This is a little (lot) longer than my typical blog post. Lets call this an essay- Prompted by some disturbing conversations of late.
There’s a lot of business literature on the topic of leadership and personal development. Much of it about how people behave under pressure. There’s a school of thought that to really understand someone, to really expose their true personality and leadership style you have to see them in a crisis. Pressure bring out the truth. I tend to agree with this. Sad to say the attacks in Paris have exposed a side of the American psyche that I personally hate to see.
Its human nature I guess, for people to want to protect what’s theirs, or what’s perceived as theirs. Human nature as well to get tribal when confronted with threats, again perceived or otherwise. I don’t know why I’m surprised actually, given how much I study history and how I tend to use historical examples to frame my understanding of my present.
Thanksgiving is a great time to bring up the ironies that only a historian can. In Thanksgivings case, the irony of glorifying our Puritan forbearers for leaving behind the religious oppression of Europe in order to find a religious freedom here in America. The Ted Cruz and American Exceptionalism crowd who are so adept at whitewashing history love to point out that freedom and religious tolerance are at the core of American values.
And I truly believe they are, which is why I’m so damned disappointed these days to see how quickly these values are tossed aside by xenophobic rhetoric and fear. Seriously, we either are the promise of freedom espoused on many of our most iconic national symbols, or we aren’t and we should just send the Statue of Liberty back to France, and sand blast the that radical Emma Lazarus poem off the pedestal because frankly, it doesn’t represent who we are as a country anymore. Maybe we can symbolically use the bricks to as a corner stone to start building Donald Trump’s new border wall.
Speaking of those original turkey eating buckle hat wearing folks we love to idealize, maybe Donald Trump and the “keep the Muslims out” crowd are in fact the direct ideological decedents of those original bigots. Let’s keep in mind that the Puritans did give a rip about religious freedom. The colonies they established in Massachusetts were founded for Puritans only, no one else need apply. In essence, Puritans were the Christian equivalent of the Taliban. By today’s standards they were religious zealots bent on establishing a theocracy with the narrowest definition of who was acceptable and who, was not. They had no tolerance for divergent opinions or religious beliefs. And like every religious fundamentalist theocracy, they weren’t beyond mass hysteria and the summary execution of people whom they identified as heretics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public moment of silence in memory of the 32 “witches” were murdered at the hands of Puritans in Massachusetts in the 1600’s.
Through the years America has experienced waves of immigration, from around the world, with many different motivations. From European peasants looking for better opportunities, Chinese laborers to work on the railroads to Africans in who “immigrated” chained the bottom of boats. The reasons are as diverse as the places they come from, the one constant in all their experiences, xenophobic prejudice from the folks who arrived in previous waves. Irony? The Thanksgiving story in America, taken as written describes the last time a group of immigrants was in fact welcomed to these shores.
Since the Pigram’s America has been enriched and built by the successive waves of immigrants. Germans, Afrrcans, Irish, Sicilians, Chinese, Jews, Japanese, Mexicans, Cubans. Just to name a few. All of them demonized in the same way Syrians today are being demonized, and most of the time with exactly the same arguments as what I hear today:
- They’re terrorists. One of them might be a terrorist/anarchist/murders.
- They’re not like us. They don’t value freedom. They don’t value our way of life. Their values aren’t consistent with ours.
- They won’t assimilate. They won’t adopt our values.
- They’re not Christian. They blindly follow a religion that kills. They’re going to impose their ideology on America.
- They ruined their country, now they’re going to ruin ours.
- They’re going to steal jobs.
- We have our own problems we need to solve before we open our doors to these folks.
It’s a shameful list, but it’s not new, not by a long shot.
Catholic immigrants, in the early 1800’s it was Catholic immigrants from Germany. 40 years later Catholics from Ireland. By the 1900s Catholics from southern Europe. Papists after all, “those” people are a fifth column for a Vatican. By golly they practically animals that breed like rabbits and swear allegiance to foreign pontiff hell bent on destroying true Christianity (Protestant) and enslaving America in their apostate heresies.
Ancient history? The Immigration Act of 1924 was enacted specifically for the purpose of restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe (see Jews and Italians) and Africans through the establishment of quotas. Quotas that limited immigration to 2% of the population from that country already in the United States. Asians? The act, which was mostly unopposed in Congress, completely banned immigration of anyone not defined as White or of African descent. Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Koreans, etc.. Immigration quotas were set to ZERO. The very stated purpose of the act was to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.
This act was predicated by The Federal Naturalization Act of 1906 which specified that only free whites and person of African descent were eligible for naturalization.
Interesting story to illustrate how far our countries xenophobia could go:
In 1914 Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa, a 20 year resident of the US, sued for his citizenship citing his exemplary history in the US and his embrace of American values. Ozawa had gone to high school in California, he earned a degree from Berkley, and had a successful career in business at a firm in Honolulu. He was loyal to the United States and wanted the same rights that his Anglo friends and neighbors. Namely the right to vote and the right to own land. Side note, in 1913 California had passed a law restricting land ownership to US Citizens only.
Ozawa wanted to challenge the federal Naturalization act of 1906 specifically the provision that only white persons or persons of African descent could naturalize. The District Court in the Territory of Hawaii ruled that despite Ozawa’s “exemplary” history, being Asian, he was excluded from Citizenship under the law. Ozawa appealed, under an argument that Japanese technically are white and so he should be able to naturalize.
Head spinning yet? Well sit down it gets better.
The US Supreme court took the case and UNANAMOUSLY upheld the decision. Writing for the Court, Justice George Sutherland, himself an immigrant from Scotland (a “good” immigrant???) wrote that when under the law “white” means Caucasian and that Asians are not that and therefore could not be described as “free white persons”. Application denied. Justice Sutherland, three months later wrote a similar opinion in the case of United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind. That case to denied “white person” status to people of Indian descent. Thind, a Sikh from Punjab had claimed that as the descendant of “high class Hindus” he was of the Aryan race and therefore technically Caucasian. The court didn’t see it that way.
I can only imagine the discussion as the highest court in America engaged in discussions of how Aryan and Dravidian racial composition could define a person’s legal standing in this country. Defining “whiteness” using exactly the same logic and language the Nazi’s would make in 1935 in their Nuremburg laws. EXACTLY.
You all know where this went. 25 years after Ozawa, the government, in one of the most egregious examples of xenophobia, imprisoned the entire population of Japanese Americans on the west coast for the duration of World War II. Why? They aren’t like us. There was suspicion that there might be some terrorists in the mix. They aren’t loyal. History notes that there wasn’t a single example of a person of Japanese origin, immigrant or otherwise actually perpetrating actions in the US (remember that 62% of the folks America interned were native born and by that, American Citizens). Ironc? The only actually case we have from the Second World War of domestic saboteurs were people of German descent in Operation Pastorius. There you had 8 naturalized German citizens were dropped off by U-Boats in New York and Florida with money, weapons and explosives. Why didn’t we round up the Germans? To hard to pick out in a crowd I guess.
Just to close this story the “free white persons” provisions in the Naturalization Act were not repealed until 1952. And it wasn’t until 1967 that Alien from Asia could own land in Washington and California.
I’m finding it much harder to not get swept up in mass hysteria about Syrian Immigrants. I had similar difficulties in California about Mexicans. The feelings come from the same place. Here’s a group of people, not like me, who are going to cause trouble and harm to America. In both cases my inklings and human nature was amplified significantly by politicians who used immigration and immigrant communities who arrive after their own immigrant ancestors as scapegoats for political gain.
History for you, voter id and voter suppression issues that we’re dealing with today has a long history in this country going back to 1798 and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Then it was the Federalists, alarmed at the number of immigrants in the United States, and their damned penchant for voting for Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party. Actually if you read the body of the law, immigrants were it cites Aliens (Immigrants) as “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States”.
History tells me, that refugees are just people. Like everyone there’s good people and bad ones. It tells me that my security, and the security of this country should be predicated on the actions of individuals and organizations, not ethnicities or religions.
My personal family story is all about immigration. Irony? My fathers parents came to America 100 years ago. They were immigrants from Syria. My mother was born in Egypt, my daughter in Korea. As a Jew I don’t have to look very hard to find stories of Jewish refugees trying to escape the Nazi’s, who were not allowed asylum in this country. In some cases resulting in their deaths.
As I stated earlier we either are, or we aren’t a bastion of freedom. We can’t be conditional in our mission folks. This essay was prompted by some conversations with friends who have completely succumbed to fear. I can’t stand listening to name calling anymore. Identifying Muslims as terrorists is exactly the same as telling me Jews are all greedy killers to use the blood of Christian children in their secret rites. So when my Jewish friends take this attitude, I’m outraged.
I have the chance now to really test my open mindedness and see if I really can espouse these values I claim and look at these refugees as what they are, immigrants seeking the exact same freedoms my own grandparents and mother sought, freedom from fear, freedom to think, speak and act without fear of tyranny and oppression. Freedom to provide their families with the economic security they didn’t know back home. To live in a country that at least on its monuments and in its collective psyche claims to be a beacon of freedom and light in the world. Well, I’d argue that beacons and lights don’t really do any good when they’re snuffed out by walls, and made inaccessible by laws attempt to segregate the “good” from the “bad” based on racist labels and prejudiced attitudes about who is like us, and who is not.
It’s a tough position to take these days. No one said doing the right thing was easy.