Who is Cultural Proximate to the U.S.?

There is a genuine rift in conservative thought on immigration, illustrated by contrasting takes on the National Conservatism Conference speech of Amy Wax.

Much of the commentary on Wax’s comments have been reactive in the bad sense, accusing her of racism. I’ve looked at the most controversial parts (I’m having trouble finding a transcript or, now, even the video on the Conference’s YouTube channel) and I summarize it thus:

We should have an policy bias toward immigrants who are culturally proximate to us rather than culturally distant. That means a bias in favor of  Western European immigrants. And that — let’s face it — will mean a disproportionately white batch of immigrants, though race is not our real criterion.

My three representative conservative takes are those of Rod Dreher, David French and Mark Bauerlein.

Dreher came out first:

I can see some problems with Wax’s proposal. What does it mean to be “Western”? Russia is a European country, and a Christian country, and a country of white people … but it’s not really Western. Should we limit Russian immigration? Ghana is an African nation that is vastly more Christian than, say, Sweden, but it’s certainly not Western, and it’s in the Third World. Would America be better off with a policy that favored atheist Swedes over Christian Ghanaians? Asians — South Asians and East Asians — are not Western, obviously, not Christian, and many of them do not live in what we consider the First World. Yet they tend to be “model migrants,” in that their children obey the laws, study hard, and achieve professional success disproportionately. Is an immigration system that puts them at a disadvantage over Europeans better for America?

It’s certainly debatable, but one of Wax’s points is that we can’t even talk about it, because it is widely assumed that any immigration system that results in disproportionate racial impact is racist and therefore bad.

French came close behind. For him, Amy Wax’s speech wasn’t racist, but it was wrong:

  1. Western Europeans are not necessarily more culturally proximate because there’s “quite a bit of evidence that nonwhite immigrants (including nonwhite immigrants from developing countries) do very well in a key measure of American assimilation — economic industry.”
  2. Western Europeans are decidedly less culturally proximate insofar as “American culture and European culture have been drifting apart for decades on a key metric — religiosity. Secular nationalists may not care about this, but European-biased immigration is secular-biased immigration, and that will alter American culture in appreciable ways.”
  3. “[O]ne of the core, virtuous objectives of the new conservative nationalism [is] social cohesion [but] the most polarized population in America is the white population.”

Bauerlein just appeared in print on Wax, and he clearly implies that she’s right about Western European cultural proximity:

A cardinal premise of leftist thought is that cultural traits run deep. They reach down, past behavior, to unconscious values and concepts, shaping how we think. I went to graduate school in the 1980s, when critical race theorists and postcolonialists talked about “Western ways of knowing.” …

This is why we must take the outrage over Amy Wax’s remarks at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington earlier this month with a grain of salt …

What her detractors haven’t addressed, however, is Ms. Wax’s assertion of the deep acculturation that makes people who they are. This must be respected. The great divide Ms. Wax identifies is between peoples that have passed through the Enlightenment and peoples that haven’t. Immigrants from countries that don’t have a tradition of individual rights, free markets and fair elections must undergo a firm and steady induction if those mores are to sink into their souls. Social conservatives and identity-politics leftists agree on this: People can’t easily drop their heritage and adopt another one.

It is liberals and libertarians who think that migration is a smooth process. They imagine a world of free and flexible people who pick and choose the elements that will form their characters. Neither conservatives nor progressives trust this cosmopolitan faith. They know that culture molds character.

Ms. Wax’s great sin in the eyes of the left wasn’t her recognition of cultural differences and incompatibilities. It was, instead, her frank declaration of the West’s cultural superiority …

This outspoken praise for the West is anathema to the left, but not because the left hates the idea of cultural superiority. Far from it. The left most definitely believes in cultural superiority—but the kind that runs the other way. To them, the West isn’t a story of the advancement of rights and scientific knowledge, as Ms. Wax believes. It is a record of exploitation, enslavement, colonialism, environmental devastation and imperialism against suffering and benign non-Western peoples. When we speak of the West, the U.S. and whites, we must confess guilt.

This is a dogma in academia, advocacy groups and the Democratic Party. No, it’s a taboo. It has extraordinary force, too, having intimidated Republicans for decades. Amy Wax violated it. She’s not afraid. The left knows it, and if she isn’t punished, she may inspire others.

This debate doesn’t neatly fit the other rift, that between procedural liberalism (David French) and “virtue conservatism” or “substantive good conservatism” (Sohrab Amahri). Which group has which preference? I think Bauerlein and Amahri are converging in general, but would Amahri join French in prefering the black and brown Pentecostals?

For the time being, though, Amy Wax wins: we conservatives are talking, and disagreeing, about ideas that were taboo very, very recently.

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