June 08, 2007

The Triumph of Racism

So, the immigration bill appears to be dead, probably until 2009 at the earliest. It was an entirely awful piece of legislation, one which eminently deserved to be killed -- but not for any of the reasons that, in fact, actually led to its demise. Among those ill-informed and wrongheaded reasons was a complete ignorance and disregard of basic economic and political principles, about which more in a moment.

But the record is disgustingly clear on the question of the single major factor that led to the death of this bill: the most repellent and primitive kind of racism. Ann Coulter is a singular blight on our cultural landscape, but she does possess one useful characteristic: she will often rip aside the false mask of more "acceptable" arguments concerning a particular controversy and allow us to see the remarkably ugly truth that seethes beneath. Coulter begins her latest exercise in demagoguery by heaping scorn on all those who dared to accuse opponents of the immigration bill of racism:
Now we're racists for not wanting to grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.

I don't know why conservatives like Linda Chavez have to argue like liberals by smearing their opponents as racists.
Accusations of racism are just "smears." Keep that in mind.

I'll perform my humanitarian act for the day, and try to save you from reading Coulter's column in its entirety. Here are the critical paragraphs. This particular passage begins with Coulter's joyful reliance on the God-given combination now so beloved by conservative purveyors of endless war and immeasurable hysteria: unreasoning fear of The Terrorists Who Will Kill Us All and Therefore Make It Necessary for Us to Take Over the Whole World, together with the shrieking panic induced by Those People, Who Might as Well Be Terrorists Since Lots of Them Have Dark Skin and Are, You Know, Not Civilized Like Us. Coulter writes:
Some of those hardworking immigrants who just want a chance to succeed were arrested in a plot to blow up JFK Airport last week.
Please. I mean, really, please.

Now Coulter is under full power:
Most immigrants still come from a handful of countries; [Ted] Kennedy simply changed which countries those would be. In 2005, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the overwhelming majority of immigrants came from only 10 countries, none of which had sent a lot of immigrants to America for the country's first 200 years: Mexico (161,445), India (84,681), China (69,967), the Philippines (60,748), Cuba (36,261), Vietnam (32,784), the Dominican Republic (27,504), Korea (26,562), Colombia (25,571) and Ukraine (22,761).

In 1960, whites were 90 percent of the country. The Census Bureau recently estimated that whites already account for less than two-thirds of the population and will be a minority by 2050. Other estimates put that day much sooner.

One may assume the new majority will not be such compassionate overlords as the white majority has been. If this sort of drastic change were legally imposed on any group other than white Americans, it would be called genocide. Yet whites are called racists merely for mentioning the fact that current immigration law is intentionally designed to reduce their percentage in the population.
But, Coulter insists, she and her allies are not racists.

A few paragraphs on, Coulter writes:
The government does not allow us to stop supporting welfare recipients in America, millions more of whom it plans to import under Bush's bill. That's not a free market -- it's a roach motel.
But they're not racists.

Here is the fuller truth that most Americans don't want to acknowledge, including and often especially "well-intentioned" liberals. This kind of vicious racism is usually kept more skillfully under wraps, especially in the last couple of decades when those in public life have learned to become increasingly clever at deploying hatefully wrong ideas covered with effective camouflage. But Hillary Clinton expressed much the same idea, in a comment at the last presidential debate that went almost entirely unnoticed. (Ruth Conniff noticed it, but she's one of the very few who did.) As I note in that post about Clinton, John Kerry offers a similar perspective, as does virtually everyone in our governing class.

As I've discussed in a number of essays, racism has been a foundational element of the United States since its earliest beginnings, long before an independent nation was even formed. It explains the European settlers' treatment of the Native Americans, the enslavement and brutalization of blacks brought here by force, the violence and arrogance directed at Mexico 150 years ago, the excessively brutal and explicitly racist occupation of the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century, and the hatred directed at successive groups of immigrants. Racism is a core element of the doctrine of "American exceptionalism," and thus of our foreign policy for more than a hundred years. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we saw the most repugnant forms of racism unveiled still another time, as the proponents of these horrifying views positively reveled in the hate and contempt they unleashed, and which they fully believed and tried to convince others was "justified."

Racism is unquestionably the major motive that led to the opposition to the immigration bill, for the very simple reason that none of the various other reasons offered make the slightest degree of sense. On these issues, I am happy to direct you to this article by the indefatigable and indispensable Sheldon Richman. In relevant part, Richman writes:
The new compromise immigration bill is drawing lots of flak, not least from conservatives who object to granting amnesty to millions of so-called illegal aliens in the country. (I prefer to think of them as independent migrants.) Here I have to agree with the conservatives. The illegals shouldn't be granted amnesty. Amnesty connotes forgiveness for doing something wrong — and they have done nothing wrong. Indeed, the government should be asking forgiveness from them.

But they broke the law to get into the country. Did they? They weren't under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government until after they entered the country. It's amusing that conservatives think illegals are covered by the law but not by the Constitution. Talk about having it both ways. The Constitution and Bill of Rights do not distinguish between citizens and noncitizens. Besides, there is no obligation to obey an immoral law.

But they came into our country without permission, conservative talker Tucker Carlson and his ilk say incessantly. Without whose permission? The whole population of the United States? The federal government? Why the assumption that either of those aggregates can have the right to give or withhold permission for someone to relocate here? This is a country, not a country club, and rights are natural not national. If someone wants to come here and can do so without trespassing on private property, that's his right and his own business.


If conservatives don't like the guest-worker aspect of the immigration bill, I'm with them. But my reasons are different. How degrading such a program is. Mr. and Ms. Immigrant, we don't want you to move here as a free person to live and work as you wish. But we are happy to bring you here for a few years to do some heavy lifting, after which we will send you back. Dash that.
Although I understand why he included this point, I do wish Richman hadn't written the following:
Border security is an issue for demagogues. Timothy McVeigh crossed state borders to commit terrorism in Oklahoma City, but you didn't hear the "secure the border" mob call for internal passports and walls along state lines. Leave crime to the normal law-enforcement institutions.
For several years, I have thought, and I believe today more strongly than ever, that after another domestic terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or worse, there will indeed be calls for internal passports, among other measures. So I'm tempted to say, "Don't worry, Sheldon. They will call for them soon enough. Don't give them any ideas in the meantime."

The deeply offensive arrogance and paternalism that all members of the governing class, including liberals, exhibit in the realm of foreign policy (see the links above) also reveals itself with regard to the immigration question. For example, via Justin McCarthy (who has further commentary about this and related matters that you should read), I see that Eric Alterman recently wrote the following:
Personally, I support a fence. The current system encourages the horrific abuses that take place against immigrants attempting to sneak in. Naturally, I support allowing generous numbers of immigrants into this country, but I support doing so legally, first and foremost. I also think it encourages contempt for the law, which is a net negative in any society. (I also support the legalization of pot for the same reason.) And certainly any nation has the right to determine to whom it wishes to grant citizenship.

If a fence is the best way to enforce those choices, well, then, why not? For symbolic reasons? I don't care about "symbolic reasons." I care about reality.


I support the end result, whatever it is, because ultimately, I believe in a society of laws, and because I'd rather see the poor and exploited at the mercy of the law enforcement officers with whom I drank and traveled in San Diego than the people who are doing the exploiting now.
The massive stupidity of this is equalled only by its insufferably arrogant condescension. Does anyone truly believe that a fence -- a fence over endless miles of borders -- is actually going to be effective? And Alterman echoes all the mindless, contentless screams of the racist conservatives who railed against this bill: "But they're illegal immigrants! They broke the law, our law!" Neither Alterman nor the conservatives choose to acknowledge, let alone address, how those laws are written, whose interests they serve, or how arbitrarily they are enforced. Not for Alterman or for the conservatives, any recognition of one of the most fundamental of human rights, the right to move, which Richman mentions in his column but almost no one else does. They shout, "The law! The law!," like any barbarian, not even beginning to understand that is only the first step of the inquiry, not anywhere near the last.

But the worst is this:
I'd rather see the poor and exploited at the mercy of the law enforcement officers with whom I drank and traveled in San Diego than the people who are doing the exploiting now.
How wonderfully gracious of Lord Alterman, to tell us -- and to tell the immigrants -- how he would prefer to see them exploited. I don't suppose it ever occurred to Alterman that he might inquire as to how they would prefer to spend their time, and their lives. After all, if they objected to their "exploitation" so strongly, they could have stayed where they were.

To be sure, there is a great amount of economic "exploitation" going on -- but it is crucial to note the source of that exploitation. The source is ultimately the alliance of nominally private business interests with the power of government. As I indicated in "A 'Splendid People' Set Out for Empire" (in my "Dominion Over the World" series), this alliance began in the late nineteenth century, and grew exponentially during the Progressive era and in the course of World War I. As I noted in that post, many of today's liberals need to learn some history and try to understand it. It appears that no one at all reads Gabriel Kolko's The Triumph of Conservatism or, if they do read it, they don't begin to grasp Kolko's primary theme: that the Progressive era was the triumph of already-vested big business interests, via legislation they themselves designed and/or approved, and via brute government power.

If one genuinely opposes the resulting "exploitation," one must oppose this intermingling of business with government. We have had nothing remotely like a genuinely free market in the United States, in labor or in anything else, for a hundred years. But liberals like Alterman don't oppose this intertwining at all: they want more government regulation and oversight. They still believe, like not very bright children who believe in Santa Claus past the age of six or seven, that calling something "government" or appealing to "a society of laws" purifies it of self-interest and corrupted and corruptible motives and concerns. They seem to be incapable of understanding that, from the first historic forms of the State, the State has always formed and will always form alliances with certain individuals and segments of society -- to which the government bureaucrats will provide favors and special dispensations, and to the severe disadvantage of those individuals and groups that are not so favored. I will return to this issue and many related ones in my upcoming series on tribalism in politics; for now, I note that our contemporary tribalists believe, without any history or evidence whatsoever to support the claim, that if only members of their tribe were in charge, they would act in saintly and disinterested ways, and they would be uniformly non-venal, non-self-seeking, and non-human. Good luck with that. It has never happened and it never will, barring a fundamental transformation of what it means to be human.

Let's return to the more general subject of immigration, and how ignorance and distortions of our own nation's history feed into the various American myths I continue to discuss. In an earlier post about the latest immigration debate, I offered an excerpt from Matthew Frye Jacobson's, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. That excerpt concerned the myth of the "good" European, a myth that avoids the virulent hatred directed at many European immigrants when they first arrived on American shores.

Earlier in his book, at the opening of the chapter entitled, "Accents of Menace: Immigrants in the Republic," Jacobson writes about the broader issues involved:
The favored metaphors for American diversity -- melting pot, mosaic, potato salad, stew -- all tend to present the relationship among the nation's peoples as neutral and even-handed. Pleasing though they may be, such celebratory conceits evade the power differentials, the coercion, the tensions, and the conflict that have characterized the American social order since the era of European settlement. What room does a clever metaphor like "melting pot" or "mosaic" leave to reckon seriously with the animosities marshaled under the banner of racialism or nativism? With legal issues such as eligibility versus ineligibility for citizenship? With historical facts of racial hierarchy, conquest, or slavery? WIth the differential political trajectories charted by citizenship through the coerced processes of slavery and emancipation, say, versus citizenship through voluntary migration and naturalization?


The peoples of the United States did not come together in a simple process of politically neutral adding-and-stirring. Some entered the polity willfully through migration, others through enslavement and eventual emancipation, and still others through conquest, dispossession, and absorption. As different peoples have entered the polity along widely differing lines, so have they enjoyed or suffered widely divergent statuses. Questions about who is in fact "fit for self-government" have been crucial to the history of American diversity in the making from the American Revolution onward.

This query had gender at its very root; among the core contradictions of citizenship in the United States is that while independence was seen initially as a prerequisite for fit citizenship, dependence -- upon either husband or father -- continued to be among the hallmarks of proper womanhood, and none seemed so destabilizing to the social order as the independent woman. Womanly virtue thus disqualified civic virtue, and vice versa. The question of fitness for self-government most often turned out to be a racial query as well: the Revolution may have altered the lines of authority radically from the Crown to "the people," but it left untouched various Enlightenment assumptions about who "the people" properly ought to be. This experiment in republican government demanded an extraordinary moral character in the people -- it called for a polity that was disciplined, virtuous, self-sacrificing, productive, far-seeing, wise -- traits that were all racially inscribed in eighteenth-century Euro-American thought. (The definition of the word "Negro" in an encyclopedia published in Philadelphia in 1790, for instance, included "idleness, treachery, revenge, debauchery, nastiness, and intemperance.") If the external authority of monarchy was to be loosened, members of the polity themselves were going to have to exhibit truly fabulous powers of self-control, self-possession, and often self-denial. And, according to Euro-American thinking at the time, "race" was one key to the distribution of these virtues and so to the question of fitness for self-government. Thus even free blacks were most often denied the full rights of citizenship; and thus the nation's first naturalization law limited the prospect of naturalized citizenship to "free white persons."

Nor had the racial imperatives of self-government faded by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the New England poet and former editor of The Atlantic Monthly, looked over the bedraggled immigrants disembarking at the docks of East Boston in 1892 and, economically combining the languages of criminality, disease, and race, pronounced upon their undesirability. These "jailbirds, professional murderers, amateur lepers ('moon-eyed' or otherwise) and human gorillas," he wrote a friend, "should be closely questioned at our gates."
On our rock-strewn path to "civilization" and in the course of our alleged "progress," we have decided that the ugliest and most charged terms of this racialist approach are no longer to be tolerated: except in private rooms swimming in drink, one is not apt to hear words like "gorillas," and even the phrase "those people" is encountered infrequently.

But then you read a column such as the one by Coulter, or consider the impenetrable paternalism of Alterman's approach, and you realize that beneath the more polite exterior, the dynamics actually at work have changed very little. And then the catastrophe that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina reveals that those dynamics have not changed at all. "Those" poor, ignorant blacks left behind in New Orleans stayed there by choice, we were told -- and they stayed because "those people" are inherently lazy, shiftless, and basically rotten. They deserved whatever they got, including death.

Despite all this, the myth of an inclusive America, one that opens its arms to all, continues. During the past week, I heard and read any number of comments that insist we affirmatively welcome immigrants. We welcome them so long as they are "legal" -- disregarding the hugely and incomprehensibly arbitrary nature of our immigration laws, and that those laws are crafted by already vested interests, those who also possess immense political power; we welcome them so long as they are willing to be fully "assimilated," that is, they are willing to be "Americanized," self-reliant, and independent in the mode adopted specifically by the ruling class in America -- which is to say, by affluent, white (and until very recently, exclusively male) Americans, who have always determined the particular content of the term, "American."

But so intent are we on maintaining the myth, that we insist the "real" America is the one contained in some deeply admirable, but loftily abstract statements of political principle formulated over 200 years ago -- while we disregard, distort and rewrite the actual history of American politics, culture and society, a history that relied on outright, legalized coercion, enslavement, and exclusion, as well as on numerous "subtler" means of social control.

We have not progressed very far at all, in fact. It is not difficult to imagine that, should an economic collapse of significant proportions occur, all these ugly, vicious impulses shall have full reign again, since they have never left us. We may come to regard the horrors in the wake of Katrina as a pale preview of future events.

This indicates some aspects of the actual "real" America. The most primitive kind of racism has triumphed once more, and we refuse to acknowledge the most basic fact of what has happened. At the same time, virtually everyone in the governing class insists that we are so extraordinary as a nation that we have the right and obligation to enlighten all other nations of the world, even those that do not threaten us, using missiles and bombs as required.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to take us seriously as a country in any way at all, or to grant the United States any measurable degree of respect. The United States government is certainly a very significant and serious threat -- both to its own citizens, and to the rest of the world. But that is about the only way in which it is serious.

With regard to almost every other issue, the United States is variously contemptible, vicious, brutal, hypocritical, and laughable. And we become stupider as a people with each day that passes, as this last episode proved still one more time.