Postmodernism Skews the Immigration Debate

Extract from The Jewish Stake in America's Changing Demography: Reconsidering a Misguided Immigration Policy By Stephen Steinlight October 2001. In 2013 Dr. Steinlight's observations are even more true today with raging immigration debate and two Muslim immigrants blowing up the Boston Marathon.

There are, of course, within the opinion-making set, increasing numbers of trendy philosophical internationalists, mostly privileged academicians protected from real world pressures by tenure, who strenuously object to the notion that one must select and emphasize one aspect of the multiple cultural and national identities human beings possess.

Though still a relatively small fraternity, one bumps into them more and more at foundation-sponsored conferences on immigration policy. According to their worldview, such hoary notions as citizenship or whole-hearted assimilation - God forbid patriotism - are historically outmoded, embarrassing concepts.

In a shrinking, porous world with huge populations on the move, we are told, they have little to recommend them, and we should feel greater and greater comfort with multiple simultaneous identities, juggling conflicting national and cultural allegiances, and the attenuation of specific national loyalties. Such thinkers not only have no problem with multiple citizenship, but they see it as an ideal, the embodiment of a higher form of global consciousness, the ultimate expression of New Age cosmopolitanism.

The great masses of ordinary humanity across the world have no such perspective: tragically for themselves and for those who are often victimized by them, they continue to be driven by various forms of tribalism, including the most violent and extreme sort. This is true from lethal interethnic clashes in soccer arenas in every continent, and from the mass killing fields of Africa, to the killing fields of the Balkans.

Ethnocentrism has proven remarkably enduring into the new millennium; those who counted it out, who thought humanity was ready for some higher notion of fraternity, have been shown to have been utterly mistaken in their predictions. Ethnocentrism is the undisputed world champion.

The great masses, increasingly on the move, are also driven by economic necessity, especially the billions living in dire poverty. For better or for worse, these people have no coherent global ideology about supplanting the tribe or the nation; they don't have the luxury to sit back and expound on such themes. But there is a cadre of dilettantes with academic and law degrees who proffer a postmodern philosophy that sees the nation state, even open ones with pluralistic values, as an anachronism.

They constitute an intellectual cheering section for the breakdown of law, historical notions of what makes for nation states and civil society, civic traditions, the violation of the sanctity of borders that once commanded unquestioned assent, and use a term like patriotism only jokingly. They lend the present crisis the veneer of a conceptual breakthrough.

Dr. Stephen Steinlight was for more than five years Director of National Affairs (domestic policy) at the American Jewish Committee. For the past two and a half years he has been a Senior Fellow at AJC. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Fractious Nation: Race, Class and Culture in America at the End of the Twentieth Century (UC-Berkeley Press), and he has recently been appointed editor of South Asia: In Review. The views expressed in this essay do not reflect the current policy position of AJC with regard to immigration.