[See also by Steve Sailer: Charles Murray Gets Readmitted to Polite Society—At A Price: Ignoring Immigration]
Charles Murray has made the widening of class divisions in America since the relatively egalitarian Eisenhower-Kennedy era the theme of his current book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010. Indeed, the phenomenon has been remarked by observers as ideologically disparate as Pat Buchanan, Paul Krugman, and Benjamin Schwarz.
But why did class divisions widen? Murray says, in a throwaway line in Coming Apart, that the growing problems of the white working class don’t have much to do with race or immigration. Of course, these days, you have to say that to be accepted in polite society. Only poor white trash would think otherwise.
In fact, it’s obvious that class, race, and immigration are indeed intimately intertwined in complicated ways. But we are less and less equipped to understand them—as class taboos harden over what refined folk are supposed to notice about race and immigration.
In my next article, I will review some of the substantive ways that immigration impacts the white working class.
But for now let’s consider the evolution of ideological norms in the upper reaches of American society that has largely taken this question off the table. Among the intelligentsia, why has not thinking intelligently about immigration become a mark of gentility?
The most obvious explanation: class-based economic self-interest. People higher up the social pyramid compete less with immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, and employ them more.
But this straightforward class account has been self-servingly obscured, in recent years, by the imposition of taboos borrowed from the subject of race. In 1994, Murray notoriously transgressed the boundaries of good taste by co-authoring with the late Richard J. Herrnstein an 845-page work of social science, The Bell Curve. The book was mostly about class. But nobody remembers that because the fraction on race so scandalized the bien-pensants.
Since then, the immigration debate has been increasingly paralyzed same racial taboo. Yet as late as the beginning of the 21st century, it was common for the Main Stream Media to regard limiting immigration for the benefit of the working class as thinkable and even logical.
This change can be traced in New York Times editorials on immigration. Today, when reading the Times’ frenzied editorials demonizing immigration patriots as evil nativists, it’s remarkable to recall that when I started writing for VDARE in 2000, the NYT editorial board and VDARE.com were substantially on the same side on illegal immigration. We both argued that massive unskilled illegal immigration was bad for the American working class.
For example, on February 22, 2000, the New York Times editorialized against what would become the central immigration policy push of the Bush-Kennedy-McCain establishment in that new decade. As Peter Brimelow noted at the time, it actually cited the work of George Borjas. It concluded:
“Amnesty would undermine the integrity of the country`s immigration laws and would depress the wages of its lowest-paid native-born workers. … The primary problem with amnesties is that they beget more illegal immigration. … It is also unfair to unskilled workers already in the United States.”
[Hasty Call for Amnesty, February 22, 2000]
Thus, back in 2000, the NYT itself was “nativist.” It was expressing concern about “native-born workers”—exactly as if their welfare should be of more concern to Americans than the welfare of foreign lawbreakers!
And this was a respectable liberal position back then. For example, Bill Clinton appointed a widely admired black lesbian, former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, to chair a Commission on Immigration Reform. She reported back that not only should the laws against illegal immigration be enforced, but that legal immigration should be tightened, too. In 1996, Clinton publicly endorsed Jordan’s findings—although, of course, nothing was done, largely because the Smith-Simpson bill that embodied them was sabotaged by Republican Treason Lobby operatives led by Senator Spencer Abraham.
[Clinton Embraces a Proposal To Cut Immigration by a Third, By Robert Pear, NYT, June 8, 1995]
The NYT’s concern about the impact of immigration on native-born workers was in sharp contrast to the Wall Street Journal’s chief editorialist Robert Bartley, who had been calling for a five-word Constitutional amendment reading “There shall be open borders” since 1984.
From the standpoint of traditional class politics, the split between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on immigration was hardly surprising. The WSJ was the mouthpiece of employers who wanted to make higher profits by paying lower wages. In contrast, the NYT saw itself as defending to the interests of the American workingman, along with the Democratic Party. This is hardly to say that NYT editorials back then were written by rough-handed sons of toil—just that being on the opposite side of the class struggle from the WSJ was part of their self-image.
“In the past, this page has opposed the idea of a new amnesty for Mexicans who have immigrated illegally to the United States in recent years. We expressed concern that legalizing their status would undermine the integrity of the country`s immigration laws, which were reformed in 1986, and depress the wages of the lowest-paid native-born workers.”
The reasons The Times then gave for its change of mind were less interesting than the tone—which was still civil.
Of course, the NYT was arguing with itself back then. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that it was polite.
Of course, it’s not as if the demographic change the NYT editorial board cheers on for the rest of America has had much impact on them. The paper may have been bailed out by a Mexican monopolist who profits on every phone call home to Mexico, but it hasn’t hired illegal aliens to write its editorials cheap. Of the 18 NYT editorial board members today, one is black, one is Chinese, and the other 16 are white. None have Spanish surnames. [See list.]
Today, few are surprised that the NYT and the WSJ editorial boards are on the same side on immigration. In the 21st Century, high-class folks have increasingly put aside their differences to band together and denounce anybody who doubts the wonderfulness of mass immigration.
That raises the question: Whatever happened to class analysis on the Left? The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 may have finished off the prestige of class analysis outside of college English Departments. But there was always a modicum of insight that should not be wholly lost.
The Left used to have a ready-made set of class-based explanations for just about everything. For example, they said racial conflict in the Jim Crow South was stirred up by the landowning class to keep black and white sharecroppers from uniting against their oppressors. Similarly, the highly successful leader of the United Automobile Workers union, Walter Reuther (1907-1970), a pillar of the Democratic Party during its mid-Century dominance, preached black-white worker solidarity against management.
Maybe none of this ever made much sense. But it’s not notably less ridiculous than the new conventional wisdom that replaced it.
In recent months, the Left has begun congratulating itself on rediscovering class with its Occupy Wall Street protests. Yet, a glance at the original poster in Adbusters that kicked off the movement should raise doubts. The irony is that this Photoshopped image of a ballerina surmounting sculptor Arthur Di Modica’s iconic symbol of Wall Street, Charging Bull, struck very few protestors as ironic. Ballet is perhaps the most expensive and aristocratic of all performing arts, having attained classical perfection under the patronage of the Czars. Ballet would wither without the rich.
But that’s the point of much Leftism in the 21st Century: to assert one’s expensive cultural refinement as against the hicks and rednecks. And, paradoxically, the most compelling way to establish one’s sophistication is by being ignorant about race.
The Victorians notoriously considered discussion of sex vulgar. Nice people didn’t notice. Likewise, elite Americans now believe that being well informed about race (and, increasingly, immigration) is a sign of ill-breeding.
You can actually hear this at the movies, in the way that audiences of different classes now react to politically incorrect jokes. Working class Mexican-American audiences in Van Nuys exclaim with disapproving delight, “Ooooooohhhh, that’s racist”—rather like, I imagine, an 1870 Cockney music hall audience would respond with shocked titillation when a comedian referred to a woman’s “legs” rather than her “limbs.”
In contrast, upscale audiences at the $16 per ticket ArcLight Cinema on Sunset Boulevard shift around uncomfortably in their seats during racially inappropriate humor. Some even hiss, perhaps to make sure that everybody around them knows that they know which thoughts are improper.
After all, they may well reason, they’ve got more to lose than a bunch of losers in Van Nuys.
Murray might argue, with some truth, that the reason we so seldom hear about working class travails anymore is that the meritocratic sorting system is efficient enough to siphon off the smarter, more articulate youths into higher classes. But we should not ignore the role played by the American upper class’ sheer hostility toward its working class.
American elites have overseen the importation of a vast Hispanic population, largely working class or below. In pre-21st Century Marxist theory, this swelling of the ranks of proletariat could turn out bad for the upper classes if the workers ever overcame, to use Friedrich Engels’ term, their false consciousness.
And, indeed, we’ve seen the elites hype what looks an awful lot, when viewed from an old (but not necessarily utterly obsolete) Marx-Engels perspective, like a divide-and-rule strategy—forestalling any growth of working class political power by an ever-increasing MSM drumbeat urging Latinos to unite racially against whites to demand an ever larger “reserve army of the unemployed” be imported from south of the border.
Without massive immigration from Latin America over the last four decades, the U.S. Hispanic population would have become more diffuse. The more talented and ambitious would have married into the general population. Hispanics would have inevitably become even less of a potential political bloc.
But what actually happened was continued mass immigration—and government and opinion leaders actively working to retard Latin assimilation by rewarding Hispanic racialists with Affirmative Action money and prizes.
I recently tried to look up how big the Hispanic population was in 1960, the initial point in the half century covered in Murray’s book—only to find that the Census Bureau never asked about Spanish background in the 1950 and 1960 enumerations. During the more idealistic early civil rights era, Hispanics were officially considered just plain white. But that changed as the Quota Era took off from 1969 onward and it began to pay to be officially a minority.
Gestures of transracial class solidarity were not unknown in the past. In 1969, Senator Walter Mondale, Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Martin Luther King’s successor), and other liberal luminaries joined labor leader’s Cesar Chavez’s march along the Mexican border in protest against illegal immigration.
But today Chavez’s years of struggle against illegal immigration have almost completely disappeared down the Memory Hole as the MSM has posthumously converted him into the Patron Saint of Undocumented Workers.
In contrast, the most celebrated labor leader of recent decades has been Andy Stern, who headed the almost all-Hispanic Service Employees International Union from 1996-2010.
In sharp contrast to Chavez—a third-generation American who had actually worked in the fields and whose organizing strategy was based the logic of supply and demand—Stern’s role was largely to function as a Capitalist Front by demanding ever more immigration. He would sign up huge numbers of members for SEIU, but seldom achieved much for them because the supply and demand balance was so unfavorable.
This made Stern hugely popular with the Democratic Party (he was the most frequent visitor to the Obama White House in 2009), tolerable to business interests, and not much good at all at getting his rank and file higher wages. SEIU won one big janitors’ strike per decade: Los Angeles in the 1990s and Houston in the 2000s. But each victory would be celebrated in innumerable columns by Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post.
Among intellectuals, it’s hard to think of a single current left-of-center commentator who is in the tradition of Samuel Gompers, the immigrant Jewish labor leader who was a major leader in the successful fight to limit immigration in the early 20th Century. Off the top of my head, the only name I can come up with is Michael Lind. He’s been arguing since the 1990s that, if the Democratic Party actually represented the nation’s working class, it would cut back on immigration. For instance, here’s his “Huddled Excesses” piece in The New Republic of April 1, 1996:
“The greatest gain income by the American middle and working classes, both white and black, took place during the era of immigration restriction, from the 1920s to the 1960s. Not coincidentally, this was also the heyday of union membership … And, of course, it was the golden age of public support for universal entitlements and anti-poverty efforts. Coincidence? Not likely.”
Younger readers, familiar only with the Left’s intensified ideological rigidity on immigration, might assume that this was an April Fool’s Day hoax. It was not. But Lind’s influence seems to have diminished over the years.
One good thing about class conflicts in American politics: they are honestly mercenary. In American debate, class struggles don’t get drenched in misplaced Ellis Island ancestor worship the way ethnic issues do.
Consider, for instance, two major political issues of the 1890s: bimetallism and immigration.
Occasionally, somebody will show off by pointing out that L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory about the struggle between the debtor class and the creditor class over the silver and gold standards (e.g., “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”). But, although bimetallism sounds comic now, it was a deeply serious issue at the time.
Nevertheless, nobody today displays any personal passion over the subject (other than to make fun of the chief spokesman for the debtors, William Jennings Bryan, for his views three decades later on Darwinism). There are no enduring divisions in today’s America based on whether your great-grandfathers were silver men or gold men.
We’ve moved on.
In contrast, the topic of Ellis Island is now enveloped in ethnocentric kitsch. The Progressive reformers who waged a long struggle to bring rational regulation to immigration are routinely subjected to character assassination in the 21st Century press as proto-Nazi eugenicists.
The issue of immigration is one of the weirder class phenomena of our era. Thus on St. Patrick’s Day, the New York Times ran an op-ed by a Maine-based novelist named Peter Behrens, [Email him] entitled: It’s About Immigrants, Not Irishness. [March 16, 2012]
No!—St. Patrick’s Day really is about Irishness!
The East Coast press tries to whip up racial animus against white Republicans among Latinos over immigration. Real soon now, we read over and over, the Republican Party will be washed away by the fast-growing Hispanic tsunami … unless, unless—unless the Republicans make sure that the number of Hispanic voters grow even faster!
More than a few elite journalists seem to obsess today over the immigration controversy in their great-grandfathers’ day, feeling it as a personal insult—a festering psychic wound that makes them so irate that they just want to…well, never mind about that, but the point is that surely Mexican-American voters must feel deep, righteous, burning racial hatred toward anyone who opposes Open Borders. I mean, who wouldn’t?
But the years go by. And nothing much happens electorally other than that Latinos tend to vote for Democratic tax-and-spend policies as self-interested representatives of their class, not as the ethnic avengers of New York journalists’ fantasies.
A long time ago, Michael Barone came up with the idea that Mexicans are the new Italians. So far, that hasn’t worked out in terms of economic mobility. And a glance at places where Hispanics have been living for many generations, such as New Mexico, suggests that it might not happen in this century.
But Barone was right in the sense that, when it comes to immigration policy, Mexicans vote like Italians—based more on their families’ current class interests rather than on racial memories. Italian-Americans are more middle class, and so they don’t vote solidly Democratic the way Mexican-Americans do. Italian-Americans can be found prominently on both sides of the immigration issue. They don’t seem to feel the need for an ethnic party line based on their ancestors coming through Ellis Island.
Thus, despite all the elite press effort to get Mexicans to feel simmering hatred over immigration, the numbers suggest that immigration is less of a big deal to Mexican-American voters than it is to the journalists sent to cover them.
Undaunted, the prestige press continues to predict that this will be election in which Hispanic Racial Rage (comprising, as it does, a towering 8.7%, percent of the electorate vs. some 72%.for whites) finally smites the descendants of our ancestors’ enemies for us!
Eventually, they may get what they’ve wanted. Will they be happy then?
Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative and writes regularly for Takimag. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.