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Assimilation and its discontents

Mexifornia: A State of Becoming; Victor Davis Hanson; Encounter Books: 150 pp., $21.95

July 06, 2003|Frederick R. Lynch | Frederick R. Lynch is author of "The Diversity Machine" and associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.


A State of Becoming

Victor Davis Hanson

Encounter Books: 150 pp., $21.95


In the 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills challenged scholars to study the terrain where biography, history and social structure intersect. Fifty years later, Victor Davis Hanson, a prolific classics professor and military historian at Cal State Fresno, has taken up just such an enterprise in a short memoir-analysis, "Mexifornia." Six generations of Hansons have lived in rural Selma, Calif., a world writ small in the wider drama of demographically driven social change.

California annually attracts about 283,000 legal immigrants (34% from Mexico), and a majority of its 500,000 births are to immigrant mothers. Perhaps 4 million illegal immigrants live in California; no one really knows. Public debate of this complex, radioactive issue is blocked by the perceptual gap between elites and rank-and-file citizens. Elites, living within insulated communities, have a more benign view of immigration, one reinforced in academe and the media. "Mexifornia" offers a common-folk counterpoint. Though not data-driven social science, the book is peppered with legitimate quality-of-life questions about immigration's impact upon the everyday lives of immigrants and working- or middle-class citizens of all ethnicities. Hanson's reflections on a California past that was multiethnic but not multicultural shapes private discussions about what's going on, what to do about it and where we're going.

Hanson's primary worry is steadily rising illegal immigration into a welfare state with expanding entitlements and waning commitment to the history and virtues of Western civilization, an admittedly imperfect, coercive consensus that nonetheless held together a uniquely successful, multiethnic nation. The emerging Mexifornia is becoming "not quite Mexico and not quite America either."

Despite sharp edges, Hanson repeatedly demonstrates enormous respect and empathy for immigrants. His criticisms are directed at The System, especially a left-right alliance winking at an open borders policy that first beckons, then exploits and corrupts industrious illegal immigrants. California now has an economy hooked on cheap labor that uses up millions of human beings without providing adequate public services, while a prosperous, self-absorbed middle class looks the other way because it is no longer able or willing to clean its own clothes and homes, mow its own lawns or look after its own children. There is also a subsidized "race industry" of academics and politicians who sabotage upward mobility for immigrants' children by pushing ethnic grievances and victimization, identity politics and watered-down school curriculums. Meanwhile, cultural and political leaders fail to promote assimilation.

Reforming these arrangements means "confronting a truth that is painful and might displease thousands who have grown comfortable with the present chaos. Who wants to be called an isolationist or nativist by the corporate Right, and a racist or a bigot by the multicultural Left?" (Hanson might lower the risk of such labels by dropping his use of the term "illegal aliens.")

Suppressed debate generates a public-private schizophrenia. Publicly, Californians acknowledge the new diversity; in voting booths, however, they cut taxes and impose curbs on immigration and related policies of affirmative action and bilingual education. These mixed signals reinforce mistrust between affluent citizens and the millions of impoverished, undocumented Mexican newcomers still ambivalently tied to their nearby homeland. In sociological terms, they are sojourners, temporary migrants to the U.S. who dream of returning with fortunes made; however, most seem fated to remain lifetime, marginalized noncitizens in menial jobs.

The book reads with a sober but lyrical "Our Town" quality as Hanson anchors his wider sociological analyses with visits to Selma, past and present. Hanson the historian readily admits: "Time passes. Things must change." But change into what? "I was deeply attached to the old town, now vanished. It was by no means perfect, but it was a society of laws and customs, not a frontier town like the current one in which thousands reside illegally, have no lawful documentation and assume that Selma must adapt to their ways, not the reverse."

Hanson grew up 40-some years ago in a one-bedroom farmhouse. He was one of five whites among 35 Mexican American Selma classmates in a town assimilating largely legal immigrants into a "uniculture." Selma's white, underpaid public school staff imposed a strict, near-Spartan curriculum that largely ignored ethnic variations. Yet it was remarkably effective in producing law-abiding citizens who became "insurance salesmen, mechanics, contractors, teachers, civil servants, occasionally wealthy businessmen and high government officials."

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