May 23, 2007

Heard on the Ray-Dee-O

Ah, me. When idiots speak. I'm listening to this guy on this guy's show. They're yakking about The Most Evil Bill Ever Ever Ever for All Time and Unto Eternity, which will allow millions of "those people" to come to and/or remain in the United States, irrevocably change "our way of life," and Destroy All The Universes and Maybe God, Too.

The ever so distinguished Congressman said, paraphrasing but close to verbatim: "We're going to be giving amnesty to lots of people who don't share our values, who don't want what Americans want, and who only want to come here..."

Wait for it. Wait. Be patient.

"and who only want to come here...TO MAKE MONEY!!!!!"

Note: he's a conservative. So is the host, who completely agreed that all this was inexpressibly terrible. I thought the supremely goody goodness of the desire "to make money" was a core conservative belief and the essence of what it means for conservatives to be a "good American," no? I guess, ah, no. Or maybe making money is fine, unless you're one of "those people." Who are just like real Americans in their desire "to make money," but in all other ways, not so much.

Leaving aside all the details of the ridiculously, absurdly long immigration bill, which obviously no single individual has read or will probably ever read in its entirety (memories of the original "Patriot" Act, that lots of Congresspeople voted for, having no idea at all what was buried in its bowels), let us acknowledge -- although I hardly think this ought to be a controversial point -- that the vehement opposition to the bill is motivated in large part, in fact in largest part, by the vicious racism that runs throughout our entire history. A recent installment of my "Dominion Over the World" series discussed this strain in America's past, and you'll find links there to further entries on this subject. Of particular note are, "Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much," and "Myths of New Orleans."

In this connection, permit me to remind you of some excerpts I've offered before from Matthew Frye Jacobson's, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples At Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, in my essay, "The Old Theme -- A 'Redeemer Nation,' with Some Explaining to Do." Jacobson writes:
It is one of the strange throughlines in the history of U.S. nationalism that since at least the mid-nineteenth century Americans have fancied their country as the savior of the world's peoples--redeemer nation, civilizer, beacon of liberty, asylum of the oppressed--even as they have expressed profound anxiety that the world's peoples might ultimately prove the ruin of the republic. The period between the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and World War I was a critical epoch in the twin development of these contending ideas. Americans erected a magnificent statue in New York Harbor beckoning the "tempest-tost" and "wretched" refugees of the Old World through the "golden door" of new hope, and yet they developed in succeeding decades an elaborate biological explanation of the superiority of "old-stock" Americans and the undesirability of the "backward" or "useless" races who were overrepresented among the new immigration. ... What America had to offer seemed too good not to extend to the benighted peoples of the world (by force, if necessary); but what those people threatened to return in the bargain ultimately seemed too bad to risk.

My focus on the years 1876 to 1917 in this book is meant to redress two striking failures of our national memory--one regarding immigration; the other, imperialism.

Recent debates over immigration have revolved around highly idealized images of the "good" European immigrant of a bygone era.


It is useful to know, in this connection, that--however safely "assimilated" now--at the moment of their arrival the waves of European immigrants constituted a full-blown political crisis in the United States, and that it was a crisis articulated in exactly the terms used today by the likes of Patrick Buchanan, Pete Wilson, or Border Watch in reference to Asian and Latin American immigrants. ... The myth of yesterday's "good" European immigrant resides at the heart of this popular misreading of the period, screening the fact that today's "bad" immigration represents precisely the threat that the republic has faced and overcome many times before. Evidently the capacity of the republic to withstand its own diversity is greater than the capacity of many citizens to imagine an America that departs significantly from the demographic status quo (and lives to tell about it--in English).

The second piece of public amnesia addressed here concerns turn-of-the-century empire-building, an area even more striking for the totality of its disappearance from public discussion. ... Not only do most Americans know nothing about the conduct of the Philippine-American War; many do not even know that such a war took place.

The stakes are quite high for Americans' national self-conception. In expurgating the period of U.S. expansionism that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Americans adopt a broken narrative that casts Manifest Destiny and continental expansionism falsely adrift from "modern" U.S. history, and obscures the extent to which the modern state was built, and modern nationalism generated, in close relation to the imperialist project. The effect is to mystify U.S. involvement in global affairs by hiding the very moment when global power was so lustily seized. If there is no turn-of-the-century expansionism, then Manifest Destiny becomes an irrelevance of dim antiquity, and both the Wilsonian internationalism and the Cold War interventionism of the twentieth century can be imagined as developing upon an entirely different epistemological footing. Without the Philippines, in other words, it becomes easy to suppose a radical historical disjuncture separating the plains wars of the mid-nineteenth century and the Southeast Asian wars of the mid-twentieth: that U.S. soldiers referred to areas within Vietnam as "Indian Country" becomes a matter of simple metaphor, not of deeper ideology. But our first land war in Asia was fought not in 1950-53 but in 1899-1902, and it was waged largely by American officers who had received their practical training in campaigns against the "savages" of the Western plains in the 1870s.

This erasure has generally allowed a view that the United States has played its part as a power on the world scene only reluctantly. The triumph of American innocence, as Stuart Creighton Miller has called this willful revision, constitutes a pillar of twentieth-century American liberalism. Unabashed discussion of racial conquest has long faded from American political discourse; there is simply no longer a place in national self-conception for the rhetoric of "waste spaces" and of "unfitness for self-government," or for the glorious war against "savages" that obtained in Theodore Roosevelt's day. And yet Americans still find themselves in possession of an empire marked by myriad alliances with pliant dictators, by an unbroken history of military interventions, by a twelve-digit defense budget, and by a global network of military bases--and so they have some explaining to do.
As I often have occasion to note these days, most Americans know none of this history. They are entirely unaware that almost all of our current debates and most heated controversies, including that concerning immigration, are identical to those of earlier eras. As Jacobson emphasizes, the truth is even worse: we are not only ignorant of our own history, but we rewrite it so that it accords with our current prejudices. Thus, the once deeply detested European immigrant becomes "good," and we forget the immense hatred that was focused on Germans, Italians, the Irish and other groups, when their arrival in large numbers on these shores still constituted a new phenomenon.

We've seen all of it before. The earlier immigrants finally became a full part of America and made the country enormously richer, with their work and their desire "to make money," with their cultures and histories, and even, yes, with their languages. The heavens did not fall, the fabric of America and "our way of life" was not shredded and torn apart, and the universes were not destroyed.

But we refuse to learn a single damned thing, so we repeat it all, and we insist that today's "crisis" is unlike any we've seen before. None of it is true, and most Americans are too ignorant to even begin to understand just how grievously wrong they are.

We are perilously close to perfect in one respect: our self-willed ignorance and stupidity is all-encompassing. One of these days, it just may suffocate us.