A Legacy of Xenophobia
December 1, 2002
With Responses From
Dec 1, 2002
8 Min read time
A Legacy of Xenophobia
The detention of aliens documented by David Cole in his fine essay is merely the latest in a long history of American nativism and xenophobia. This history may seem at odds with the United States’ beloved self-image as a xenophilic nation of immigrants. But is it really? In fact, these two impulses are not contradictory, at least not in the American context. American xenophilia and xenophobia both operate in service of American nationalism.
When foreigners are celebrated in American political culture, it is because “they” make “us” better. For example, foreigners are said to bring family values to a culture that cannot sustain them due to New-World mobilities, sexualities, materialisms, and freedoms. The true entrepreneurial spirit, central to American capitalism, is more often identified with America’s newest comers than with its native-born. And communitarians see immigrant communities as one of the few sites of mutuality and care left in a liberal polity driven by individualism and self-interest. Again and again foreigners are represented symbolically as much-needed agents of national renewal. In the 1990s, many multiculturalists lobbied in favor of immigrants by deploying these xenophilic arguments.
Unfortunately, such arguments carry within them the seeds of American xenophobia. Positioned as the saviors of the nation, foreigners slide all too easily into becoming its scapegoats. Their “family values,” celebrated by some, look to others like patriarchal infringements of cherished American freedoms.1 From the perspective of the native poor, iconic hard-working immigrants, celebrated for their perseverance, put working class Americans out of jobs. Liberals see immigrant communities as ethnic enclaves that retard the development of American individualism. And so on and so on.
Americans are so used to thinking about foreigners as either a poison or a cure for the diseased national body that they are poorly prepared to think about them simply as persons. This poor preparation is captured by the dehumanizing American term for foreigners—“alien.”
Thus, it is with particular admiration and appreciation that I read David Cole’s compassionate and humane essay. Cole does better than the aforementioned multiculturalists because he eschews nationalist, xenophilic arguments. He does not recirculate the myth of an immigrant America. He does not express indignation and surprise that this nation of immigrants could treat foreigners so badly. Instead, he owns the history of American nativism and xenophobia while also calling on us to do better, appealing not to xenophilic, nationalist sentiments that might have the side effect of stoking American xenophobia, but rather to humanistic, constitutional, and moral principles, as well as to self-interest.
When Cole laments the double standard that treats citizens and aliens differently, he writes as if the pattern of xenophilia/xenophobia were not a national tradition. Yet I find little to criticize here, because he does so clearly not in the benighted belief that we have ever really been free of such a pattern but in the hope that we might one day be. Here he aims to persuade, not describe.
When Cole reminds us of the humanity of those we treat as deportable detritus on the basis of their ethnicity and in the context of our current fears, he sounds like the now-almost-forgotten Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Post, who in 1919 and 1920 took it upon himself, acting from within the Wilson Administration, to release hundreds of aliens detained and marked for deportation by the Palmer Raids. For his actions Post was hauled before a congressional committee. He responded to charges of impeachment with a mix of humanitarianism, humor, administrative confidence, and appeals to constitutional fairness that saved him personally and contributed to Palmer’s political downfall.
As Cole correctly notes, it was a young J. Edgar Hoover, together with Attorney General Palmer, who supervised the raids that rounded up thousands of immigrants and detained them for deportation on the thinnest grounds. Cole argues that Hoover personifies his point that inroads into alien rights are followed invariably by violations of citizen rights, for was it not Hoover who went on thirty years later to engineer the persecution of American citizens suspected of Communist sympathies under McCarthyism?
The point is a powerful one, but it is also misleading. This way of casting Hoover’s career, from one snapshot in 1919–1920 to the next in 1947–1954, implies a temporal lapse and gradual emboldening that simply did not occur. Hoover was already targeting citizens, not only aliens, from the very beginning of his career. As Michael Rogin points out, Hoover blamed subversives for the 1919 race riots, charged black leaders with “being under Bolshevik influence” (thus “making blacks the perpetrators rather than the victims of the outrages”), and “investigated and tried to discredit people who opposed his actions, like the noted civil libertarian Zechariah Chafee, Jr., and Felix Frankfurter.” By the mid-1930s, “Hoover was creating a secret political police to infiltrate, influence, and punish dissenting political speech and action.”2
Hoover epitomizes a countersubversive mentality, still dominant in the United States, that has been studied at length by no one more adeptly than Rogin. That mentality casts the United States not as a political actor enmeshed in political conflicts with a concrete history, but rather as a hapless victim of alien monsters who appear inexplicably out of nowhere, who might be hiding anywhere, and whose threatening actions justify extreme, often mimetic, (re-)actions on our part. Because Rogin is recently deceased and his perspective sorely missed right now, I quote him at length:
Both the postwar Soviet Union and the radical labor movement of [the 1910s] posed genuine threats to dominant interests in American society, although the nature and extent of those threats are a matter of controversy. There were also real conflicts of interest between white Americans and peoples of color. But the countersubversive response transformed interest conflicts into psychologically based anxieties over national security and American identity. Exaggerated responses to the domestic Communist [we could now say Arab] menace narrowed the bounds of permissible political disagreement and generated a national-security state.
In extremis, the government has not historically persecuted aliens first and then citizens. Instead, American countersubversives have gone after all perceived enemies of national security and legitimated their actions by casting their foes as alien to the national body. A particularly compelling example was provided by Mississippi Congressman John Rankin, a member of HUAC who, in commenting on a petition from the Committee for the First Amendment before the House in 1947, named some of the CFA’s members’ names in a way clearly intended to “out” some apparent citizens as really, invisibly alien:
I want to read you some of these names. One of the names is June Havoc. We found . . . that her real name is June Hovick. Another one was Danny Kaye, and we found out his real name—David Daniel Kaminsky. . . . Another one is Eddie Cantor, whose real name is Edward Iskowitz. There is one who calls himself Edward Robinson. His real name is Emmanuel Goldenberg. There is another here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg.3
In short, although we may as Cole suggests sometimes persecute people because they are foreign, the deeper truth is that we almost always make foreign those whom we persecute. Foreignness is a symbolic marker that the nation attaches to the people we want to disavow, deport, or detain because we experience them as a threat. The distinction between who is part of the nation and who is an outsider is not exhausted nor even finally defined by working papers, skin color, ethnicity, or citizenship. Indeed, it is not an empirical line at all; it is a symbolic one, used for political purposes.
Although in the current climate Cole’s intervention could not be more welcome, and although I myself hope it will be effective, his approach has some blind spots worth noting. He invokes the Constitution as if that document only checks and does not also aid the national-security state’s amassment of power. True, Louis Post used the mandates, checks, and powers of constitutionally ordered government to great effect, to defend himself against impeachment. But invoking the Constitution is no longer enough. The Constitution has an ambiguous relation to the national security state that it authorizes, tolerates, and sometimes checks. If we invoke the Constitution without interrogating the national-security state that is its current operating context, and without attending to the symbolic dimensions of politics, then the best question we can ask is Cole’s: whose liberty should be traded-off for security, and when or how are such trade-offs justified? Wouldn’t it be better to ask (or at least also to ask), as Hannah Arendt did, how security became the end of government and with what consequences for democracy and freedom?4
Rogin argues that one of the biggest consequences of the American government’s countersubversive focus on security has been the atomization of political association. He tracked the effects of three episodes of American countersubversion—the genocide of tribal Indians, the destruction of labor unions, and finally, under McCarthyism, the effort to make dangerous any sort of dissenting political affiliation (73). If Rogin is right, then state-sponsored persecution, not television, is why people bowl alone (if they do). In other words, if he is right, then there is nothing mysterious about the much-discussed decline of civic involvement in America. But once in a while people are brave and regather their energies in the face of further governmental arrogations of power. In the 1980s there was a Sanctuary Movement, prosecuted by the Justice Department for conspiracy to import illegal aliens. If we are lucky, interventions like Cole’s—and perhaps the historical example of brave counter-countersubversives, like Louis Post—will inspire a few more people to act in concert on behalf of some other people, perhaps even on behalf of those now cast as the latest threats to national security.
1. See, for example, Susan Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?(Princeton University Press, 1999).
2. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie: and Other Episodes in American Political Demonology (University of California Press, 1987), 69.
3. Quoted in Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960 (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980), 289.
4. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Penguin USA, 1993). For the ideas in this paragraph, I am indebted chiefly to conversations with George Shulman and also Linda Zerilli.
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