Gerard Harbison is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is an occasional contributor to Leavenworth St. and his personal blog, as the Right Wing Professor, can be found at GerardHarbison.blogspot.com.
By Gerard Harbison, Ph.D.
The E. N. Thompson forum on World Issues, at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, has an almost three-decade pedigree of inviting distinguished guests to campus to speak on Big Matters — Michael Gorbachev, Elie Wiesel, Desmond Tutu, Robert McNamara, Yo-Yo Ma, to name but five. In my opinion, it’s historically had a slightly left-of-center slant, but not so much to be bothersome. And regardless of one’s politics, it was worth hearing speak an international figure like Gorbachev or Tutu.
However, as O’Sullivan’s Law states, any body that is not explicitly conservative will swing to the left over time, and this has happened to the Thompson Forum. Indeed, 2015 seems to be the year it abandons any lip-service to political balance. The theme is ‘Activism’; the logo is a weird throwback to Soviet Realist art; and the speakers include illegal alien José Antonio Vargas and veteran luddite envirocrank Bill McKibben. The other two guests you’ve probably never heard of, but in no way do they provide balance. One is Wes Moore, a Jamaican-American veteran who hosts a PBS show about returning soldiers, and wrote a best-seller called ‘The Other Wes Moore’. He frequently appears on MSNBC. I fear the worst. But at least he cares about vets. The final speaker is Sheryl Wudunn, who advocates for women’s education in the third world. Not a conservative or liberal cause, but worthwhile and substantial.
Of course there are plenty of conservative activists out there: Mark Krikorian on immigration; Christina Hoff Sommers on feminism (though she wouldn’t call herself a conservative); Roger Clegg or Ward Connerly on Affirmative Action; Michael Cannon on health policy, and so on. E. N. Thompson will not invite them; nor will any other unit affiliated with UNL. When Clegg, Sommers, and Connerly visited here, it was at my invitation or the invitation of a group I was affiliated with.
But let’s talk about José Antonio Vargas. He’s perhaps America’s most famous illegal alien. That is not entirely his own fault; according to his own account he was brought as a boy of 12 from the Philippines, and left with his grandparents, who were naturalized Americans. He says he only discovered his status when he was 16 and found his documents were fraudulent (never get stingy when buying false papers, folks!). So he got a better forged green-card and went to college. Being gay and hispanic, and educated (and, to be fair, a decent writer) he was hired by the Washington Post. His bio. usually says he won a Pulitzer in 2008 for covering the Virginia Tech shootings, but this is almost like me claiming I won a Nobel Peace Prize because they awarded it to the EU. There were eleven reporters with bylines on that story.
Vargas came out as an illegal in 2011 and threw himself full time into activism. The group he founded, DefineAmerican, is currently featuring the documentary, ‘White People’, the usual ideological whine about ‘white privilege’, which tells you a lot about where they’re coming from. He was almost deported once (but this is the Obama presidency). His fame, or notoriety, probably immunizes him from any future threat.
As it happens, I am myself an immigrant. I came here, from Ireland, on a student visa, in 1977. I married an American, had 3 American kids (and soon will have my second grandkid). After 9/11, I decided if the Islamic fanatics were going to come after my wife and my kids, they were coming after me, too. So I applied for citizenship. Before that, I had spent a great deal of time learning about America: its history, its political system, its laws. In other words, I assimilated.
Before I became a citizen, I took my obligations as a resident alien very seriously. When I was hired by SUNY at Stony Brook in 1986 and by the University of Nebraska in 1992, I had to, in each case, insist they make a copy of my green card, because they just assumed I was a citizen. I have never collected welfare of any sort. Resident aliens are not supposed to. When I ran out of money while on a student visa, I ferreted a few coins out of the couches in my dormitory, brought them down to the local vegetable stand, and asked the vendor how many potatoes I could buy for 77 cents. He apparently decided I was sincere, and gave me far too many. (Thanks!). I could have made cash at $5 an hour, with no paperwork, by shoveling snow in Boston, but I knew it was illegal. America is, above all, a country of laws. And those who lack a respect for the law fail, in a very fundamental way, the test of being American.
So you can imagine how much sympathy I have with Mr. Vargas. Yes, it sucks to discover you’re illegal, but he’d only been here for 4 years, a quarter of his life, when he found that out. His parents were still back in the Philippines; and the US taxpayer would have bought him a free ticket home. He didn’t have to lie and cheat and break the law for 15 years. Yet he did. Now his mission is to attack the very idea of an American identity.
Many people, from Alexis de Tocqueville on, have tried to describe, in a more or less friendly way, what it is to be American. Mr. Vargas has very little new to say about this; in fact, he’s not the least interested in describing America; he wants, for his own deeply self-serving reasons, to redefine it. But every country, every people, has the right to define itself; its borders, its laws, its customs, and those who belong as full members of society. America is one of the few countries that tolerates a large alien minority, many of who want to take that right of self-definition from its citizens. Some Latino activists even want to subtract chunks from the national territory. This is the only country in the world where I’ve seen a huge crowd turn up at a soccer game and root against the national team; it happens every time the United States plays Mexico. These people are aliens in every sense. They have no interest in becoming American; they want America to change to be like them. There is no reason any of us should regard such behavior as other than overtly hostile.
One final point. Vargas is not speaking here at UNL for free. You can bet he’s being paid a hefty honorarium. Since he gave up the reporter gig, he needs the money. But because he is an illegal alien, we can’t legally pay him. If we issue a 1099, we need a social security number, and he doesn’t have a legal one. I expect we’ve figured out some legally convoluted way of getting around this, perhaps by donating to a shell organization which will in turn pay Vargas. But it violates the spirit of the law, and if we had a U.S. administration that cared about such things, it probably violates the letter of the law too. The E.N. Thompson forum has not yet responded to my inquiry about how this is being done. That just means they’ll have to respond to a FOIA, instead. And I’m hoping the Attorney General will also be curious.