Immigration and the Desire for Rootedness

Published July 22, 2019

Public Discourse

This essay is based on remarks delivered at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, DC, on July 15, 2019.

I am an Iraqi immigrant raised within the schizophrenic world of an American public school education and the Iraqi Christian subculture in America. I have moved thirty-four times in my life. Therefore, much of my work—including this essay and my forthcoming book on immigration—is informed by that kind of uprootedness.

“When man is felt to be belittled, when his grandeur seems to be diminished, he himself clings more fervently than ever to his roots and to his habitation.” So wrote the poet Elizabeth Jennings.

At the heart of the current national and international disquiet is an existential homelessness, to borrow a phrase from Josh Mitchell. That is, people don’t know who they are, to whom and where they belong. This is an identity crisis: individually, in that people themselves are having an identity crisis; and collectively, in that the peoples are in an identity crisis.

The link, the tether between the elements that constitute identity and identity as such, is rootedness. And yet modern man boasts that he has transcended the need for roots, that he has transcended the need for nation. But we have not, as we see from the anxiety of people throughout the West, where such modernism has taken root itself.

In this essay, I focus on rootedness. There are those who want to erase it, or discount it, and those who long to re-espouse it.

Simone Weil said in The Need for Roots, “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul . . . Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual, and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.” I see rootedness as something due to every human being, as part of their human dignity. Without it, man is cut off from the very elements that make him who he is.

What Is Rootedness?

To understand rootedness, think of the roots that shoot out from a plant and embed themselves in the soil. They multiply to such a degree that there comes a point where it is difficult to distinguish between the multiplicity of roots and the soil. And when a plant is plucked up and replanted, often roots are left behind, and the plant may or may not grow well in the new soil. Hence, rootedness is the combination of bonds (like all those roots that plunge themselves into the soil and grow and multiply) that attach the person to his or her environment: family, religion, culture, language, physical land, and heritage. There are other elements as well, like poetry, music and dance, which we usually think of under the rubric of culture. In our modern arrogance, we have forgotten that the varieties of soil are not always interchangeable. For a plant to thrive, there must be a fittingness with the soil.

The human soul’s desire for roots is universal, but we see it manifestly in exiles, refugees, migrants, and immigrants, who because of their very condition are deprived of their roots. Losing their connection with a common history, place, culture, language, religion, traditions, institutions, and civilizational memory uproots people. Without these elements, a human person is deprived of participating in the life of his or her community. Uprootedness is that deprivation.

Yet uprootedness is not only caused by geography. It can also come about through loss of job and community. In addressing the way the disease of uprootedness affects the working class, Weil writes: “Although they have remained geographically stationary, they have been morally uprooted, banished and then reinstated, as it were on sufferance, in the form of industrial brawn. Unemployment, is of course, an uprootedness raised to the second power.” Globalization, coupled with the reduction of the human person to an economic unit (think now of how we usually talk about immigrants, and other people as well, as job holders or job seekers), has led to an epidemic of uprootedness in the twenty-first century.

The Recipe for American Revival

Most exiles, refugees, migrants, and immigrants assuage the wounds of uprootedness by associating as much as possible, or exclusively, among themselves. This is something that many Americans find troublesome; they want these newcomers to assimilate and integrate. But that is to ask them to assimilate and integrate into a culture that is itself uprooted. Doing so would afflict the newcomers with an uprootedness raised to the second power, to use Simone Weil’s words. What they are attempting to do in forming strong ethnic communities is in fact a version of what many at the National Conservatism conference recommend (as do I) to natural-born Americans as the antidote against our cultural and social disintegration: to thicken their local attachments and strengthen local institutions. In a sense, they might be following the recipe for American revival better than most of us are.

Exiles, refugees, migrants, and immigrants—even today—come mostly from traditional societies. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his magnum opus Democracy in America, described this type of world as the “aristocratic society.” Aristocratic society (what I am here calling traditional society) is mostly known for its hierarchical structure, but that is not its only element. In traditional societies, people are linked by the bonds of loyalty and obligation. That is, unchosen bonds come before chosen bonds; people depend on one another. Roles are expected and respected: husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, grandfather, grandmother, teacher, priest, rabbi, and so on. These are all unchosen organic relationships, and in a traditional society they engender loyalty and obligations.

Because of reliance and connection, the people are bound to each other—there is a consciousness of ancestors and descendants, and man “willingly does his duty by both,” writes Tocqueville, “sacrific[ing] his personal enjoyments for beings who no longer exist or who do not yet exist.” In a traditional society, says Tocqueville, “a man almost always knows his ancestors and respects them; he believes he already perceives his great-grandsons and he loves them.” That kind of vision affects a man’s actions in the moment.

All this is still true, on the whole, of many of today’s traditional societies. Even if the immigrants’ societies of origin are not exactly like the aristocratic society of Tocqueville’s Europe, the parallel holds.

Tocqueville’s observations have come to the forefront of late, as America’s democratic society has uncannily evolved in the ways he predicted: a sense of uprootedness, obsession with well-being, materialism, individualism, consumerism, radical egalitarianism, unbounded liberty, and the breakdown of associations and institutions due to these sicknesses.

Many immigrants, freshly removed from a traditional society, still bear within themselves the strong imprints of that society, especially the way they value family, religion, and associations. Because of this, they see more clearly our society’s destructive nature. Fearing that they or their children may be swept away in this drift, they recoil from our culture and its corruptions. They fear—singularly—the “democratization” of their children—that is, the conversion of their children from thinking traditionally to thinking democratically, thus breaking the bonds of loyalty and obligation between parent and child. They reject the many instantiations of what they consider to be the corrupt democratic spirit. And they struggle mightily with America’s libertine democratic society.

And so, if national conservatives want to see more—or more beneficial—assimilation and integration, they need to know who they themselves are. They need to look primarily at cleaning their own house: creating a culture that allows family, morality, and religion to flourish, before chastising immigrants for their lack of Americanism.

In other words, national conservatives need to help create an America that knows who she is, one that can give immigrants more than just a place to get a job—an America that can draw them in, giving them a sense of belonging.

A Conservative Approach to Immigration

And that leads to the question of what is, or should be, a conservative approach to immigration. Unfortunately, the sociological conjecture that “people do not come together to be together, they come together to do something together” is accepted (sometimes unconsciously) even within conservative circles today. This is wrong. And I demur from this flawed anthropological understanding of human community that lies beneath much of today’s political and social thought and action.

To take a side in the ancient debate, I say that before we do, we are; that is, before doing we are being. Further, we cannot know what to do, before understanding what it is to be.

This is a flaw with our approach to immigration. In a vast number of cases, people do come together simply to be together—that social aspect of the human person is intrinsic to the human being. He is driven by his very nature to seek others for the sake of being in community. Why move? Why emigrate when you can “be” where you already are? Again, it is the rootedness that matters. Taking root in American soil allows persons and groups to be—individually and in community—in ways that they cannot in all too many nations around the world today. “Doing” practical things together is an outcome of that.

This flaw in our thinking causes us to see immigration primarily as a problem to solve—as an it when it is really a heshethey. We want to do something, by which most people mean pass some kind of law or create a policy. Yet we completely forget that no law or policy can be good or just without a proper understanding of the person—these persons we call immigrants and their desire for rootedness, both the roots they grew up with, and the new opportunities we can make available for them to grow roots in this land.

So, for starters, a conservative approach to immigration should go well beyond policy discussions, to the very heart of the conservative understanding of the human person: what helps him flourish, and what destroys his dignity. This means that policy solutions must be built on a proper understanding of man as a being who desires rootedness and community—who cannot be reduced to an economic unit. Philosophical and ethical reasons matter, even if the end result is the same—say, a reduction in the number of immigrants.

It also means a foreign policy that is less interventionist, less likely to cause upheaval in other lands, and less likely to create or exacerbate destabilization that leads to millions of refugees. It means working toward a chastened capitalism, and the invigoration of local and national identity. It means culturally lifting our society out of libertinism and cultivating a soil suitable for transplanting roots from traditional societies, for their good and ours.

The conservative view must not be a closed mind hanging on nostalgically to the past. Instead, it must offer a dynamic response to the current time, built on a foundation of wisdom from ages past, and an eye for what is needed for the good of the future.

Luma Simms, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies the life and thought of immigrants. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including National Affairs, Law and Liberty, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Institute for Family Studies, and others.

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