In a New York Times op-ed a week ago, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) lauded the recently deceased Delmer Berg and other Americans who volunteered to fight on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, which began 80 years ago. Berg was thought to be the last living veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a unit of American volunteers who fought in that storied but oft-mischaracterized conflict that took place from 1936 to 1939.
The Obama administration has made the right decision to raise the cap on the number of refugees so as to take in more Syrians seeking to escape the genocidal conflict in their country. It is not only an appropriate humanitarian action, but it will be good for the United States in the long run, just as our reception of Cuban refugees brought us an enormously successful, entrepreneurial group of Americans.
Immigration policy is a tricky matter to get right for classical liberals, particularly today. While some libertarians support open borders, that policy would be unwise. If tens of millions of people arrived who were unschooled in our democratic traditions and relatively uneducated, they might undermine the very conditions for liberty that make our nation so attractive to immigrants. They would surely cause a huge backlash. And unfortunately today, our welfare state can encourage immigration by those would not be productive citizens. A classical liberal constitution would permit us to entertain a more open immigration policy.
But these concerns do not at all undermine the case for taking in more Syrians. Even if we took in a few hundred thousand Syrians, they will not change our political culture. Indeed, given the relatively small numbers, they are likely to change the culture less than did immigration from Latin America or previous waves of immigration. Moreover, these immigrants have reasons to come that are not economic: there is no reason to think they are here to seek welfare benefits. And like Cuban refugees, the Syrian refuges are by no means largely without human capital. Middle-class people with substantial skills have had every reason to flee.
While the Obama administration can lift the cap, Congress will need to provide more money to get these refugees settled.
In the past two weeks, I have been traveling along the Danube River, visiting various former Communist countries in Eastern Europe. My wife and I have visited Prague in the Czech Republic, Bratislava in Slovakia, and Budapest in Hungary (as well as Vienna in nonaligned Austria).
Travelling through these cities and speaking to some of the people, especially the guides, has been enormously interesting. These are people who lived through the communist period. Their views of communism are not (merely) based on abstract arguments about its problems. These people lived under the system and experienced what it was like.
After speaking to several of these people, I found their stories — while differing in details — to be consistent. The communism that they lived under was a brutal system that both deprived people of freedom and impoverished them. But it is the specific events of their lives — stories about their parents and relatives and friends — that give special power to the critique of communism.
Yesterday, GMU Law School celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—quite possibly, the only law school to commemorate the joyous occasion. The event was sponsored by the GMU Law & Economics Center and the Federalist Society. I was asked to deliver a few personal remarks. They appear below.
In Oliver Stone’s laughable Nixon (1996), the director’s penchant for inventive history is exampled by a drunken—and randy—Pat Nixon advising her husband to destroy the tapes. “They’re not about you,” she slurs, “they are you.”
This has been certainly seconded by Nixon’s critics. For 40 years, they have zeroed in on the potty mouth (the biggest surprise for my Republican parents), the anti-Semitism, the enemies list (the work of a “fascist,” according to William F. Buckley), the pay-offs, the disturbing plots against political enemies (for example, slipping LSD to hostile reporter Jack Anderson), to present the image of a paranoid, insecure totalitarian.
Saturday I went to The Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Old Vic in London. The production was very well staged and well acted, but the play itself is problematic. As many readers of our blog will know, the play loosely recreates the Salem Witch trials in which a variety of hysterical young women accused their elders of being witches. The result was that twenty blameless people, mostly women, were hanged after relatively summary trials.
The Crucible has some undoubted power, beginning with the baseless accusations and building toward a crescendo of condemnations of an ever wider group of innocents. The last scene focuses on whether John Proctor will confess to the crime of witchcraft in order to save himself from execution. He refuses to testify to a lie that will legitimize the trials, thereby redeeming a life that had been blemished by adultery with one of the accusers.
The principal aesthetic problem with the play is that it veers to unrelenting melodrama without the leavening humor that even the greatest tragedies in our language incorporate. Critics have compared it instead to a Greek tragedy, but Hegel correctly noted that the great Greek political tragedies feature “a clash of right with right.” There is no such clash here with all the martyrs except John Proctor portrayed as saints and the accusers and judges as either hysterics or villains.
Politically, the play is more troubling. As we know from his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller intended it to be an allegory for the “red scare,” where many communists and fellow travelers were summoned before Congress to name names. The difficulty with this analogy is clear. There were no witches. On the other hand there undoubtedly were communists.