Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 21, 2007

¡Viva la Inmigración!

The New York Times reports that an anti-immigrant backlash is building among Republican primary voters in Iowa. There is room to doubt how significant this trend is, since the two most anti-immigrant candidates in the Republican field are Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, who are struggling to register in single digits, while the early leaders, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, are both fairly pro-immigrant. But there is no question that, even if it remains a minority sentiment, there is a substantial nativist, even xenophobic, wing in the Republican party.

As it happens, I was in Miami yesterday and got a chance to observe diversity in action. I loved it. What a booming, vibrant city! I reveled in the Latin and Caribbean accents, the variety of foods, the multiplicity of cultures. My lasting taste of Miami was a terrific Cuban sandwich, espresso, and guava pastry at a Cuban coffee shop at the airport. Beats Hardees hollow.

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The New York Times reports that an anti-immigrant backlash is building among Republican primary voters in Iowa. There is room to doubt how significant this trend is, since the two most anti-immigrant candidates in the Republican field are Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, who are struggling to register in single digits, while the early leaders, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, are both fairly pro-immigrant. But there is no question that, even if it remains a minority sentiment, there is a substantial nativist, even xenophobic, wing in the Republican party.

As it happens, I was in Miami yesterday and got a chance to observe diversity in action. I loved it. What a booming, vibrant city! I reveled in the Latin and Caribbean accents, the variety of foods, the multiplicity of cultures. My lasting taste of Miami was a terrific Cuban sandwich, espresso, and guava pastry at a Cuban coffee shop at the airport. Beats Hardees hollow.

I’ve been to Des Moines before, and I hope I don’t unduly offend any Iowans by noting that I prefer Miami or other multicultural metropolises like Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York. It’s not just a matter of the weather—though there is that too. And it’s not that the Midwest doesn’t have any ethnic spice; every part of the U.S. was settled by someone from somewhere, who brought along native customs, foods, languages, and cultures. The big difference is that the dominant immigrant groups in the Midwest arrived long ago, generally in the 19th century. Their cultures have blended into a generic white-bread Americana, so now these assimilated German-Americans or Scandinavian-Americans or Polish-Americans resent new arrivals just as much as they were once resented by English-Americans.

All this immigrant-bashing, itself a long American tradition, is pretty silly. Ambitious young immigrants, both high-tech inventors and low-tech lettuce-pickers, provide much of the vigor that keeps our economy vibrant. They always have. The contrast with insular, graying Japan, which is only now recovering from a decade-long recession, couldn’t be starker.

Concerns that these immigrants won’t assimilate or will destroy our common culture seem to me vastly overblown. American culture is spreading all over the world, much to the distress of the Academie Francaise and other guardians of traditional folkways. People all over the world are acting, dressing, and speaking like Americans, while watching American-produced TV shows and movies, playing American video games, and listening to American music. (Indeed, on a recent trip to Berlin I did very well speaking English to everyone from army officers and government officials to waiters and taxi drivers.) Do nativists really mean to suggest that, while American culture is conquering cities from Singapore to Santiago, it will die out in San Diego or Miami? It seems implausible, to put it mildly. Indeed, Miami remains identifiably American. Its secession from Florda—the lurid and implausible nightmare of some immigrant-bashers—isn’t remotely in the cards.

This isn’t to minimize some of the problems with immigration, which undoubtedly puts a strain on schools and social services. But on the whole I’d say immigration was and remains a major plus for the United States. There is even something to be said, dare I say it, for the concepts of “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” Shorn of some of their radical academic dogma, they are a realistic recognition that America is the sum of divergent parts. The inevitable process of assimilation, which is going on now as in the past, is a good thing on the whole, but it does have its downside. I, for one, hope that Miami never loses its Latin flair.

*Editor’s Note: The title of this post originally contained an error.

 

 

 

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Tarek Heggy’s Nightmare

Tarek Heggy is an Egyptian businessman and intellectual, perhaps the most prolific liberal writer in the Arab world. He is a no-holds-barred advocate of political and economic freedom, delivering, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shibley Telhami has put it, a “refreshing message of self-reliance that challenges the prevailing sense that regional ills are largely made abroad.”

But currently Heggy, for a change, is broadcasting a message of dire alarm at an impending regional catastrophe that, if not made abroad, would be catalyzed from abroad. His worry? The likely consequences of an American flight from Iraq.

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Tarek Heggy is an Egyptian businessman and intellectual, perhaps the most prolific liberal writer in the Arab world. He is a no-holds-barred advocate of political and economic freedom, delivering, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shibley Telhami has put it, a “refreshing message of self-reliance that challenges the prevailing sense that regional ills are largely made abroad.”

But currently Heggy, for a change, is broadcasting a message of dire alarm at an impending regional catastrophe that, if not made abroad, would be catalyzed from abroad. His worry? The likely consequences of an American flight from Iraq.

Responding by email to a recent article in Haaretz, Heggy writes:

The core message of this article is that a premature American withdrawal from Iraq will lead to the toppling of the current regime in Jordan. Is that an exaggeration? Certainly not. It is actually an understatement. I personally believe that if failing to kill Osama bin Laden and al Molla Omar was the first step of the Jihadi Islam towards its goal, the lousy job in Iraq was the second step and a premature American withdrawal from Iraq will be the third and semi-final step JUST before the finale which will be the spread of both: Sunni Radical Islamism & The New Persian Empire (which will equally represent another facet of radical Islam). I predict that if such a premature American withdrawal from Iraq takes place in 2009, before 2015 Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan & Pakistan (at least) will be in the hands of radical Islamists with at least two nuclear powers among these countries.

Any prognostication on this scale is of course wildly speculative. But can anyone deny that the scenario Heggy paints is at least plausible? Throughout the region, governments and thinkers who opposed our going to Iraq now oppose any hasty departure, for reasons along the lines of Heggy’s fears.

This is what is scandalously irresponsible about the current position of the congressional Democrats. If they believe that Heggy’s scenario is wrong, they owe it to us to explain why. If they have some other program for averting this scenario, it is high time for them to unveil it. Instead they march on, as if Bush and “the war” are the only threats we face. Theirs is truly a shameful performance.

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Bookshelf

• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.

Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.

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• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.

Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.

The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press, 1067 pp., $50) is the first all-new reference book of its kind to come along in years, and the first ever to make systematic use of what Fred Shapiro, the editor-in-chief, describes as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. It has a strongly American bias (Ambrose Bierce has 144 entries, Karl Kraus two) and an equally strong pop-culture slant (Woody Allen has 43 entries, Emily Dickinson 29). It also has an introduction by Joseph Epstein, who approves of the fresh tack taken by Shapiro and his collaborators: “Although I am normally conservative in matters of culture, I think Mr. Shapiro is correct to make these changes in emphasis . . . Even though, as Henry James well said, ‘It takes a great deal of history to produce even a little literature,’ cultural leadership usually follows political power, and for the past fifty or so years it has become apparent that the United States has been playing with far and away the largest stacks of chips before it.”

Far be it from me to disagree with Epstein, so I won’t—much. Having read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover, I found a number of suspicious-looking attributions, one or two outright errors, and many glaring instances of the variegated forms of bias one expects to find in any book produced by a team of academic scholars (somehow I doubt that George W. Bush’s slips of the tongue really deserve as much space as Shapiro gives them). As for the countless snippets lifted by the editors from pop-song lyrics of the past couple of decades, I doubt that many of them will be long remembered (indeed, a goodly number of them are already forgotten). I should also note that Raymond Chandler, Noël Coward, Johnny Mercer, and P.G. Wodehouse are all severely underrepresented, though G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, and Satchel Paige receive their due. All these quibbles notwithstanding, The Yale Book of Quotations is useful, diverting, and full of surprises, and while I don’t plan to throw away my well-thumbed copy of H.L. Mencken’s invaluable New Dictionary of Quotations, I’m making space next to it for this satisfying piece of work.

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Regulating Biotech

How, if at all, should we govern new developments in human biotechnology? In many cases, decisions will be made best by the individuals involved. In others, legislation and government action will be required to prevent genuinely serious abuses. Telling one type of case from the other is not always simple, and requires a lot of argument and give and take.

We have already seen the early skirmishes surrounding issues like human cloning, “fetal farming,” embryo-destructive research, and some forms of assisted reproduction. In some instances, laws have been passed. In others, the advocates of unrestricted choice have carried the day. That’s how we make decisions in a democracy.

But to some, this seems like no way to approach such momentous and difficult issues. Surely, they argue, a detached body of experts would do a better job, case by case. This, at any rate, is the argument for a new structure of regulation for biotechnology, an argument that has carried the day in Britain (and to some extent in Canada) and whose most prominent American exponent is Francis Fukuyama.

As Ron Bailey reports in Reason Magazine, Fukuyama has just produced a 400-page report calling for the creation of a new regulatory agency to make decisions about the appropriate uses of human biotechnology. The report emerged from the work of a study group convened by Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins University. Though I was a member of the group, I did not sign on to the report, since I disagreed with its conclusions.

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How, if at all, should we govern new developments in human biotechnology? In many cases, decisions will be made best by the individuals involved. In others, legislation and government action will be required to prevent genuinely serious abuses. Telling one type of case from the other is not always simple, and requires a lot of argument and give and take.

We have already seen the early skirmishes surrounding issues like human cloning, “fetal farming,” embryo-destructive research, and some forms of assisted reproduction. In some instances, laws have been passed. In others, the advocates of unrestricted choice have carried the day. That’s how we make decisions in a democracy.

But to some, this seems like no way to approach such momentous and difficult issues. Surely, they argue, a detached body of experts would do a better job, case by case. This, at any rate, is the argument for a new structure of regulation for biotechnology, an argument that has carried the day in Britain (and to some extent in Canada) and whose most prominent American exponent is Francis Fukuyama.

As Ron Bailey reports in Reason Magazine, Fukuyama has just produced a 400-page report calling for the creation of a new regulatory agency to make decisions about the appropriate uses of human biotechnology. The report emerged from the work of a study group convened by Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins University. Though I was a member of the group, I did not sign on to the report, since I disagreed with its conclusions.

Fukuyama believes that only a complex regulatory body can handle the difficult decisions to come—an agency like the Food and Drug Administration or (a closer analogy) Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (how’s that for an Orwellian name?). Others, like Bailey in his Reason article, seem to think that government control will only make things worse, and that individual choice could and should set the proper boundaries of the age of biotech. Still others, myself included, argue that turning things over to regulators would harm both the development of biotechnology and the protection of human life and dignity. When boundaries are needed, they should be set by answerable elected officials, not a body of bureaucrats certain to be captured by the very interests they regulate.

The crucial feature of the regulatory approach is that it closes off some key questions at the outset. If your job is to regulate embryo-destructive research, there can be no discussion of whether such research is ethically appropriate to begin with. This is what has happened in Britain, where an arcane regulatory regime holds endless public discussions and arguments about everything except the actually relevant ethical questions. That’s no way to treat a live controversy, where the question is not “how” but “if.” It is, however, an effective way to change the subject—which of course is what its advocates like best about it.

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