Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Whose Style? Which America?

Fall 1997

Peter D. Salins
Basic Books, 1997. xi + 259 pgs.

Peter Salins, Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, has good news. Americans need no longer worry about immigration, so long as a simple and straightforward plan is adopted: all immigrants must assimilate.

By this term, our author makes apparent, he does not mean that immigrants must give up their ethnic culture. To think so is to confuse assimilation with acculturation, the adoption of a common culture. "Acculturation may or may not accompany assimilation. Usually, immigrants who assimilate or at least their children become acculturated as well, but not always and not completely" (p. 56).

Acculturation, then, is not a necessary condition for assimilation. Neither is it sufficient: an ethnic group may share standard American culture, yet fail to be assimilated. We shall very soon see an incredible extension of this idea which our author develops.

But to understand this, we must of course grasp what Salins has in mind by assimilation. This he makes quite clear: "Assimilation, American style set out a simple contract between the existing settlers and all newcomers. Immigrants would be welcomed as full members of the American family if they agreed to abide by three simple precepts: First, they had to accept English as the national language. Second, they were expected to take pride in their American identity and believe in America's liberal democratic and egalitarian principles. Third, they were expected to live by what is commonly referred to as the Protestant ethic (to be self-reliant, hardworking, and morally upright)" (p. 6).

I have quoted this passage at some length because it is an example of what I most relish as a reviewer: a sitting target. First, in speaking of "Assimilation American style," Salins falsely insinuates that at some time in our past, a consensus supported massive immigration. No doubt some people did; but the issue has throughout our history occasioned controversy. Indeed, Salins sometimes recognizes this himself. He ridicules those, such as Peter Brimelow, who do not share his insouciant optimism about the blessings of ever more aspirants to the American Way. Do not these alarmists echo old and discredited warnings in the past about dangerous immigrants? Brimelow and company are but the Know Nothing party revived.

In his assault on contemporary nativists, as he is pleased to call them, our author leaves a flank exposed. If current opponents of immigration repeat old claims, then, obviously, there has been opposition to immigration. How then can Salins claim that a consensus supported "assimilation American style?" Salins falls victim to a common fallacy: he imputes controversial views of his own to an imaginary American tradition.

But suppose he is right and that a consensus of Americans did at one time endorse large scale immigration. It would not follow from this that immigrants were offered a contract: accept the terms of "assimilation, American style" and you may enter the United States as a matter of right. Immigration has always been taken to be a matter of privilege: no one has a contractual right of access.

But we have not yet arrived at the ridiculous. For that, we must proceed to the terms of the contract. The first of these, English as a national language, is relatively innocuous. True, as Salins himself notes, many immigrants rejected this clause of their "contract." "Between 1840 and 1890, the United States admitted 4.5 million German immigrants.... The Germans aggressively resisted English-language dominance and made strong claims for allowing German to be the language of instruction in public schools in German-speaking neighborhoods and towns" (p. 27).

So far, then, we have a contract that a large group of immigrants repudiated. Matters become even stranger when we reach the second clause of the contract: immigrants, like all Americans, must accept a common ideology. In saying this, Salins evinces his own imperfect assimilation. The notion of a national creed is alien to the American tradition. It stems from the "civil religion" of Rousseau: according to that dubiously sane "Great Mind" a society needs to be unified by common articles of belief. Those who reject the civil religion may in some circumstances be executed; this is a refinement Salins has not yet added to the contract.

The American tradition, I should have thought, views matters in an entirely different light. No doubt many Americans in fact share common beliefs about all sorts of things: but a society can exist perfectly well with no national creed. We may go further: it is inimical to a free society to require adherence to a national creed. Does not the First Amendment, which provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," forbid this? Why should we take the amendment to apply only to genuine religions, rather than to secular substitutes for them as well? Incidentally, the assumed need for a civil religion pervades contemporary leftist political thought. It is a major feature, in a mild form, of John Rawls's Political Liberalism: everyone must agree to confine himself in political debates to a shared set of premises.

But let us set aside this point (much better to set aside the entire book; but I have not yet finished kicking Professor Salins). What about the articles of the creed? According to our author, one is required to esteem the founding documents of our country, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It appears, however, that the good professor himself has at best a tenuous grasp of these works. He informs us that "[u]nder the new constitutional order of the United States, this policy [of turning immigrants into citizens] meant conferring on immigrants the civil liberties of the Bill of Rights, including the right to vote" [!] (p. 21). Perhaps Salins would be kind enough to produce the passage from the Bill of Rights that mentions a right to vote; I have been unable to locate it.

I have so far been remiss: I have left out a crucial part of Salins's view. It is not only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in which the American Idea is "enshrined" [!]; "Lincoln's magnificent Gettysburg Address" ranks with the other two documents as a "universally revered text" (p. 108). The address, "memorized by every American schoolchild," forms, along with the Declaration, "the inspirational seal of the American people" (p. 109).

One cannot help but wonder whether our author has ever heard of the South. In that region, Lincoln hardly ranks as a beloved figure. Do Southerners count as Americans?

The "contract" has a curious logical property it refers to itself. The second clause requires that one profess belief in the American Idea, and one of the provisions of that Idea is the immigrant contract. In order to qualify as a good immigrant then, you must profess belief in unlimited immigration. But I do Salins an injustice: I have understated his radicalism. Unless you accept immigration on the terms of his contract, you do not qualify as a true American. Those born in America who presume to differ from Salins about proper policy on immigration are "unassimilated." One wonders whether they may be expelled and replaced with suitably indoctrinated aliens.

One clause of the contract remains to be discussed: acceptance of the Protestant ethic. In his discussion of this, Salins sinks far below his already abysmal level of competence. He states: "[a]ccording to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, prosperity (unblemished by other sins) was a sure sign that a person was a member of the elect, entitled to pass through the gates of Heaven. To prosper, one had to succeed in work. To succeed in work, one had to labor long and hard and save the fruits of one's labor" (p. 126). One gathers that Salins's acquaintance with salvation by faith, a key doctrine stressed by all the Protestant Reformers, does not run very deep. He appears to have confused Calvin with Reverend Ike.

Immigration poses many difficult problems, but I cannot think that Professor Salins's book contributes in the slightest to their solution. Why does this ignoramus presume to instruct others?


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