Friday, March 31, 2006


On nations and immigrants

It may become apparent quickly that I've been watching too many reruns of The West Wing. Nonetheless, this is how it seems to me today: Immigration is a policy issue that proves just how salient the nation-state remains, even in our putatively global age. Not all, of course, see it that way. Some would argue that the global migration of millions of people is steadily eroding the sovereignty of nation-states, who are ill-equipped to stop or control such massive diasporas. And some would argue that since we are therefore entering a postnational age in which transnational flows of people, capital, and goods will displace the power of the modern state, we should also cease to be so concerned with the rights that inhere in being a "citizen" of a nation. Instead, according to this view, we should become more concerned with the rights that inhere in being a member of the human species. We should view individuals first and foremost as citizens of the world, not as citizens of a particular nation-state.

But as recent debates over illegal immigration have shown, we still live in a world where human rights are most likely to be secured by the granting of citizenship rights--or, conversely, a world in which human rights are often most threatened by the denial of civil rights. It's of little value to declare an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles a citizen of the world when Congress is threatening to make that same immigrant a felon for failing to become a citizen of the United States and is threatening, moreover, to prosecute its own citizens for aiding a certain class of non-citizens. The salient issue here is whether one belongs to a particular national community or not. And in this context, if you want to protect a person's human rights, you had best argue, not for the irrelevance of national citizenship altogether, but rather for an expanded and flexible definition of the national community that finds a place for illegal immigrants under the legal umbrella of the United States.

In short, notwithstanding the myriad forces of globalization, the distribution of civil rights in a democratic nation-state is one of the primary places where the rubber meets the road for a believer in the value of human rights. Put it this way: if you want, in the immediate short term, to defend the right of a Californian to give wages to an undocumented worker trying to feed an impoverished family of four, which is your best practical move? To appeal to the United Nations for the recognition of that right? Or to argue for laws within the United States that will protect that right? If the answer seems obvious, then it is also obvious that the idea of national citizenship has not gone the way of the dinosaurs yet. Whatever its shortcomings, the nation still plays a powerful mediating role in relationships between people.

If determining the contours of national communities still matters, even in a world criss-crossed by diasporic migrations, then there is still a place in the liberal universe for a certain kind of nationalism. On most days, I'm divided within myself on this point, but recent debates over illegal immigration highlight for me why I don't want to let go entirely of the idea that American nationalism can be a pragmatic good. It may strike many opponents of the House Republicans' immigration plan that American nationalism is precisely the problem with their rhetoric and their proposals: it's nationalism that underwrites the poisonous sneers about unassimilated Mexicans; nationalism that stirs up xenophobic fears about immigrants; nationalism that serves as a mask for a deeper racism that dares not speak its name. To be sure, nationalism does often do those things; it never is and never has been an unqualified good. But insofar as nations still matter, it is a mistake to conclude that nationalism is always an unqualified evil. Instead, it seems to me, the better thing to do is to articulate and then defend to the utmost a kind of nationalism that is humble rather than chauvinistic and hospitable rather than xenophobic.

We need not to dismiss the value of nationalism, but instead to detail and celebrate a vision of the nation that strives to become progressively more and more inclusive, a nation that strains itself to what seems like the breaking point to accommodate new compatriots. What if our nationalism trumpeted the virtues of this kind of nation: a nation that shoulders mutual burdens and sacrifices collectively, not for the sake of putting boots on foreign ground in order to "spread democracy," but instead for the sake of realizing and advertising democratic ideals in the way we treat the foreigners who put their boots on our ground.

The rhetoric of one side of the immigration debates says that we cannot afford to have 11 million illegal immigrants because immigrant abuses of the "welfare state" will bankrupt us. But let's be clear about what's bankrupting us right now: it's not that we're giving away oodles of medicine, money, and tuition waivers to the poor among us. What's straining our coffers to the breaking point is not the "welfare state," but the warring state, whose costs now annually dwarf the costs of our increasingly anemic social welfare programs. If we want to make room for illegal immigrants in our economy and in the welfare state, the obvious first step is not to remove people from our country but to remove ourselves from other people's countries.

Why should we move over so that 11 million uninvited guests can sit down at the table? For the same reason that President Bush argues we should be in Iraq or Afghanistan. Because as a nation we are committed to the idea that all men are created equal, entitled by inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Republicans and their critics need not differ on that essentially nationalistic point. The crucial divide between Right and Left need not be, as is so often assumed, that the one stands for patriotism and the other stands for rootless cosmopolitanism and anti-Americanism. Rather, the crucial divide comes from a difference of opinion on the best way of marshaling our limited national resources to realize the ideals to which we are committed as a nation. Some say we should wield our power to demolish governments and create new ones dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal, to expand the boundaries of our ideological influence in the world. I say we should wield our power, instead, to push our principles to their farthest conceivable limits here. We can first demonstrate our commitment to the equality of all men and women by treating equally all those men and women who fall within the purview of our national sovereignty, even as we continue to declare that the principle itself is not limited by that purview.

Notice that what I'm not questioning here is that the United States is a great nation and can be an even greater one. I'm not denying, as critics of our military ventures abroad often are accused of doing, that the aspirations of the United States are in many ways admirable, or that in many ways they express the common aspirations of all human beings for freedom from tyranny, human dignity, and personal security. I'm not, in other words, pooh-poohing nationalism itself but instead urging the channeling of such nationalist feelings in other directions. I do not want to be mistaken for claiming (and I don't think frequent readers will mistake me for claiming) that the United States is a perfect representative of the ideals it claims to represent. Far from it. Its history is a record of democratic successes overshadowed by horrible failures. But because getting our national ideals right still matters so insistently to real people living within our borders, our task should be to move ourselves more and more from under the shadow of our failures, to redeem our checkered past--if such a thing is possible--by reaching for a charitable future. And to do that, cultivating a sense of togetherness as a national community can be a boon rather than a bane.

This is a point similar to the one that historian David Hollinger made in his 1995 book, Postethnic America, a slim volume reissued in 2000 that still has much to say to us in 2006. Although his primary interlocutors were defenders of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s, Hollinger was also trying to stake out a qualified sense in which nationalism and the nation are worth saving and savoring. For him, the primary challenge we face as a national community is in trying to answer the question of how wide we should draw the circle of the "we," and our highest challenge as a nation is to draw that circle as widely as possible without demanding that everyone within it surrender their affiliation with smaller ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic groups. In an eloquent postscript to the 2000 edition of the book, Hollinger defended the value of a "national solidarity tight enough to mobilize action on common challenges and loose enough to militate against a replay of the chauvinisms of the past." While decrying a kind of American exceptionalism that exempts the United States from the common bar of nations, or that envelops all of the nation's actions in a mantle of schmaltz and self-congratulation, Hollinger nonetheless argued that "the United States now finds itself in a position to develop and act upon a cultural image as a national solidarity committed--but often failing--to incorporate individuals from a great variety of communities of descent, on equal but not homogeneous terms, into a society with democratic aspirations inherited largely from England."

As Hollinger immediately states, "there is much more to the United States than this," and historical narratives of the nation can find nearly infinite ways of complicating that one-sentence summary. But if we had to stake the flag to one sentence, there are worse ones available. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that this is the nation we are proud of and the nation that we want to improve: a nation that tries to incorporate as many different individuals as possible into a democratic society without forcing those individuals into a stultifying homogeneity. If that's our job as a nation (and certainly it's not our job alone; we are a nation among nations aspiring to democracy, not the nation chosen above all nations to achieve it), then perhaps we should see the fact of 11 million unincorporated individuals in our midst not as our greatest problem, but as our greatest opportunity.

Slightly edited at 8:31 p.m.

Collective Improvisation:
Let's not confuse the topic of a nation made of legal immigrants with a nation of predomintantly ONE race of illegal intruders.

Posted by Blogger JC on 3/31/2006 07:10:00 PM : Permalink  

One of the hardest things, it seems, for many people to understand is the idea that a lawbreaker still has rights and that protecting those rights is fundamental to being a decent society. There's nothing in this piece about "a nation made of legal immigrants" (which isn't really true, actually, particularly if you look at the pre-union history of places like California or Hawai'i) anyway, nor about race.

Posted by Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/31/2006 09:48:00 PM : Permalink  

"If determining the contours of national communities still matters, even in a world criss-crossed by diasporic migrations, then there is still a place in the liberal universe for a certain kind of nationalism."

The course of European nationalism has shown that the emphasis on the welfare state increases xenophobia, especially as citizenship becomes defined as access to services provided by the state.

Posted by Blogger Nathanael on 4/01/2006 09:52:00 AM : Permalink  

The course of European nationalism has shown that the emphasis on the welfare state increases xenophobia ...

More than an emphasis on a warring state?

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 4/02/2006 07:32:00 PM : Permalink  

"What's straining our coffers to the breaking point is not the 'welfare state,' but the warring state, whose costs now annually dwarf the costs of our increasingly anemic social welfare programs."

I'm not sure that it affects your main point, but is this statement true? Doesn't Social Security alone outstrip military spending?

See, e.g.:

Mind you, I'm still all for extricating ourselves from other people's countries. I'm just sayin'.

Posted by Blogger Lee on 4/04/2006 11:38:00 AM : Permalink  

Lee, I probably should have been more careful about making that generalization. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to say that military spending as a whole outstrips social services as a percentage of federal spending, although I think it depends on whom you ask. Statistics on these matters are notoriously easy to manipulate, and I'll admit to being bewildered by most explanations of what happens to my tax dollar once it leaves my pocket. I do think that military expenses are often more than meets the eye. They are often hidden, for instance, in budgets for non-military departments of the government (there are millions of dollars of homeland security pork, for instance, that get channeled into things like the Department of Agriculture). And lots of discretionary spending goes on outside of the official budget to fund the War on Iraq, to the tune of billions of dollars.

I'll back away from the bald statement that military spending outstrips our spending on social services. But what I was really trying to do was reorient debates about what we can afford towards debates about what we should afford. If we defined the nation's primary task differently than we now do (there's little question, whatever the actual budget breakdown of spending, that the financial priorities of the Bush administration all revolve around security) then we might find ourselves able to afford different things than we can now.

One final slightly unrelated point: Social Security does cost "us" a lot of money, but properly speaking it's a system that workers pay for with taxes specifically earmarked for Social Security funds. Undocumented workers are already making what may be billions of dollars of contributions to these funds without being able to expect benefits. To say that illegal immigrants are actually costing us Social Security money couldn't be farther from the truth: as far as social security is concerned, their illegal status costs the system nothing (indeed, it may be helping to keep the system afloat) while costing the workers themselves a great deal.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 4/04/2006 12:06:00 PM : Permalink  


Fair enough, and I agree with you wholeheartedly about reorienting the debate to being about what we should afford. There's no doubt that our priorities are reflected in what we spend our money on.

Also, your last point is well-taken. I've long thought that SS should be funded out of general revenue instead of payroll taxes, which are inherently among the most regressive anyway.

Thanks for the response.

Posted by Blogger Lee on 4/04/2006 12:26:00 PM : Permalink  

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