Syrian Refugees and the Wisdom of Michael Oakeshott

By Jerry Kammer on November 23, 2015

Those of us who push back against the effort to label all concerns about immigration as a mask for bigotry and irrationality can be grateful for the widespread criticism of those trying to apply a similar smear to those who oppose President Obama's plan to welcome tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Even Kevin Drum, a writer at Mother Jones magazine, which has a claim to being the mother of all liberal magazines, has pushed back. While disputing worries about possible terrorist infiltration of the refugee stream, Drum advised that the concern seems so common-sensical to many Americans that, "Mocking it is the worst thing we could do. It validates all the worst stereotypes about liberals that we put political correctness ahead of national security."

It also illustrates a failure that is widespread among liberal intellectuals: a smug intolerance for those who don't share their post-national enthusiasm for tearing down borders and abolishing the nation state. Such liberals have no appreciation for the observation of British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott that:

to be to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

Here's why I think the current debate is so difficult. It brings two fundamental values into conflict.

First is the value of national self-protection against an enemy eager to radicalize young Muslim refugees struggling for a sense of identity in the United States. It is a value rooted in a commitment to defending our national community by guarding against disruptive intrusion.

Second is what I think of as our country’s cultural secret sauce. It is our belief that newcomers should be encouraged to identify as Americans by adopting our fundamental belief in democracy and equal opportunity. We want them to be part of our national project, not estranged from it.

Fortunately, our national story and culture are so strong that people from around the world yearn to be Americans. But this yearning can be soured if potential immigrants feel that our motivation is not simply to defend what we have but rather to reject who they are. They understand the need for order. It motivates many of them to leave their countries and come to ours. What they don’t understand is outright hostility to their religion or their culture.

So our challenge is to exercise our instinct for self-protection without insulting the dignity of others. It is to respond to the fears of Americans at a time of international turmoil without engaging in the fear-mongering that creates allies for the vicious thugs who prefer mayhem to anything we hold dear.