Shitholes: Where the President is Wrong

I am both a brilliant social scientist and a sensitive moralist. Both facts force me to wade into the “shithole” controversy. I will try to diverge from what has been said ad nauseam in the media but I cannot avoid some repetition.

First, I would bet 60/40 that he said it, just as reported. The president is a sort of verbal pervert, an addict. He gets so much pleasure from scandalizing the prim liberals that he can’t stop himself. Policy successes only encourage him; they give him room to maneuver, so to speak. I can certainly empathize. So, I don’t want to deny him but I wish he had not said it. See why below.

Second, yes, some countries are shitholes. That’s why so many, NOT displaced by war, are eager to risk drowning in the cold winter Mediterranean to escape. That’s why some escape a couple of unnamed countries in the Caribbean by floating on inner tubes. That’s why Venezuelan border guards are unequal to the task of keeping immigrants out. (I made this up. I want to make sure you are paying attention.) All the same, there are plenty of good people who live in shithole countries, friends and potential friends of America. The president should avoid making them feel worse than they already do.

Third, there was rush, a veritable melee, to charge President Trump with racism because of the comment. Rude and crude is not enough because not enough Americans care. (Many of us are both; many more are one or the other, at least occasionally.) The president has to be a racist; that’s important. So, this leaves me pondering: If Mr Trump had called, say, Russia a shithole it would have been OK because Russians are 97% white? Do you see the credibility problem here?

What provided the steam, the power in this matter is Mr Trump’s infatuation with merit-based immigration. His eruction took place shortly after Mr Trump had declared the US needs more immigrants from countries such as Norway (where many people must have merit, obviously).

I think that here his logic is dead wrong or, at least, mostly wrong.

For whatever historical reasons or because of their own current virtues, or because of their oil deposits, Norwegians live very well. I think it’s all Norwegians. Even poor Norwegians have it good. Possibly, it’s especially poor Norwegians who have it good because of an insanely generous social safety net. I hate to tell you but Norwegians have both a GDP/capita higher than Americans AND a welfare state. The only weak spot is the climate but then, they are used to it, what, after centuries, and many are rich enough to go south for part of the winter anyway.

Given all this, what kind of Norwegians would think of emigrating to the US? I think, two kinds. First, there would be adventurers and very ambitious entrepreneurs. Second, there would be the scum of Norwegian society, including a large criminal element not satisfied with the lifestyle the dole provides.*

Now, think of a society that is less than rosy. (I won’t call it a bad name because I follow my own advice.) I am thinking of a society where there is no escape from garbage and even from human feces except deep in the tropical forest. Would the well educated, decent people with middle-class aspirations from such a society wish to come to the US? You bet! That society has given us thousands of quality entrepreneurs, many dedicated and hard workers, and talent in every segment of American society, including academia, the judiciary, and literature. I am thinking of India, of course.

So, here is the question: Would we rather have the cream of an objectionable society such as India or the scum of a good society such as Norway**. I think that’s the real choice and Mr Trump does not begin to understand it.


* I use the conditional here because there is currently practically no way for a Norwegian to emigrate to the US except by marrying an American.

** I understand that there are moral objections to skimming off the cream of poor societies such as India. Another topic, obviously.

Advertisements

*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

Continue reading

A Sex Fiend

Like many others, I find the current collective hysteria about sexual harassment a bit overwhelming. Around November 22nd or 23rd, a woman came on FB proclaiming that she was willing to hurt the completely innocent to combat the scourge of harassment of women. She mentioned it was part of the struggle against the “patriarchy.” She said she was willing to “pay the price,” (meaning hurting any number of innocent men). The exchange that followed demonstrated that she was not acting sarcastic. If I were the dramatic kind of guy, I would say this it the beginning of the end of civilization, also a good argument in favor of a now non-existent patriarchy. (Non-existent in the US. Explanations on request.)

Since the repulsive Harvey Weinstein began disgracing the pages of newspapers daily, I have been trying to inject little shots of rationality into the brouhaha. I know it’s not much but if half of all rational people – especially women – do the same I believe we will have a significantly calming effect. Given the overpowering nature of the media excitement, I don’t have the courage to develop an overall strategy of rationality injections. Instead, I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that according to my mood and according to my availability on a particular day. Sometimes the relevance of my intervention to the current situation may seem only tangential. I assure you it’s worth thinking about it though (if you have time).

My main reaction to all of the horror stories in the media is this: Even if they are all 100% true, these stories tell only part of the larger story; they exist in a vacuum. The relationships (plural) between men and women are complex and often conducted at an infra-conscious level. A new fact for our species as a whole is that they are often enacted between perfect strangers. Not long ago, it practically never happened. People had plenty of occasions to find out about one another before anybody made a move. No more. Here is a true story about all this.

A long time ago, I am at an academic meeting in Chicago. I am still a fairly new academic but not a total novice. American university professors are supposed to be actively engaged in scholarship (“research”). Many actually are. Periodically, college professors in their several disciplines get together at academic meetings to present their research papers to one another – sometimes to a nearly empty room. They listen to one another and sometimes, they argue. It’s well understood though that the main function of this custom is to network rather than to spread knowledge. Normally, your employing university pays your way entirely. Such meetings are one of the fringe benefits of academia.

After delivering my own paper, I head for the coffee shop of the hotel where the meeting is being held. It’s about 3PM and I need a pick-me-up. The place is not crowded but most tables are occupied. I find one next to a table where a youngish woman is sitting alone before what appears to be a formal tea-set. As I sit down, I say “Hello” politely. She answers the same way. That’s the established custom at academic meetings: We are not strangers even if we are. My saluting her does not mean I am trying to pick her up, I know and she knows. She is in her early thirties, a very short, slight and pretty women with dark hair and black eyes.

After I order, I introduce myself as one does in such meetings and I ask what’s her specialty and where she comes from. She is a historian employed by a university about which I know little. I am a sociologist at a big Midwestern university. She has a light foreign accent I can’t place. I have a foreign accent not so hard to place, I guess. She asks me if I am French. She is a Lebanese Christian herself. It turns out her people and the French go way back. Her native language is Arabic but her English is perfect. She starts talking about her research and I about mine. We discover that we have earned our doctoral degrees from the same university, within two years of each other. We guess we never crossed paths because we were both studious and we used different ends of the main library there, in accordance with our respective disciplines.

What follows is a conversation of about one hour that should have been recorded for posterity. It was a model of gracious intellectual interchange between two cultured people who have enough in common to be able to communicate untrammeled, but with enough differences that they may yet be interesting to each other. We had much to discuss beside our scholarship, including the little-explored experience of middle-class immigrants to the US. The whole conversation stayed on the highest plane you can think of, no levity, no small talk, no useless words. This interchange might even have been enough by itself to justify the mind-boggling expense of academic meetings. It may have been the best conversation I had had, and have had in my life.

All the while, my new acquaintance has been drinking tea. With a lull in the conversation, she excuses herself to go to the restroom. When she returns, as she is slipping back into her seat, she looks straight a me and she says,

“I want you to know there is zero chance I will have sex with you.”

If I had not been sitting down, I would fallen backward from being embarrassed for her. I was so amazed, it took me several seconds to reply, “I was just thinking the same.” Immediately, I regret my retort because, with its devious ambiguity, it’s impossibly rude. I do what I can by way of friendly noises, to make up for it. Then, we say goodbye. The academic meeting is coming to an end the next day; we don’t bump into each other again. Two years later, we did meet again. But, that is another story, obviously.

What’s your point, you may ask? I don’t know, you tell me, especially if you are a woman.

The Knife is Coming

From yesterday’s (Nov. 11 2017) Wall Street Journal, P. 1:

Top brass at advertising giant Interpublic Group of Cos. told its 20,000 US employees last week they had until year’s end to complete sexual-harassment training. The session quizzes employees on what to do when a co-worker discusses weekend sexual exploits at work or when a colleague comes on to a colleague’s girlfriend after hours […]

“Women are crucial to our business,” says Mr Roth [CEO]. “We need our environment to be safe for all.”

(All boldings mine.)

Let me put the two statements together for you in a familiar television-like form.

John, Mary, and Peter work together in the same office. One day, they go out together for drinks after work. Jane, John’s girlfriend – who works elsewhere – joins them. Peter flirts with Jane (JANE); he even slip her his cell-phone number. Mary (MARY) feels unsafe.

It’s bat shit crazy. Is there no limit to the absurdities we will listen too peacefully?

If a man can create an unsafe work environment for a female colleague by hitting on another woman employed somewhere else and who welcomes the advances, is there any limit to what constitutes sexual harassment?

How about Mark looks at Jeanne – whom he does not know – at the bus stop, and Mark’s coworker, Jennifer catches his look and feels unsafe?

Will anyone shout: “Absurd”?

Myself, I don’t see just absurdity here. Since the Weinstein explosion less than two months ago (but still no lawsuit to tell us what really happened, if anything), I have begun to discern an attempted mass castration. If there is nothing men can do to stop from being sexual harassers who make women feel unsafe – even indirectly, as in the example above – it’s the fact of being a man itself that is offensive and that needs to be repressed. The knife is coming, ladies and gentlemen!

The most disturbing and the most worrisome aspect of all this mass movement is the lack of backbone demonstrated by many male decision-makers, such as Mr Roth, in this story, who hardly needs the operation, by the way.

Not far behind, is the passivity – so far – of rational women who stand to lose a great deal of peace of mind and other benefits, to the extent that the mass surgical intervention succeeds.

Note that I am not hinting at conspiracy. With the powerful domination of a few newspapers and of fewer TV channels, with the effectiveness of the social media, conventional conspiracies have become obsolete. Throw wet garbage and see if it sticks. If it does not, you and your actions will have been forgotten tomorrow anyway. Some harm done; no price to pay!

What needs to be done? Fight back. Denounce every crazy statement. Affirm rationality. Be ready for a little temporary social exclusion. You will soon find that most people are on your side. They just couldn’t believe what they saw and heard until you gave them a shout-out.

Why Immigrants Are Superior

I am endlessly interested in issues of emigration/immigration. In part, this is because it’s the place where my personal experience, and my wife’s, intersect with my training and with my professional life as a sociologist. There is a deeper reason I try to explain below a little circuitously; bear with me.

I think that how humans form into groups is the central question about our species. The question arises because every adult individual without exception is simultaneously a member of several groups and categories. Thus, I am a husband (member of a very small group, at least under monogamous conditions), a member of the sociological discipline/ profession, a member of the teaching professions broadly defined (but never an “educator”!), a small-time member of a local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz, 1080AM), a Republican but nevertheless, a libertarian (with a small “l”), and an American. Yet, as a former Frenchman I am also a member, though somewhat passive, of a culture group, roughly the francophone group.

All the above memberships are in groups. I also belong to several categories that don’t qualify as groups because they never meet and because they have little sense of themselves as belonging together. So, I am a male (decidedly so), a moderately overweight person past middle age (but athletic!), a parent, a tax-payer, and I also belong to the secret, vast, worldwide category of humans who lack hair on the second phalanx of their index finger. In America, I am also a white man. The latter category is a little problematic because it’s ill-defined, like all matters that have to do with race. It means that most Americans on looking at me would guess, probably correctly, that all or most of my ancestors lived in Europe ten thousand years ago. Do the count of your own memberships for yourself and you will be amazed.

Memberships are not all equal, especially at a given time. Some memberships become activated while others lie dormant. Individuals activate one membership over the others depending on circumstances and often, depending on their stage in the life cycle. The presence of others frequently triggers the activation of long-dormant membership, as when a thirty-something bumps into a couple of old high-school buddies. Finally, sometimes, individuals are forced to activate one membership to the near-exclusion of others. This happens most often in connection with the nation and religious denominations, including secular religions such as Communism in the old days. The penultimate sentence is a description of totalitarianism, political, religious, and other. It’s the most parsimonious definition I know.

Emigration matters because every act of emigration implies a reasonably conscious decision to de-activate a group membership that is salient in much, but not in all, the world: nationality. Emigrants may not be completely clear about how definitive their decision to move is but they always know that it entails an abrupt shutting off of whatever comfort one derives from being inside that particular group.

Emigration, immigration, after one begins to live in another country, typically remains emotionally costly for a long time. Besides, frequently, distance from others one loves, there are subtle issues of self-worth I cannot discuss here (but that I will discuss at some future time, especially if asked). In the classical age of worldwide, and American, emigration, it tended to be final. Travel was slow and expensive. If you did not like it in the new place, often, you just had to suck it up. (This is broadly true although turn-of-the-century American records show that surprising numbers of recent European immigrants left the US every year.) Today, the extraordinarily low cost of air travel means that nearly every dissatisfied immigrant may go home. In 2009, there were very few parts of the world for which a one-way ticket cost more than a thousand dollars. That would be under seven weeks worth of after-taxes minimum wage at worst. Tickets from the US to Europe, for example cost less than one third that amount off-season. In the same year, the average US wage was about $20 per hour. Estimating deductions of 25%, the net hourly wage was thus around $15. Hence, there were few if any parts of the world that could not be reached at the cost of net savings amounting to 70 hours of average wages (less than two weeks).

For emigrants to contiguous countries or proximate countries, such as Turks to Germany, Romanians to France, or Mexicans to the US, the option of going home is even more open, of course.

What I am trying to establish here is that emigration is normally a doubly voluntary act. Immigrants first volunteer to be in the country of immigration. Then, they keep volunteering by not taking up the option of moving back home, of re-emigrating.

Two things should follow from this volunteer condition: First, if they don’t like the country to which they have moved, immigrants have no one to blame but themselves. I know I am repeating myself but the imagery is so attractive, I can’t resist: If you come to the party, especially if you come uninvited (99% of immigrants, I would guess), don’t criticize the food, or the interior decoration, or the guests’ intellectual level.

Although there is a widespread impression to the contrary, it seems to me that few immigrants break this simple rule of their own accord. Rather, more commonly, they fall under the sway of political organizations who presume to speak on their behalf. These organizations are often political in nature. They seek to exploit the voting power of people unfamiliar with the national political customs. It’s in their interest to create and inflame feelings of deprivation. Moreover, since immigrants more often than not enter the host social structure near the bottom, they are frequently taken over by labor unions who do the same. In the US, specifically, recent immigrants are sometimes annexed by radical organizations with a long history of America-hatred. These influences confuse some immigrants, putting them in mental contradiction with their own choices. They do a great deal of damage by retarding immigrants’ emotional integration into American society. Note that I refer to integration rather than to “assimilation,” a cultural construct. Societies differ in the extent to which they expect immigrants to fit into the national culture, Canada little, France a great deal, with the US somewhere between the two.

Finally, organizations led by native-born who pretend to speak for immigrants also do the latter a great deal of harm by creating false impressions in the general public. The main false impression is that immigrants are more difficult to integrate than they really are. In the US, you seldom hear about the millions of immigrants who think that everything is just peachy or better.

The second consequence from the voluntary nature of the status of immigrants is seldom discussed: Immigrants make better citizens than the average native-born. Over 90% of Americans, for example, only took the trouble to be born in the right country. That’s akin to choosing your parents carefully. There is not much merit in it, first because it just happened. Secondly, most native-born citizens of any country would not have enough information to choose the land of their birth over others if the thought crossed their minds. Here again, the exception proves (“tests”) the rule: It’s possible to make such a choice since millions do, by emigrating, precisely. This would include the tens of thousands of Americans who live abroad more or less permanently.

Immigrants, by contrast, choose and keep choosing merely by staying put. Their choice is deliberate, conscious and informed. Their appreciation for the country of their immigration is a form of adult love. It should be superior to the baby-love of many of the native-born who only know one mother. If I were still a scholar, I would have a topic for a good study here. I would begin to endeavor to find data to test what is now a compelling hypothesis. But I am not, so it will remain this as far as I am concerned.

Immigrants into the US, specifically, possess superior qualities, whatever their national origin. First, they are usually hard workers, because this country offers some of the least generous social benefits (“welfare”) in the developed world. To sponge off “the system” in this country takes a great deal of skill. (A pregnant idea but I won’t go there in this essay.) Immigrants into this country must also comprise a large proportion of enterprising people, for the same reason. (There, I think data exist that demonstrate the validity of this claim.) Moreover, immigrants into the US have to be more adventurous, braver, than the native-born, on average. To change one’s living conditions drastically takes more courage, more tolerance of risk, and more imagination than moving to the next suburb.

I believe, accordingly, that American exceptionalism is rooted in exceptional institutions but that it is fertilized by wave after wave of immigration of a superior kind.

The following link will take you to an article about illegal immigration specifically that I published in the Independent Review with Russian immigrant Sergey Nikiforov: “If Mexicans and Americans could Cross the Border…“.

White Supremacists

“White supremacy” has become a central part of the left’s narrative. In an hour and a half of casual news watching on television in early October 2017, for example, I heard three references to white supremacy. That’s more than I did in the decade 2005 to 2015, I believe.

One utterance came from the sports channel ESPN’s African-American commentator Jemele Hill who called president Trump a “white supremacist.” She added that he surrounded himself with white supremacists. Perhaps, by implication of the term “surround,” she meant several millions of his 63 million voters, or even all of them. This kind of verbal hysteria is not new and neither are intemperate television commentators but, in the recent past, such breathless declarations would have been laughed out of the park or negatively sanctioned, or both. Not anymore. Ms Hill’s statement was not exactly an isolated incident either.

In the first two weeks of October 2017, I hear the word “supremacist” on radio or television at least once a day. I am sure it has not happened before in my fifty years in this country (as an immigrant). This new tolerance makes some sense in political context.

For the inconsolable of Pres. Trump’s election, I suspect – but I don’t know for a fact – that the claim is by way of passing the baton at a time when the investigation on “Russian collusion” to elect him, now in its thirteenth month, is going nowhere. If he did not betray the country, what can we accuse him of that’s difficult for decent minded people to forgive, they ask? Digging into this country’s complex and troubled past is always a good bet if you are looking for dirt to throw at an American.

Mr Trump’s own intemperate comments – although never directed at the usual African-Americans targets of real supremacists – helped identify a valuable, superficially semi-plausible charge. The sudden emergence in the collective consciousness of unhappy young white Americans on the occasion of the 2016 election also contributed. (“…in the collective consciousness…;” they were around before that.) Unhappy young whites can but with little effort be turned into the racist rednecks of countless movies. Thus, the white supremacy narrative may be part of a half-blind collective endeavor to discredit for the long term the social forces thought to be associated with the sensational defeat in 2016 of a moderate liberal (and a feminist to boot; more on this below).

My first impression of the reality of a white supremacist movement, based on reading and listening to radio – including National Public Radio – about five days a week, besides watching television, is that there isn’t actually much going on nationwide in this respect. Yet, I am mindful of the fact that I live in “progressive” Santa Cruz, in liberal California. In neither place would one expect to bump casually into white supremacists. And if there were one, he would probably just clench his teeth and keep his mouth shut. In lily-white Santa Cruz, on the contrary, a black supremacist would probably be elected mayor on the first try without really campaigning. (OK, I may be exaggerating a little, here.)

I realize also that my reading habits as a conservative may not lead to chance encounters with supremacist tripe.* So, I wonder: What’s the actual situation? To try and explore this question more deeply, I use a two-step strategy. I look first for existing credible empirical reports on the topic. Second, I look for what should be the products of white supremacist groups, the tracks they should logically be expected to leave on the internet and elsewhere. But first, a brief historical detour. Continue reading

The Dreamers and Me

President Trump just announced that he was rolling back an Obama executive order intended to give respite to illegal immigrants brought to the US by their parents when they were minors. I know what I feel about this action. I have to figure out what I think.  (I can cry with the best of them! Left-wing liars are having a field day right now. One just said on NPR that the purpose of the decision is to make America “white again,” N. S.!)

I am an immigrant. I immigrated into this country at 21. I was a high school dropout from France. I had no marketable skill but I knew English pretty well. I had no money. (That’s “Not any.”) I carried a small suitcase containing mostly some Navy clothing from my recent service. The Unites States did not need me.* No one had invited me except the late George and Rose-Marie McDaniel of Novato, California. (They had met me during my stint as a high school exchange student three years earlier, financed by others.) Don’t worry, I am not going to cram down your throat yet another heroic story of hard immigrant work and well deserved achievement.

I prospered in this country for more than fifty years. I had a very good American life. I lived well and I thrived unexpectedly from an intellectual standpoint. My wife, an artist and also an immigrant, was able to paint as we raised our children. All of this because many individuals and several institutions gave me a push and a pull, an encouraging word, and downright gifts along the way (including free tuition at both a community college and a major university). If I were given only two words to describe American society, they would be: “generous, fair.”

The American society I know does not visit upon the sons the sins of the fathers. It especially does not do so when the sins of the fathers were mostly misdemeanors at the time they were committed – entering the country illegally was only a misdemeanor. The American society I know would not throw over the fence its young neighbors to somehow manage in a foreign country they know little or not at all, in a language they may know badly or, again, not at all. Those among us who would do either must be blinded by anger. (And there are good reasons to be angry about immigration.)

In his announcement, President Trump did not throw out anybody, as the Left-leaning media made it sound. First, he gave Congress six months to do what Congress should have done in the first place: Solve through legislation the human and ethical problem posed by the presence in our country of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are technically illegal through no fault of theirs. The president is playing chicken with Congress: If you do nothing, you will be collectively responsible for a gross, un-American injustice. Keep in mind that the president retains the right to promulgate his own royal reprieve it Congress fails to act.

Second, the president is using this opportunity to prod Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to begin instituting wholesale immigration reform. It’s a reform just about everyone agrees must take place. It has not begun because it’s a political hot, hot potato for both parties. For the Republicans, there is the honest realization that our borders must, in the end, be under control lest our cherished institutions end up dissolving. Let me give you an example. How many people can we admit who believe that separation of church and state is anathema, an insult to the face of God, and still live in our constitutional republic? (And, if you think the question is Islamophobic, you are just afraid of questions!)

For the Democrats the issue is how to stem the rising anger of many of their troops about immigration without turning off the spigot of automatic Democratic voters that immigrants mostly are. (The Democratic Party is vanishing, I think. That’s why it’s so mean. Without a steady flow of poor immigrants, its death will be hastened. The Republican Party has different problems which also threaten it existence, possibly.)

Notice what I did not say here: I did not say anything about any kind of immigrants having rights as immigrants. I don’t think we do.


* Nevertheless, I have a document somewhere that certifies that my continued presence in the US serves the welfare of the country. It was earned 12 years later, another story, obviously. If I could find it, I would frame it and put it online to enrage “progressives.”