By John H. Tanton, M.D.
Volume 30, Number 1 (Fall 2019)
Issue theme: "John Tanton: His Life and Legacy (1934-2019)"

The conflict over language and immigration policy ultimately can only be understood as disagreement on some fundamental premises and principles. These battles are really skirmishes in a wider war of ideas. Yet these underlying points seldom are explicitly mentioned. Anyone wishing to pursue this concept will find Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions [NY: William Morrow & Co., 1987], especially Chapter 2, to be illuminating.

Here are some of my basic beliefs and principles as pertains to the immigration and language issues. These perforce influence the positions I take on the issues as a whole and their component parts. I believe the intellectual opposition generally holds opposing views on the first eight points; on number nine they agree, while FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) and (what is now) ProEnglish seem to disagree.

1. I believe we live in a world of limits and boundaries, however difficult it may be to exactly pinpoint these. I am not a cornucopian. One of mankind’s most serious problems is the continuing increase in human population, now running at 90 million per year, 250,000 per day, 10,000 per hour, 170 per minute. This expansion colors virtually all human concerns, ranging from the prevention of global war to local solid waste disposal. It provides one of the key driving forces behind international migration. My chief immigration policy concern is the limitation of numbers to allow U.S. population to stabilize, thereby limiting our nation’s draw on our own and the world’s resources.

2. I believe that the nation-state has a continuing valid role in the world, even as there is a role for state and local government, and for some form of worldwide quasi-governmental mechanism (perhaps the UN?) to deal with transnational problems (such as global warming, acid rain, and international conflict). I believe that the concepts of national borders and national sovereignty are both legitimate and essential, and that to hold this position is neither nationalistic nor xenophobic. Nor am I xenophilic.

3. I hold to the metaphor of the melting pot, not of the salad bowl. Our national motto of E pluribus unum expresses it: Out of many, one. This sentiment, proclaiming the development of a new people, was expressed by Israel Zangwill in his play, The Melting Pot, and by J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecœur in his Letters from an American Farmer. The U.S. is a nation, not just a physical address for disparate groups living out their separate lives with limited contact with one another.

4. The proper role of government is to foster integration, assimilation, acculturation, and cooperation, not separatism and division. This statement does not signify any desire to deny or efface difference, but rather emphasizes the need to focus on common ground and shared characteristics.

5. Diversity (carefully defined) is fine and can enrich our lives. Commonality is also fine and can enrich our lives. We must achieve some level of agreement on basic values, goals, and acceptable tools for social management and change. Lobbying is acceptable; pipe bombs are not. Both diversity and commonality have their benefits and limitations. An intelligent balance between the two is needed.

6. I believe that Americans, as well as immigrants, have their own distinctive culture, however difficult of definition it may be (see Alexis de Toqueville and his successors). One prominent American cultural trait is that of philanthropy, which underwrites discussions such as these.

7. Irredentism is a relatively new and deleterious force in the U.S. language and immigration policy debates. While the view is perhaps not widely held, the loss of lands by Mexico to the U.S. in 1836 and 1848 is still intensely felt by an undetermined and important group of activists. These feelings are largely confined to persons of Mexican origin, as it was Mexico that suffered the loss. Such memories can last for generations, as innumerable situations around the world will attest. Without ever expecting to put these feelings completely behind us, we must focus on our current problems and present situation and try to move forward from here. There is good reason for the concept of a statute of limitations in the law. At some point, one must move on.

8. Name calling, while politically effective, is not a substitute for reasoned discussion of difficult issues.

9. Immigration and language policy issues are inextricably intertwined, despite the efforts of organizations working on these to keep them separate. For instance, immigration policy sets the stage for language problems by setting overall numbers and hence the size of the assimilative/acculturative task facing a society, or by how seriously it takes the language tests for naturalization, which in turn affects such things as policy on bilingual ballots. Conversely, language problems condition the debate on immigration policy. For instance, consider the current proposal to give points towards immigration for, among other things, already knowing the English language, or the question of whether there should be more diversity and less concentration among language groups in the immigrant stream. Such ties between two public policy areas are normal and legitimate.

My physician’s perspective tells me that prevention is better than cure, and that early diagnosis, with concomitant mild treatment, is better than late diagnosis, when more drastic measures will be required, if indeed a cure can be effected at all. Diagnosis is more difficult and tenuous in the early stages of any malady, when the clues are less certain. Indeed, diagnosis is often more intuitive than strictly scientific. We should aim to “diagnose and treat” any language, or other social problem, in its early stages, when there will, however, be differences among astute people of good will as to whether there are sufficient signs and symptoms to warrant a diagnosis. The way to sharpen one’s diagnostic skills in medicine, as well as in social situations, is to study history so that, as Santayana wrote, we are not condemned to relive it; to confer readily with colleagues; and to practice continually to gain experience.

If a diagnosis is agreed upon, the next question is whether outside treatment is needed, or whether the natural healing powers of the body politic can be relied upon. If treatment is needed, how mild, moderate, or drastic should the measures be? Here we must keep in mind the ancient medical principle, primum non nocere: First, do no harm. If one can’t help, at least try to avoid making things worse.

In medicine, hence, when deciding to treat, one must take into account both the side effects of the treatment, and the severity of the untreated disease. One might accept the immunization for polio, because the risk of serious side effects of the treatment are slight (but not zero), and once the paralytic disease strikes, there is no known way to revivify an atrophied limb. The mild fever and headache that one often gets from taking the attenuated polio virus that provides the immunity is an acceptable price to pay to avoid the disastrous affects of paralytic polio. Nor does one wait until the epidemic strikes to seek the preventative.

In contrast, one might forgo a flu shot, for the consequences of the flue will in most cases pass on with no permanent damage.

I apply these principles to thinking about language and immigration policy questions. Prevent problems where possible; where this is not possible, try to diagnose early and use the most innocuous treatment that will still adequately address the malady. Since in the language field, history provides few if any examples of remedies for established division of a society along language lines (other than mass expulsions, and even genocide, used all too frequently), it behooves us to sharpen our diagnostic skills and to act on the earliest signs of difficulty.

Those doing so must recognize that society generally gives no rewards for preventing problems, and often vilifies those who try to do so. ■

(The final draft of this essay was dated January 13, 1989.)

About the author

John Tanton, who passed away on July 16, 2019, was the founding editor and publisher of The Social Contract.