Monday, August 16, 2010

Let's hear it for the xenophobes

Ross Douthat divides Americans into two camps. The be-yourself one, willing to accept those from all cultures without demanding even a hint of acculturation, and the yer in 'merica, speak English and be white contingent. And, in his defense of the xenophobes, Douthat gives them credit for the fact that America today shares something of a common culture and common values.

But that's not how assimilation works. Xenophobes who as Douthat himself points out have historically not wanted ferners to enter the country in the first place are not some kind of positive force pushing the Other to Sameness. No, the pro-assimilation forces are on the progressive side, in the first camp Douthat mentions.

Because he's divided the camps inaccurately. The first camp thinks foreigners can become Real Americans but varies internally on what needs to happen for someone to count as such. As in, the camp Douthat names that makes no requirements whatsoever doesn't exist, at least not beyond the idealistic ramblings of the very few. It's not that a sense of authentic Americanness doesn't exist for members of the first camp. It's that whatever it is, it is, to members of this camp, attainable by all Americans. Some in the first camp are multiculturalists, others assimilationists, and many somewhere between the two. What they have in common is that they think making new Americans through immigration is possible, and that "American" is not a race, ethnicity, or religion.

Meanwhile, the second camp thinks there must always be some category of Real American out of reach to those who - and this is key - for reasons outside their own control - fail to meet its standards. Sometimes the second camp will demand assimilation. But what that message really means, when coming from the second camp, is that those Others will never in a million years count in their eyes as Real Americans. And that 'hey, they just refuse to assimilate' will be given as a pretext for exclusion. The fact that, after years go by, assimilation happens, and new common enemies are discovered (hey, what if we tried all getting together hating blacks, Jews, or Muslims? Oh oh! and Mexicans!), the second camp finds that it pretty much has to extend its borders beyond Mayflower descendants if it wants to get its point across, doesn't mean that the second camp has some kind of inclusiveness message of its own on offer.


dance said...

Random pop culture example that supports your point: I was watching Flashpoint (Canadian cop/swat team show set in Toronto) and they were going after a white supremacist group that was planning to blow up a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens. Thanks for articulating why that struck me.

Fuzzy Face said...

I would say that the error that Douhat makes - and which you copy - is assuming that there are two distinct camps.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I did consider that the two-camps idea itself might be off, but it's partly a matter of description - there's also a spectrum, or different overlapping views, or however you want to conceptualize it. But I do see a major distinction between thinking one can attain real-Americanness and that one can't, which is why I - quite intentionally - kept the idea of there being two distinct, but not homogeneous, camps.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think the more insightful distinction Douthat makes here is between what he calls the "constitutional" vs. the "cultural" understandings of America, not that between hard-line vs. moderate xenophobes, which isn't a distinction that makes very much sense. The possibility that there is some group of people out there who believe that something called "Real American-ness" is unattainable by anyone not descended from the Mayflower is just a straw man that distracts from more substantial arguments about immigration and pluralism.

I don't think that much cultural opposition to immigration, historical or contemporary, has ever been ultimately about creating a list of traits that constitute the "Real American." The cultural understanding has not been distinct from the constitutional in that it accepts constitutionalism as the basis of America, but also addresses how constitutionalism is to be maintained and passed on. The constitutional view says that, basically, American laws make American citizens. The cultural view argues that our culture sustains our laws and institutions, and the only way to preserve them is by maintaining a culture favorable to them. Large infusions of foreigners jeopardize this process because they receive the franchise without necessarily understanding or committing to the political culture that extended it to them. The cultural view recognizes that not all ideas and practices in the world are conformable to our regime.

The Mormon example is a particularly good one since it is entirely home-grown and involves white people with last names like Smith. But even white people like Smith can't have eight wives because because theocracy is not compatible with our regime, and also because--and this was apparently a legitimate grounds for opposition--it is a "gross immorality." Douthat elides the precise nature of Mormon assimilation, leaving out the parts about the shooting and the Federal troops, but suffice it to say, polygamy was eventually dropped by the LDS as a condition of statehood. Would you say that opposition to Mormon polygamy--a fully cultural opposition since the Constitution doesn't say anything about how many wives one can have--was a xenophobic or otherwise unwarranted imposition of real-American-ness?

There is not, I think, an obvious resolution to the question of what supports our Constitution. This is Douthat's point. Is it totally self-supporting? If there were no cultural consensus in America at all, would we still be able to sustain a government that doesn't require any consensus by law? Or does our Constitution rest on some kind of extra-Constitutional understanding about what, for example, rights and liberty and equality? If it does, then what is that understanding and how do we instill it in foreigners who immigrate here?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I know Douthat's politics are much closer to yours than mine, and for all I know there are personal connections, but I'm not sure I'd pick this article to defend. The argument is, in essence, that bigotry brings togetherness. If any hostility towards difference does, if there's any grain of truth, it's that a mild hostility, one that accepts the fundamental ability of everyone to be as authentically American as anyone else. The charming, nativist, cultural-definition types see things otherwise. And if we're getting back to what it was I wrote, I never said that in today's America, there's a meaningful Mayflower-offspring-only contingent. I said, in fact, that that doesn't exist.

Do you think, then, that it is possible to divide Americans into those with constitutional and cultural understandings? I don't think, if you're going to try to tear down my post referring to straw men, that Douthat's article holds up any better by that standard. As I alluded to in a comment above, however you divide the entirety of Americans in an opinion piece, it's going to be about generalizations, how you conceptualize things. There is absolutely a meaningful distinction between the kind of "mild xenophobia" that asks that Americans do x y and z to fit in, and defines Americanness or Real Americanness or however one wants to put it in such a way as to be, as much as possible, open to all Americans; and the kind that makes Americanness contingent on "culture" which is so very, in that camp, a proxy for race, religion, ethnicity... The distinction between integral nationalism and more inclusive variants (the word's escaping me at the moment) is no less useful - and, I'm arguing, more so - than the constitutional-cultural divide in describing how anyone actually thinks or behaves.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, my comment above is one typo after the next, but it's pre-coffee and, rereading it still pre-coffee, I suppose it makes the points I was trying to get across.

Britta said...

I agree with Phoebe here. While shared ethnic hatred can create solidarity, I don't think it's a sort of solidarity we want to celebrate or foster in the US. Secondly, I'm not sure how xenophobes have ever enriched our country--from the Know-Nothings to the Tea-Partiers, I think that aspect of our country is one of its worst, and America has been remarkably vibrant in spite of, not because of, those movements.
Secondly, for all the emphasis on shared culture, anti-immigration sentiment has always been rooted in unabashed racism--anti-immigration has historically been based in Eugenics and the fear that allowing in too many racial "degenerates" would bring ruin to America, and it definitely seems that's still a subtext. When immigration was restricted in the 1920s, handwringing about how keeping out the undesirables (a.k.a Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews, etc.) had inadvertently restricted all those racially superior blonds from Northern Europe, and immigration policy was revised accordingly. Indeed, those hordes of undesirable European immigrants were grudgingly tolerated in the first place because they prevented African Americans from moving North and taking the jobs white Americans didn't want to do, but once the balance was tipped, there was major moral panic.
Ross Douthat might want to pretty it up all he can (e.g. shared cultural values), but basically American xenophobia was based on a specific brand of racial intolerance that was only finally dropped when the Nazis made it look so bad it was no longer salvageable by polite society.

Fuzzy Face said...

I suppose I should have read Douhat's article before commenting. I believe that you have fundamentally misread it. It seems to me that what he said was that there is a useful distinction between those who insist that anyone can become an American if they adopt American values and those who believe that immigrants need not adopt American values at all.

He did say that you find xenophobia in the first camp - but you are way off in that he did not say that the first camp is or must be xenophobic or that xenophobia is a good thing. It is you who added the "be white" thing; it is you added the illiterate jargon thing.

If the United States is something other than a bunch of people who happen to live in a specific region, it is a shared idea; a set of assumptions that, while not as universally shared now as they were several decades ago, still strongly distinguish us from, say, Europe. And that is something that we should try not to lose, even if it does mean telling immigrants to assimilate rather than bringing in the values of the countries in which they no longer felt that they could live.

Miss Self-Important said...

The argument is, in essence, that bigotry brings togetherness.
Not unless you think that every instance of assimilation is the result of bigotry. But again, what about the Mormons? Was forcing them to suppress polygamy an act of racist bigotry? Is it ever possible that certain cultural practices can be incompatible with our Constitution without being explicitly outlawed by it? If so, then we have waded into cultural waters. How do we suppress these practices without appealing to something pre- or extra-Constitutional like culture?

There is absolutely a meaningful distinction between the kind of "mild xenophobia" that asks that Americans do x y and z to fit in, and defines Americanness or Real Americanness or however one wants to put it in such a way as to be, as much as possible, open to all Americans; and the kind that makes Americanness contingent on "culture" which is so very, in that camp, a proxy for race, religion, ethnicity...
How can Americans ask Americans to do x, y, and z in order to be Americans? If something is open to all Americans, they're already Americans regardless of what they do subsequently, right?

You keep insisting that any kind of cultural understanding is necessarily hiding some fundamental intent to exclude some group permanently while the Constitutional understanding is really an openness to the possibility of inclusion, but these seem to me to be entirely different kinds of divisions. There are, I suppose, inflexible people who think that some kinds of immigrants simply can never become Americans. And there are flexible people who would impose various conditions on immigrants before conceding their American-ness. There are probably also people who impose no conditions or make no distinctions at all. But flexibility is not the basis of cultural vs. Constitutional ways of thinking about citizenship. The Constitutional position says, with Lincoln, that American-ness is the belief that, "'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' the father of all moral principle."

The cultural view agrees, but thinks that this belief doesn't arise spontaneously in everyone by mere fact of their presence within US borders, and must be transmitted in ways that extend beyond simply laws, and to the children of citizens as well as to immigrants. This is the Tocquevillean argument that the political constitution of the US both grows out of and feeds into its mores. The values that underpin our constitutionalism don't necessarily come from within it. For example, freedom of speech and association can't last for very long if large numbers of citizens use it to form groups dedicated to overthrowing the government. Welfare states can't last if everyone stops working. And so on.

As Fuzzy Face points out, xenophobes like this point too, but the point is not inherently xenophobic, especially given how much of the cultural question about immigrants applies equally to the education of native-born children. Britta's theory that all US immigration policy has tended towards the creation of some Aryan utopia is simply false--Know-Nothingism and Chinese exclusion preceded eugenics and opposition to immigration was on political and economic grounds. The Know-Nothings feared that the Irish would take over city politics, and Californians feared that the Chinese would take their jobs. Until the 1920s, there effectively was no such thing as immigration policy in America. Borders were open to everyone who showed up except those whose infectious diseases were outwardly noticeable. In the meantime, everyone in America hated everyone else, and the blondest Germans and Scandinavians were as maligned as the rest (and during WWI, even more maligned).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

To avoid making the same mistake as yesterday and writing a comment that makes far more sense in my head than, as MSI's ease in tearing it apart reveals, in the wider world, I'll respond to all this after coffee and food, once I need a break from the microfiches.