The Temper of Our Time – IV


In his short book of essays, The Temper of Our Time, the longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer deals with immigration, but not as an economic phenomenon so much as a cultural one.  He sees the mass immigration to the US as part of a general upheaval and transitional phase of mankind.  Hoffer compares this to personal adolescence, the acquisition of a new identity as one adapts to new situations:

It is fascinating to see how in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century the wholesale transformation of peasants into industrial workers gave rise not only to nationalist and revolutionary movements giving the promise of a new life, but also to mass rushes to the new world, particularly the United States, where the European peasant was literally processed into a new man – made to learn a new language, adopt a new mode of dress, a new diet, and often a new name.  One has the impression that immigration to a foreign country was more effective in adjusting the European peasant to a new life than migration to the industrial cities of his native country.  Internal migration cannot impart a sense of rebirth and new identity.  Even now, the turning of Italian and Spanish peasants into industrial workers is probably realized more smoothly by immigration to Germany and France than by transference to Milan and Barcelona.

When we look at immigration primarily as an economic phenomenon, we tend to look at the effect on our society and culture first.  Hoffer here is as concerned with the effect of migration on the individual doing the migrating, as he is with whether or not there’s a job waiting for him.

I think he unwittingly makes the case for some limitations, possibly some severe ones, especially as regards immigration from Mexico, as much for the good of the Mexicans who come here, as for protectionist purposes.

Mass homogeneous immigration has allowed the immigrants to, in some ways, bring their society with them.  If it were just a matter of taco trucks, nobody would much care; who doesn’t like more diverse cuisine?  But it’s also a matter of trying to forego what Hoffer sees as an obligatory shock treatment.

For Hoffer, the sense of (sometimes forcibly) shedding an old identity in favor of a new one is dislocating, but it’s a necessary psychological part of the process.  That he fits better with his new society is a by-product of his being freed from his old habits and modes of thought and action.

Walter Russell Mead’s fine book, Special Providence, discusses what Mead sees as four broadly-defined schools of American foreign policy.  One of them, the Jacksonian, is the most nationalist, but also one of the most distinctively American – we don’t want to fight, but if we need to, let’s beat the crap out of them so we can get home.  (Those poor whites of Hillbilly Elegy fame tend to be Jacksonian).

Mead points out that past immigrant groups, mostly but not exclusively European, have often confounded and disappointed the urban and coastal elites by moving to the suburbs and becoming among the fiercest Jacksonians in the US.

I don’t see any reason why the current wave of Latino immigrants shouldn’t be able to follow a similar pattern.  But Hoffer makes the case that as long as the numbers are large and assimilation (as opposed to acculturation) is discouraged, it won’t.