Anti-immigrant rhetoric is an insult to your ancestors

An anti-immigrant cartoon from 1904. Could those be your people coming over or through the wall?

Dirty, dangerous, diseased, stealing our jobs, and arriving in waves too large to assimilate: Unless your immigrant ancestors were on the Mayflower, they suffered the same abuse.

Wednesday night, Fox News host Laura Ingraham led off her show by quoting Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about how the country has changed since the 90s, making fun of her for a while, and then launching into this white-supremacist rant:

In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically, in some ways, the country has changed. Now, much of this is related to both illegal, and in some cases legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.

From there she went into a Trump-like cherry-picking of crimes committed by immigrants [1], before coming around again to Ocasio-Cortez and the ultimate threat:

This is exactly what socialists like Ocasio-Cortez want: eventually diluting and overwhelming your vote with the votes of others, who aren’t (let’s face it) too big on Adam Smith and The Federalist Papers. … It’s clear that we need a reset on the entire issue of immigration, illegal and legal.

That segment drew cheers from white supremacists around the country, who recognize their own rhetoric when you repeat it back to them: White Americans are being overwhelming by darker immigrants who will never assimilate, but will instead remake America in their own image. [2]

The timelessness of xenophobia. But there’s a strange thing about that rhetoric: It’s been part of American discourse forever. And most of us here today — including most of the white supremacists — are descended from those darker immigrants who supposedly would never assimilate.

America has always had conflicted feelings about its immigrants. On the one hand, we take pride in being “a nation of immigrants”, a place where people come to be free and find opportunity. When Neil Diamond sang “Everywhere around the world, they’re coming to America” in 1980, that message was celebratory, not ominous. Every well-established ethnic group (except blacks and Native Americans, whose histories are unique, and who even after all these centuries have never completely been accepted as “real” Americans) tells similarly heroic stories about its first generation — people who arrived here with nothing, worked hard, and prospered.

And yet, each new ethnic group faces the same hostile tropes. Unless you arrived on the Mayflower, the white people who were here already probably had the same bad things to say about you and your ilk: You were dirty and carried disease. You brought nothing with you and had little to offer. You ate different food, spoke a different language (or your English was bad and marred by an impenetrable  accent), had different customs, and worshiped at a different church. Your skin (even if your ethnic group is considered white now) was a different shade. Your people brought crime. Having grown up under a different system of government, you were not well suited to American traditions of democracy. You were arriving in numbers too large to absorb, and the prospect of your people assimilating to American ways seemed slight.

Ben Franklin and the Germanization threat. Today, few ethnic groups are as uncontroversial or as seamlessly integrated into the American landscape as mine: Germans. In the 2000 census, we constituted 17% of the population. That makes us the largest group of whites, outnumbering the Irish and English, and puts our numbers about on a par with Hispanics.

My ancestors started coming here in the 1840s, and people who meet me probably don’t even think about Germany; I’m just another white American. I don’t know how to cook any uniquely German dishes. I can barely decipher written German and don’t speak it at all. My European vacation fantasies center on London, not Berlin.

And yet, as Annalisa Merelli pointed out last year on Quartz, if you go back far enough, German immigrants faced the same accusations that Mexican or Muslim immigrants hear today. Ben Franklin in particular worried that Pennsylvania might soon be overrun by them.

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Complexion? Weren’t Germans white, like the English? Apparently not, or at least not yet.

Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted.

I don’t know my ancestry well enough to tell you whether I’m Saxon, but if Swedes and Russians are “swarthy”, I doubt I pass muster.

Remember how Trump warned that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.“? Ben didn’t believe any country did.

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation.

So think about how that worked out. Ben was proved right, mostly: Those stupid Germans did overrun large parts of his colony, becoming the Pennsylvania Dutch. [3] They polluted English Quaker cuisine with their buttery pies and pastries, and marred the countryside with the demonic hex signs on their barns. You yourself may make potato salad in the German fashion, without even realizing that you are betraying authentic American traditions.

That ridiculous train of thought is why, when I watch well-assimilated whites (the kind of people who think of themselves as “real Americans”) denounce the new immigrants, I play a little game with myself: How long ago, I wonder, were similar charges leveled against their ancestors? How few words to you have to change to turn their attacks into diatribes against their own people?

The Irish, Italians, and other Catholics. Take John Kelly, who said that today’s immigrants aren’t “people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.”

They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from — fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English.

The Boston Globe traced Kelly’s great-grandparents: Seven immigrants out of eight. Three from Ireland, four from Italy. Great-grandmother Mary Connelly probably came from Clifden in County Galway, a small town surrounded by farmland. John DeMarco, a fruit peddler,

still didn’t speak English after more than a decade in the country. His wife Crescenza, Kelly’s great-grandmother, lived in the United States for more than 30 years without learning the language.

When Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich tell us that Muslim immigrants will be bad citizens because Islam is incompatible with American values, I wonder if they realize how closely their rhetoric matches what was said against their own religion (Catholicism) just a few generations ago. In 2010, Gingrich warned:

America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.

How far is that from what Protestant minister (and best-selling author) Norman Vincent Peale said about the prospect of electing a Catholic president in 1960? “Our American culture is at stake,” he worried.

The Founders saw Catholicism as “popery”, a dangerous authoritarian system utterly at odds with the values of the American Republic. Future Chief Justice John Jay (co-author of those same Federalist Papers that Ingraham — another Catholic — worries new immigrants “aren’t too big on”) wrote to the British people on behalf of the Continental Congress, protesting against the toleration of Catholicism in Quebec:

Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion through every part of the world.

Hannity has called Islamic law, sharia, “the antithesis of our Constitutional republic”. John Adams held similar opinions about the canon law of the Catholic Church’s “Romish clergy”:

All these opinions they were enabled to spread and rivet among the people by reducing their minds to a state of sordid ignorance and staring timidity, and by infusing into them a religious horror of letters and knowledge. Thus was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to [the Pope], and his subordinate tyrants.

I can hardly wait to hear Rudy Giuliani repeat Trump’s rhetoric about Hispanic crime and MS-13, since it is almost a word-for-word reprise of 20th-century denunciations of Italians and the Mafia.

The elasticity of Americanism. At every point in our history, the idea of American has stretched far enough to include past waves of immigrants, while still balking at the more recent ones. At every point, there has been a clear line between Them and Us, and every time the issues seemed totally different than what we had seen before: Once we were an English culture, then a Northern European culture, then a more generally European one (with a possible debt to Africa for jazz and a few other things), and now even that is open to challenge. Once we were a Protestant country, then a Christian country, then Judeo-Christian.

Who knows where this is headed? A few decades from now Muslims may have assimilated, while rising oceans bring waves of immigrants from the vast Indian subcontinent. Maybe then we’ll be a monotheistic or Abrahamic country, and include Muslims in a larger Americanism that still must stand fast against Hindu paganism. Maybe we’ll start to recognize Spanish and Portuguese as European languages and accept Hispanics and Latinos as allies against the new threat, whatever it is.

We have always worried about the newcomers. We’ve always thought there were too many of them, and we usually haven’t treated them well for a generation or two. But eventually we adjust to each other, and the assimilation goes both ways. (The Latinos for Trump leader who warned against a future with “taco trucks on every corner” probably doesn’t even notice that there are already pizza places on every corner. I doubt George Washington ever ate a pizza, or even knew what a pizza was.) America always changes. It changes noticeably from one decade to the next, and pretty extremely with each new generation.

It always has. If your ancestors had wanted to keep living exactly the same way their ancestors did, they probably would have stayed in the Old Country. From the English and Germans to the Guatemalans and Somalians, immigration has always given America a bias towards the New. And that has worked well for us, century after century.

In the end, elasticity has been the most enduring trait of American culture. Massive demographic change is as American as apple pie — which has this tasty Pennsylvania Dutch variant.

[1] This rhetorical trick is in the toolbox of all bigots: Take a common human failing, focus only on how it occurs inside your target group, and then propose solving the problem by discriminating against the people you hate anyway.

I first noticed this back in the late 70s, when anti-gay crusaders argued that gays shouldn’t be allowed to be teachers, and cited cases where gay teachers had sex with their students — as if that were some special gay problem unrelated to all the straight teachers who have sex with their students.

This time, the common failing is crime: Any large-enough group of people is going to have criminals in it. So of course there are criminal undocumented immigrants and horror stories about their crimes, none of which would have happened if only we’d cracked down on all undocumented immigrants a long time ago.

Such arguments can sound very convincing until you imagine one aimed at you. For example, there are probably enough people named Doug in the US to include some murderers and rapists. What if somebody like Ingraham devoted an entire show to telling totally true stories of Doug-committed crimes and the horrible suffering endured by their — I mean our — innocent victims? All that pain could have been avoided if only the law had let police lock up all the Dougs a long time ago.

[2] After seeing the huge backlash her comments had leashed, Ingraham led off the next night’s show by denying that “massive demographic changes” have anything to do with race. Instead, she claimed to have talked about “secure borders” and “families who have suffered the tragic results of illegal immigration”, as if she had never mentioned legal immigrants (and their votes) at all.

This is the dance the Party of Trump does these days: They’re not Nazis, they just re-tweet them and tell America what fine people Nazis are. The day when whites become a minority in America is an approaching apocalypse, but that’s because of “Adam Smith and The Federalist Papers” or something, not race. Republicans are not anti-black or anti-brown, they’re pro-white, like Rep. Steve King who asked: “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

[3] Dutch in this case doesn’t have anything to do with Holland. It derives from Deutsch, meaning German.

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  • Carol  On August 13, 2018 at 9:53 am

  • John chenault  On August 13, 2018 at 10:16 am

    You say “Unless you arrived on the Mayflower, the white people who were here already probably had the same bad things to say about you and your ilk”.

    Why the Mayflower? Jamestown was settled 10 years prior to those Puritan Johnny come latelies.

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 13, 2018 at 7:19 pm

      The Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower were Separatists. The Puritans came a few years later.

    • jh  On August 14, 2018 at 4:45 pm

      The mayflower reference is just short-hand to refer to “pure Americans”. Every American understands that cultural reference. We Americans love our propaganda. It’s the classic victim mentality which is why I’m not surprised that conservatives always feel like somebody is out to get them.

      1. They are stupid so they don’t every plan even three steps beyond. That’s why they are perpetually surprised when they are conned.

      2. Persecution complex is as American as apple pie. (I like the Dutch variant as well.) You only have to read the Declaration of Independence to get a hint of it. I mean, King George took the time to send the “merciless savages” to attack the Americans? It’s also a bit hypocritical because we allied with the various tribes at various times as well. And then, we forgot and treated them like crap.

  • Jim Lloyd  On August 13, 2018 at 10:31 am

    I have to admit, when someone brings up a group refusing to assimilate, the Amish and Mennonites come immediately to mind. Over 100 years, and they haven’t changed a bit — own language, own culture, and no sign of blending in at all.   Jim (an American currently living in Germany, ironically enough!)      

  • Michael Wells  On August 13, 2018 at 10:34 am

    Well done and timely. To all your readers I commend Jennifer Mendelsohn at Resistance Genealogy. There she quotes someone who confirms your thesis: “The point is not to dismiss these histories as irrelevant because “times are different.” It’s to show how in many ways nothing has changed.” If you enjoy seeing punctured the hypocrisy of these nativists, check it out.

    • Kim Cooper  On August 13, 2018 at 7:37 pm

      I recently saw a quote: ” the one thing we have learned from history is that humans do not learn from history”

  • Michael Wells  On August 13, 2018 at 10:55 am

    Following my comment above, I came across this eloquent op-ed from Stephen Miller’s uncle in Politico:

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 13, 2018 at 7:24 pm

      I’m speechless. My grandfather came from Antopol. I have a “yearbook” that a group of people from there published in 1972, listing the former inhabitants and what happened to them. Wolf-Leib Glosser is not listed, but my grandfather probably knew him – it wasn’t a big place.

    • weeklysift  On August 14, 2018 at 11:43 am

      That article starts with Miller’s great-great-grandfather (if I counted correctly) arriving in 1903. He really might be one of the people pictured in the 1904 cartoon.

  • Herbert Jay  On August 13, 2018 at 11:21 am

    Look in foxholes. Is the man next to you Black or Brown?
    Do you want to move out as a result? Or do you want to duck the incoming shells? Like your fellow soldier?
    The color of skin does not make the man. What is inside the skin does.

  • Barb  On August 13, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    It is hard to rank your posts because they are all wonderful, but this one is a level above. Just what I needed to hear today. My Facebook friends will be reading this as soon as I can get the link up.

  • JTF  On August 13, 2018 at 8:55 pm

    A lifetime ago I worked with Bob Grant, who is kinda responsible for right-wing talk radio. He used to complain about immigrants, even in private. It’s funny how he stopped whenever I would bring up how a century ago there were dozens of German-language newspapers in major U.S. cities, and how even Italians (his real last name was Gigante) we’re considered “white” until fairly recently.

    I’m of mostly Polish/German decent, and there was a time in my hometown when the Polish were considered the lowest of the low. Sadly, as ethnic groups become accepted as “white” they seem to not only quickly forget how their ancestors were treated, but tend to almost go overboard in showing that they too can be bigots.

    • JTF  On August 13, 2018 at 9:37 pm

      *I should have included that Grant didn’t do this behind the scenes consistently, but just an occasional comment. He was an interesting guy, who had many beliefs inconsistent with today’s “conservatives.” He had his personality issues, but overall I am glad to have known him. (I can’t say that for everybody in the radio business.)

    • weeklysift  On August 14, 2018 at 11:45 am

      When my Mom was small, they still spoke German at home, though my grandparents spoke very good English by the time I knew them. When I took German in college, Mom claimed to remember none of it.

    • jh  On August 14, 2018 at 4:30 pm

      I have a nasty tendency to agree with the anti-immigrant people. Of course, my punchline is when I say “Those dirty Irish scum are criminals. No more Irish mongrels polluting my fine America. They steal our jobs. They’re stupid. They have no morals. They are gangsters.” Or something similar For some strange reason, none of those anti-immigrant people appreciate my america first strategy when their group is targeted.

      And I love to go after the Irish and the Italians. Too many of them have forgotten what their great grandparents were. They weren’t hard working immigrants. They are traitors. They betrayed their heritage and their immigrant ancestry when they jumped at the white invite.

  • Victor Sanchez  On August 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    And today we have 300 catholic priest that have been raping children in Ben’s on hometown Philadelphia come to light. And how is it that they managed to get away with it for so long?? The authoritarian ranking of the catholic church covering it up and have their own extrajudicial system. The very “Popery” people were concerned with hundreds of years ago clearly shows itself as the dangerous authoritarian system utterly at odds with the values of the American Republic.

    Some things, religion being one, have qualities that can differentiate them in ways which we can deem more or less compatible with the spirit and ideals of America. Catholicism though much reformed and widely accepted still obviously has it’s flaws, flaws which would have been much more glaring at the time when people were speaking out against Catholic immigrants.

    Islam, today, clearly, still has huge functional and logical issues. You don’t see wide scale protest or opposition to Hindu, Buddhist or Janist because they simply do not present the wide variety of problems that are present with Islam.

    And as usual, Ben Franklin was also correct about the Germans, as you find in Pennsylvania there are still places where people don’t really speak English and they certainly did not assimilate as they still use horse and buggies and have quite a few issues as well like child marriage and sexual abuse.

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 15, 2018 at 8:06 pm

      A few outliers don’t define the whole group. Anyone who says Swedes are “swarthy” either needs new glasses or has a different definition of that word.

      Franklin also opposed Jewish immigration, as he considered Jews to be “Asiatics.”

      The sexual abuse in the Catholic Church exists in other denominations, and may be just as bad in some Protestant congregations where victims are bullied into “forgiving” their abusers.

    • weeklysift  On August 18, 2018 at 6:51 am

      There have been abuse-of-power scandals in Hinduism and Buddhism as well. I suspect the geo-political situation has more to do with why Islam has been picked out as the enemy.


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