Tag Archives: United States

The Real Issue Behind the Border Wall Debate

January 22, 2019
By George Friedman

The Real Issue Behind the Border Wall Debate

For the United States, immigration has always been a necessity and an agony.
The debate over a wall separating the United States and Mexico goes to the heart of American society. The wall itself is about preventing illegal immigration, but the debate inevitably flows to the question of immigration in general, as it always has in American history.
An Agonizing Experience

The American nation was forged from fragments of other nations. The English, Scotch-Irish, Swedish, Germans, Catholic Irish, Italians, Jews and Africans joined together, or, better yet, were crushed together, to create the American nation. It was a painful process. At any given point, Americans believed that the way America was then was the way it ought to be. Thus the settlers from England were appalled at the arrival of the Scotch-Irish, who were seen as unassimilable and irredeemable brawlers, drunkards and thugs. When the Irish Catholics arrived, many feared they could not assimilate to a predominantly Protestant society. Indeed, the debate over whether a Catholic could become president dominated the 1960 election, more than a century after the Irish influx began.

Virtually all immigrants who came to the United States were those being crushed in their own societies (except, of course, for Africans slaves, who were brought to the U.S. through no choice of their own). They left families, customs and all that was familiar for a new start. The Jamestown and Plymouth colonies were built on this process. It was the core American experience: suffering through being a stranger in a strange land while being distrusted and even loathed.

The nation-building process in the U.S. was an agonizing experience. Some have romanticized it, forgetting that the melting pot was hot enough to dissolve human souls, and that the pain fell both on the immigrants themselves and on those with whom they merged. Yet immigration was essential. The first European immigrants who arrived were too few to create a nation that could settle and exploit the continent, spark industrialization, and win wars. Had the U.S. remained simply an English nation, it would have been annihilated long ago. Immigrants were indispensable to the creation of a viable country, and, inevitably, most would come from “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” as Emma Lazarus put it. The United States welcomed immigrants out of necessity and even desperation, the same factors that drove immigrants to the U.S. in the first place.

But the reality of immigration lies not only in the broad story of the American nation, where the agony is lost in the glory, but in the details. I immigrated with my family to the United States from Hungary as an infant. We settled in a tenement in the Bronx. The most important part of our story was not that we were poor, but rather that our family was torn apart. My parents brought my sister and me to the United States because they had no choice. Their home abandoned them in World War II, and America welcomed them. For immigrants, however, America is a mistress who gives generously of her pleasure but is ruthless in her demands. You must be completely devoted to America to enjoy her pleasures to the fullest. My parents had lived through too much and had grown too weary to pay that price. They didn’t hope for the ecstasy America offered; they were content with sanctuary, however meager.

My hopes diverged from my parents’ needs. My parents were loving, yet, in a way, they became irrelevant. They could not guide me on my path. In those years, many immigrants settled in the Bronx. The Jewish kids banded together. So did the Irish, the Italians, the Puerto Ricans and the African-Americans. They drew strength from each other, rather than from their families. The cruel paradox of immigration is that it divides parents and children. The children long for America while the parents long for relief. And when the children band together, they learn the first lesson of America: It has pity for the weak and respect only for the strong.

You learn this lesson on the streets, where you discover that pain is not the worst thing in the world. Cowardice is. Winning is everything. Fighting fearlessly and losing brings opportunity for redemption. Fleeing the field of battle to huddle with your parents denies you pride and entry into America. America is for those who have the strength not only to play baseball or to excel in school but also to learn the lesson of the streets and to pay the price of entry.

Imagine what the Bronx was like back then. Young thugs, or would-be thugs, roaming the streets, seeking and fearing the moment when they must prove their manhood. The boys and girls, driven by hormones, as much strangers to their parents as their parents were to them, alone in a world to make what rules they could. The law was what you made of it, and the cops were just another gang, albeit a very dangerous one.

The Bronx was once a genteel borough of New York, with stately apartment buildings and vast parks. But it was at the bare limits of gentility. Those whose families came a century before were now gone, and the children of the new immigrants turned much of the Bronx into a nightmare. The parents of these children lived their lives in terror, fearing every trip to the grocery store. The dream of a little safety brought them back to the war zone.

A Predictable Response

Immigrants tend to move to neighborhoods with low rents, and they often live together so they have people around them who speak their language. They’re satisfied with simply making a home in their new land. But their settlement can create havoc for those who were there before – those who also live in low-cost neighborhoods and now must compete for jobs and housing. As the new immigrant group expands, word spreads that this particular group is uniquely dangerous, and the belief grows that immigration must be stopped. For those who have the means to insulate themselves from the fear and uncertainty, on the other hand, this process isn’t a cause for concern. For them, immigration is a concept, not a reality, and so they see it as a charitable endeavor.

The reality is that the United States cannot survive without waves of immigrants. It’s never been able to grow without immigrants, and there’s no reason to believe it can now. But the process of immigration becomes more painful the closer you come to it. The idea that those afraid of immigration are racist misses the point. Immigration directly impacts many of those who fear its effects. Many of those who don’t fear it live in well-off communities where new immigrants tend not to settle.

Fear is a predictable response to immigration. The English feared the Scotch-Irish. Protestants feared Irish Catholics. And the cycle continues. Even a group as disreputable and hated as the Scots made the transition, and now, fully integrated for centuries, they loathe and fear new arrivals.

In two centuries of debating immigration, both sides have been systematically oblivious to the realities underlying the debate. The advocates of immigration are oblivious to its disproportionate impact on those who live in poorer neighborhoods. Those wary of immigration are oblivious to the impact of ending it in a time of declining birthrates, and to the fact that immigration is embedded in the nation’s soul. The beauty of America is that every American can have an opinion that makes little sense. It is as charming as a gang brawl in a schoolyard. But in the end, America has survived this debate many times, and the outcome has always been the same.

The U.S. economy has always depended on a constant inflow of low-paid workers. What has been true since the founding remains true now or the migrants would not be still coming. This has brought with it tension, violence and pain, far more for the poorest Americans than for the wealthy, who have benefited from immigration. But we cannot stop immigration. Nor can we make those insulated from its effects understand or care about the pain this process inevitably causes. Welcoming immigrants is not an act of kindness but a necessity. Those who think of it as an act of kindness misunderstand the lives of immigrants and those who live among them. Immigration has always been a growing pain of the Republic.

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Filed under Political Philosophy

Pondering Hitler’s Legacy

Pondering Hitler’s Legacy is republished with permission of Stratfor.

By George Friedman

Happenstance has brought me today to a house on the Austria-Germany border, just south of Salzburg. That puts me about 3 miles from the German town of Berchtesgaden, on the German side of the border. Adolf Hitler’s home, the Berghof, was just outside the town, on a mountain in the Bavarian Alps. To the extent that Hitler had a home, this was it, and it was the place where Hitler met with many notables, particularly before the war began.

As it happens, today is the 76th anniversary of the start of World War II in Europe. It is always a strange feeling to be here. There is a sense of history present here, but it is mostly a sense of the mind, since Berchtesgaden is an attractive but ordinary place. It always feels as if towns like this should have a patina of extraordinariness sticking to everything. But that isn’t how history works. There is a patina of mind, but not of place. On Sept. 1 of any year since 1939, and at a place like this, there is a sense of urgency to extract the real meaning of the man who lived in a house on the mountain I am looking at.

After 76 years, it seems appropriate to try to figure out what Hitler and the war he initiated genuinely changed in the world. This is not an easy question, because to arrive at an answer I had to dismiss from my mind the many acts of gratuitous evil that he committed. It is hard to dismiss those, but in a sense they left little legacy to the world except for the realization that civilization is a thin layer over humanity’s beastly savagery. But truly, we didn’t have to have Hitler to learn that. We humans have always sensed what is beneath our surface.

The question is how the world changed as a result of Hitler’s decision to invade Poland.

The Price for Europe

The first outcome, obviously, was that he destroyed Europe’s hegemony over much of the world and its influence over the rest. Within 15 years of the end of the war, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands lost their empires. A handful of European nations had dominated the world. By the end of the war they had lost the will, the energy and the wealth to maintain their power. After half-hearted and doomed attempts to resist, these countries willingly participated in the dismantling of what they had once thought of as their birthright.

This changed the shape of the world, of course, but the change was less the result of the world’s resistance to Europe than a result of Europe’s exhaustion. After the war, Europe faced the task of rebuilding buildings. The ambition to rule had been exhausted. However flawed or wicked that ambition might have been, there is still something sad in the loss of all ambition, beyond the desire for comfort. The will to dominate, seen in its most extreme form in Hitler’s appetites, chills the blood. The loss of any transcendent ambition merely cools it. Europe has lost its recklessness, which is on the whole good. Yet it has gained an excessive caution that makes it difficult for Europe to make up its mind over matters small and large.

The world is certainly a better place without Hitler’s reckless imprudence. It is probably a better place without British or French imperialism, although when we look at what they left behind, we wonder if the wreckage of empire is worth the wreckage of the post-imperial world, whoever we blame for that wreckage.

Hitler clearly didn’t want this outcome. I think he was sincere when he said that he would leave the British Empire intact, along with its navy, if the United Kingdom accepted German domination of the European mainland. He wanted peace with the British so he could crush the Soviets. But the British as a nation could accept that deal only if they trusted Hitler’s promise. However sincere he was in 1940, Britain couldn’t bet on the endurance of his word. As a result, Hitler in due course committed suicide in Berlin, and Britain presided over the dissolution of its own empire — the only thing that would have disgusted both Churchill and Hitler. Churchill’s imperialism and Hitler’s racism met on that point.

There was another thing Hitler cost Europe: the metaphysical sensibility. It is startling, the extent to which Christian Europe has abandoned Christianity for secularism. Consider this map:


The decline of church attendance is the outer husk of a European sensibility that, at the highest levels of thought, contemplated the deeper meanings of things. It was not Hitler who destroyed the European metaphysical sensibility. In many ways it destroyed itself from the inside, with a radical skepticism derived from the Enlightenment that turned on itself. But Hitler provided a coup de grace to that sensibility by appropriating figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner to his own political ends, thereby delegitimizing not only them but also the tradition from which they emerged. Hitler, in his own strange wanderings in the depths, made such wanderings no longer respectable, and indeed, suspect. There is a saying I once heard: “German philosophers go down deeper, stay down longer and come up dirtier than any others.” I don’t know about philosophers, but Hitler, the would-be philosopher, certainly did, and it cost Europe the jewel of its intellectual heritage.

It is said that Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers. He obviously meant that as an insult, seeing shopkeepers as people of limited imagination, ambition and wit. There is some truth to the saying about the English, although George Orwell was enraged at the trivialization of their achievements. To the extent to which the English were suspicious of the wholesomeness and usefulness of French and particularly German philosophy, Napoleon was right. But if he was, then Hitler achieved something extraordinary: He made all of Europe into nations of shopkeepers.

After the war, the obsession of Europeans was to live. Then it was to make a living. Napoleon’s insult was that there was more to life than simply making a living. What Hitler achieved was what he would have been appalled by: shopkeepers ruling Europe. But Europe is obsessed with making a living and suspicious of profound thinking. It has seen where that got it and it doesn’t intend to go there again. The best minds get MBAs. The broad public sleeps late on Sunday. The train wreck that Hitler made of Europe created a secularism not only in relation to Christianity, but in all attempts to recreate the depth of European culture.

The Power of the United States

Of course in all of this, perhaps the most important thing that Hitler did was unleash the United States, a country where earning a living is the definition of life. Hitler believed that his defeat meant the triumph of Bolshevism. It really meant the triumph of the United States and its culture, which it distributed in Western Europe through occupation and in the Soviet bloc through imitation.

The United States redefined European culture. As I have written in Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, it was not Coca-Cola but the computer that was the carrier of American culture. The computer had nothing to do with metaphysics or with the true or beautiful. It had to do with the narrowest form of instrumental reason: It simply got things done, and in doing so, it justified its existence. The computer dominated the world — and Europe — and with it came a mode of thinking, contained in programming, that was so radically different from what European culture consisted of as to almost be from another planet. Of course, Europeans helped found the culture, but they bequeathed it to their heir, the United States. Paradoxically, the United States remains the most religious of countries, with church attendance at its height. Religiosity and instrumental reason are compatible in the United States — a point to ponder.

Hitler respected Josef Stalin. He understood the radical ideologue who was ready to kill. He had little respect for the United States. He understood Stalin, but he couldn’t fathom Roosevelt. But as I sit here looking toward Berchtesgaden, I must recall that it was the 7th Infantry Regiment of the Third Division, U.S. Army, that captured the town and Hitler’s home. The Americans occupied the area until 1995, using it for military purposes.

This was the most important thing Hitler achieved, and the last thing he expected. Hitler drew the Americans into the heart of Europe and left the Europeans completely vulnerable to the emerging, and quite strange, modes of thought that a nation that holds shopkeepers in great regard can produce. Hitler destroyed the dams that Europe had built around itself. He crippled all of Europe, including the Soviet Union. He could not imagine the need to cripple the Americans, nor could he have had realized the need. And therefore, in the end, they rebuilt Berchtesgaden and I am sitting here looking at it.

Hitler will be remembered not only for great evil but also — and more important, in many ways — for the manner in which almost all of the consequences of his war were unexpected.


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The Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw wrote a book entitled “The Greatest Generation.”  I never read it but I’m pretty sure I know what he wrote about because I grew up with parents who also sung the praises of this greatest generation.  Like Brokaw my parents belonged to the baby boomers.  They always talked about how great their parents were and sort of implied how ungrateful my generation was.  They told me or implied that things were better in the past because they and their parents lived in simpler, more virtuous times.  The United States was really united back then, also more patriotic and religious.  We had the strongest economy, best education and the most powerful military.  My parents both went to college, found professional jobs, bought a house, my mother became a house wife and my father retired in his 60s with a pension.

My earliest memories come from the 1970s when things seemed to be in decay.  Jimmy Carter was the President.  Pollution was horrible.  The military seemed weak after Vietnam.  Faith in the government had been undermined by Nixon.  There were gas shortages and hostage crisis.  Crime was up.  The purity was somehow gone and had been replaced by malaise, irony and sarcasm. The golden age was clearly over.  Ronald Reagan seemed to lift the spirit of the country but something told me that it was a paler, less authentic reflection of the spirit felt during the time of the greatest generation.  The country longed to return to that time and pretended it had somehow returned but everyone really knew it wasn’t quite the same.

What bothers me about the concept of the “greatest generation” is that it implies all other generations are not as great.  It implies the way to pay tribute to that generation is to feel like our generation would not have persevered and stepped up to fight like the greatest one did.  It also implies that the US as a country was better because of the virtue of the generation that lived at that time.  They fought the war, they joined civic organizations, they were patriotic.  As such when a member of my generation doesn’t pull his own weight it not only reveals him to be a weaker, flawed person than the gods of the greatest generation, he is also contributing to the downfall of our civilization.

The concept of the greatest generation implies that my generation is somehow responsible for American decline because we cannot measure up to that generation.  It is a form of original sin.  The concept of the greatest generation implies that our generation missed out on something better and that we didn’t deserve it anyway because we just aren’t as good as they were.  The concept of the greatest generation implies also that it is our duty to feel ashamed of ourselves to atone for this.

I grew up wishing I lived during World War II when people were patriotic and united.  I wished I had destiny handed to me like that generation who were drafted into the military.  I felt lost and unnecessary all my life and told that I did not deserve what I had.  When I graduated college in 1993 I could not find a job.  I would have given anything to be told I was needed and given a destiny.

Back then everyone in the street wore a suit.  Now, not even the President wears a tie at times.  It feels like the standards are slipping but I know would have been one of the ones to maintain the standards and yet was never given an opportunity to do so and then blamed for not maintaining the standards in the end. Every organization I have belonged to was great once and decayed during my lifetime.  The US is just one example of this for reasons I have discussed.  The Catholic Church is another example.  The soulless folk masses I attend as a kid seemed half assed in comparison to the rigid, solemn splendor of the Latin Mass my parents attended when they were kids.  My Boy Scout troop disbanded while I was a member.  The fraternity I joined in college was the strongest on campus and then decayed when a kid fell off the roof during a post initiation party.  After that most members stopped contributing.  I (for some reason) felt compelled to keep it going.

This myth of the greatest generation was devised by the baby boomer generation.  I imagine the greatest generation came home from the war where they witnessed horrors.  Perhaps they suffered from PTSD.  They came back to live in a society that did not experience the direct assault of the war in that the cities and infrastructure were not destroyed.  The standard of living in the US at the time was far superior to devastated Europe.  The greatest generation saw their soft kids growing up like this and shamed them because they could not deal with it.  Clean your plate – there’s starving kids in Europe!  So the baby boomers in turn grew up with a great deal of shame.  And what does a person who feels shame do?  He dumps it on to someone weaker than him.  This happened to be the children of the baby boomers, my generation that grew up in the 1970s.

There’s the sense that I’ve been carrying the weight of civilization on my shoulders.  That things were better back then because people are more selfish and less disciplined now.  So every act of selfishness now is further undermining civilization.  When I’m bad I’m not just undermining myself, I’m undermining civilization.  But is that any way to live a life?  I did not decide when to be born and it’s not my fault that times have changed.  I’ve wasted enough time feeling ashamed for being given a higher standard of living than the Baby Boomers and yet having less career opportunity than they did.  Up yours Tom Brokaw.  It’s time to move forward put the myths of those two generations to bed.


Filed under Shame