Amy Wax Redux
Another round in the immigration and culture debate
My recent conversation with Amy Wax continues to generate controversy in the comments section and in my inbox. An email I received from TGS fan George Lee raises some, to my mind, important questions about Amy’s critique. George is no advocate of open borders. He takes the immigration question very seriously. But he notes that, for good or ill, we cannot predict the cultural impact of immigration.
George makes a strong case, and Amy’s response is just as forceful as you would expect, so I’ll cede the spotlight to them. I’m sure it will generate yet more commentary—chime in below!
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Response from George Lee
I viewed your recent interview with Amy Wax, and it set me thinking. A lot!
I usually agree with Amy, but her views on immigration (which she had stated earlier elsewhere) disturbed me. She is definitely onto something, but I also think something is off.
It goes without saying that I oppose illegal immigration. I also affirm that, as a sovereign state, America has the absolute and unconditional right to keep anyone out, with or without stated reason; immigration is not an entitlement.
I further agree with Amy (and you) that culture matters, and it is a bad thing for America to bring in immigrants who oppose America's basic values. But, as you pointed out, race and national origin are very poor proxies for cultural values that should be kept out of America.
As you pointed out, many Jews in the last century were socialists, Marxists, or anarchists, including Emma Goldman, Herbert Marcuse and other leading members of the Frankfurt School, Saul Alinsky, George Soros, and, yes, Albert Einstein. Even if we could agree to keep them out—we didn't—what about the other Jews? Again, no one is entitled to immigration. But do we want to do without, to give a dramatic example, key contributors to the Manhattan Project, like Edward Teller and John von Neumann, when, as it turned out, German physicist Werner Heisenberg was just one calculation error away from a Nazi atomic bomb? Amy herself did come from an immigrant Jewish family.
Similarly, while Asians like Mari Matsuda, Pramila Jayapal, and Saikat Chakrabarti begin to appear in the ranks of the Woke, as Amy warned, Asians also include the Asians of New York City, Northern Virginia, Washington State, and California, who pounded the pavement and hit the airwaves to help stem the tides of racial essentialism and collective judgment in proposed legislation, ballot initiatives, and elections. By many accounts, Asians were key marginal contributors to some of these successes. And as you also pointed out, Asians do contribute to America's scholarly, technological, and economic competitiveness, whose benefits we all share.
Let's also not forget that earlier, the Irish and Italians were thought by many to be a danger to America, because America was meant to be Protestant. As late as 1900, NYC public school textbooks still referred to Catholics as evil. This brings out the second problem with Amy's suggestion, which is that we may not be good at deciding which values will turn out to be harmful to America. The forces that bind us together or tear us apart as a viable culture—and the technologies that enable such forces either way—are dynamic over time. Aspects of Catholic immigration may very well have been real threats to the America of the late 1800s (it is all too easy for the ahistorical to judge condescendingly of the past). Looking forward, I can't think of a way for collective racial judgment to ever become consistent with our Bill of Rights, but I also accept the limitations of my wisdom; perhaps in the future, some resolution between the two may turn up that is orthogonal to my plane of thought. Deciding which cultural values are beneficial and harmful to America is harder than it appears at first, not to mention designing an adaptive implementation that makes optimal trade-offs over time!
Of course we always have the right to say, “In view of all these complications, let's just ban all immigration.” But we've seen that there are costs to that. In fact, America is in a reverse race against the rest of the advanced world heading into population collapse. Thanks to our ability to attract immigrants—with substantial human capital to boot—we are doing better relative to other nations, especially compared to our adversary, China.
I agree wholeheartedly with Amy that we should address the problems that may be forcing us to make otherwise suboptimal trade-offs for immigration: our awful schools that fail our kids in both STEM and humanities, our low fertility rates (which is not just a matter of money; the poor both-parents-working immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York can have more kids than the wealthy occasionally-working-mom family in Darien, Connecticut), our culture war against pervasive anti-American critical theory narratives, our political-social complex that normalizes multi-generational neediness and helplessness, etc. We need to confront these important challenges head on rather than bump against them tangentially through the poor proxy of immigration policy.
I agree that our current immigration system is a sorry mess. The lowest hanging fruit is to stop illegal immigration! And then there are other things to fix in our legal immigration system before we get to the complex, possibly intractable question of connecting immigration with Americanness in policy.
I am thankful, however, for your conversation with Amy. It was thoughtful, courageous, and provocative. Immigration should not be a scared cow.
Thank you, and a Happy New Year to you and your family!
Response from Amy Wax
I have great respect for George Lee and his efforts to preserve the admissions requirements for exam high schools in New York City, and I have joined him in this cause. But I think he is too optimistic about the influence of Asians and Asian immigrants on our polity and culture. Although Lee is right that Asians vary in their political views, as do all groups, the important and often overlooked question is “how many?” Enoch Powell asked that question about third-world immigration to Britain decades ago and was excoriated and ostracized for it, but the importance and wisdom of the question prove themselves over and over.
Numbers matter, a lot! In the case of Asians in the U.S., the overwhelming majority vote Democratic. In my opinion, the Democratic Party is a pernicious influence and force in our country today. It advocates for “wokeness,” demands equal outcomes despite clear individual and group differences in talent, ability, and drive, mindlessly valorizes blacks (the group most responsible for anti-Asian violence) regardless of behavior or self-inflicted wounds, sneers at traditional family forms, undermines and disparages the advantages of personal responsibility, hard work, and accountability, and attacks the meritocracy.
I confess I find Asian support for these policies mystifying, as I fail to see how they are in Asians’ interest. We can speculate (and, yes, generalize) about Asians’ desire to please the elite, single-minded focus on self-advancement, conformity and obsequiousness, lack of deep post-Enlightenment conviction, timidity toward centralized authority (however unreasoned), indifference to liberty, lack of thoughtful and audacious individualism, and excessive tolerance for bossy, mindless social engineering, etc.
Maybe it’s just that Democrats love open borders, and Asians want more Asians here. Perhaps they (and especially their distaff element) are just mesmerized by the feel-good cult of “diversity.” I don’t know the answer. But as long as most Asians support Democrats and help to advance their positions, I think the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration. There needs to be more focus on people who are already here, and especially the core (and neglected) “legacy” population, and a push to return to traditional concepts and institutions and Charles Murray’s “American Creed.”