Last week I wrote about the way people use and abuse terms like “horizontal equity,” “intersectionality,” and “cultural Marxism,” stripped of their original context and brandished as weapons for whatever the speaker’s agenda happens to be:
- If you’re embarrassed to say you think it’s good that college graduates are forced to defer home purchases, retirement savings, and childbearing for years or decades in order to service their student loans, you can insist your concern is actually one of “horizontal equity.”
- If you’re embarrassed to say you think it’s good that the black LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to state violence, then you can say your real problem is that “intersectionality” has gone too far.
- If you’re embarrassed to say you believe in white supremacy, you can always say de-platforming white supremacists is a classic tactic of “cultural Marxists” on college campuses.
I find this method of distraction and dissembling incredibly tiresome. If you know anything about the subject and try to address its technical application, you’re met with a dead-eyed stare because the terms are being invoked as cudgels, not arguments. But if you try to address the underlying issues of poverty, racism, and white supremacy, you’re told that you’re ignoring the actual argument, which has nothing to do with poverty, racism, or white supremacy, but is instead a rational stand based on the sophisticated application of philosophical principles.
Immigrants don’t destroy “social cohesion,” bigots do
The current fad on the anti-immigrant right is to set aside the thorny questions of economic benefit and cost which dominated the debate over levels and flows of immigrants since at least the 1980’s. Those arguments, most will now concede, have been lost: immigration to the United States both increases the prosperity of the United States and greatly improves the economic fortunes of the immigrants themselves, serving as a kind of negative-cost foreign aid.
Since anti-immigrant sentiments were never based on economic analysis to begin with, the consensus that high levels of immigration in fact benefit the American economy never stood a chance of changing any minds. All it did was force the opponents of immigration who want to be taken seriously to find new ground, and the ground they have settled on is euphemistically referred to as “social cohesion.”
“there are various reasonable grounds on which one might favor a reduction. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population is near a record high, and increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics. There are questions about how fast the recent wave of low-skilled immigrants is assimilating, evidence that constant new immigration makes it harder for earlier arrivals to advance, and reasons to think that a native working class gripped by social crisis might benefit from a little less wage competition for a while. California, the model for a high-immigration future, is prosperous and dynamic — but also increasingly stratified by race, with the same inequality-measuring Gini coefficient as Honduras.”
Douthat continued the following week:
“First, as mass immigration increases diversity, it reduces social cohesion and civic trust. This is not a universal law, as the economics writer Noah Smith has pointed out; there are counter-examples and ways to resist the trend. However, it is a finding that strongly comports with the real-world experience of Europe and America, where as cultural diversity has increased so has social distrust, elite-populist conflict, and the racial, religious and generational polarization of political parties.”
What I find particularly illuminating about these quotes is how Douthat bounces back and forth between the active and passive voices. First increased diversity sows distrust. Then there are questions (whose questions?) about assimilation. Then the working class is gripped. Then mass immigration reduces social cohesion and cultural diversity increases (compared to what?).
How much do you trust bigots with the veto?
Interestingly, what comes through loud and clear throughout Douthat’s “moderate” views on immigration is that not even Douthat is vulgar enough to accuse immigrants themselves of being responsible for any of these supposed harms. This is actually a fairly common stance on the right: if you lived in a “shithole country” you’d want to immigrate to America too!
The problem, in these terms, doesn’t lie with immigrants, it lies with American politicians for refusing to protect our borders and enforce our immigration laws, thus inviting social dissolution and political polarization. Reducing levels of immigration, especially unskilled immigration, is thus the responsible way to reconstruct the “social cohesion” of American life.
But here we come full circle to the original problem of debating people who aren’t arguing in good faith. The premise of a “moderate” immigration-restriction agenda is that if total immigration flows are reduced and tilted in favor of higher-skilled immigrants, then objections to immigration will dissipate. But that is not an argument about immigration, that is argument about bigots. It is an argument that bigots can and will “turn off” their bigotry once they observe falling levels of low-skilled immigration, that bigots can be brought to the table, negotiated with, compromised with, and will then move on to other issues.
But what evidence do we have that bigots are willing to move on once an immigration “compromise” has been reached? When have bigots ever laid down their arms after achieving victory? After the slaver states were “redeemed” did Southern bigots settle down and peacefully exercise political power, or did they lead a decades-long campaign of terrorist violence against the black population of the South? After Clinton implemented the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, were bigots satisfied, or did they continue to entrap and drum out gay servicemembers? Today, almost a decade after the repeal of DADT, the Republican president is seeking to discharge transgender servicemembers.
Conclusion: social cohesion is real, and it comes through defeating bigotry
Just like “horizontal equity,” “intersectionality,” and “cultural Marxism,” social cohesion is a perfectly real phenomenon. But social cohesion isn’t something that happens to us when politicians police the border effectively, or regulate immigration appropriately. Social cohesion is something we create when we participate in our communities, when we empathize with our neighbors, and when we fight for justice.
If pressing “1” for English pisses you off in 2019, your problem isn’t unskilled immigration. Your problem is that you’re a bigot. So knock it off.