- does not withstand even the most minimal scrutiny.

To begin with, people of countless different races, religions and national origins are as purely and consummately American as it gets. That’s because "national identity," by definition, is a function of one’s beliefs, goals and attitudes, not one’s skin color or ethnicity. There is simply nothing about being, say, black, or of El Salvadoran descent, that constitutes, in any way, even a theoretical impediment to being an "American" in terms of one’s national identity. To assert that those who speak of the need for a common "national identity" are somehow necessarily speaking in racist code is an absurd non-sequitur.

More importantly, it is simply indisputable that a nation cannot survive if its population lacks any common foundation, is characterized by scattered allegiances, has nothing culturally in common, and is separated by an inability to communicate with one another. What you end up with are balkanized, fragmented enclaves of people who happen to occupy the same geographical space, but you do not end up, in any sense, with a nation that can endure or prosper.

Intellectually lazy and smug people love to casually throw insults like "racist" around because it saves them the trouble of addressing the substance of an idea with which they disagree, and because it makes them feel so very superior and enlightened. For an example of a wild orgy of such cheap, self-praising smugness, check out the dismissive name-calling directed at Tancredo in the comments section of the Drum post which prompted Willis’ outburst.

The notion that a nation requires a cohesive "national identity" is hardly the malignant invention of the Ku Klux Klan or White Supremacist groups. It is a central prong for how our country was formed and how it has survived.

The central challenge for the founding of the Republic was how to transfer, or at least partially annex, the allegiance of the colonialists away from their individual states and towards some common federalized union. The nation could not have survived without there being a shared national identity that bound its citizens in purpose and culture.

The critical importance of maintaining a common "national identity" -- the recognition of which Willis and so many others snidely dismiss as bigotry -- was emphasized by George Washington in a 1794 letter to John Adams:

"The policy or advantage of [immigration] taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the Language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people."

Thomas Jefferson frequently lauded the virtues of immigration. In an 1801 letter to Hugh White, he wrote:

"Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in society, conforming, as I doubt not you will do, to our established rules. That these rules shall be as equal as prudential considerations will admit, will certainly be the aim of our legislatures, general and particular."

But despite his positive view towards immigration, Jefferson stressed that immigration would be a virtue for the nation only if it were managed in a way consistent with assimilating the immigrants in order to preserve a cohesive national identity. In his Notes on Virginia in 1782, Jefferson said:

"[Is] rapid population [growth] by as great importations of foreigners as possible... founded in good policy?... They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their number, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass... If they come of themselves, they are entitled to all the rights of citizenship: but I doubt the expediency of inviting them by extraordinary encouragements."


Current illegal immigration – whereby unmanageably endless hordes of people pour over the border in numbers far too large to assimilate, and who consequently have no need, motivation or ability to assimilate – renders impossible the preservation of any national identity. That is so for reasons having nothing whatever to do with the skin color or origin of the immigrants and everything to do with the fact that what we end up with are segregated groups of people with allegiences to their enclaves, an inability to communicate, cultural perspectives incompatible with prevailing American culture, and absolutely nothing to bind them in any way to what we know as the United States.

There are ways to have the debate about what to do about this growing problem, and there are even reasonable grounds for disagreeing with the view that illegal immigration is a serious problem – either generally or in terms of its impact on a common "national identity."

But if the approach of pro-illegal-immigration advocates is going to be to follow the example of people like Willis and Drum's commentators and simply scream "racist" at anyone who expresses concerns about the impact of the vast numbers of illegal immigrants pouring into the United States, then their loss in this debate will be as inevitable as it will be well-deserved.

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