Culture clash

The “culture clash” argument is an important argument, or rather cluster of arguments, offered against immigration. There are two different versions of the argument. Some people make only one version of the argument, some make the other, and some make both:

  • The culture of immigrants is objectively inferior to the culture of natives, and/or is objectively harmful in some important respects. Immigrants would thus sully the culture of natives as well. For more on this, see dysfunctional immigrant culture.
  • Cultural heterogeneity itself is an undesirable thing because of its effects on national unity, civic and social participation, economic growth, and peace. It creates assimilation problems for the immigrants.

This page focuses on the cultural heterogeneity aspect.

For instance, in his book Alien Nation: Common Sense about America’s Immigration Disaster (available here), Peter Brimelow writes:

Over three years after I first met Julian Simon, I was having dinner with him to debate our differences. We got on to the question of whether multiethnic and multiracial societies can work.

“Yugoslavia . . . ,” I began, thinking of the Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian war that had exploded into the headlines.

“Yes! Yugoslavia!” he interrupted gleefully. “That supports my case, doesn’t it?”

I was so surprised that I felt my jaw drop — something that really happens, I find, and not just in cartoons. It took me several seconds to realize what he meant:

• The former Yugoslavs are fighting despite the fact that they are all the same race (white). Indeed, they are all members of the same general ethnic group (South Slav). Even the language spoken by
the two major contestants (Serbs and Croats) is basically the same (although written, respectively, in Cyrillic and Roman script).

So — Simon is saying— you can’t blame all civil conflict on the divisive results on nontraditional immigration. Homogeneity is no guarantee against strife.

All right, all right! For the record, let me admit (in fact, assert): you can’t blame everything on immigration or on racial differences.

But who said you could? The fact remains that the Yugoslav spectacle can only be seen as chilling — and as a Horrid Warning about current U.S. immigration policy. The differences between the Yugoslavs are indeed relatively minor — certainly compared to the differences between the American nation of 1965 and the immigrants who are now arriving. And that’s the point Those minor differences were still enough to tear the country apart.

I’ve never doubted Simon’s debating skills, and this episode left me with even greater respect for his ingenuity.

I just worry about whether he’s right.

Of course, our follow-up question, about whether multiracial societies work, is a fairly shocking one.

It’s actually much more shocking than the original question — why do the immigration enthusiasts want to transform America?

No one ever thinks to ask that. But asking about whether multiracial societies work is quite obviously a direct challenge to America’s recently established religion. And, since America has been biracial
since Colonial times, it appears to imply a pessimistic view of the prospects for black-white harmony — the greatest problem of American life (until the post- 1965 immigration).

But there’s a plain fact to be considered: the evidence that multiracial societies work is — what shall we say? — not very encouraging.

There have, of course, been multiracial societies (strictly speaking, usually multiethnic) in the past. Famous examples are the Roman Empire, or the Arab Caliphate, which briefly ruled from Spain to Samarkand in the name of Muhammad. But these were old-fashioned despotisms, not modern democracies. And, even so,
ethnic divisions still kept surfacing. The ancestors of the modern Iranians repeatedly rebelled against Arab rule, although they tended to justify their revolts in terms of a convenient Islamic heresy.

Heterogeneous empires that lasted, such as the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium, which survived until 1453, were generally based on a core ethnic group — distinctly like our old friend, the “racial hegemony of white Americans.” In the case of Byzantium, for instance, this core group was Greek.

In modern times, there has been a lot of seductive murmuring about internationalism, united nations, new world orders, and so on. But, meanwhile, the role of ethnicity and race has proved to be elemental — absolute — fundamental. Look at the record, working back from the present:

• Eritrea, a former Italian colony ruled by Ethiopia since 1952, revolt begins in 1960s, finally splits off 1993.

• Czechoslovakia, founded 1918, splits into Czech and Slovak ethnic components, 1993.

• Soviet Union, founded 1922, splits into multiple underlying ethnic components, 1991. (Some of the underlying components are themselves promptly threatened with further ethnic fragmentation — Georgia, Moldova.)

• Yugoslavia, founded 1918, splits into multiple underlying ethnic components 1991. (An earlier breakup averted by imposition of royal dictatorship, 1929.)

• Lebanon, founded 1920, progressive destabilization caused by its Muslim component’s faster growth results in civil war, effective partition under Syrian domination, after 1975.

• Cyprus, independent 1960, repeated violence between Greeks and Turks results in military intervention by Turkey, effective partition with substantial ethnic cleansing, 1974.

• Pakistan, independent 1947, ethnically distinct eastern component rebels, splits off after Indian military intervention, 1971.

• Malaysia, independent 1963, political conflict between ethnic Malays and Chinese, Chinese-dominated Singapore expelled, 1965.

And these are just the cases where ethnic and racial differences have actually succeeded in breaking a country up. Many other cases are not yet resolved, because of often-bloody repression.

Here’s a partial list: India — protracted separatist revolts by Sikhs, Kashmiris, northeastern hill tribes. Sri Lanka — protracted separatist revolt by Tamils. Turkey, Iraq, Iran — separatist revolts
by Kurds. Sudan, Chad— endemic warfare between Arab north, black south. Nigeria — secession of Ibo-majority “Biafra” crushed in 1967-70 civil war. Liberia — English-speaking descendants of
freed American slaves overthrown by tribal forces 1981, civil war renders more than half the population refugees. Ulster — protracted campaign by members of province’s Catholic Irish minority to force the Ulster Protestant (“Scotch-Irish”) majority to accept its transfer to the Irish Republic. Some of these conflicts have been very violent — over 1 million deaths each in Nigeria and Sudan.

And there’s a whole further category of disputes that are being conducted, mostly, through political means. For example: Belgium — Flemish and Walloon; Canada — French and English; even Brazil — a movement in the predominantly white southern states Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parand to separate from
the mixed-race north.

What a record! You would think it would inspire at least some caution about the prospects for multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural harmony within the same political framework.

But you would be wrong. The recent record seems to have made very little impression on the American political elite. (Nor, to be fair, on the Canadian or Western European political elites either. Both have remained fanatical about their respective transnational federations.) Which suggests the sheer power of their will to believe. On this subject, wish has replaced thought.

Indeed, despite all the failed federations and multiethnic mayhem of the past few decades, the most frequent reaction to any questioning of the possibility of multiethnic harmony is still “What about
Switzerland?” The recent record just doesn’t count.

OK, what about Switzerland?

• Its ethnic groups, German, French, Italian and Romansh, are racially identical and culturally very similar.

• The Swiss ethnic groups are fragmented into a number of small, separate political units called “cantons,” each of which is firmly under that group’s control. It’s as if American whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all lived in and controlled several separate U.S. states. All but four of the twenty-six Swiss cantons and “half-cantons” are unilingual.

• Religion cuts across ethnic lines. For example, during the debate that led to the creation in 1979 of a new French-language canton in the Jura region of the German-language Berne canton, the substantial minority of French Protestants were notably less enthusiastic than were the French Catholics.

• In Switzerland as a whole, the German speakers safely predominate. They constitute some 65 percent of Switzerland’s population and control seventeen cantons. The French speakers, the next largest group, comprise less than 20 percent and control four of its cantons. Italian speakers, less than 15 percent, control one canton. Romansh speakers, about 1 percent, share the one trilingual canton. Three cantons are bilingual.

• The Swiss ethnic balance has been stable.

• And anyway, there was a Swiss Civil War (in 1847). Furthermore the establishment of the French-language canton in the Jura was preceded by years of minor, but nasty, terrorist violence.

Conclusion: Switzerland is hardly a practical model for U.S. ethnic policy.


Sound gloomy? Not particularly. For two reasons:

• ungloomy reason #1 : In politics, problems with no answers don’t always have to be answered. Sometimes they can just be accommodated.

There are circumstances in which people’s differences can be forgotten, or at least contained. The United States has actually been quite good at getting moderately diverse irnmigrant groups to live together. It was working on its black-white problem.

But this relative American success did not amount to a Declaration of Independence from history. It depended on time, numbers, degree of difference . . . and, above all, on some very specific policies, like “Americanization,” which tended to swamp all difference with a common American civic culture.

And these policies have now been largely abandoned. (For more on this, see Chapter 11, pages 216-19.) Still, they can be restored.

• ungloomy reason #2: Most human impulses have good and bad applications. The impulse that causes men to go to war over their racial etc. differences is closely related to the impulse that causes them to protect and feed their families.

The difficulties posed by human differences are depressing only if you find human nature itself unacceptable. Unfortunately, much of the American political elite does. So, through immigration, they insist on making the country’s problems worse — quite unnecessarily.

It’s tempting to say that their passionate will to believe in the likelihood of multiracial and multiethnic harmony is noble. At least, they say so themselves. Repeatedly.

But what is so noble, or moral, about insisting on gambling the future of a nation on an immigration policy that reflects a patently flawed view of human nature? Particularly when the alternative policy is perfectly practical and moral.

Good fences do make good neighbors — in every sense of the word “good.” (For more on the moral issues raised by immigration, see Chapter 13.)

"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan