Monday, May 7, 2007

Satan's Immigrants

Thanks to Dooce for sharing this link to a story about Utah Republicans who recently argued in their state convention that illegal immigrants are being driven by no less than the dark lord himself - Satan - to move to the U.S. Apparently Satan's immigrant minions are here to undermine our values and overthrow the country.

Hmmmm, I may be wrong, but I think most of these immigrants - legal or otherwise - are coming to the U.S. for economic reasons. And although the concept of the "American Dream" may be increasingly unattainable for many Americans (See Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch), that promise still means something to those coming from impoverished or politically unstable countries.

Of course, I'm not surprised by their rhetoric, since it's nothing new in terms of our country's long tradition of juggling nativist prejudices and democratic ideals. Look at the mid-19th century, for example, and one finds vehement opposition to the influx of Irish and German immigrants who poured into this country in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly after the Irish Potato Famine. Nativist groups assailed these recent arrivals for drunkenness, promiscuity, and of course their Catholic faith. By the early 1850s, a network of often secret nativist societies coalesced into a national political organization - the American Party, which was popularly known as the Know-Nothing Party. (My doctoral dissertation was on the genesis of the American Party in the urban South.) As a political movement, the American Party ultimately failed as the antislavery movement of the 1850s took center stage.

Still, the same vitriolic rhetoric was repeated in the late 19th century as immigration to the U.S. increased dramatically, this time bringing millions from eastern and southern Europe (a majority being Italians and Russians). Cartoonist Thomas Nast, perhaps most famous for his Harper's Weekly attacks on "Boss Tweed" and the corruption of New York's Tammany Hall, published numerous images in which Irish immigrants were depicted as monkey-like ruffians who brought only the baggage of hooliganism, alcoholism and Catholicism. On the West coast, Chinese immigrants were treated similarly, eventually prompting Congress to pass a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts that severely restricted their immigration.

So these Republicans in Utah are hardly novel in their sentiments. I suspect that a few of them could claim some of those persecuted Irish and German immigrants as forbears. But such a revelation would likely carry little weight among these self-appointed guardians of the commonweal. What does surprise me in the Utah debate is the explicit invocation of "Satan" as a player in the immigrant drama. Indeed, some of those present, while supportive of the concept, argued that such harsh language would only perpetuate the impression that Republicans are extremists. Members countered these differences of opinion with jeers.

Although one might read this story and attribute the events to the petri dish medium of zealously conservative, Mormon-influenced Utah politics, one can find such expressions of nativism - representing an admixture of religious zeal and thinly-veiled racism - in every part of the United States. As a nation we like to make the claim that the U.S. represents the "better angels" of human nature, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln's first inaugural address. Certainly Lincoln, facing a nation in crisis when he took office in March 1861, hoped Americans would recall these attributes. Unfortunately, the Bush administration, the Republican party, and even more cynical Democrats, only pay lip service to these "better angels," preferring instead to employ "democracy," "tolerance," and "compassion" as rhetorical scalpels in an effort to reshape the nation and undo a century of progressive reform.

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