June 30, 2007

A Nation of Lepers, Criminals and Parasites

Peter Quinn has written a valuable essay, which fills in some further details concerning the themes I've developed in recent posts about the immigration debate. As I have said, that debate is most notable for its virtually complete ignorance of history, its paranoia (which I'm beginning to view as something of an apparently prized American sport), and its blatant, unapologetic racism. (A few of you perhaps thought the most vehement opposition to the proposed immigration bill wasn't racist in origin? Think again.)

Here are a few excerpts from Quinn's piece:
The debate [over immigration] has waxed and waned over the last two centuries. What hasn't changed is the temptation to substitute shrillness for commonsense and depict the most recent newcomers as lepers, terrorists and parasites whose very presence subverts our economy and threatens our democracy.

In the beginning, anyone with the stamina to get here was welcome to stay. For the most part, foreigners were courted and encouraged to come. The young nation counted on their skills, ambition and numbers to sustain westward expansion and help fuel the growth of industry. The shrill notes, however, weren't long in coming. By the 1830s, a growing influx of German and Irish Catholics led prominent Americans like Lyman Beecher and Samuel F.B. Morse to warn of a plot to bring the United States under the sway of the pope.

Soon afterwards, the arrival of a massive wave of Irish Catholics in flight from a devastating famine in their homeland put immigration at the center of American politics. In the single decade from 1845 to 1855, Irish-Catholic immigration approached that of all groups over the previous seventy years. Native Americans -- a term the descendants of previous arrivees from the British Isles expropriated to themselves --maintained that Irish poverty was a function of Irish character. The immigrants were painted as disease-bearing, superstition-ridden and violence-prone, and the demand was made for imposing severe restrictions on the granting of citizenship.

In an 1855 address to the Massachusetts legislature, Gov. Henry J. Gardner went back to classical history to find a comparison. The scale of Irish immigration resembled, the governor said, the "horde of foreign barbarians" that had overthrown the Roman Empire.


By the turn of the 20th century...a flood of Italians, Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews had once again revivified nativist fears and set in motion a virulent anti-immigrant reaction. An elite cadre of eugenicists, supported by wealthy philanthropists, argued that the racial "germ plasm" of these groups was riddled with hereditary tendencies to feeblemindedness, criminality and pauperism. The subsequent revival of the Klu Klux Klan as a mass movement whose influence extended outside the South testified to the depth and breadth of anti-immigrant sentiment.

In the wake of World War I, the passage of the 18th Amendment, a constitutional change that prohibited the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages, had as a prime target the cultural and social habits of wine/whisky/beer-drinking immigrants. A few years later, in 1924, with the support of eugenicists and Klansmen alike, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively cut arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe by 80 percent, a limitation that stayed in place through World War II and the Holocaust.
On the relationship between prohibition and anti-immigrant sentiment, see Part VIII of my "Dominion Over the World" series: "Unwelcome History: Religion, the Progressives, Empire and the Drug War."

And with regard to the quotas on European immigrants, very significantly including Jews, see: "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor -- But Not Too Many Jews, and Not Too Many Iraqis."

Considering that the United States is made up of "others" and those descended from "others," it is remarkable how much we hate the "other" targeted for vilification at any particular moment in history. We don't hate only those "others" who come here: we hate the "others" who remain there, wherever "there" might be. We hated the Mexicans, then the Filipinos (see here, too), then the Germans (during World War One, mind you), then the "gooks" (see the second half of that essay, about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam), and now we hate an intentionally indistinguishable mass of Arabs and Muslims, which ends up reducing to those "others" who usually turn out to be, in the words of Stan Goff, "brown and poor." Very significantly, they also are almost always completely powerless compared to our unparalleled military strength.

And we always, always, always hate Black Americans -- those Americans who originally had been over there until we brought them here by brute and brutal force, and then made them serve us as slaves by the unceasing use of further vile and lethal force.

It begins to appear that we hate no one nearly so much as we loathe ourselves. No people who genuinely held themselves in anything approaching decent regard and who possessed even a minimal sense of healthy self-worth would be capable of such continuing, unrelieved hatred directed at a succession of "others" over such a long period of time.

At the conclusion of his article, Quinn wonders "whether we will learn from the past or repeat it." On this, as on every other issue of consequence, the evidence compels but one conclusion: we resolutely refuse to learn a single damned thing from the past -- especially since we are almost entirely ignorant of our own past, as well as everyone else's -- and we will repeat it an endless number of times, with all its grisly, bloody details fully intact.