Exclusive: Embarrassed in Arizona
by ROBERT WEISSBERG
May 5, 2010
Albrecht Dürer’s iconic 1498 woodcut depicts the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence and death. If Dürer were alive and updated this work, he might add a fifth horseman: embarrassment. Embarrassment may not appear deadly, and nobody has ever directly died from it, but its impact can be just as deadly as famine or war.
This harm is most familiar in medical matters where death might strike those “too embarrassed” to seek medical attention for that nasty “little rash” acquired under murky circumstances. It is in politics, however, where reluctance to speak truth is most devastating. Consider the recent uproar over Arizona’s attempt to control its porous border. Who are America’s enemies in this conflict? Polite discussions favor vague terms like “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented workers” and if pushed, wary defenders of Arizona’s new law will invoke national sovereignty and punishing law-breakers. None of this is especially embarrassing, though hardly without controversy.
Unfortunately, contemporary political etiquette requires defenders of tighter borders to ignore the traits of many of those sneaking in. It is just too dangerous to say, “Though exceptions exist, these Mexicans are incorrigible trouble-makers and we just don’t want them in our country. They will fill our prisons, murder innocent Americans, and promote drug trafficking and otherwise harm Americans.” This condemnation, no matter how well-documented, would be deemed insulting to all Mexicans and racist. It is almost as if there is now an 11th Commandment: Thou shall not try to define our national identity. These awkward realities, these in-your-face statistics on crime and welfare dependency, are sometimes called “hate facts.” In today’s PC-dominated climate, group-based animosity commits the most egregious sin of sins no matter how factually justified. The exceptions, of course, are condemnations of bigots and racists, and these can be attacked mercilessly without regard to truth. Talking about hot-button issues like immigration suggests old joke: Question: How do you dance at a nudist colony? Answer: Very carefully.
Most Arizonians favor the new restrictive law, but how many are willing to admit in public that they just don’t want to alter America’s demography? That is, they loathe being asked to press “1” for English etc. etc. and, most fundamentally, want to feel at home in a nation of English speakers with shared values. In today’s climate of enhanced sensitivity, theirs pleas are not refuted; their expression is unspeakable, almost a sign of mental illness and therefore kept hidden from public view. Not even announcing that they love Mexico, speak Spanish, visit Mexico frequently and spend lots of money there mitigates this embarrassing admission.
To grasp this offense-avoiding sensitivity, imagine an alternative universe. Here, today’s “Mexico” never existed and the territory was instead settled by 17th centuries Viking families who, like their American counterparts, pushed the decimated indigenous population into obscurity. They called their country Norseland. These Norselanders prospered and now “South of the Border” means cities with names like ‘New Stockholm” and American tourists pigging out on pickled herring washed down with iced aquavit. It is a peaceful place where candidates of Danish ancestry run against rivals of Norwegian extraction. In every which way, economically and socially, it resembles contemporary Scandinavia or Minnesota.
Now for an awkward question guaranteed to make everyone uneasy –how would most America react to an influx of these largely blond, blue-eyed hard-working, skilled Norselanders? The answer is simple: about the same as they react to Canadian immigrants. Natives might barely notice, outside of ogling certain new arrivals at Arizona swimming pools. Let’s strip away the protective niceties: millions of Americans just don’t want poor, uneducated violence prone Mexicans. This is, to quote Oscar Wilde, the truth that dare not speak its name. It’s about people, their personal behavior and, to be even more politically incorrect, the predictable traits of their offspring, i.e., their well-documented propensity to leave school early, engage in gang-related crime and other plain-to-see unpleasant traits. To speak about “a nation controlling its borders” is only the public, polite form of this conversation.
Not being plain spoken, refusing to speak frankly, so as to avoid embarrassment shapes behavior. Choice of a vocabulary matters, and nothing is more important than defining public debate, the permissible agenda and what is unspeakable – we are prisoners of words. To understand this mischief, imagine that Washington bows to public pressure, seals the southern border, stiffens penalties for illegal residency and bureaucratizes the immigration process. Now, instead of thousands of Mexicans helter-skelter daily climbing fences to get in, each dutifully complete the paperwork and wait his or her turn for admission. Mexican immigration comes to resemble a slow but steady conveyer belt, not spontaneous small scale invasion.
This new policy may well reduce the numbers of Mexicans entering the U.S. on any random day but it is unlikely to alter the character and size of the flood and this is what the unease is really about – the people and their likely undesirable behavior. The U.S. is not Canada, where immigration applicants must invest substantial sums in Canada prior to admission. Nor Australia, where admittance reflects the skills required by the Australian economy, let alone Singapore, where ordinary foreign guest workers are returned home after two years, no exceptions.
To repeat, what many Americans really want, but are too embarrassed to admit, are the policies of Canada, Australia and Singapore and this, de facto, means far fewer Mexicans of the type currently infiltrating into Arizona. Or, plausibly, they want the Mexican border crossers screened to weed out semi-literates, those with criminal and drug backgrounds or those who are unable to be self-supporting. But, again, since this “discriminatory” sentiment dare not speak openly, the debate revolves around more antiseptic legal issues such as racial profiling, possible amnesty and disputes over state versus national authority.
Ironically, today’s cowardly flight from forthrightness into the safety of mush-brained niceness contravenes American tradition. Early settlers prided themselves in honesty; disguising reality in a fog of gentle verbiage was an unaffordable luxury when daily survival was uncertain. Tough backwoods folk moving westward, the Davey Crockets and Daniel Boones, suffered no illusions about all those determined to kill them. Today, Andrew Jackson is vilified for forcefully removing Indians from the east coast but also remember that many of his family members were massacred by Indians. My favorite plain-speaking expression harkens back to ancient Greece – “Speak like a Spartan” or, in colloquial English, tell like it is.
This analysis does not offer solutions to the immigration debate. Nor, for that matter, are we demanding an end to Mexican immigration, legal or illegal. The central lesson is about speaking plainly about the threats to America, just as a patient wisely tells the doctor exactly where and how that nasty little rash was acquired.
Admittedly, the influx of Mexicans into Arizona might even be beneficial, but it may be a threat and as such deserves an open discussion, not hiding behind legalisms. Racial profiling is not the issue; who we are as a nation is the issue. Politeness in personal relationships, for example, describing Aunt Tilley as “big boned” and not fat, is fine. Matters of national survival are, however, different – we must speak like Spartans.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent include The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and the forthcoming, Bad Students, Not Bad Schools: How both the Right and the Left have American education wrong (early 2010). Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.