by Noah Pinckus
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) $35, 280pp.The 50% American: Immigration and National Identity in an Age of Terror
by Stanley Renshon
(Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2005) $26.95, 240pp.
The American Founders evinced a keen interest in the matter of national identity at a time when the idea of nationalism was still in its infancy. Some of the Founders sought to limit membership in the new American nation to those of Anglo-Protestant stock. But others, including prominent figures like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, recognized that America’s destiny required a more diverse pool of morally qualified applicants. In various forms, this debate over the nature of the nation—organic versus invented—has accompanied the United States on its more than two-century history into our own times. When President Bush introduced in January 2004 a proposal to deal generously with illegal immigrants in the United States, the reaction was mixed. And despite a host of considerations particular to our era, and whatever the arguments voiced in public, opinion has divided essentially over the extent to which the American nation ought to be a political community defined along the lines of ethnicity or of principle.
It is helpful, therefore, that we now have serious new books to help us sort out such issues. In True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civic Nationalism, Noah Pickus presents a learned and balanced historical review of American political debates about immigration and citizenship from the 1780s to present. Pickus, a professor of public policy studies and associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, shows how a compromise, codified in the Naturalization Act of 1790, offered citizenship to all “free white persons” after they had satisfied a residency requirement during which they demonstrated good conduct. The Naturalization Act of 1795 further imposed on them the need to renounce former allegiances and titles.
Pickus shows that the terms used to frame those early debates were quite modern, and can be grouped into two categories: civic virtues on one hand, emotional commitment on the other. The Founders valued political moderation and the capacity of citizens to make a rational commitment to abstract ideas; but they also pondered the power of instinctive attachment (to a nation) and ethno-cultural (national) homogeneity. It is as if the Founders anticipated contemporary debates over the nature of nationalism—invented versus organic—by centuries. Indeed, it was clear to the participants in these debates that the bonds of citizenship were organic and “passionate”, acquired through birth and early socialization. But the more liberal among them argued that desirable attitudes could be acquired, and necessary bonds forged, by morally sound individuals over the course of residency.
What had been a remarkably enlightened debate soured in the late 1790s in the context of war in Europe and bitter political rivalry at home. In 1798, during John Adams’ presidency, the Federalists succeeded in passing a series of acts severely restricting immigration, directed primarily against the French and Irish revolutionaries. Republicans like Madison and Thomas Jefferson argued for the right of states to determine who they should admit, and when in power saw to it that the legislation of the Adams’ presidency was rescinded. Subsequently, the original principles remained in place for much of the first half of the 19th century: Naturalization remained easy for non-indentured whites, and those transatlantic immigrants were also able de facto to maintain dual citizenship.
At mid-century, the most pressing issue regarding citizenship was not immigration but the rights of native black and Indian populations, excluded by the 1790 Act. As Pickus reminds us, it took the Civil War for birthright citizenship to be finally recognized, in 1868, in the Fourteenth Amendment. These decades saw revolutions in Europe, famine in Ireland, pogroms in Russia and progress in naval transportation, all of which resulted in unprecedented emigration to the United States. Some 12 million immigrants arrived between the Civil War and the turn of the century, followed by over eight million more in the first decade of the 1900s alone. Southern and eastern Europeans along with the Irish flocked in vast numbers to the ports of the East Coast; Japanese and Chinese migrants to those of the West Coast.
While many of the European immigrants were naturalized en masse by ethnic electoral machines (such as New York’s Tammany Hall), Chinese were denied the right to naturalization by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This restrictive legislation was evidence of powerful xenophobic currents in America at the turn of the century, currents also apparent in the prevalence of social Darwinism in intellectual circles, in the eugenics movement and in the success of an American Protective Association and an Immigration Restriction League. As Pickus tells us, the 1911 Reports of the Immigration Commission “compared the new immigrants unfavorably with older arrivals” and made the first proposals to establish racial quotas on immigration.
These exclusionary currents were opposed on both the Left and the Right by Progressive supporters of a civic nationalism, opposed to making ethnic or ethno-religious origins a condition of citizenship. Using civic education to make responsible citizens out of immigrants, their goal was to emancipate the newcomers from the corrupt political machines that socialized them, and from the large corporations that employed and often exploited them. On the Right, Americanization was championed by Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. The intellectual voices behind the President included Israel Zangwill, author of the The Melting Pot (1908), and Herbert Croly, the author of The Promise of American Life (1909) who also helped draft Roosevelt’s 1910 New Nationalism speech. In practice, the federal government had progressively taken responsibility for the naturalization process away from the states. With the Naturalization Act of 1906 and the Expatriation Act of 1907, candidates for citizenship now had to learn English, express an understanding of their civic responsibilities, and renounce multiple allegiances. Americanization was promoted by federal programs administered by the Bureau of Naturalization and the Bureau of Education, themselves bolstered by private efforts such as Frances Kellor’s National Americanization Committee.
For the Left, Roosevelt’s Americanization was not only assimilationist in that it aimed to dissolve traditions in an American melting pot, but racist in that it still excluded non-whites (mostly Asians and Mexicans) from its benefits. John Dewey rejected a dominant Anglo-Protestant identity and called for an “international nationalism” that, far from being a de-culturing melting pot, would bring multiple traditions into an American national culture without destroying them. Early forms of multiculturalism and ethnic “hyphenation” found their most elaborate expression in the 1910s in the writing of Randolph Bourne, one of Dewey’s students, who compared the notion of Anglo-Saxon American nationalism to European imperialism. Those sensitivities were put into practice by activists like Jane Addams, who worked in immigrant settlements for the civic training and political emancipation of new citizens.
As Pickus observes, both efforts were eventually swept away as the First World War unleashed extreme forms of nationalism and strengthened the exclusionary case. While greater pressure was brought to bear on aliens to learn English and naturalize (and serve in the U.S. Armed Forces) or risk deportation, an isolationist America inserted a controversial literacy test into the Immigration Act of 1917. The following year, the Bureau of Naturalization sought the compulsory registration of all aliens. In 1922, a Supreme Court decision included Japanese as “non-whites” to be denied naturalization privileges. And the infamous Immigration Act of 1924 finally instituted racial quotas. Pacifists, anarchists and Bolsheviks, too, were denied citizenship on grounds of character; Jews and Catholics (especially Italians) were widely suspected of disloyalty, and many were expatriated amid anti-immigrant campaigns that included, among other famous incidents, the Sacco-Vanzetti affair.
This officially sanctioned form of racial discrimination probably contributed to a variety of new challenges, not least the militarization of Japan. It also aided the entrenchment of racial segregation—this was the period of the second Ku Klux Klan, which developed a huge following in America during the 1920s. Yet Pickus still praises the Americanization movement of the early Progressive Era for promoting a civic nationalism that eventually forged a nation strong enough to withstand the Great Depression and World War II. This may be so, but Roosevelt’s New Deal, emphasizing economic solidarity among all citizens, and the draft for the Second World War (only Japanese-Americans were temporarily excluded) also greatly reinforced American national cohesion.
World War II dealt a blow not only to totalitarianism and imperialism in Europe but also to virulent ethnic nationalism in America. New ideals established themselves firmly after the war, inspiring the struggle for the emancipation of black citizens in the 1960s. In conjunction with President Johnson’s project for a Great Society, the civil rights movement reshaped American national identity. Bourne’s multiculturalism finally found its voice, rejecting Anglo-Protestant homogeneity in favor of diversity within national unity.
The new postwar mood deeply affected immigration and naturalization policies. The Naturalization Act of 1965 ended racial quotas and promoted family reunification, mostly to the benefit of Asian and Hispanic immigrants. A 1967 Supreme Court decision then legalized dual citizenship by making consent a prerequisite for the loss of citizenship. Minority rights were protected through affirmative action, resident aliens gained the right to vote in some local elections, and some rights (such as children’s education) were extended even to undocumented immigrants. These trends culminated in the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986, which offered an amnesty of sorts to illegal aliens, granting citizenship rights while imposing few obligations besides attendance at a civic education program.
Meanwhile, the flow of new immigrants to America continued unabated, and with its continuation came growing opposition to a system of integration that, by the 1990s, many on both the Left and the Right found threatening to the American social project. Writing in 1964, Milton Gordon measured the success of assimilation against seven criteria: acculturation (using English); structural assimilation (joining civil society); intermarriage; exclusive identification; and the absence of prejudice, discrimination and conflict. By those standards, enduring usage of Spanish, weak participation in social and political life (non-voting), dual-citizenship, abuse of welfare entitlements and preferential treatment, the erosion of civic virtues (gang violence), and patterns of financial outflows (sending remittances home instead of donating to domestic charities) seemed to indicate that assimilation had failed.
With more than a million aliens now entering the United States every year and with almost 10 percent of the population now foreign-born—in a climate of international economic competition, declining employment in many industrial sectors and risks of clandestine terrorist activity—immigration has once again become a pressing social issue. Pickus’ historical perspective is particularly valuable here, since the debates that he traces in True Faith and Allegiance on naturalization at the time of the Founding and during the Progressive Era prefigure those of our times.
One persistent element of these debates involves the question of allegiance and multiple citizenships. Pickus devotes only a few pages to this topic, but it dominates Stanley Renshon’s The 50% American: Immigration and National Identity in an Age of Terror. While Pickus fears that dual citizenship may lead to the secession of elites, Renshon, professor of political science at the City University of New York, paints an even more dire landscape. Armed with abundant statistics, he depicts a national fabric torn by divided loyalties and exposed to diasporic politics (particularly the influence of neighboring Mexico). He sees American identity threatened domestically by multiculturalism and hyphenation (Bourne’s vision turned into a nightmare), and internationally by globalization and the emergence of transnational identities.
The intensity of Renshon’s argument against the Hispanic diaspora at times gives the impression that he supports what Pickus calls the “Cultural Nationalists”, who like presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington argue that there is a cultural, uniquely Anglo-Protestant basis to American liberal values and national identity. But beyond the passion of the opening argument, Renshon stands with Pickus in the camp of the “Universal Nationalists.” Both write about the flaws of the naturalization process, yet neither recommends restricting immigration. If they see a challenge for the United States, it is to get the immigrants the country needs while maintaining homogeneity and autonomy. They therefore argue that the assimilation process needs to be revitalized by a stronger emphasis on a distinct American identity.
Pickus denounces the extremes of either reifying the communal distinctiveness of immigrants (which condemns them to a perpetual ghetto) or force-feeding them a universal American nationalism (which leads to alienation). He believes that citizenship is not culturally ascribed but predicated on free consent to shared principles. His hope lies in “civic nationalism”, a genuine compact linking full membership in the nation to a personal commitment to core values—the trading of rights for duties.
How will that come about? Pickus devotes only an epilogue to sketching new, workable principles for American civic education in the 21st century. Renshon, however, tackles the question of method at much greater length. Trained as a political psychologist and psychoanalyst, Renshon is suspicious of sole reliance on the “American Creed”, that famous list of political abstractions that ignores the essential bond of patriotism. The naturalization debates of the 1780s already reflected an understanding that citizenship was composed of both civic participation and emotional commitment. Renshon argues that what cemented the American national community, over the course of its history, has been primarily emotional nationalism. For that sentiment to take hold in new immigrants, they should first be liberated from their ascribed origins, allowing their individualism (as U.S. citizens) to assert itself.
Renshon thus rightly castigates multiculturalism’s ascriptive, deterministic underpinnings that encourage immigrants to embrace their heritage and thus trap them in their own difference. Left entirely to their own devices in the name of tolerance, ethnic communities tend to drift toward self-segregation, which leads to the erosion of participation in civic life. But unbound individualism presents a similar challenge, and Pickus astutely notes the paradox of expecting that citizens, encouraged by a consumerist society to pursue narrow personal interests, could show sustained national responsibility. A better solution, one would argue, is probably to be found in nationwide projects like Franklin Roosevelt’s national reconstruction effort, or the shared combat experience many found in World War II and subsequent wars.
Neither Pickus nor Renshon proposes to reinstitute the draft—even though many immigrants are currently acquiring citizenship and being integrated into the national fabric by serving in Iraq. Indeed, Renshon’s proposals are surprisingly modest in light of the strength of his argument. He does not suggest to prohibit dual citizenship, only to dissuade dual citizens from serving in foreign governments or in foreign armed forces, or from voting in foreign elections while holding elected office in the United States. He also recommends the promotion of emotional bonds to American civic nationalism through more serious civic instruction and the usage of English as the main language for public life. Despite his stronger, and justifiable, emphasis on the psychological underpinnings of civic commitments, his program fits squarely with that sketched by Pickus.
Both books are worth the read, but they provide an incomplete guide to the subject at hand. Two omissions may be cited. The first stems from the fact that the United States is no longer a nation among equals. From the 1800s to the 1930s, the United States was a haven for those escaping the turmoil of global history. Since the Second World War, the United States has been the primary agent of global history, the result being that the hiccups of its domestic political life now affect people the world over. In this light, it is no small irony that, while many U.S. citizens snubbed the 2004 presidential election, British readers of the Guardian sought to reach out to electors in Clark County, Ohio.
Rome was not detested for what it was (a beacon of prosperity and civilization), but for the distinctions it made between various classes of citizens. Likewise, the anti-Americanism of the new Spartacus the world over is in part dictated by frustrated desires to have a meaningful say in the debates that shape the global future. Many worry about a blind, homogeneous America indulging in groupthink and towering over all others. And some believe that greater diversity and cosmopolitanism from immigration can save America from its isolationist demons. Whether such fears or hopes are realistic, clearly other countries have a major stake in U.S. immigration policies, and U.S. diplomacy is increasingly engaged on that relatively new international agenda item. Alas, neither Pickus nor Renshon pays much attention to this phenomenon or to its future.
A second omission concerns the latent dark side of any nationalism. Pickus recalls how the well-intentioned Americanization of the Progressive Era was overwhelmed by the xenophobia of World War I, yet denies that the former helped the latter. And Renshon reiterates the artificial distinction between bad nationalism—such as morbid blood-line nationalisms—and good patriotism that should be inculcated in immigrants. In reality, nationalism, patriotism, identity, chauvinism and parochialism are conceptually vague. Allow for the shifting of attitudinal winds and they are essentially equivalent, differing only in connotation and interpretation. In each case, we are talking about emotions of belonging that are at the same time inclusive and exclusive, and we should exercise great caution when considering strengthening any one of them.
As a case in point, consider the surge of patriotism that followed September 11 in the United States. That surge was natural, but it also produced a political atmosphere that to some extent contributed to the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Thankfully, the spirit of moderation dear to the American Founders is still embedded in America’s civic nationalism. That spirit may lag behind the rushing emotions of war, or something vaguely like war, but it is there to reverse excesses. That makes the proposals of Renshon and Pickus appropriate in their modesty. Finally, the sense of patriotism they wish to instill would be nicely complemented by a clearer sense of purpose, not only for American society itself, but for an America that is currently the main shaper of world history.