January 21, 2016

January 21, 2016 | Commentary on Political Thought, Immigration

Immigration, Citizenship, and Cosmopolitanism

The immigration crisis in America is the physical manifestation of our nation’s intellectual confusion. The growing influence of dogmatic cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism has caused chaos in the public mind, which is reflected in the chaos we see on the ground.

Somewhere between eleven and twelve million illegal immigrants live in the United States. In border states, the problem is especially noticeable. Millions of people violated the law in coming here and continue violating the law by remaining here. The federal government will do nothing about it, and the states are powerless to do anything about it. The result is the halfway house in which we live: Americans are losing confidence in the justice of our laws and the public’s right to make demands on its government.

As the philosophical premises of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism have become more and more widely accepted, Americans have lost sight of the real meaning and value of citizenship. This loss is at the heart of our nation’s immigration crisis.

Citizens of the World

Cosmopolitanism claims that we are first and foremost human beings, and that our first allegiance is to the species rather than to a nation, city, or family. As President Obama said in 2008, he is a “citizen of the world.” Multiculturalism complements cosmopolitanism by asserting that all cultures can peacefully coexist because there are no true or lasting differences among them. All apparent differences are merely unenlightened prejudices that can be subordinated under the ideal of gentle togetherness.

From this point of view, national borders seem both selfish and arbitrary, and thereby lose their respectability. If we do not belong to a nation, we do not owe it loyalty, nor can it in turn make demands on us in the form of duties. Borders arbitrarily and unjustly favor one people over the alleged singular reality—humanity. Cosmopolitanism wears down the self-confidence required to assert rightful possession of a nation by its citizens, subsuming citizens in vague, abstract feelings toward humanity.

As Tocqueville observed, our cosmopolitanism is in part an effect of our belief in equality:

If [democratic man] comes to raise his eyes higher [than himself], he then perceives only the immense image of society or the still greater figure of the human race. He has only very particular and very clear ideas, or very general and very vague notions; the intermediate space is empty.

Today, we flatter ourselves that cosmopolitanism demonstrates our sophistication, but Tocqueville sees it as a sign of our intellectual distortion. Moreover, he adds, “In democratic societies where men are all very small and very much alike, each one, while viewing himself, sees all the others at that instant.” That is, not enlightenment but individual smallness assists in popularizing this view.

Cosmopolitanism’s Failed Idealism

Given humanity’s varied ideals, habits, and levels of development, becoming a species being requires more than just having a shared human form. It requires inventing an ideal to unify the species. Within the framework of today’s cosmopolitanism, that unifying ideal has become the capacity to suffer and feel pain. The ever-expanding list of human rights, for example, is derived from this common capacity to suffer. Under this ideal, we are not dissimilar from animals: they, like us, have bodies and therefore feel pain. As such, animals now have a share in rights. The alleviation of suffering becomes the standard by which to judge all policies.

Contrary to these claims, the satisfaction of bodily desires alone may not lead to peace, prosperity, and togetherness. In fact, it may lead to pettiness, cruelty, and nihilistic assertion instead. In Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator observes:

Give [man] such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the noncessation of world history—and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty. He will even risk his gingerbread, and wish on purpose for the most pernicious nonsense, the most noneconomical meaninglessness, solely in order to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious, fantastical element.

Man loves his pride and vanity more than he loves humanity. In fact, he may positively rebel against the cause of humanity to satisfy his pride—so as not to believe himself an indeterminate nothing. The shallow idealism built on satiation hides the seeds of its own destruction. Nations justifying their existence on this principle alone have neither inner strength nor confidence in themselves.

Politics and Character

Our passions and minds must be educated through particular laws and faiths, not vague hopes and abstractions. Traditions, duties, ideals cannot exist without attachment to particular communities—one cannot love an abstraction like humanity. Love requires not only some experience of the object of one's love, but belief in its goodness, something impossible to achieve with humanity. Indeed, love is tested through willingness to sacrifice on its behalf, and few causes are as neglected as that of humanity.

Among other reasons, political communities are necessary to subordinate and sublimate human passions and thereby order man’s character. An example of the failures of cosmopolitanism to order character is seen in its attempt to govern that great enemy of peace, gentleness, and politeness: thumos, or what has today been diminished into “aggression.”

Lately, our mode of taming aggression is through bureaucratic punishments, therapy, and pharmaceuticals—all with a view to extricating it from man’s nature. But in well-ordered political communities, aggression is sublimated through various channels that serve the public—a particular public. One mode by which this is done is military service, which ennobles aggression by attaching it to idealism while making it useful. What might otherwise culminate in self-destruction or even criminality is given purpose.

A Nation Worthy of Love

Cosmopolitanism may lead to other, even greater problems. Montesquieu’s observations on the troubles arising from ethnic factions under Roman rule are useful. After Rome had conquered the peoples of the Italian peninsula, their rebellions forced Rome into giving them the privileges of citizenship. These peoples were absorbed but unassimilated into the Roman way of life. Montesquieu explains:

After this, Rome was no longer a city whose people had but a single spirit, a single love of liberty, a single hatred of tyranny . . . Once the peoples of Italy became its citizens, each city brought to Rome its genius, its particular interests, and its dependence on some great protector. The distracted city no longer formed a complete whole. And since citizens were such only by a kind of fiction, since they no longer had the same magistrates, the same walls, the same gods, the same temples, and the same graves, they no longer saw Rome with the same eyes, no longer had the same love of country, and Roman sentiments were no more.

Today, cosmopolitanism appears to be gentle and generous to many, but may in fact culminate in the destruction of the sentiments and unity necessary to caring for the common good, the creation of factional hatreds, and the denigration of citizens’ self-confidence.

As such, immigration policy should not depend on the numerical proportion of citizens versus immigrants. Rather, sensible policy contains a judgment regarding the self-confidence of a host people to assimilate its immigrants. Citizens should see their nation, as Montesquieu says, with “the same eyes.” They should possess “a single spirit, a single love of liberty,” without which factions vie for power alone. As we have seen in Europe, without unified sentiments, successful assimilation is impossible. Such assimilation would require reverence for common ideals. In America, this means reverence for our Constitution and the virtues presupposed in it—civility as opposed to barbarity; industriousness and independence as opposed to dependence and slavishness.

Among our cosmopolitan elites, it has become fashionable to view society as merely a network of individuals ensconced in systems and institutions. But a nation viewed this way has no inner strength, cannot make demands on our loyalty—nor is it worthy of love, by citizens old or new.

Arthur Milikh is assistant director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.

This piece originally appeared in The Public Discourse.

About the Author

Arthur Milikh Associate Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics