There’s not a whole lot written about identity politics and immigration that makes much sense. From the right come claims of apocalyptic doom, with a violent caravan headed our way to rape, pillage, plunder and kill. From the left, comes the kumbaya chorus, chirping about our obligation to care for any and all who trundle across our order. In the meantime, every life matters, unless, of course, you’re a white male, in which case the best thing you can do is shut up and listen.
What’s needed is sanity.
I found some in Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and Recognition (2018).
Fukuyama’s thesis is simple: Folks want recognition. When they don’t get it, they become resentful. Consider the role of honor in Ancient Greece. Warriors were given special recognition for their willingness to place their lives on the line. In the Republic, Plato recognized the role of spirit, or thymos, in the class of guardians – those dedicated not to the life of reason, the world of the philosopher-kings, or to the mundane task of producing goods and services. Warriors, or guardians, are driven by a sense of honor, or recognition of their worth by others.
As readers of the Republic know, the city he imagined was merely a device for illustrating what a well-ordered soul looks like. We all crave recognition. The long arc of western civilization is the struggle to assure equal regard for all.
But a funny thing happened on the road to modernity. The distinction between inner worth and external appearance in the world that was once was tethered to a spiritual conception of life’s worth and meaning has yielded to a secular commitment to equality in the here and now. The accelerating pace of claims for equal treatment yields new and novel claims that are, frankly, wearying to behold.
We’ve taken an odd turn. We value diversity for its own sake, in part because we lack the means of distinguishing better from worse. The result is atomization of society into a series of ever smaller, and some might say, ever more bizarre tribes.
I overstate Fukuyama’s claims.
Let’s look at his own words.
Is diversity an end itself?
“[D]iversity cannot be the basis for identity in and of itself; it is like saying that our identity is to have no identity; or rather that we should get used to our having nothing in common and emphasize our narrow ethnic and racial identities instead,” he writes.
A community is more than a mere collection of individuals grazing on the commons. A community is bound together by common conceptions of right, as Cicero once said.
“[We] need … an understanding of positive virtues, not bound to particular groups, that are needed to make … democracy work,” Fukuyama states.
Where do such values come from?
Fukuyama doesn’t say. He merely makes a plea for the future. We need “citizenship and the exercise of certain virtues,” he claims. “While the United States has benefited from diversity,” he writes, “it cannot build its national identity around diversity as such. Identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human equality. Americans respect these ideas; the country is justified in excluding from citizenship those who reject them.”
This is almost heady stuff. Fukuyama is playing John the Baptist; he sets a prophetic expectation without offering a glimpse of the promised land.
But his discussion is helpful, especially with regard to immigration. Somehow he cuts through the hysteria of the left and right, drawing a bead that seems true:
“What refugees are owed is sympathy, compassion, and support. Like all moral obligations, however, these obligations need to be tempered by practical considerations of scarce resources, competing priorities, and the political sustainability of a program of support.”
“No state can undertake an unlimited obligation to protect people outside its jurisdiction, and whether the world would be better off it they all tried to do so is not clear. While countries rightly feel an obligation to shelter refugees and may welcome immigrants, such obligations are potentially costly, both economically and socially, and democrats need to balance them against other priorities.”
Surprisingly, no one seems to comment on the fatal flaw in our immigration policies. We permit skilled and talented immigrants to come here from around the world, thus depleting other nations of the best their fellow citizens have to offer. Is it any wonder less talented folks clamor for a place among us? What would happen if we recognized the reality of scarce resources, and encouraged the talented tenths of the world to build a better world in their own backyard?
I watched the mid-term elections with a sense of foreboding. Where do we go from here?, I wondered. 2020 fast approaches, and with it I am sure of one thing: Another whirlwind season of political blather devoid of substance but chock full of emotion. Both the left and the right are tedious masters of tired tropes.
I urge you to read Fukuyama. There will be a tomorrow. That much is almost certain. Whether we can make it one we care to live in is the question. Francis Fukuyama warns of the excesses of identity politics severed from claims of values common to all, and he warns of a naïve sense of globalism.
What comes next?
I haven’t the faintest idea. But for the first time in a long time, I became hopeful reading Fukuyama’s book. You should read it, too.