Tuesday, June 21, 2011
June 21, 2011: We Need Them
This is likely not one of the most unique or surprising observations I’ve made in this space, but it remains striking how many of our American narratives, throughout our history, seem to have depended upon the existence (or rather creation) of a “them” against which to define a collective “us.” That tradition certainly can be traced back to William Bradford’s juxtaposition of the Pilgrims’ first moments in the New World with the “wild lands and wild men” that awaited them; can help explain the constructed images of the English Redcoats in early Revolutionary moments like the Boston Massacre; and reappears at so many of our crucial moments, from the use of African Americans in narratives of (white) reconciliation after the Civil War to the post World War I Red Scare, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the ongoing anti-Muslim American hysteria since 9/11. Each of those moments and narratives has of course its specific contexts and factors, but I would argue that all likewise and centrally represent this recurring “us and them” motif.
There are plenty of reasons to think that the last of my examples, the anti-Muslim hysteria, remains the driving “us and them” narrative in our current moment; certainly the faux-controversy of the “Ground Zero Mosque” would be exhibit A for such an argument, along with numerous other factors, including the continuing attempts to define President Obama as a secret Muslim and the ridiculous proposed laws in various state legislatures to prohibit the implementation of Sharia Law in their states. The recent and ongoing opposition to other mosque projects in places such as Tennessee might be the best evidence for this narrative’s still central presence, though, since it indicates that Americans far removed from a site like Ground Zero are seeking ways to identify and push back against this “them” in their own communities. Yet without discounting in the slightest the real and troubling—and potentially very divisive and dangerous—existence of those kinds of anti-Muslim efforts across the country, it does seem to me that this particular “them” is most ideologically effective as a foreign enemy, the opponent in a “War on Terror” whom we are most comfortable imagining as plotters and potential targets in the Middle East, as the objects of justified torture practices in our black site prisons around the world, and so on. And if that is the case, it would help explain just how fully our recent domestic narratives have come to include and often depend upon another “other”: illegal immigrants.
The latest, and certainly most overt and to my mind egregious, example of the use of illegal immigrants in this role comes from John McCain, who has attributed (apparently with very little if any actual proof, as per the stories linked in the article below at least) many of the still-raging Arizona wildfires to illegal immigrants. But much more overarching, and more nationally significant, are the numerous and concurrent narratives that link illegal immigrants to a variety of economic woes: unemployment and threats to jobs, of course; but also the crises in health care and education funding, alleged (and generally manufactured) fraud and waste in social support services such as welfare and food stamp programs, low-income housing shortages and spending, and other similar issues. In many of those cases, as I have argued in other posts, illegal immigrants are in fact not eligible for the benefits or programs in question; in the others, any and all communal expenditures are thoroughly dwarfed by what the nation and economy gains from (usually at the expense of) these American workers and consumers. Yet of course these “them” narratives are not now, as they have never been, about facts or realities; they’re about simplified, mythologized answers to some of our most complicated and challenging national questions, about defining a community of fellow Americans as quite the opposite, and helping us feel better and more secure about who we are in contrast.
I suppose one of the most overarching goals of my recent book, as well as much of my work here and my planned future work, is to make a case for precisely the opposite idea: to argue of each of these “them” communities the same thing that I ultimately argue about Obama in my book’s conclusion, that in fact they exemplify core, defining American identities. Or, more exactly and even more significantly, that what they share with the far-too-often contrasted “us” communities not only outweighs any differences, but also and more crucially constitutes a shared and vital national identity and community. We have met them, and they are us. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) McCain’s comments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/19/john-mccain-illegal-immigration-arizona-wildfires_n_880145.html?ref=fb&src=sp
2) One of the most sustained and interesting scholarly analyses of this American tradition, Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Unequal Freedom: http://books.google.com/books?id=RWKXAltlFC4C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
3) OPEN: What do you think?