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Henry Thornton - SMERSH: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Immigration and its Discontents Date 20/09/2004
Member rating 4/5
Quadrant editorial for September 2004 (No 67).
By PP McGuinness Email / Print

Immigration remains one of the most sensitive subjects of public debate both in Australia and in the world along with the factitious issue of “asylum seekers” and attracts the same kind of irrational passions and mindless prejudices. The debate is muddied, deliberately, by those who for whatever ideological or other reasons, wish to misrepresent the positions of their antagonists. It is possible to sensibly debate current and future levels of immigration without being either “for” or “against” immigration in general, but most of those who do are bundled into one category or another by the opponents. The low point in this kind of thing was reached twenty years ago in the assault on Professor Geoffrey Blainey for his commonsense remarks that it was advisable for government to take account of any discontents in the community about the composition of the immigration intake. To point this out is not to oppose either immigration overall or Asian immigration in particular, but to stress the need for policy initiatives to deal with such discontents before they become serious. This need not involve any lowering in the total rate of immigration or any change in the composition of immigration.

These days the emphasis has moved from Asian immigration to Muslim immigration. There has been the same attempt to confuse the issues and close off debate by denying that there is any validity in any concerns about the intake of Muslims and the impact of Muslim immigrants in the community. As a whole, the Muslim intake will include many, perhaps nearly all, people who will live peacefully in the community. As with past intakes of immigrants, over several generations they will become absorbed into Australia and if not the children at least the grandchildren of the overseas-born will begin to intermarry with those of other national, racial and religious origins. The latest issue of Bob Birrell’s invaluable journal People and Place, published by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, includes an analysis, “Intermarriage in Australia: patterns by ancestry, gender and generation” by Siew-Ean Khoo which establishes this steady “assimilation”. The real question is whether the same pattern will prevail with the Muslims, and if not, whether that matters. One could point to Orthodox Jewish communities which strongly resist marrying out and other forms of assimilation, but nevertheless live in perfect amity with other Australians. But it may be that with the current wave of Islamic fanatical fundamentalism there may not be a willingness amongst some Muslims in Australia to accept full participation in the Australian community. Indeed the demand for Islamic schools in Britain and increasing demand for Shariya law rather than civil law is one manifestation of a refusal to live in amity with others. Unlike orthodox Judaism, Islam is often a proselytising religion which encourages intolerance of those who reject it. (As indeed Christianity has been in some of its manifestations.) While such considerations may not be strongly present in Australia, it is nevertheless unwise to promote Muslim immigration without taking potential problems into account. This is not a conclusive argument against Muslim immigration, but against the kind of mindless boosterism which characterises much of the pro-immigration lobby. It perhaps needs to be added that to express scepticism about future immigration does not involve being “anti-immigrant”, or taking any measures against those who  have already migrated into Australia. It often seems that one may not question any aspect of the immigration program without being labelled as xenophobic or racist.

There has been an equally irrational response to a new book by Samuel Huntington, the author of the celebrated work on the clash of civilisations which while arguable in its thesis nevertheless was timely in pointing out the replacement of traditional ideological conflict by that of religious traditions – especially the opposition of Islam to the culture of the western world. Huntington’s new book is Who Are We? – the challenges to America’s national identity (Simon and Schuster). He is concerned with not so much immigration as the effects of immigration. While there is no doubt that the same kind of out-marrying and mixing of peoples is occurring in America as in Australia, the former has despite the old slogan of the “mixing pot”, developed new internal problems as a result of, not so much racial, as ethnic identification of communities. The main problem which concerns him is the impact of Hispanic, chiefly Mexican, immigrants on American society. The flow of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants has created communities in which English is hardly spoken by many, and which have clearly begun to destroy whatever cultural cohesion the United States has enjoyed.

He picks up from Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma (1944), the classic statement of the problem of the treatment of America’s black population, the concept of the “American creed”, “the essential dignity of the individual human being, of the fundamental equality of all men, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice and a fair opportunity”. One of the main features of the creed is its roots in dissenting Protestant individualism and the work ethic. This he believes to be an essential element of the American identity, and it is threatened by immigrant traditions which do not share it. Certainly fundamental individual rights are under challenge in America and the modern world by those who advocate collective rights, the supposed rights of tribes, nations, or minorities however identified. But while protestant individualism undoubtedly contributed much to the notion of individual rights and liberties which most of us feel so important, it is not today the only source of it.

More interesting, though perhaps alarmist, is Huntington’s linking of the increasing interest in ethnic and national origins amongst the descendants of immigrants with attempts to influence the American government’s policies in matters affecting them and other areas. There has always been some concern in the US about the influence of Israel on US policy through the American Jewish community. This is a real issue, but so long as that influence is exercised transparently it seems unobjectionable – undoubtedly the fate of Israel, with all its faults, is of concern to democratic countries everywhere – and we are not so long from the Holocaust not to believe that the fate of so many Jews remains a concern for us all. (While the Holocaust is often used as an all-purpose justification for Israel’s existence, and its denial is one of the more unsavoury obsessions of not just Islamist fascism but also the manifestations of the fascist mentality on the right and left everywhere, the Holocaust and the Germans must also be discussed rationally. This is why the attempted suppression of the article by Konrad Löw which we reprint in translation in this issue is disturbing.)

There are “diasporas” of all national and ethnic identities in most countries which have had substantial levels of immigration. Huntington is concerned that these are not only undermining his questionable concept of American identity, but also the autonomy of the American government. Thus he documents the way in which Mexican president Vicente Fox has encouraged the Mexican diaspora in the US to concern themselves with both Mexican and US politics, and underpin the status of illegal entrants – in effect giving them the same status as those legally accepted through the normal immigration program. The attempted use of diasporas to influence national government policy-making is not confined to the US. While in Australia we have nothing comparable to the Mexican minority, we do have a large Irish diaspora which the Irish government has drawn upon to promote closer connections between Australia and Ireland in trade and cultural matters. This has generally been quite harmless, certainly more so than the way Irish-American politicians have given support and funding to the Irish republican terrorists against Britain.Though there are small support groups for IRA terrorism in Australia they have no wider political significance. And even though there are some members of parliament in Australia who retain, secretly, the Irish passports which that country so generously distributed in past years, or who were born with them – thus defying the ruling of the High Court that such dual nationality disqualifies them – there is little evidence that this has done any real harm. It merely displays a contempt for the law.

There is a related question of whether emigrant diasporas should be permitted or encouraged to continue to participate in the politics of their countries of origin. Already some European countries advertise encouraging those of their nationals who reside in Australia to vote in the elections of their country of origin. It has been common enough for origin countries to take an interest in the welfare of their diasporas (not just governments – the Italian Communist Party long had active links with Italian communities in Australia through FILEF), but the notion that expatriates should be encouraged to take an active interest in the politics of the origin countries must lead to those countries taking a greater interest in influencing the policies of the Australian government. Huntington clearly finds this kind of thing potentially disturbing in the US, especially when the Mexican minority in the US is so rapidly growing. The Mexican government is now actively working on behalf of the welfare and residency claims of illegal entrants in California.

While some of this is inevitable when there is such ease of travel and communication between expatriate communities and their origin countries, it certainly has the potential to erode the national sovereignty of the recipient country. There is also the issue of the degree to which immigrant communities carry over into their lives in Australia the politics of their origin. This used to be a worry in Australia, but was generally unfounded (though there were exceptions, like the rivalries of those coming from the former Yugoslavia); however with the rise of Islamic fanaticism it has become a serious concern once again. This is not a matter of national identification, but of supranational religious movements. For extremists in the Muslim community to recruit fighters in movements like Al Quaeda to train in other countries as, in effect, international terrorists must harm those communities in their ordinary relations with the rest of the population.

Given such issues it is a mystery why so much effort and ideological passion is devoted to the denunciation of any debate on them which is other than wide-eyed praise of multiculturalism or so-called tolerance. There is a pro-immigration lobby which will not brook any suggestion that something short of an open door policy is desirable for Australia. Some of this comes from the simple-minded obsession with population growth. Suffice it to say that no increase in the rate of immigration would overcome the problems associated with the rising average age of the population, if only because new, young immigrants would soon resent being seen as tax-cows to maintain the living standards of native-born Australians who did not bother to save sufficiently in their own youth. The motivations of the pro-immigration lobby are more complex than this, however. They are innocent enough when it comes to a profession of faith in Australia’s capacity to absorb new immigrants, as we have done so successfully since the Second World War. Certainly while there were many sceptics about our post-War immigration program there was little serious opposition to it, and few doubt the benefits which it brought Australia. But simply to assert that there will be no problems in the future regardless of the rate or sources of the new migrants does, at this juncture, require some justification. Britain is at present experiencing considerable problems deriving from its former open door policies. And problems or no problems, there is no doubt that there was in effect a bi-partisan agreement to promote immigration without consultation with the British people. Much the same happened in France with respect to North Africans. This has produced a backlash of populist anti-immigrant feeling, as well as unpleasant groups of neo-Nazis. The Hanson phenomenon in Australia was a much milder expression of the feelings of many ordinary voters that they were being excluded from decisions affecting their future lives. (And it must be remembered that however crude the Hansonist policies, it is simply untrue that Hansonism was an expression of antagonism to immigrants already in the Australian population.)

Huntington’s discussion of mindless immigrationism is one of the reasons for the hostile reception to his book. He points to the now commonplace distinction between the “elites” and the general public and the clear differences in their attitudes to immigration. It is easy enough to dismiss the reservations of the electorate as a product of ignorance, xenophobia, fear of the unknown, unfounded fears of competition for their own jobs or whatever. Denigration of the attitudes of ordinary people is routine for the elites. But not all these concerns are totally unfounded, and when little effort is made by government to implement positive policies to cushion the impact of immigration they are understandable. So far the elites have rarely felt threatened by immigration – it was not their jobs or their favoured locations which came under pressure. It is easy to be pro-immigration when it is seen as both benevolent and unthreatening. This is changing as educated migrants threaten their jobs and prosperous immigrants move into their favoured suburbs, putting pressure on population densities. But so far there is a determinedly ideological approach to the subject. One can only speculate as to the reasons for this – it is not just a matter of humanitarian guilt feelings about Third World living standards. If migration from poor to rich countries can improve the living standards of the former without affecting those of the latter, why not exports from the poor countries and investment in them by the rich countries which raises wages? Yet there are no bitterer opponents of US investment in poor countries and US imports from them than the humanitarians of the pro-immigration elites.

One conclusion that Huntington draws is that the “liberal” elites of the US, opposing both the concept of national identity or the dominance of a “national” language and culture (though they share both) are expressing their antagonism to their own country – they see immigration as a means of breaking down the identity and cultural hegemony which they detest for ideological reasons. Their imitators in Australia and other countries have the same hostility to their own countries as well as to the United States.

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