What Makes a Nation?

What follows is not a review of Patrick J. Buchanan’s new book, State of Emergency, not in the strict sense of the term. There is no need for that. You know the facts and figures. The book has been widely reviewed and Buchanan has been on numerous talk shows, discussing his thesis that the United States is undergoing an invasion by Third-World immigrants, which if not halted, will remake the country into something unrecognizable in the not-so-distant future. The book is high on the best-seller lists.

What I propose to do instead is look at a facet of the book that the reviewers and talk show hosts have been ignoring, probably because of the hit-and-run sound bite formats that prevail these days. I am going to concentrate on a single chapter: “What Is a Nation?” It is the chapter in which Buchanan puts front and center the question of the legitimacy of the nation-state system. It is a must-read. Unless we come to terms with this issue, we will be morally disarmed in our efforts to control our borders.

The issue is simple: What right do we have to insist that lines drawn on a map somewhere in the past should deny the impoverished masses of the world the right to come here to enjoy the economic opportunities denied them at home? I can’t think of a valid reason — from a Catholic point of view — to keep them out if the concept of national sovereignty is morally and philosophically untenable.

When Buchanan is on the talk shows, the focus inevitably turns to whether the economic consequences of illegal immigration will be as dire as he thinks: that is, do immigrants take away jobs from Americans, lower wage rates, raise educational and health-care spending, and increase the crime rate? There is also much debate over whether our “porous borders” provide an opening for Islamic terrorists and Mexicans determined to re-annex the southwest to Mexico to enter the country.

These are all valid issues, of course. But centering the debate on these concerns implies that if it could be demonstrated convincingly that wage levels do not go down, and crime and taxes do not go up as a result of tens of millions of immigrants crossing our borders, then there would be nothing wrong with a virtual open-door policy on immigration. In other words, that there would be no reason to object to the United States of the future having the look and feel of Mexico City or Hong Kong, if it were not for economic and security concerns.

You can understand why many take this stance. No one wants to come across as if he thinks there is something inferior or unattractive about foreign cultures. Ethnocentrism and xenophobia are not on the list of respected alternative points of view in polite society. Moral relativism does not apply in this arena.

So on what basis can we defend our borders and preserve our national culture? Buchanan answers that question with a simple statement, but one with profound implications: “An economy is not a country.” It is not the GDP and employment rates that make a country, he writes, but patriotism, “a passionate attachment to one’s own country — its land, its people, its past, its heroes, literature, language, traditions, culture and customs.” Which means that to “be a nation, a people must believe they are a nation, and that they share a common ancestry, history, and destiny.” And this sense of unity cannot exist, he maintains, without “bonds of history and memory, tradition and custom, language and literature, birth and faith, blood and soil.”

We must be precise here. Buchanan is not saying that immigrants cannot come to share these bonds. One has only to check the family backgrounds of the newly commissioned officers graduating from West Point or Annapolis to understand that assimilation can work. You will find a large percentage of children and grandchildren of immigrants in those ranks. Buchanan’s point is only that the rate of immigration must be controlled to permit the melting pot to do its work. In other words, the goal of an immigration policy should be to make it possible for immigrants to become part of us, not to Balkanize the country into competing and hostile sub-cultures within which the immigrant communities feel at home.

A healthy and high-minded society requires a citizenry willing to sacrifice for the common good. Buchanan quotes the 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan to underscore the point. Renan held that nationhood depends upon “the common possession of a rich heritage of memories” based upon “common glories in the past” and “a common will in the present; to have done great things together, to will to do the like again — such are the essential conditions for the making of a people.”

What Renan calls the will to do “great things together” in the future is the essence of nationhood. That common will cannot exist in the United States if there are large pockets of the country that do not share in it, with populations who, writes Buchanan, see “the discovery of America by the explorers from Columbus to Captain John Smith, and the winning of the West by pioneers, soldiers, and cowboys” no longer “as heroic events but as matters of which Western man should be ashamed,” people who “remain loyal to the lands of their birth,” and who, “though they occupy more and more rooms in our home,” are “not part of our family. Nor do they wish to be. They are strangers, millions and millions of strangers in our midst.”

There is no reason to assume that those who disagree with Buchanan, and who tell us they take great satisfaction in the rich mosaic of American life brought on by the waves of recent immigration, both legal and illegal, are not sincere. Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, speaks with pride about how New York City has become a “universal city.” I know what Koch means. I love to roam the ethnic enclaves of New York City, to experience the tastes and sounds and styles of dress of the newcomers.

But I want to be able to go home again to baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet, to Duke Ellington and Rogers and Hammerstein, to John Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler, to N.C. Wyeth and Laurel and Hardy. What I want, and what I believe Buchanan wants, is an immigration policy that makes immigrants, at least the children of immigrants, to want the same. (I am the grandson of immigrants.) That was what the old melting pot theory was all about, before the multiculturalists took hold of the reins.

The champions of the new America that will be brought about by permitting the current levels of immigration owe the rest of us an explanation. Why are they so eager to see the dissolution of the American national culture? Why do they not see the prospect of that dissolution as a tragic loss? Why do they not want me to able to go home again? Why do they call us xenophobes and racists if we resist their view that our way of life should be seen as just a backwater way-station on the way to some global village? They will tell us is because of their “inclusiveness” rooted in a love of humanity. But it a fair question to ask to what extent it may be actually rooted in an animus against the heritage of the West.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the N28ew American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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