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Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23, 2011: Home Lands

In 1859, a brief but very heated nationwide debate broke out over questions of immigration, naturalization, and national allegiance. A French American immigrant had returned for a visit to his native country and been abruptly conscripted into the French military (which was involved in a war with Austria at the time); the French government argued that despite his immigration he had never abandoned his national allegiance to their country, and thus his duty to serve in the military in times of war. The man appealed to the US government for aid, but the Buchanan Administration, and more explicitly the Secretary of State Lewis Cass, denied his request, arguing that indeed he had demonstrated by returning to France (even for a short visit) that he was still more a part of that country than he was of his adopted home. The ensuing, heated debate in the American press unfolded mostly along partisan lines, and was quickly forgotten in the ongoing build-up to the 1860 presidential election and the increasing sectional strife that would soon become the Civil War; but many of the voices in that debate nonetheless articulated quite strikingly two starkly opposed and still relevant perspectives on immigration and national identity: one that sees immigrant Americans as fully adopting their new land as a home in every meaningful sense; and the other that questions the possibility of such shifts in identity and allegiance and that argues, as a pro-Administration editorialist did, that once the French immigrant returned to France it was precisely “as if you had never immigrated.”
By the end of the 19th century, that latter perspective on immigrant identity had evolved into a full-blown concept: the idea of the “sojourner.” This image of immigrants, one that defined them as coming to America temporarily with the explicit goal of making their fortune here and then returning with it to their native (and still home) land—and thus of profiting from the United States but not contributing to it in kind, as the narrative usually reasoned—was most consistently applied to Asian American arrivals, and formed a significant part of the explicit arguments that (paralleled to the sometimes more implicit but, I would argue, even more fundamental xenophobia and hatred and fear) led to the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s certainly likely that some of these Asian arrivals had indeed planned on returning to their native lands, just as in fact many earlier American immigrants (from places like potato-famine-ridden Ireland) had likewise envisioned their immigration as a necessary and temporary respite from unlivable conditions in those lands; it’s also certainly probable that many Asian immigrants developed such a plan once they encountered blatant discrimination and violence in America, and realized the potential limits of their lives here as a result. But as with any simplifying and overarching national narratives, the sojourner image did not allow for—in fact depended precisely on communal ignorance and elision of—such experiential or historical complexities within any particular identities or communities, much less the nation as a whole.
I’m thinking about these historical moments and narratives today because of the (largely artificial or constructed by still very definite) firestorm that broke out this weekend in response to President Obama’s speech on (among other things) the Israel-Palestine situation. I’m well aware that Israel means something different to many Jewish Americans than any other nation or home land might mean to Americans of those heritages; for one obvious but important thing, most of those Jewish Americans are not native to Israel, so the question here is not of allegiance to a native land so much as connection to a communal, ethnic, and spiritual home. I’m also, just because clarity is a good thing when it comes to an issue like this, not in the slightest trying to impugn Jewish Americans with the same questions of loyalty or allegiance to which these earlier immigrants were subjected; that’s quite literally the opposite of my intention in raising those earlier narratives. What I would stress, however, is that viewing this particular moment and debate in isolation, treating it as if it does exist in a much longer and more complex history of American experiences and issues and conversations, is equally limiting, does an equal injustice to those earnestly trying (as I believe Obama is) to figure out both the best way forward in this world situation and (more relevantly for him and for this blog) what role and perspective America can play and have in and on those events. As with every other contemporary and historical issue, the temptation today is to go for the simplifying narratives, to argue for example (as Mitt Romney did over the weekend) that Obama is “throwing Israel under the bus.” But as in every other such case, and as in 1859 and with late 19th century Asian American arrivals, the simplifying narratives lead only to further divisions and hatreds.
I don’t have any answers to what’s happening in Palestine, and that too is precisely part of the point; when it comes to these difficult issues of nationality and international relationships, and especially to questions of home and identity, the answers are complex even for individuals, much less for communities and nations. But I do believe that the more we can recognize the complexity and, yes, the shared humanity of every individual’s and community’s engagement with these questions, the closer we’ll be to a more meaningful answer for sure. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Just to illustrate the complexity of any individual’s identity one more time, some info on Lewis Cass’s 1860 resignation from the Buchanan Administration due to his very different perspective on slavery and secession from Buchanan’s pro-South beliefs:
2)      Quick but interesting connection of the sojourner narrative to other ethnic stereotypes:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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