Exiles on Main Street
The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town
by Mary Pipher
Harcourt; 416 pp. $25
I approached this book with the maximum possible amount of ill will. Mary Pipher, Ph.D. — that's how she is billed on the book's back flap — is the author of Reviving Ophelia, the 1994 classic of victimology in which adolescent girls were revealed to be groaning with pain under the iron heel of patriarchal oppression. I have been thinking of Mary Pipher, Ph.D. as part of that Axis of Evil that comprises, amongst numerous others, feminist Carol Gilligan, who was Harvard's first Professor of Gender Studies, and William Pollock, Ph.D. (what is it with these people and their degrees?) who wrote a 1998 book, Real Boys, around the basic idea that boys ought to be encouraged to act more like girls.
In her new book Mary Pipher, Ph.D. takes on the issue of foreign refugees settling in America's heartland. She approaches this subject not as a political analyst, though she is quite free with political remarks, but as an observer who is involved, through both voluntary and professional work, in helping these people adjust to life in the United States.
I note in passing that there is a great deal to say about the business of asylum from a policy point of view. Like the larger matter of immigration, this is a topic so hedged around with fashionable taboos, it doesn't get half the airing it ought to. The asylum process is apparently addled with abuse: in my newspaper today there is a report of a Manhattan lawyer who has pleaded guilty to submitting over 1,000 fraudulent asylum applications.
However, Mary Pipher is not a policy intellectual. Where political remarks occur in this book, they are gratuitous, and have the flavor of being addressed to the choir: we all agree on this, surely? I have the impression that Pipher, though indubitably on the political Left, belongs to that section I think of privately as the "innocent Left." She would, I believe, be genuinely astounded to learn that there are people — thoughtful, well-educated people, not gap-toothed hillbillies — who disagree with her on points of policy. She is certainly plenty innocent about the Third World. "I was embarrassed to tell her [an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee girl] that we Americans lie to people to make money." I do not think that Middle Eastern cultures are entirely free of this phenomenon.
The author's principal purpose in this book is to tell some stories about actual refugees, by way of offering advice to professionals — teachers, social workers and so on — who have to deal with these newcomers. We are thus introduced to an assortment of refugees who, having passed through the appropriate process and been admitted to the United States, find themselves in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is the home town of Mary Pipher. (Federal policy is to disperse refugees to all parts of the country, rather than encourage them to congregate in a few big cities.) The refugees come from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, Africa and Central America. Many of them have stories to tell of terrible things that happened to themselves and their families. Since such things undoubtedly have happened in those places, I am willing to believe that they happened to these actual individuals, though I wish I felt more sure that someone in the INS is checking diligently.
These case studies reveal odd fault lines in the doctrines of "diversity" and "multiculturalism." A conversation with three men from southern Iraq, for example, brings up the horror Middle Eastern Moslems feel at the way American men treat their women.
They are outraged at the fact that, in America, young women get pregnant without husbands and that many children don't live with their fathers … Hamid talked of the men at his factory who go to the bars on Saturday night and find women to 'do dirty things with'. He said: 'An Iraqi man would not do that. He would respect women too much. We only want to marry and have families.' … Mamduh said he encouraged the American men at his job to respect women and to marry.
Pipher seems to have found these men quite simpatico. I have the vague impression that following this conversation, she went home wondering how she would look in a burka. Here, as in several other encounters, her reactions are not those of a feminist ideologue, but of a curious, if somewhat naïve person with too much natural sympathy for her fellow human beings to be a consistent ideologue of any kind.
In fact, I finished this book rather liking Mary Pipher. She reminds me of lefty friends and relatives of my own, people I know well and am fond of, who are ditzy about quite large areas of public policy, but sensible and useful in dealing with people and in carrying out their civic responsibilities, and who are personally kind and generous. Scanning her other productions, I note that Pipher has some sensible things to say about raising children. Even in policy matters, she is not a total dunce. She seems, for example — there are some inconsistencies here, but on balance she seems — to favor assimilation. I think she wants us to go a certain way to meet these newcomers, but nothing like as far as she wants them to come to meet us.
In larger matters, though, she is clueless. Towards the whole matter of immigration and asylum, she has an oddly passive attitude. It is something that is happening to us, like the weather or the tides. "Soon we will be all together and more of us will be brown." This is very likely true, but is it what Americans actually want? Pipher rejoices at the fact that "all the beautiful diversity of the world" is pouring across America's borders, well-nigh unimpeded. Perhaps this is indeed something to rejoice about. Perhaps, on the other hand, we ought to have a public debate, with appropriate legislation to follow, about how many immigrants we want, from where, of what ages and skills.
I cannot share Pipher's faith in the wonderful benefits of cultural diversity, or in the wickedness of tax cuts. I cannot share the shame she feels at the recollection that: "The U.S. government destabilized governments in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, …" I am willing to write about illegal aliens without putting the phrase in scare quotes, as she does. I am skeptical of "the wisdom of [North America's] indigenous peoples," though I certainly agree with her follow-up remark: "What a different America we would have today if the first Europeans had paid more attention to native traditions." Indeed, a more open and accepting attitude towards concubinage, ritual torture and human sacrifice, to name only the first few "native traditions" that come to mind, would make the United States a very different place.
Pipher is obviously a nice person, though, and I would guess that the public harm done by her silly ideas about taxation, immigration and "diversity" is at least partly offset by much private good accomplished through her efforts to help and understand these refugees. If she ran for office in my district, I would vote for her opponent. I would, however, be happy to have Mary Pipher, Ph.D. round for dinner one evening; and if I were a bewildered refugee dumped in Lincoln, Nebraska, I think I would be very glad to make her acquaintance.