Donald Trump’s nativism is nothing new, says Koli Mitra. After all, despite Washington’s hopes of creating “a safe and agreeable asylum” for the world’s persecuted, America has a long history of demonising new immigrants.
Hopefully they reveal the ethnicities of the people involved in this shooting soon so we know whether to freak out or calmly brush it off,” tweeted the journalist Murtaza Hussein shortly after the terrorist attack on a public health training event in San Bernardino, California last month. It captured with great pith the disturbing ethno-cultural selectivity we’ve seen in how the public outcry plays out after any act of mass violence. After all, who even remembers the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic murders by an antiabortion crusader just five days before the San Bernardino attack? Yet San Bernardino is here to stay.
In fact, there seems to be a rising sentiment among a segment of Americans that Islam and Muslims pose an existential threat to the nation. The leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, even tourists and business visitors, ostensibly to “keep us safe” from violent attacks on civilian life. Others are dismayed that their president and attorney general are “bending over backward” to dissuade us from freaking out about an “Islamic” threat. They seem to be saying (and some do so openly) that in the face of such attacks, some amount of hysteria or xenophobia, directed specifically and explicitly at Muslims and Islam, is not only understandable but reasonable and even specifically desirable.
But what’s the real basis of the fear at work here? More people in the United States are killed by violent acts unrelated to radical Islam per year than every act of radical Islamist terrorism ever recorded on US soil, combined, including everyone killed in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Among incidents classified as “terrorism” (i.e., acts motivated by some violent, extremist ideology) within the United States, deaths from jihadist/Islamist terrorism in were greatly outnumbered by terrorist acts motivated by white supremacist or other right-wing ideologies.
More people in the United States are killed by violent acts unrelated to radical Islam per year than every act of radical Islamist terrorism ever recorded on US soil, combined, including everyone killed in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Before 9/11, the all-time deadliest act of terrorism on US soil was the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, committed by white supremacist and anti-government militants Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. It still is the second deadliest terrorist event in US history. Yet, no one ever recommends screening immigrants to ensure they’re not rightwing extremists. Certainly no one would consider a moratorium on white immigration generally, just in case a “bad apple” gets through. And yet, the fear of jihadist terrorism is cited as the top reason we should deny admission to the Syrian refugees, even though they themselves are actually fleeing radical Islamist rampages of terror. Noteworthy, too, is that those who are most vehemently insisting that we bar Syrian and other Muslim refugees are the same people who have been making the most alarmist economic arguments for curbing immigration from Mexico.
The truth is that fear-mongering about immigration is not always entirely about any specific problems related to the newcomers, but rather, a way to channel frustrations about other problems plaguing the society by tapping into people’s unconscious prejudices/suspicions and scapegoating outsiders. As Peter Schrag illustrated in Unwanted: Immigration and Nativism in America, political aims are sometimes accomplished by “putting the immigrants’ face on the often inchoate economic and social anxieties—the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor—that might otherwise have been directed at their real causes.”
But, contrary to the xenophobic impulse—which is, alas, about as common as the impulse to migrate to greener pastures—becoming more open as a society and welcoming fresh perspectives and the energies of new populations is actually a way to solve/relieve simmering domestic problems. Indeed, migration is the lifeblood of civilisations. It is also the default behavior of land mammals. In nature, populations are always on the move, looking for freer space and more food, fleeing from predators and changes in climate and terrain. Humans are no different. Our ancestors spread out all over Africa and then set out to populate all the landmasses of the world.
As Peter Schrag illustrated in Unwanted: Immigration and Nativism in America, political aims are sometimes accomplished by “putting the immigrants’ face on the often inchoate economic and social anxieties—the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor—that might otherwise have been directed at their real causes.”
As they settled down and built more and more permanent dwellings, the idea of “home” and “territory” became entrenched, the instinct to be clannish and to fear “outsiders” also grew. No longer is it enough to be wary of a rival herd snatching away the day’s hunt. Now you have to worry about marauders raiding the harvest you produced through a whole year’s toil or the livestock you raised for months. But eventually, the maturing of societies into great civilisations has always happened through openness and exchange.
Closed, protectionist societies rarely got past the stage of feudal fiefdoms and rustic principalities. The most thriving, flourishing societies—whether marked as kingdoms, empires or city-states—tended to be open to outsiders. They tended to innovate and improve their lives by drawing from frequent and extensive exchanges of both goods and ideas. They tended to differentiate strongly between conquerors coming to confiscate their land and migrants coming to engage in trade and or to escape tyranny. Some Americans might feel that we can no longer make that distinction when it comes to certain types of newcomers, but this sentiment is not new or unique in history. It has arisen many times and each time, it has failed to achieve its objectives. We should learn from our past.
The history of immigration in the United States reveals a great duality of vision about the nation’s essential character. There is a long tradition of accepting and integrating a near-constant flow (and repeated giant waves) of immigrants since its founding, alongside equally persistent strains of nativism with bouts of isolationism. Which sentiment is more in keeping with genuine American values? The answer is mixed.
There is a long tradition of accepting and integrating a near-constant flow (and repeated giant waves) of immigrants since its founding, alongside equally persistent strains of nativism with bouts of isolationism. Which sentiment is more in keeping with genuine American values?
(Any discussion of migration and settlement in relation to the United States has to acknowledge the original problem of dispossessing the indigenous North American populations from their native lands. However, a substantive treatment of the issue is well beyond the scope of this article. For the present purposes I start from the premise of the United States as a nation-state, forged from the union of pre-established British colonies in North America.)
“I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” wrote George Washington in 1788 to Reverend Francis Adrian Vanderkemp upon the latter’s arrival in the United States, fleeing political and religious persecution in his native Holland. In the letter, Washington stressed the “virtuousness” and “industriousness” of Vanderkemp and his Dutch compatriots as qualities that especially recommended them for acceptance into the deeply idealistic, infant nation.
A hundred years later, the poet Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called ‘The New Colossus’, which was later inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, America’s most enduring national symbol. It expresses an even broader spirit of welcome, “world-wide welcome”, in fact, and calls the icon (and by implication the country for which it stands) “Mother of Exiles.” Lazarus makes no reference to any particular virtue or any other trait except the need for refuge and a desire for freedom. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
This is a “nation of immigrants,” as we liberals like to remind the world. And it’s not all about sentimentality. There are substantial, dispassionate historical and sociological studies that have shown American culture to be remarkably adept at absorbing diverse peoples and cultures while maintaining a unique and recognisable American identity even amidst perennial struggles of resistance and acceptance, assimilation and adaptation, competition and cooperation.
These quotes warm the cockles of many an American heart, including mine. This is a “nation of immigrants,” as we liberals like to remind the world. And it’s not all about sentimentality. There are substantial, dispassionate historical and sociological studies that have shown American culture to be remarkably adept at absorbing diverse peoples and cultures while maintaining a unique and recognisable American identity even amidst perennial struggles of resistance and acceptance, assimilation and adaptation, competition and cooperation. Gunner Myrdal famously described an “American Creed” as the foundation of this enduring national identity, based on certain ideals: equality among citizens; individual liberty in the economic, religious, social, and personal spheres; popular sovereignty; and sound democratic institutions.
But not all Americans agree with this precise formulation. Howard Sutherland wrote in the paleoconservative journal American Conservative, that the “nation of immigrants” creed is a myth that implies a “national rootlessness.” He argued that “American history is the story of a varied nation with a distinct founding culture, one that remained dominant while assimilating—and being subtly changed by—later arrivals. That [original and mostly enduring] American culture is British, largely English, in origin, traditions, and religion.”
He considers it substantively important that the “varied” nature of American culture remain limited to the varied elements of British and northwestern-European protestant culture, with minor adjustments that occur organically from assimilating late-coming immigrant cultures. Although his article is focused on defending historical truth from revisionism, it is not a racially or culturally disinterested effort. He is clearly troubled by multiculturalism itself and not merely by what he sees as the false claim of a long and historical pedigree of multiculturalism in America.
Many current immigration alarmists point out that today’s immigrants embody values and characters so different from the core American culture and so unwilling to assimilate, that they will destroy the fabric of American society. Yet, the exact same concern was voiced about each earlier wave of immigrants.
Similarly, in 2004, the late conservative scholar Samuel Huntington, in his well regarded, if somewhat (uncharacteristically) sentimental last book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, contended that America’s “cultural core” is and ought to remain “Anglo-Protestant” if the nation is to survive what he described as its current “identity crisis.” I don’t agree that the nation is suffering from any identity crisis. We have a common political and civic culture. We have a social culture which has pluralistic component and a common, integrated side.
But many current immigration alarmists point out that today’s immigrants—Asians, Latin Americans and Muslims of any ethnicity—embody values and characters so different from the core American culture and so unwilling to assimilate, that they will destroy the fabric of American society. They contend these people are fundamentally different from the immigrants of yesteryear. Yet, the exact same concern was voiced about each earlier wave of immigrants. Around the same time when Emma Lazarus was writing her paean to worldwide welcome, another poet, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, was lamenting the same:
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild, motley throng…
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites.
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
These were entirely new kinds of immigrants, from more distant places and cultures, with alien features, speaking strange tongues—Polish, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian—people whose arrival was greeted with alarm in many quarters. “Europe is vomiting!” exclaimed one newspaper editorial in New York in the 1890s.
They were viewing the “immigration of the olden time” through the rose-coloured glasses of harmony and familiarity because by their time, those earlier immigrants—Scandinavians, German Lutherans and Irish Catholics—had been integrated into American culture, but when they first arrived in droves in the mid nineteenth century, they were viewed with just as much fear and loathing.
“Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish immigrants, who would go on to establish some of the most accomplished positively contributing ethnic communities in America, were once thought to lack the intelligence, temperament, or morals to succeed in America. Just like today, many writers at the turn of the twentieth century made the case that the sheer degree of cultural difference makes the southern and eastern European immigrants wholly unfit for integration into American life, unlike previous waves of immigrants, who were mostly from northwestern Europe.
Writing for The Atlantic, the journalist/economist Francis Amasa Walker claimed that “the entrance into our political, social, and industrial life of such vast masses of peasantry, degraded below our utmost conceptions, is a matter which no intelligent patriot can look upon without the gravest apprehension and alarm. These people …have none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time. They are beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence. Centuries are against them, as centuries were on the side of those who formerly came to us. They have none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government, such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains.”
But, just like today, these writers had a faulty historical memory. They were viewing the “immigration of the olden time” through the rose-coloured glasses of harmony and familiarity because by their time, those earlier immigrants—Scandinavians, German Lutherans and Irish Catholics—had been integrated into American culture, but when they first arrived in droves in the mid nineteenth century, they were viewed with just as much fear and loathing, giving rise to massive nativist movements and even launching a major political party around the single issue of scaling back immigration. Germans were viewed with suspicion for being insular and insisting on teaching their children in separate, German-language schools. The Irish were assumed to be drunk, lazy, and unintelligent at best, and treacherous, papal spies at worst (this is very much contrary to Sutherland’s inclusion of the Irish in the original make up of the national “British” ethnicity).
In some sense, all nations are “nations of immigrants.” People everywhere are products of complex, migratory genealogies. In prehistory, they settled where they could get to and took up corners of the natural world that weren’t already inhabited, or drove away prior inhabitants. Staying in one place was a luxury afforded our ancestors by the invention of agriculture, but even then, gradual shifts took place, as young people pushed out of the nest when the enclave got too crowded and moved on just over the hill, and the following year another one crossed the next hill over, and so on.
Before the modern nation-state and its strict, inviolable borders, which are creatures of much more recent vintage, you didn’t stay anywhere if it became dangerous or unable to support you materially. You went where someone might hire you or buy something you have to sell. To the extent you could, you went where the rent was cheap and the thugs left you alone. Territorial boundaries, where they existed, were marked by monarchs, feudal lords and emperors, who claimed them by conquest and subsequently lost them to other conquers. Being a “nation” was very much like being an ethnicity and it was malleable over time. Migration patterns, like other patterns in life, don’t always remain the same.
Today, many of us can choose to live where in the world that we choose (sometimes “but for national borders” and some not). If we still want to define our political/civic identities based ethnicity, we have figure out just narrow or broad an ethnic grouping we want to sign on to. In India, for example, you might choose a “South Asian” or “Indian” identity, or get much more granular toward “Bengali” or “Hindu Bengali” or “East-Bengali Hindu Brahmin.” Even a seemingly homogenous ethno-linguistic culture, such as “English” (not to mention “British”) is a result of multiple tribal admixtures—Norman, Anglo-Saxon, other Germanic, Nordic, Celtic—and outside cultural influences. During the American colonial era, for example, it’s fair to say that British culture, like much of Western Europe, was heavily indebted to the scientific and artistic influences of the Italian Renaissance.
Before the modern nation-state and its strict, inviolable borders, which are creatures of much more recent vintage, you didn’t stay anywhere if it became dangerous or unable to support you materially. You went where someone might hire you or buy something you have to sell. To the extent you could, you went where the rent was cheap and the thugs left you alone.
The great city-states of the past, which are perhaps the closest historical analogues to today’s nation-states (as characterized by formal territorial boundaries as well as political and economic unity), were often quite cosmopolitan and commercially open. Most modern democratic countries in the world today have fairly heterogeneous cultures as a consequence of immigration. Some, like the unusual case of India, actually started out with a fairly wide mix of ethnicities that were also indigenous (to the extent that anyone is “indigenous” to any part of the world).
What makes the United States a bit different is not that it is just another branch of English civilisation, but that it is deliberately and consciously based on the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment. That includes the idea of “toleration” (what we would term “pluralism” today), as well as progress of human civilisation and above all liberty and self-government. The last thing these enlightenment guys would have done would be to freeze culture in time for future generations, down to every idiosyncratic detail, and rule by dikat from their ancient graves!
As it happens, many of the exponents of that intellectual movement were English and Scottish—some were not. As it also happens, the men who were establishing that nation, as well as the communities out of which they were establishing it were part of the British (and mostly English) civilisation. This made much of the character of the nation British in a way that still, naturally, endures.
What makes the United States a bit different is not that it is just another branch of English civilisation, but that it is deliberately and consciously based on the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment.
There have always been Americans decrying the degradation of their native culture by the influx of foreigners since the time of its founding. But others saw a nation built on choice and ideas. With certain glaring and shameful exceptions—such as the refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany—the country has usually made space for new arrivals and has always been enriched thereby.