Will we be one country with two cultures?
In immigration wave professor sees a more fractious society
Rocky Mountain News
June 26, 2003
Victor Davis Hanson is a classics professor who has written widely on the unique
contributions of the Greeks to Western history. He is also a reknowned military
historian with such widely quoted works as An Autumn of War, Carnage and
Culture, and The Soul of Battle to his credit. In the past two years Hanson has
given separate private briefings on military affairs to Vice President Dick
Cheney, the White House staff and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On a personal level, Hanson is a native Californian whose family farm goes back
five generations, and who is disturbed by the ongoing transformation of his
state. In his latest, typically provocative book, Mexifornia (Encounter, 2003),
Hanson argues that America is failing to honestly debate the implications of
allowing unchecked immigration in a society that no longer promotes a common
culture but encourages group identity instead.
He discusses his book with Vincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages.
Carroll: The title of your book suggests you worry about the growth of a
hybrid civilization - or perhaps separate civilizations within one state.
Hanson: The combination of massive immigration, most of it illegal,
coupled with a preference for multiculturalism rather than assimilation, has
created a culture that's not quite Mexico and not quite California. That's the
abstract part of it. The concrete part is we have entire towns that are now 100
percent first-generation Mexican citizens or even mostly illegal aliens, such as
Parlier, Orange Cove and Mendota. So we're sort of creating an apartheid society
that nobody wants to talk about. Americans haven't thought this through clearly
and my book examines the problem from seven or eight different viewpoints: the
illegal aliens' themselves, the Mexican government's, the American government's,
employers, and then simple middle-class people who both benefit and pay for
Carroll: You are both a classics professor and a farmer.
Hanson: Yes, I own 45 acres of farmland and I'm a fifth-generation
farmer. I teach classics to a largely minority population of students at
California State University of Fresno.
Carroll: And the town you live in is Selma - or at least the closest town
Hanson: Yes, it's populated by mostly ethnic Mexicans now. I would assume
that perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent of the residents are illegal aliens and 50
percent are legal second- and third-generation Hispanic.
Carroll: Explain what worries you about the present volume of illegal
immigration. After all, you describe growing up in a community that had a
significant Mexican-American presence and relate how those people, who are now
middle-aged like you, have in many cases become solidly middle class: policemen,
small shop owners etc. In other words, they followed the classic pattern of
immigrants rising in America. But you believe that something is
different now that militates against this pattern being achieved.
Hanson: I do. We've had people come in the millions before. They came in
waves, with periods of rest between them. And upon arrival they were confronted
with a society that assumed that since they had voted with their feet, so to
speak, they would now want to be assimilated.
Now, however, instead of 1 or 2 million people coming in single stages of
immigration, we're seeing 4 or 6, 8, 10, 12 million people coming. When they
arrive the host country does everything to accommodate them: bilingual
education, bilingual government documents, bilingual telephone books - even
driver's licenses that bestow legality upon people who are here illegally, as
well as in-state tuition. The result is that we have an almost permanent caste
of citizens who do our unskilled jobs, who are not educated and do not speak
English and don't have to; they aren't following the avenues for
self-improvement in the way that earlier immigrants did. Some are, of course,
but many are not.
Carroll: This period of heavy immigration from Mexico has been under way for
about 30 years, a relatively short period. Why won't their experience be a
repeat of what happened to earlier immigrant groups?
Hanson: The traditional paradigm of success in two or three generations
does not work so well when you have such big communities that are not integrated
into the larger culture. They're not exposed to aspects of American culture that
would insist on English or would communicate American values. Today's immigrant
who can't read English can often flip to the Spanish section in the phone book
for directions, and he can also figure that perhaps his community in five years
will have more people from Mexico who speak Spanish than natives who speak
English. There is no longer the expectation on the part of either the arrival or
the host that becoming American necessarily involves speaking English or
understanding American traditions. That's radically different from what we've
Carroll: You worry about a lack of civic education that would impart
American values and a sense of unity. Indeed, you argue that there is an
anti-civics education being taught in many places. You note, for example,
something like 62 courses in the Chicano studies department at the University of
California at Santa Barbara, but only one course on the American Civil War and
no courses on the Revolutionary War. I take it you believe a similar skewed
educational environment exists at the elementary and secondary levels, at least
in California - one that emphasizes separateness and downplays the ideas and
traditions that have united Americans.
Hanson: We have what I would call a therapeutic curriculum, where the
idea is to give immigrants self-esteem and confidence by exploring their own
indigenous roots, whether it's in the Aztec civilization or whatever. And this
is done at the expense of paying attention to American institutions. The problem
with that approach is that these kids are going to be living in America, not
Mexico. America is a culture based on ideas and values. We have no
national race or religion or skin color. Anybody from Mexico can be as
legitimate an adherent of Lincoln or Shakespeare or Socrates as anyone else, if
they are given the opportunity.
When people move from one country to another, especially if they do so
illegally, they're taking an enormous risk. They've made a decision to accept
the country's institutions; nobody forced them to do that. I've lived overseas
for a number of years and I would never think that if I went to Greece the Greek
government had an obligation to teach me in English or to allow me to conduct
business with the Greek government in English.
Carroll: What about the relatively high levels of intermarriage between
Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites? Doesn't that contradict your thesis that
they're not assimilating?
Hanson: I have one brother who is married to a Mexican-American and I
have another brother who has two Mexican-American stepchildren. Both of my
daughters currently are going steady with Mexican-Americans, but it doesn't
contradict my thesis. It confirms what I'm saying in that in each case the
people who are intermarrying and dating are usually second or third generation.
But the huge current wave of illegal aliens who don't speak any English tend to
segregate themselves and are encouraged to segregate themselves. They will not
intermarry much. By the time they're 40, they've become accustomed to the
cultural isolation. Meanwhile, a perpetual supply of first-generation illegal
aliens is adding to the numbers who don't intermarry and don't assimilate.
Carroll: You say that the major force for assimilation in America is,
ironically, popular culture. Popular culture actively undermines attempts by the
intelligentsia to promote ethnic separatism because it assumes that everyone, no
matter of what background, is an American with a shared culture.
Hanson: Yes, it's the only force in our arsenal that will promote
stability. Whether it's music, fashion or entertainment, whether it's Jennifer
Lopez, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson or Snoop Dogg, popular culture appeals to common
appetites that transcend race and class and national origin. The irony is that
in the old days the obstacle to assimilation was popular prejudices. When I went
to school there were people who would not allow their children to date somebody
who was Mexican or vice versa. But those kids' schools promoted integration and
taught us that prejudice and separatism was something that was symptomatic of
Now we have almost the exact opposite in place. Popular culture and individuals
themselves tend to ignore race while the universities and government in general
promote separatism. Where I teach we have separate auxiliary ceremonies for
Hispanics. The ideology in la raza studies - race studies - tends to
have replaced the old prejudices of private individuals.
Carroll: When you say there are separate ceremonies at your university,
you mean graduation ceremonies?
Hanson: Yes. We have one Saturday graduation where everybody
participates, but then we have auxiliary special occasions where the Chicano
studies faculty tries to recruit all the people who are graduating who they
think are Hispanic. Nobody is invited unless you're a Chicano.
Carroll: Besides being a classics professor you are a student of history
and a respected expert on military history. Surely one of the norms of history
is change - and often rather dramatic short-term change, such as the demographic
change that is sweeping California and indeed much of the nation. Perhaps it
will alter the character of the United States over time but maybe there's
inevitability to it.
Hanson: I'm not a determinist who believes that individuals don't matter
in history. If you don't have a Churchill, for example, England loses World War
II. So I think people matter. We're not captives to larger historical forces.
I'm really not a zealot either way. I just wanted to write the book to allow
people to make their own judgments.
The problem that I have with it is that the Chicano studies professors and other
people who say they're for open borders don't want to go live in Parlier or
Orange Cove. The people who say it's not a problem in Silicon Valley pick up
illegal aliens on El Camino Real on Saturdays in their SUVs and take them home
to build a deck and then in the evening dump them back off on the freeway and
don't really worry about whether they're going to have health care or prenatal
care, or probationary officers if they get arrested and go to prison.
Most of all, I think we need honest public discourse. And unless we have it,
we're in for some pretty tumultuous times. History and the contemporary world
offer plenty of examples - whether it's Rwanda, the southern Balkans, or
present-day Iraq and so on. Anytime you have separate races or cultures that are
not assimilated and don't believe they have a common core - and when they're
cynically used by politicians such as a Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, for example
- then the ultimate result will be, without warning, a sudden eruption of chaos.