National Review Online, April 27, 2020
Followers of the Donatist heresy in fourth century Roman North Africa believed that the validity of the sacraments depended on the personal qualities of the clergymen who administered them. (Yes, I'll get to immigration in a second.)
I was surprised to learn that my friend Kevin Williamson is a Donatist.
Last week Kevin made sport of the president's recent tweet saying he would be suspending immigration, and of the resulting presidential proclamation, which proclaimed no such thing. Some of Kevin's characteristic spleen was warranted, some not. I've vented my own spleen about the proclamation elsewhere.
But I wanted to expand on an ironic aside in Kevin's piece that illuminates a larger problem with the immigration debate: "my friend Mark Krikorian (of the Mayflower Krikorians)". This was notable first for its laziness, something seldom encountered in Kevin's bracing and singular prose.
But the substance is what's important. Implicit is the idea that those with relatively recent immigrant ancestry can legitimately support only increases in immigration, never decreases, only loosening of the rules, never tightening. Presumably, one's skepticism about mass immigration might be appropriate if one were descended from the Pilgrim fathers — like, say Barack Obama — but if one's ancestors arrived here in the past century or two, there is, at the very least, an asterisk next to any discomfort expressed about the scale of the federal government's immigration program.
Such metaphorical Donatism suggests that genealogy is the yardstick to measure the validity of one's immigration views.
Kevin is not alone in this, of course; "How can you pull up the ladder behind you?" is one of the more common reproaches directed toward non-WASP immigration skeptics. (I get those reproaches served with a side of "But your ancestors fled the Turks!" Yes, thank you, I'm aware of that.)
Aside from the fact that Martin the Armenian (no relative, alas) arrived in Jamestown in 1618, two years before the Pilgrim latecomers spied Cape Cod, this whole line of thinking is pernicious. One's service in the armed forces, or lack thereof, has no bearing on the validity of one's views of military policy. Opinions about agricultural subsidies do not become more or less sound by one's being raised on a farm or in an urban tenement.
This perspective undergirds identity politics, leading to the idea that you need a uterus to express a point of view about abortion, or that you're not "really" black if you're a conservative.
Kevin doesn't believe any of that, of course. But it's where the logic of his snark leads — down Al Sharpton Way, and then Richard Spencer Boulevard. No thanks.
Instead, as I tell new citizens at the welcoming addresses I've delivered at many naturalization ceremonies, the American ideal is comparable to the notion in Judaism that a convert is considered to have been spiritually present at Moses's presentation of the Law at Sinai, even though the convert's biological ancestors were elsewhere. By that measure, we really are the Mayflower Krikorians, and the Mayflower Lopezes, and the Mayflower Cuomos, and the Mayflower Nguyens, and the Mayflower Feinburgs — because we were all present in spirit when the Pilgrims signed their Compact in Provincetown Harbor.
Identitarians of whatever hue are right that such civic nationalism is fragile, which is why we must nurture it and not overtax it (by, for instance, allowing too high a level of immigration). Only in that way is it possible, as Washington wrote, "by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, laws: in a word soon become one people."
In short, the immigration debate is about our grandchildren, not our grandparents.