Half Past the Month: A Hyphenated-American Appeal

October 13, 2014

by Craig Ladwig

“It’s anybody’s guess how Republicans are thinking about this (open immigration),” Barack Obama said in Los Angeles last week. “If they were thinking long-term politically, it is suicide for them not to do this.”

I hate to drag my great-grandmother into this, but she would have a point to make: Being “American” is a state of mind, an apparently changing one.

My grandmother, please know, was not a model citizen. She spoke only German. She did not show any interest in being nationalized. She never rose to the level of illegal alien or even undocumented alien. In fact, during the war years, she carried a card identifying her as an “enemy” alien. Worse, she was a Democrat.

Yet, she somehow “got it,” as they say — got what it means to be an American with the half-million other Germans who spread out across the Midwest and Great Plains during the last half of the 19th century. A son would be elected a sheriff. A grandson would be a decorated U.S. Navy aviator. Several others would make their mark as corporate executives, bankers, farmers and such. America offered her — or, more to the point, her children — something better.

“Any other country might have been changed in its very essence as English colonists were replaced by German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Scandinavian, Asian and Latin immigrants, all with their own motives, culture and needs,” writes the political scientist James Q. Wilson. “But it did not happen here. The immigrants became more like America and less like their native countries.”

What makes the immigration discussion infuriating is that Americans today, however documented, are confused about that “American culture,” about that “something better,” and nobody in political leadership seems willing to explain it to them.

They are promised rights and legal status, plus free education, healthcare and stuff, if they can only manage to step onto American soil. But they aren’t stupid; that can’t make any sense to them. Nowhere else in the world works like that. They must wonder if that is what “American exceptionalism” means.

That is not what it means, and any such interpretation should be aggressively written out of local and national policy. We offer something better because Americans, regardless of DNA profile or even citizenship status, are inheritors of a thousand-year-old revelation that laws should not be made, nor taxes levied, except by consent of the governed. That wisdom has been perfected in our constitution to direct that, unless our elected assemblies make some action expressly and narrowly illegal, it is assumed to be legal.

The opposite is the case almost everywhere else, including my ancestral Germany and the rest of continental Europe. And that has made the difference. It is why jobs, investment and opportunity have been plentiful here by any comparison, at least for those willing to appreciate Common Law (simple genius) and to learn English (maddeningly difficult).

“Ours is the civilization that made the state the servant rather than the master of the individual, that taught the world constitutional freedom,” writes Dan Hannan, British historian and member of the European Parliament.

That should resonate among those of my great-grandmother’s ilk, those “yearning to breathe free” today. But again, fewer Americans fully believe it themselves. Our most prestigious colleges no longer teach it or even allow its sentiment to be freely expressed on their campuses. Instead, they institutionalize envy.

Many of us, perhaps a majority now, dismiss our prosperity as a matter of fertile soil, temperate climate, racial or religious privilege, class exploitation or just plain geopolitical luck. How, really, can newcomers be expected to think differently?

This president, oddly and tragically, is working hard to make sure they don’t.

The author is editor of The Indiana Policy Review.

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