We can’t talk about immigration

In fact, we’ll blame anything rather than confront the truth about what’s happening

We can’t talk about immigrationChristopher Caldwell’s new book is called Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. And, if you don’t quite get the Burkean allusion, his subtitle spells out his real concerns: “Immigration, Islam and the West.” Given my own obsessions in recent years, you’d expect me to be favourably disposed to it. And I am, my enthusiasm only slightly tempered by the instant conventional wisdom that, if you’re only going to buy one Islamophobic Euro-doom-mongering diatribe this summer, Caldwell’s is the sober and respectable one, in striking contrast to certain others we could mention. “Unlike [Oriana] Fallaci and Mark Steyn, Caldwell does not rant or sneer,” writes Matt Carr of Britain’s Institute of Race Relations. Caldwell, says The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, is not a “Steynian hysteric.” Oh, dear. I think I prefer the droll Irish commentator “P O’Neill”: “Someone has to say it,” he smirked. “Caldwell is the thinking man’s Mark Steyn.”

But enough about me. On to the book . . . actually, hold on a minute. One more thing about me. Let us put Islam aside for the moment, as my views have been well aired in these pages, and consider the author’s other theme. As it happens, for all his non-ranting, non-hysterical sobriety, Mr. Caldwell is somewhat more “extreme” than I am on immigration. For a notorious blowhard, I can go a bit cryptic or (according to taste) wimpy when invited to confront that particular subject head on. On the CBC last year, I was tap dancing around various socio-cultural generalities when the host, George Stroumboulopoulos, leaned in in that way he has and cut to the chase: “You mean [pause and knowing glance to camera] immigration?”

I thought of bolting for the nearest exit, but, at such moments, I usually take refuge in the formulation that a dependence on mass immigration is always a structural weakness and it would be prudent to address it as such. But in the end my line’s a bit of a dodge. As Christopher Caldwell sees it, no country truly “depends” on mass immigration. Ultimately, it’s a choice, or a fetish, or a fit of absentmindedness for which, in the event that one is called upon to justify it, there is no rationale. Indeed, it’s the defining irrationale of the age: a hitherto all but unknown phenomenon that is now regarded either as inevitable or the essential moral component of an advanced society.

To be sure, the green eyeshade types never cease trying to sell it on more prosaic grounds. “Sober-minded economists reckon that the potential gains from freer global migration are huge,” writes Philippe Legrain in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them. “The World Bank reckons that if rich countries allowed their workforce to swell by a mere three per cent by letting in an extra 14 million workers from developing countries between 2001 and 2025, the world would be $356 billion a year better off, with the new migrants themselves gaining $162 billion a year, people who remain in poor countries $143 billion, and natives in rich countries $139 billion.”

$139 billion? From “a mere” 14 million extra immigrants? Wow! As Caldwell writes, “The aggregate gross domestic product of the advanced economies for the year 2008 is estimated by the International Monetary Fund at close to $40 trillion.” So an extra $139 billion works out to an extra, er, 0.0035 per cent. He compares M. Legrain to Dr. Evil excitedly holding the world hostage for one million dollars! “Sacrificing 0.0035 of your economy would be a pittance to pay for starting to get your country back.”

Okay, forget economic growth. With Europe’s population aging and the worker/retiree ratio shrivelling remorselessly, we need more immigrants to come in and prop up the welfare state. Johnny Frenchman may get a bit tetchy at the end of an agreeable evening with his mistress when he glances out the window just before heading back to the missus and sees une bande de jeunes (in the preferred designation) lighting up his Citroën. But when he’s 53 and retired he’ll be grateful to have those jeunes in the workforce paying in to keep his benefit cheques coming. That, at any rate, is the theory. The reality is encapsulated in this remarkable statistic from the Bundesausländerbeauftragte: between 1971 and 2000, the number of foreign residents in Germany rose from three million to about 7.5 million. Yet the number of foreigners in work stayed more or less exactly the same at about two million. Four decades ago, two-thirds of German immigrants were in the workforce. By the turn of the century, barely a quarter were. These days, Germany’s Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) are heavy on the Gast, ever lighter on the Beiter.

Turks in Germany have three times the rate of welfare dependency as ethnic Germans, and their average retirement age is 50. In the Stockholm suburb of Tensta, where immigrants and their children make up 85 per cent of the population, one-fifth of women in their late 40s collect disability benefits. Foreigners didn’t so much game the system as discover, thanks to family “reunification” and other lollipops, that it demanded nothing of them. Indeed, entire industries were signed up for public subsidy. Two-thirds of French imams are on the dole. Does M. Legrain set their welfare cheques on the debit side of that spectacular 0.0035 per cent economic growth? Or does that count as valuable long-term investment in the critical economic growth sector of fire-breathing mullahs?

Across the decades, one self-delusion of the political class succeeds another: “temporary workers” are now political “refugees”; the urgent need for mill workers and janitors is now an urgent need for millions of Somali software engineers who’ll help Europe stay competitive in the “high-tech” “knowledge economy.” The policy changes but the traffic is remorseless. Recoiling from the logic of tightly argued books like Caldwell’s, sophisticates protest that “it is hard to generalize about Europe.” And it’s true that, if you take a stamp collector’s approach to immigration issues, there are many fascinating differences: the French blame their immigration woes on the bitter legacy of colonialism; Germans blame theirs on a lack of colonial experience at dealing with these exotic chappies. But, if you’re in some decrepit housing project on the edge of almost any Continental city from Malmö to Marseilles, it makes little difference in practice. “If you understand how immigration, Islam, and native European culture interact in any western European country,” writes Caldwell, “you can predict roughly how they will interact in any other—no matter what its national character, no matter whether it conquered an empire, no matter what its role in World War II, and no matter what the provenance of its Muslim immigrants.”

How does one express one’s, ah, concerns about these issues? Caldwell cites a headline from his own newspaper, the Financial Times: “The Uneasy Cosmopolitan: How Migrants Are Enriching An Ever More Anxious Host.”

The “unease” seems principally on the part of the FT’s sub-editor: as his linguistic tiptoeing suggests, decades of multiculti squeamishness have stripped us even of a language with which to discuss the subject. What benefit is it to France or French taxpayers to fund Islamic welfare imams? To pose the question is to miss the point. If you believe in mass immigration, you do so because it’s a talisman of your own moral virtue. If the economic argument for immigration is reductive even when it’s not plain deluded, the psychological one is not to be disdained. On the one hand, mass immigration is the price posterity levies on old-school imperialists: “They are here because we were there,” as they say in the Netherlands. But, if like Sweden you never had an imperialist bone in your body, they’re still here: “They are poor because we are rich.” And, if you’re a small urbanized nation like the Netherlands, the “challenge” of immigration is just the usual frictions that occur when people from the countryside—in this case, the Moroccan countryside—move to the cities.

So it’s the consequence of your urban planning, or your colonialism, or your wealth, or just plain you. We’ll blame anything rather than confront the central truth—that when an old, relatively unicultural society admits in a short space of time a large, young, fecund population from somewhere else, you are setting in motion a process of transformation. Caldwell asks the obvious question—“Can you have the same Europe with different people?” and gives the obvious answer: no. “Europe is not welcoming its newest residents but making way for them.”

In the end, that coy French euphemism for the, um, rioters of no particular socio-religious persuasion—“youths”—gets to the heart of the matter: youths are youthful, and ethnic Europeans aren’t. In the heavily North African Paris suburb of Montfermeil, the Muslim children from the housing projects pass on their way to school each morning a neighbourhood of detached houses still occupied by French natives: they call it “la ville des vieux”—the old people’s town.

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