Close the mosques, lock up the immigrants and pass the “Liberty cabbage”Roundup
tags: election 2016, immigration, Trump
... There is nothing redeeming about this moment of national cruelty and cowardice, and at least in the short term none of its outcomes are likely to be good. But there’s also nothing new or especially surprising about it: This current goes back well before 9/11 or the presence of any measurable Muslim population, and well before Pearl Harbor and the racist travesty of Japanese internment. In the late 1930s, after the anti-Semitic character of Hitler’s government was beyond dispute and even after the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Americans overwhelmingly opposed allowing Jewish children to enter the country as refugees. Go back to World War I and German immigrants (a group that had been widely tolerated) became the targets of numerous vigilante groups and volunteer spy organizations. Thousands were interned, many were tarred and feathered, and a few were lynched. German-language newspapers were required to publish translations of all political articles, and South Dakota actually banned telephone conversations in German. Restaurants sold sauerkraut as “Liberty cabbage” and hamburger as “Liberty steak.” (No, I’m serious.)
In fact, the Espionage Act of 1917, enacted to crack down on supporters of the Kaiser’s empire, is still on the books. To the everlasting shame of the Obama administration, it was hauled out and dusted off after decades of disuse in order to prosecute government whistle-blowers, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. That law’s more far-reaching successor, the Sedition Act of 1918 (which was later repealed), deliberately recalled the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which could be perceived as the American original sin in this regard. President John Adams and the Federalist Party put those laws forward as essential to national security (because that’s what you always say), but historians almost unanimously agree that their real purpose was to suppress or expel newly arrived radicals from France and England, who overwhelmingly supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans.
There’s much more history behind the current and deeply shameful panic over Syrian refugees than I can possibly cover here, and to some extent this crisis speaks to our profound ambivalence about what democracy means and how it’s supposed to work. The Trump-Bowers moment reflects both specific contemporary concerns about Islam and terrorism and also the paradoxical nature of an immigrant nation subject to recurring waves of anti-immigrant fever. Isn’t the Statue of Liberty, by her very nature, a work of alien sedition, designed and built by Frenchmen and engineered by a Norwegian? Emma Lazarus came from an affluent New York Jewish family, and her florid sonnet is entirely of a piece with her activist work helping Jewish refugees resettle on the Lower East Side. No wonder Lady Liberty feels lonely out there — she’s not a true American. Ann Coulter should launch a campaign to have her torn down.
Abraham Lincoln, with his peculiar ability to see far beyond his personal confusion, perceived all this coming, or rather perceived that it was already here. Five years before he was elected president, when he was still a long way from an abolitionist position, let alone the belief that black people might be entitled to equal rights of citizenship, Lincoln wrote a memorable letter to his slave-owning friend Joshua Speed. His subject was both the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which promised to open up the American West to slavery (and led directly to the Civil War), and the rise of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, pretty much the direct ancestors of Donald Trump. Lincoln had begun to grasp at the great rhetorical theme of his presidency, the idea that the Declaration of Independence held a great, unfulfilled promise that must not be relinquished. Alter a word in this passage, here or there – substitute another denomination for Catholics, perhaps — and I submit that it describes our situation 160 years later with eerie precision.
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
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