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The Impediments of Being Earnest
It's Not Always Right to be Nice
As Machiavelli goes on to explain, a ruler shouldn’t be morally good, at least not all of the time, because that would mean following different standards to his rivals. He must seem and sound wholly compassionate, wholly loyal, wholly humane, wholly honest and wholly religious. But he mustn’t actually be those things. Indeed, if he is, he is putting himself at risk. Machiavelli would call himself a realist, not a cynic. He deals with the way people behave, not the way they should behave.
Liberals, especially left-liberals, tend to misapprehend human nature. They assume that there is such a thing as “social justice,” which can perfect society. (A Soviet Russian once told me, with a laugh, that true social justice was “equality of poverty.”) The Left assumes that all attempts to establish such perfect “justice” are righteous, just as the libertarian Right assumes that all attempts to establish perfect “freedom” are. And absolutism is sometimes the only plausible option: There was a moral and Constitutional imperative to outlaw slavery and then segregation. But on our most contentious public issues—I’m thinking about immigration, abortion, sexuality, gun control, diversity—the best we can hope for is the least offensive compromise. You can’t help all of the people all of the time, especially when it threatens the stability of the Republic. For example:
—The vast majority of parents, who don’t want their elementary school kids scared and confused by talk of gender fluidity, have to be respected.
—Those who oppose abortion after “quickening,” especially in cases where the fetus has Down syndrome or other inconvenient genetic traits, are on very solid moral ground.
—Those who think we allow far too many immigrants, even refugees, need to be taken into account as well. (I’ll have more to say about that below.)
Most liberals are nice people. They are very earnest. They are tolerant, sometimes to a fault; they are easily guilt-tripped. They hate violence and bigotry, appropriately. They march for civil and gay and women’s rights, and against our relentlessly foolish wars (I’ve often counted myself among those marchers). But unimpeded empathy can be dangerous. It is a form of intellectual laziness. Compassion must have limits or a society can be put at risk—as ours is now. There has to be a powerful military, to deter the bad actors in the world, even if we hate war. Violent people have to be put in jail, no matter the “root causes” of their actions. There will always be anguish at the margins—how much force should be used to control a crazy person on a subway car—but individual cases can’t divert us from the overall needs of society. Equality is a worthy goal, but not a likely destination; “equity” to force equal results is too crude a tool to be successful. The quest for fairness is all too often perverted into unfairness.
Here’s a prime example of why compromise is the only option: We need a steady flow of immigrants, for sure. We need them to stoke our economy. We need them to enhance the creative diversity that’s been at the heart of our national success. And I’m all for it: anyone who would cross a desert—or a shark-infested sea—with their starving children to reach our border will, most likely, make for a fabulous citizen. Anyone who flees a narco-dictatorship, where their sons are compelled to serve, and their daughters to service, sociopathic drug gangs should be able to find a place here. Should be, if perfection were possible.
But immigration is not an unalloyed blessing. A nation can’t exist without secure borders. Some bad people come across. The costs of providing health care and education to newcomers can be daunting. A great many isolated Americans are threatened, wrongly, by the sudden appearance of people who look and talk differently from the way they do—and the views of those folks need to be taken into account for practical political reasons, even if we cosmopolitans find them abhorrent. There will always be demagogues—people with “different standards” of morality, as Bellaigue puts it—to exploit their fears. Compromises need to be made.
We have a history of allowing surges of immigrants and then limiting them excessively. It’s hard to get the balance right. From the 1880s to the 1920s, we experienced a wave of Eastern Europeans and Asians that resulted in the punitive immigration law of 1924. Those restrictions were finally lifted in 1965—and we have had a tsunami of immigrants ever since. It is well past time to enact a new set of rules, not nearly so punitive as those of 1924. It is time to put the clamps on illegal immigration while allowing more legal immigrants, especially those with skills, to join our lucky throng. As Tom Friedman writes:
Do everything possible to secure the border like never before — more walls, more fences, more barriers, more troops, the 82nd Airborne — whatever it takes. Make Democrats own border security. But not for the purpose of choking immigration: for the purpose of expanding it. It is good policy and good politics…[W]e need to double down on our single greatest competitive advantage: our ability to attract the most high-aspiring migrants and the most high-I.Q. risk takers, who start new businesses.
The current state of play is all too American: The right wants a punitive kick-em-out clampdown. And the liberal response has been…crickets. The Democratic Party has no coherent policy on immigration. It needs one, and soon, if it wants to win in 2024. Here are some basic parameters for a Sanity immigration plan:
A significant surge of immigrants was expected last week with the lifting of Title 42, which limited refugees during covid. It didn't happen. The new Biden Administration restrictions cut the flow in half. This suggests to me that we don’t really know all that much about the dynamics of the border and that too much of what we “know” is being controlled by demagogues and media outlets that love the sight of impoverished mobs. Any further actions we take should be pursued with humility and a lot more solid information. BUT…
Something bad is obviously happening. Our cities are filling up with homeless refugees. If you want to find the limits to liberal tolerance, just put a refugee camp in your elementary school’s cafeteria, as New York Mayor Eric Adams did this week in Coney Island and on the Upper West Side. There was a lot of “I’m in favor of accepting refugees, but Wah-wah-wah…” talk from New York liberals. To which I say: Live with it, NIMBY-libs. We need to put refugees where we can—and keep families together—until they can be assimilated. (Which will happen quickly, given their hunger to find jobs.)
We really do need to shut down the border. By military means, if necessary. There is, despite Donald Trump’s demagoguery, a significant criminal drug- and human-trafficking element that needs to be addressed.
If the border is sealed, a naturalization program should commence for those who are here illegally, in this order: (1) those who were brought at an early age by their parents (2) those who are willing to serve in the military or as first-responders, including hospital workers (3) those who speak English and (4) those who own property or can prove they’ve been working the same job for more than 2 years.
Legal immigration should be limited for the next few years as we handle the naturalization of those who are here illegally. This is unfair to those who’ve played by the rules, waited in line for the chance to emigrate. But Machiavelli would think it a small price to pay for a national agreement on how to proceed.
Eventually we should allow more legal immigration, especially for those with skills. Such notorious evildoers as Canada and Australia grade immigrants on their ability to add to the economy. We place an undue emphasis on family unification. (I don’t mean reuniting children with parents, which should have priority, but siblings and cousins.) We allow about 1 million immigrants a year; that should be increased by at least 10%. English speakers and those with advanced academic degrees should be favored.
A well-regulated Bracero program, utilizing the E-Verify identification system, should allow seasonal workers who have signed contracts with North American growers to come and go.
More attention, both diplomatic and military, needs paid to our Central American neighbors. Their narco-fascism poses a more immediate threat to our national security than anything happening in the Middle East. Joint military operations to wipe out drug gangs should not be ruled out, especially clandestine ops. (I’d hope that they are already happening, but who knows?)
Relations with Cuba and Venezuela should be normalized. Their emigrants should no longer be counted as refugees. And normalization will drastically reduce the power of their dictatorships. (I mean, “communism” is not a threat anymore; in Cuba, it is a museum.) As for the Central American narco-states with whom we already have relations, foreign aid and trade advantages should be used as incentives to move them toward becoming more reliable neighbors (those carrots should come with the threat of sticks, if the situation doesn’t improve).
The media should spend as much time on the horrific conditions in those narco-states as they do on the melodrama at the border.
My first book, Woody Guthrie: A Life was published in 1980 and has been in print in America ever since. A new British edition, with an introduction by Billy Bragg, has just been published by Faber and Faber. Well, blimey…and cheers, mates!
A Spy Among Friends on Amazon Prime, based on Ben Macintyre’s book, is just top-notch. The Kim Philby story, which provided great fodder for John LeCarre and others, continues to fascinate—especially, in this case, when it comes to the relationship between Philby and the CIA operative James Jesus Angleton.
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