Posted 4/16/2006

TRIBALISM AND IMMIGRATION

by John Carroll

The other day I met an older woman from Mexico, a charmer who, as far as I know spoke no English. She told me she was in America because it was now a better place than Mexico. Mexico, she said, had been ruined by criminal immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Central American countries. She saw the immigrants to her native land as bad people, but didn't see that Americans could think of her that way. Her arguments amounted to a classic case of tribalism, which is a human characteristic -- a feature built into all of us by evolution. Everyone has his or her own tribe. One's own tribe is the good people -- the "us people." Any tribe that competes with ours is bad. It's okay to exploit people from other tribes, but very bad for them to exploit us, whichever tribe "us" happens to be..

On the face of it, taking in immigrants seems like just a nice, neighborly thing to do. Let our Mexican neighbors come here unrestricted. That might be neighborly, but it does cause a problem or two, whether the immigrants are Mexican or anything else. The first is that more people mean fewer resources for each one -- less farmland, less water, fewer board feet of timber, etc. In that sense we're less than half as wealthy as we were when I was born, and the population was about one hundred thirty million. Yes, agricultural production is up, but only because of technological advances, and no matter what happens, we can't push it up forever. For one thing, it depends heavily on oil. For another, there are physical limits. Ultimately, there's just so much sunlight to grow crops and so much space to grow them in. If we let in every immigrant who wants to come here, half the world would come. Well, maybe not half, but enough to swamp us and turn us into a Third World nation. So there just have to be limits if our own tribe is to prosper, or even survive.

The other problem is integration of immigrants into our culture. For several decades, we've been taking in relatively uneducated Spanish-speakers and haven't done much to welcome them and integrate them. We've even discriminated against the offspring of Mexicans who were already in the Southwest before we stole it from Mexico. The result was villages, towns, and cities that are mainly un-American. Using benign neglect and open hostility, we've made it fairly easy for a kid to be born, grow up, raise a family, and die, without ever learning to speak English. That happens all the time in parts of Texas, California, Florida, and even New York. Language is one of humanity's most powerful styles. I speak Spanish, I speak with a hillbilly accent, I speak German, and just by the sound, I make enemies. To quote Professor Higgins from My Fair Lady, "An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks, he makes some other Englishman despise him." Speaking Spanish, or English with a Spanish accent can have the same effect, no matter what we preach. Latino culture also carries with it values we don't find acceptable. Check the statistics on who's in court-ordered classes for drunk driving and domestic violence. Hispanic immigrants lead the pack where I live. We've deliberately changed our own attitudes on those subjects in the last fifty years, but we don't seem to be making a dent in immigrant values. That means we don't like people who behave as they do, and they don't much like us telling them how to behave, and they don't like how we behave. Forget whether the behaviors we don't like are good or bad. The point is they're signs showing both the immigrants and us that we belong to different tribes, which means we'll treat each other as aliens.

Humans are stubbornly tribal. I'd find it impossible to consider myself anything but American. But if I'd been born into Japanese or German or Chinese culture, I'd have found it impossible to think of myself as American. That's just the way we are. It's biology. We evolved to live in tribes, cooperating with others like ourselves to protect our resources and to take resources from other tribes. We invent all kinds of styles to tell other humans whether we're "us people" or "them people." Styles like language, dress, flags, religions, weapons, etc. And we're wired to behave accordingly. It's okay to screw the person with alien styles. It's not nice, but it is human. That's why the French and English speakers in Quebec have such problems. That's why the Turks living in Germany have such problems. It's even why Irish jokes are still popular in England. The "them people" are stupid and unpleasant at best, dangerous at worst. And we can't just make people change tribal values -- not adults, anyway. They've learned their values and their behaviors from their peers when they were kids. That's when tribal membership starts, and almost always when it ends.

So what do we do about immigration in this country that was built on immigration? First, we limit the influx of new people. Build that fence if need be. Damned un-neighborly, but maybe it would reduce the flow of unwanted "them people." Another approach would be to do our best to make economic conditions in Mexico and Central America better. If you're born into a Mexican tribe or a Salvadoran tribe, chances are you'd rather stay home where people are like you -- if you could live in safety and make enough to feed your family. They'd have better lives, and we'd have fewer problems with aliens. Tribes can cooperate when both sides end up better off. There are lots of things we could do in that department -- for example, insist American companies operating in those countries treat their workers better, and maybe reject goods produced by employers who treat their workers too badly.

But even if we stop the flow of immigrants dead today, which is impossible, there are many millions already here. For those the solution, if we can pull it off, is assimilation. We need to absorb the immigrant children into our culture. Most of the adults will never make that transition, but the kids can do it. Put them into schools where they can't succeed without English, preferably schools where they're outnumbered by kids whose first language is English. It's a horrible thing to get stuck in a class where you don't speak the language, but kids survive it, and they learn the language of their peers. We just have to make sure the language of their peers is English. And while they're in school, we have to teach them the values of our culture. It's not okay to beat a woman. It's not okay to drink and drive. It's bad to speak English poorly, and so on. It's better to be American than to belong to any other tribe. It's okay to marry outside your parents' tribe. And finally, in the value department, we have to teach the non-immigrant kids that Hispanic kids are just like anybody else, provided that they act like Americans. We have to make them more like us and accept them as they succeed. We've done it before, which is why most third generation Americans can't trace their bloodlines to any one country.

No matter what we do, there'll be lots of conflict. There is no perfect solution. The best we can do is limit the number of immigrants to a level we can deal with and then deal with them by incorporating them into our American tribe.

Copyright © 2006 by John Carroll

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