Immigration Critic Spotlights the White in the Red, White, and Blue
By Joel Kotkin
Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s ImmigrationDisaster
Random House ¨ 327 pp. ¨ $24.00
Published in The New Democrat, July 1995 [PDF]
Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation, a meditation on the remaking of contemporary America through immigration, reminds me of the most famous of all "spaghetti" westerns. In this book, you’ll find the good (a little), the bad (a lot), and the ugly (altogether too much). Although there is a great need for thoughtful criticism of our immigration system—a topic that incites passionate sentiments—you won’t find much of it here.
First, the good. Brimelow, a senior editor at Forbes, is at his strongest in assembling various critiques of current immigration policy. Strewn like confetti throughout the book, most of them were originally developed by other antiimmigration writers such as the University of California’s George Borjas. Here’s a sampling of the main points:
Next, the bad. All of the above-mentioned points are debatable and deserve a fair airing. Unfortunately, fairness isn’t Brimelow’s strong suit. One of the more annoying aspects of Brimelow’s methodology is his penchant for ad hominem attacks.
Throughout the book he regales us with accounts of his confrontations with various pro-immigration figures, such as The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Bartley, author Julian Simon, The New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal, and Reason magazine’s Virginia Postrel.
Much is made of Simon’s bouts with depression. The Wall Street Journal’s Dennis Farney, who wrote an article on Occidental College’s approach to its multiracial student body, is dismissed as a "starry-eyed hack." Postrel, we’re told, "flipped out" over Brimelow’s arguments about America’s racial character.
Even more annoying, Brimelow repeatedly uses his young son as a symbol for everything he wants to protect. "My son Alexander is a white male with blue eyes and blond hair," he writes. "He has never discriminated against anyone in his life. But now public policy discriminates against him."
But it’s not just affirmative action against which Brimelow raises his Alexandrine banner. He also waves it in defense of a notion one rarely encounters outside of extreme right-wing circles—the idea of the nation as an "ethno-cultural community."
I’m White, I’m Right, Get Over It
This is where Alien Nation leaves bad behind and hits ugly on the nose. Scratch the surface of this seemingly rational discussion of immigration policy and you’ll discover Brimelow’s key beliefs: a brand of white supremacist politics rarely uttered in polite company.
Brimelow’s opening point, that American culture is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon, is hard to challenge. Justifiable, too, is his assault on the PC police who delight in denigrating the contributions of "dead white males" to the making of the United States.
He goes beyond the pale, however, and embraces a type of Anglo supremacy. He sees the nation as an "extended family" that non-members of the Northern European tribe may enter but may never really help transform. Brimelow’s ideal America, one suspects, doesn’t include pizza, bagels, burritos, or egg rolls. "The Clinton Administration," he writes, "is a black-Hispanic-Jewish-minority white (Southerners used to call them ‘scalawags’) coalition."
In this respect, Brimelow is a successor to traditional opponents of non-British immigration, whose roster has included Alexander Hamilton in the late 18th century, the "know nothings" of the mid-19th century, and supporters of the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act. He applauds contemporary anti-immigration movements, such as the one behind California’s Proposition 187 and Preston Martin’s ascendent Reform Party in Western Canada.
Don’t underestimate the danger of this kind of politics. If they enter the mainstream of political discourse in the 1996 election, there will be no winner.
Brimelow’s nativist ideal enjoys strong support on the political right and has a highly articulate spokesperson in GOP presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan. Although Brimelow himself is a libertarian of sorts, his brand of nativism harmonizes with the populist, protectionist rhetoric of potential dark horse presidential candidates Ross Perot and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
Indeed, Democrats may be surprised at the strength of the new nativism on the left. Eugene McCarthy and former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm are perhaps the left’s most prominent immigration skeptics. The trend also can be seen in a recent spate of articles in The Atlantic Monthly, the unofficial organ of the Northeastern intelligentsia. Concerned about America’s "carrying capacity," environmentalists have long been prominent in anti-immigration movements such as the powerful, increasingly influential Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Although the media like to portray the new nativists as unreconstructed rednecks, the vote on Proposition 187 in California revealed strong reservations about immigration among middle-class Democrats, including nearly half of all Jewish voters, traditionally the most liberal whites in the party coalition. An even larger percentage of blacks backed Proposition 187. As black population and political strength decline relative to Hispanics and other ethnics—already the case in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, and Miami—blacks could be enticed to join in a vaguely nativist coalition, even one that includes their most hated right-wing opponents.
Progressives must construct a coherent response to this ugly aspect of Alien Nation. This means not only refuting its racialist interpretation of national identity, but also challenging the Third World mindset and failed immigration policies that have brought Anglo supremacy back from the grave.
Nativism, even when presented by a friendly-looking guy with an adorable young son, is a recurring disease in the American experience. If we fail to vanquish this latest outbreak, it will vanquish us.
Joel Kotkin is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of The New Democrat.