December 17, 2006


The Scapegoats Among Us: Blame-shifting after 9/11. (Mary Eberstadt, Dec 2006/Jan 2007, Policy Review)

Begin in the United States with the literature lately generated on the paleoconservative and nativist wing of the right on the red-hot subject of illegal immigration — now not only a literature, but also a newly minted political movement that has gone on to enjoy populist and national success. Of course many Americans, including some nonconservatives, oppose the idea of uncontrolled immigration per se. But that is a political and practical fact, as opposed to a creedal statement. It is the creed of the theorists that is of interest here, for it's in that creed that today's anti-immigrant ideology appears most clearly.

According to those theorists and this movement, the threat to our civilization and way of life — such are the terms in which the discussion has been framed — is plain. The foreigners we must focus on most, those who according to some are a dagger aimed at our civilization, those whom we must do everything in our power to keep out of our country because of the harm they intend us, are . . . no, not immigrants from the demographic and cultural risk pool associated worldwide with Islamism, but rather those from somewhere else: specifically those working-class, poor, Spanish-speaking, largely Christian migrants from Mexico and other points south who break U.S. immigration laws by crossing the border in search of work.

Consider Patrick Buchanan's new and bestselling manifesto, State of Emergency (Thomas Dunne Books), a passionate account of “one of the great tragedies in human history,” “the greatest invasion in history,” possibly even, if our enemies have their way, “the end of the United States as a sovereign self-sufficient independent republic, the passing away of the American nation.” They are strong words, none stronger, as befits a nation under attack. But just what kind of attack? Not terrorism committed by radical Islamists, which based on the record so far would actually fit the rhetorical bill, but rather and again some kind of other attack, some kind of vaguer linguistic and demographic attack, some kind of metaphorical civilizational thing from . . . well, from those Spanish-speaking people in Mexico. This is what Buchanan and his followers consider the “existential crisis of our time,” in his words; this poorer offshoot of Western civilization, the people that has come “to conquer us.”

Tom Tancredo, a congressman from Colorado who is closely identified with the Minutemen, a group that has taken upon itself the mission of monitoring the southern border, similarly opens his new book In Mortal Danger (wnd Books) on this apocalyptic note: “I want to do what I can to defend the West in the clash of civilizations that threatens humanity with a return to the Dark Ages.” A “clash”? All of “humanity”? A “return to the Dark Ages”? Wouldn't most people reading these words written in 2006 figure that it is Islamism with its call to global jihad that the congressman has in mind? Once again, though, it turns out that the immigrants who are the heavies here are . . . not radical Islamists from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Yemen and Egypt and Turkey and Iran and France and Germany and Great Britain, say, but rather . . . well, who else is there?

To its credit, Tancredo's book does try to connect its alarm over the Mexicans with its alarm over certain other illegal aliens, even distinguishing at one point between threats to America's future that are “external (Islamofascism)” and those that are “internal (the cult of multiculturalism).” But this promising stab at clarification is overwhelmed by the rest of the book, in which the emphasis on Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking manual laborers thoroughly trumps all else. He reports, for example, that Hezbollah has been known to train on the southern border — but relies mostly on an unnamed “former fbi agent” to make that serious charge, and then goes on to spend more pages raising the alarm over the Salvadorean gang Mara Salvatrucha (or ms–13).

Buchanan and Tancredo are hardly alone in focusing on Hispanic immigrants rather than others. Peter Brimelow's 1996 bestselling manifesto, Alien Nation (Harper Perennial), for example — perhaps the most influential forerunner of today's nativist canon — mentions “Muslim” once (in a reference to Lebanon in 1920), “Islam” twice, and “terrorism” and “jihad” not at all. In fairness, of course, Brimelow's book was published five years before 9/11, whereas Buchanan's and Tancredo's come five years after — which is why they sound so oddly out of tune. Of course, one can argue — as some conservatives do — that Islamism and illegal Mexicans are flip sides of the same security problem. But what does it say that among the fiercest opponents of undocumented Mexican workers, the intellectual architects of today's movement, the far more lethal problem of Islamist immigration summons nothing like the rhetorical furor aimed against Mexicans?

Moreover, even Brimelow did not frame his discussion in terms as apocalyptic as those now dominating discussion. And what is most curious about this rhetoric is that, though it appeals frequently to 9/11 — arguing that precisely because of that attack we must seal the southern border now — those dots just don't connect as easily as some others. Whether out of a failure of imagination or for some other reason, Islamist terrorists have in fact shown little interest or presence south of the border; and it is not Islamist terrorists that the Minutemen devote their nights to tracking.

As Joseph Lelyveld observed, for example, in a cover piece for the New York Times Magazine in October about the border dispute, “The argument that the border must be secured because of the threat of terrorism remains largely theoretical. The Border Patrol keeps a count on non-Mexicans it detains (otm's, they're called, for ‘Other Than Mexican') . . . a trickle can be traced to what the Department of Homeland Security classes as ‘special interest' countries. . . . In the Tucson sector, just 15 such persons had been picked up by September 10 in the fiscal year that was about to end — scarcely one a month.”

Of course, even one a month could ultimately spell apocalypse somewhere. But that fact raises a critical question: If Islamism and porous borders are really at issue here, then why is there not an equally ferocious attempt afoot to seal the border with Canada — a country whose forgiving asylum policies have guaranteed an Islamist presence there, as various arrests and foiled plots have made clear?

The answer is that the undocumented Mexicans, like the furor they have attracted out of all proportion to the actual problems they pose, are serving a larger communal purpose. For one more proof, consider also what a world designed along contemporary anti-immigrant principles might resemble. As they often emphasize, the theorists overwhelmingly concerned with Hispanics do not oppose all immigration. Buchanan, for one, concludes State of Emergency with a specific list of traits for would-be immigrants to whom he would rather give preference: those who speak English, who can contribute significantly to American society, who have an education, who come from countries with a history of assimilation in America, who will not become public charges, and who wish to become Americans.

Yet using that same list, one can see that four out of six conditions were fulfilled by architecture graduate student Mohammad Atta, affluent private school graduate Ziad Jarrah, military scholarship-winning Marwan al-Shehhi, and for that matter most of the other 9/11 hijackers and other al Qaeda terrorists caught since then. Add that anyone English-speaking and determined enough could presumably charm an ins officer into believing that they wish to become Americans, and it turns out that such men could have fulfilled not four but five of the six conditions. Now bear in mind that several could also have claimed ties to a white-collar profession — airplane piloting — and we have here a nearly model list of potentially attractive immigrants. Is it a problem that Buchanan's list theoretically inclines toward men like these and against the grape-picking, toilet-cleaning Mexicans whose idea of Wal-Mart is a gift card rather than a car bomb? Common sense says that it is.

None of which means that the activists zeroing in on undocumented Mexicans lack for serious points. It's just that in a more balanced time those problems would amount to political nuts and bolts rather than jingoistic videos of scurrying dark-skinned young men and raw displays of anti-Hispanic animosity. Beneath the overstatement and heat, the faction of the right now targeting immigrants does have several truths on its side. There are indeed parts of the border where barbed wire fences, guns, and dogs are not enough to protect Americans from having their property trampled and diminished by constant traffic; some Americans in those towns also fear crime and experience other insecurities; and immigrant children in some cities are in fact impeded in their assimilation by the idiocy of some Anglo-enforced multicultural curricula. Desperate people do die in the desert every year (though the nativist “solution” of addressing that problem by penalizing the Samaritans who would give them food and water is not self-evident). Drug trafficking on both sides of the border remains a violent, dirty business, and gangs, including especially ms–13, do continue their bloody vendettas here after crossing over: All this and more points in the briefs are true.

Even so, in addition to fulfilling the first condition of scapegoating — insisting that one has found the threat to our civilization — the effort to put illegals at the red-hot center of what ails us also fulfulls condition two: explaining too much (or trying to). Like a lawyer with too many arguments, the anti-immigration troops inadvertently undermine their own credibility with the sheer multiplicity of complaints, thus inviting the question of what is really going on in this furor.

In other words, there is something telling about the fact that so far as their critics are concerned, pretty much anything the Mexicans and Central Americans do appears to be a problem. If they work, that's bad because they are taking our jobs. If they don't, that's also bad because they are taking our welfare. Men come to America and live in groups instead of in families: This is bad because men in groups can be frightening and unruly. Men come to America and live in families instead of in groups: This is bad too because it means more Mexicans here. Women come to live with the men: This is worst of all because they are doing it to have what the critics call “anchor babies.” Similarly, the workers come here when they're young and healthy and that's bad because it makes them better at physical labor; but they are apparently also full of diseases that make them a menace to a First World community. And so on — and on and on. One wonders when an environmental impact study of the very air they exhale near the Rio Grande will be waved by Lou Dobbs to show just how far the law-breaking civilization-busters have gone now. Tancredo even manages outrage over the fact that undocumented aliens can apparently use the stacks of the Denver public library by presenting only a driver's license. Mexican farm hands, reading in a library? Dios mio! Will these people never learn to behave like Americans?

In sum, the insistence by impassioned theorists that illegal immigration south of the border is the pre-eminent problem of our time makes perfect sense — or would, had those been Salvadoreans piloting airplanes on 9/11, Guatemalans bankrolling their efforts, Hondurans plotting attacks on the subways and government buildings of Europe, and Mexicans across the global labor diaspora plotting how to bring down the American government, presumably by poisoning our gardens and toilets. If you do not think that is the way it went down, then Occam's razor dictates this: The sheer volume of emotion on the subject of illegal aliens makes most sense as a manifestation of denial about who would really like to see the end of the American republic — as it turns out, one form of many now circulating.

Scapegoaters are always just goatophobic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 17, 2006 10:41 AM
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