Mark Taub on the row over America's latest anti-immigration zealot
The Guardian (London)
May 5, 1995
WHEN RICHARD Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve was published in the United States last fall, it rocked the country's political landscape like an earthquake. Race relations have soured in recent years, and the last thing the country needed was a book arguing that socio-economic differences between blacks and whites can be explained by different levels of intelligence.
One of the most fervent Bell Curve supporters was Peter Brimelow, a British -born senior editor at Forbes and the National Review (America's equivalent of the Spectator). In a three-page Forbes article, he argued that US state schools should stop spending so much money on "dumb" (read black) kids, and rather invest in their bright (white) counterparts. Now, Brimelow is stirring up a Bell Curve-size scandal of his own, with Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster (Random House, 327 pages, $ 24). The book is readily summarised: Brimelow proposes to abolish the Immigration Act of 1965 and return to racial selection favouring whites.
Immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is a key issue in California, Florida and Texas—crucial states in the 1996 presidential election. Yet though most Americans have strong opinions on this subject, Alien Nation is devoid of first-hand reporting. Rather, Brimelow relies almost exclusively on statistics, which he twists and tortures until they seem to fit his arguments.
For example, he argues that while the population of most developed countries is stable, immigration leads to the crowding of America. If current levels of immigration (7.3 million from 1981-90) are sustained, he warns, the United States will have a population of 391 million by 2050 (up from about 250 million today). Of course, he fails to mention that even if this scenario comes true, America's population density will still be less than one -fifth of the United Kingdom's today.
Brimelow also points out that, according to a 1993 Newsweek poll, 60 per cent of Americans thought immigration levels were bad for the country. Even in traditionally pro-immigration New York, 66 per cent of the natives thought immigration was bad for the city, according to the New York Times. Even 51 per cent of immigrants agreed. But rather than differentiating between the idea of America as an immigrant country and certain controversial aspects of immigration (such as social services for illegal immigrants), he abuses these polls as "evidence" that egalitarian immigration policies drawn up in 1965 are a dictate of the liberal elites.
Behind all these contortions lurks the paranoid and tribal concept of the United States as an "ethnocultural community" in peril. Brimelow is convinced that America's dwindling white majority (about 90 per cent from 1900-1960, 75.7 per cent in 1990 and an estimated 52.7 per cent in 2050) is "being inundated, quite deliberately, as a matter of public policy" and demands that the country's racial balance be "shifted back". And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Immigration, particularly from Central and South America, has, among other things, depressed wages and drained government funds; it is associated with crime and the rise of multiculturalism, with pollution and disease.
Like all racist books, Alien Nation brims with hyperbole, polemics and inconsistencies. Some samples: the Heart of Darkness angle—"Just as when you leave Park Avenue and descend into the subway, when you enter the INS (Immigration and Naturalisation Services) waiting-rooms, you find yourself in an underworld that is not just teeming but also almost entirely coloured." The horror! The "crocodile tears for American blacks angle"—immigrants crowd blacks out of jobs; Brimelow suggests that they contribute to black "social pathology". The "blacks have poisoned the town well" angle—reacting to the New York Times columnist A M Rosenthal, who suggested that Haitian immigrants, as refugees from a regime of terror, should be embraced, Brimelow cautions: "Be careful about those embraces, Mr Rosenthal, sir. Some 3 per cent of the Haitian refugees at Guantanamo tested HIV-positive." And the "all whites are equal, but some are more equal than others" angle: the US should let in "hundreds of thousands" of "tormented" Eastern Europeans, says Brimelow. But Russian Jews—resurgent anti-Semitism or not—should not be considered refugees by the States. Maybe they just aren't the right kind of East Europeans? After all, he expounds on the Jewish component in the Russian mafia. Maybe he believes that Russian Jews, being Jews, aren't real Europeans?
Despite his blatantly racist outlook, Brimelow has actually insinuated himself into the epicentre of media attention and on to the bookshelves of mainstream Americans. Like The Bell Curve, Alien Nation is disguised as "common sense" about an issue connected to race. The author would like to have his readers believe that his book is a bluntly honest critique of US immigration policy. But it can also be seen as an attempt to make racism fit for good society again.
Brimelow also follows The Bell Curve's example when it comes to presenting the "evidence". Since the late 19th century, racists have been hard pressed to rationalise their quintessentially anti -rational worldview. The Nazis flooded Germany with charts on the supposed genetic make-up of Jews and their distinguishing physical features. More recently, Herrnstein's and Murray's bell-curve graph offered a reassuringly "scientific" argument for prejudice. Brimelow follows suit with his so-called "Pincers", a chart that shows America's white population shrinking fast, mercilessly squeezed by the Hispanic population on the one hand, and the black and Asian population on the other.
Liberal and centrist publications, such as the New Yorker, Business Week, New York Magazine and the New York Times Book Review have of course condemned the book. The reaction of the political right, however, is surprising. The Bell Curve evoked an even split, but Alien Nation is being rejected by most factions of American conservatism.
The Wall Street Journal, America's leading libertarian publication, describes Alien Nation as "a blueprint for a resurgent isolationism, for the return of a fortress mentality." Contrary to Brimelow, the journal's editor-in-chief, Robert Bartley, has proposed to end illegal immigration once and for all with a simple constitutional amendment: "There shall be open borders."
The National Review offered not one, but four reviews of Alien Nation. One of the reviewers, Rand Corporation scholar Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) probably best reflects mainstream American conservative opinion, criticising Brimelow's "old-fashioned, blood-and-soil, racial" explanation of American identity. Preserving American culture, says Fukuyama, has nothing to do with race, "for none of the problems of cultural incoherence . . . would go away . . . if all immigration, legal and illegal, ended tomorrow."
Shunned by mainstream conservatives, libertarians and neo-conservatives, Brimelow finds agreement mainly on the ultra-nationalist fringe. Fellow-immigrants from Britain include National Review editor John O'Sullivan, who published the 1992 essay on which Alien Nation is based, and who told The New York Observer that the book is "a real advance for people who believe in some restrictions." Harold Evans, president and publisher of Random House was, according to the same paper, so convinced that "Peter totally proves his case" that he even involved himself "at the level of picking the typeface, the cover art and the message."
After all the hoopla is over, what will remain? Everyone heard about The Bell Curve, many bought it, but only a few actually forced themselves through the entire tome. The issue died down after a few weeks and everybody was happy again. When the storm in Brimelow's teacup dies down, Alien Nation will meet the same fate. Brimelow has achieved only a partial success, but even partial success at promoting racism is a bad omen.