Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rewriting the "One-Drop Rule": The nexus of Christianism and Nativisn

It's been a while since I've written a post like this and, believe me, I have tried very hard to keep from it. And I promise that cheerier, or at least less-weighty, reading will appear here, as it always does. As with most of us, I find it more pleasurable to give rein to my frivolous side(s).

But you know how it is: There is silly blindness, and there is that blindness that looks in the direction of a darkness so frightening that it can't be laughed off but must be named, in the collective face of those Americans and Christians who champion and propagate this blindness, for what it is: as un-American and un-Christian.

To spare those not interested in reading more, the rest is below the fold.

This post has its origins in the proposed immigration bill being debated in Congress, but it is not about that bill per se. Rather, it's the sentiment that to my mind, and disturbingly so, drives the rhetoric of many who participate in this debate. I'll pick up Christianism's link to all this in a bit.

My position on immigration policy: I write this as someone who does believe in secure borders but who also grew up in Texas and thus is distressed by the coming requirement that crossing the border into Mexico will require a passport--and who, it must be said, as a result of his two years living in Mexico grew to have enormous respect for people willing to risk what they risk both at the border and in the States in order to earn what they earn on behalf of their families; as one who believes it isn't a bad idea to keep closer track of people who enter into this country with visas but who also thinks that the annual number of visas available to farm and manual laborers is ridiculously small; as one who believes that all people in this country, citizens and migrants and people with visas, should obey the laws of this country but who also thinks that some people have weird definitions for the word amnesty (especially within the context of the proposed bill's requirements for those presently here illegally who want to return here legally) not to mention laughably unrealistic ideas--if they even have ideas--on what to do instead with those people currently here illegally; as one, finally, who thinks employers can and should follow the law when hiring but who also accepts as a given that we owe much of our prosperity as a nation not to Wall Street or our education but to the simple fact that our fields and construction sites and restaurants and yards and houses and office buildings are filled with people (many of them here illegally, yes) doing work that the vast, vast majority of us, to put it euphemistically, have decided, for whatever reason, to opt out of. Sure--speaking within the context of the law, we owe the lawbreaker nothing. Speaking within another context, though, we owe these people far more--as Americans at least, if not as human beings, and that is something that the debate as currently configured seems not to take into account. In short: If you were to ask me what I think about immigration policy, I'd have to say, "It's complicated."

Enough of that. (The above is one of those instances where I wish that there were a footnote hack for Blogger.)

Here's why I originally had thought in the past about writing a post on current immigration debates: In all the talk about "securing our borders," the only border anyone seems intent on securing is our southern border. The fear expressed is that terrorists could slip in from the south. Without at all discounting that possibility, and admitting the possibility that I might be wrong, I don't recall a single publicized incident in which a suspected terrorist had entered or was caught attempting to enter from Mexico. All the instances I can think of involve people being caught at the Canadian border or people with visas that had expired. The border with Canada is almost twice as long as that with Mexico; our ports remain without mandated scanning of containers for radiation because of pressure from retailers like Wal-Mart . . . and it's only because we're speaking of borders here that I'm not taking up the issue of our still-unprotected chemical plants and refineries. But you get the point: We have more than one border, but only one of them seems to merit militarization on a scale approaching that of a border shared by enemy states.

I know the answer: The southern border is the one we have the most "problems" with. I am not blind to many of those problems, chief among them the drug trade and the trafficking in human lives that current immigration policy is largely responsible for. But there are those, as we know, who engage in these debate about secure borders who don't mention the drug trade (which perpetrates far more collective terror and violence in this country than terrorists so far have). Their fear is of a sort of cultural terrorism: their sense that immigrants from Latin America seem not to want to assimilate, as usually symbolized by learning English; instead, these people fear, we feel compelled to assimilate to accommodate them and thus risk losing our national identity. Whatever that's supposed to mean--and as if I didn't know.

It is an old, old and not at all flattering thread of our history, this outsized fear of (usually) dark-skinned peoples who don't share "our values." Never mind that no statistical data shows that Hispanics are less likely to assimilate than immigrants of other ethnicities, and never mind that for every anecdote offered of people taking offense that the person they're speaking to doesn't speak Spanish, I can offer one of a first-generation Hispanic-American slightly embarrassed to acknowledge that s/he speaks almost no Spanish--or, for that matter, stories of American tourists in Mexico angry that the people they're dealing with don't speak English. Never mind all that. What about our fear?

Here, unfortunately, is where we find Christianists aiding and abetting this fear.

Via Glenn Greenwald and Crooked Timber, I learned of some blogger reaction to this Pew Foundation survey of Muslims in the U.S. and the extent to which they (Muslims) feel assimilated in this country. I gather from Greenwald that these other bloggers didn't note the study's title or opening paragraph, or, for that matter, the very good news the survey reveals regarding American Muslims' sense of their economic stability, of the status of women, and their concern regarding terrorism; what they appear to have focused on was that 48% of those surveyed thought of themselves as "Muslim" first; 28% thought of themselves as "American" first; 18% answered "both;" 7% responded with "Don't know." Curiously, as John Quiggen notes in the Crooked Timber post,

By contrast, for self-described US Christians, the results were 48 per cent for American first, and only 42 per cent for Christian first, with 7 per cent saying “Both” and 3 per cent Don’t Know.
Quiggen, following Galatians 3:28, makes the obvious point: Shouldn't all Christians identify themselves, a priori, as Christians? Greenwald's post, via links to and comments on some recent news items, says that we all should have reason to fear certain people who identify themselves as Christians, and for the same reason we fear certain people who identify themselves as Muslims . . . yet, as he notes, we didn't hear much about the former from a certain realm of the blogosphere because they weren't identified as being Muslims. And, even though it is sickening to ponder for any length of time, no Christian will want to miss Greenwald's discussion of the results of a 2005 survey on Catholic and Protestant attitudes on torture--especially as compared to the population as a whole.

All this, this conflation/confusing of religion with national identity, which apparently is okay when Christian Americans (or is it American Christians?) somehow leads certain of us to affirm behavior--justified to us as being done on our behalf, no less--that we once loudly condemned in other nations but now, of course, can say nothing about (the proper response to the One-Drop Rule is, of course, "that's the pot calling the kettle black"). So now, having lost the moral high ground--and, moreover, treated to the sorry spectacle of national leaders who induce us to act out of fear rather than out of the courage of our convictions as a nation--we have no choice but to act out of fear. Brown-skinned people from the south scare us because, well, we're afraid of ALL brown-skinned people . . . especially really religious brown-skinned people. 'Cause, you know, religion can make you nuts. Unless of course you're a Protestant.

All this is not merely angering. It is also saddening and, frankly, embarrassing. It is cowering, it is living in fear, and it is borne not of an affirming assertion of will but a loss of secular and spiritual faith. Nations and religions must by definition have identities, no question. But the great strength of this nation has been precisely its openness and generosity; as for Christianity, its downfall throughout history is when it allies itself too closely with secular entities. It suffers as an institution; more crucially, though, it loses its moral authority. In extreme cases, it can make some of us consider trying to pass for secular when socially convenient. But hey: if the Church decides to be in favor of, say, torture, I figure it's decided to pass for something far more perverse than "secular."


The County Clerk said...

It is a big issue with no "right" answer, only weighted interests... and there is so simplification of weighted interest.

Winston said...

Extraordinary post! A proper comment would require more time and space than I have at the moment. But a couple of points...

Assimilation is a problem. True, there is no legal requirement that Hispanics or any other group speak English here, whether here legally or not. But who pays the cost to have every form and all public signage duplicated in Spanish? We do. Go to any local, state, or federal office and you find an extra layer of employees have been added so they can converse with illegals and help them understand the cornucopia of health and medical and unemployment benefits awaiting them, all generously paid for by the American taxpayer. Who pays their wages and benefits? You and I do. But illegal aliens (yes, they ARE aliens), millions of them are here, either on the welfare roles or working for cash below minimum wage, paying no taxes to replenish the coffers. Yeah, yeah, I know... it's the employers' fault.

I fear fundamentalists of ALL religions. History, including recent and present history, demonstrates that all are equally dangerous. It is not the brand of religion, but the position on the scale of fundamentalism that we need to be concerned about.

R. Sherman said...

Much to think about here, but I have one comment. Your discussion of our attitudes toward "brown skinned" people hits the mark in multiple ways. Certainly, there is the fear you describe.

What bothers me also, is that the justification for a more open policy sometimes is phrased in economic terms, i.e. the cost of a head of lettuce or the need to have more people paying payroll taxes to support our system of social benefits. This makes me uncomfortable too, because it seems we wish to balance our lifestyle choices on the backs of the "brown skinned" poor.

As for the Christian/American first question, I see that as false choice. My spiritual identity is not connected to my passport. As a Christian, I am enjoined to "render unto Caesar." The ideas which are "America" are not inconsistent with my Christianity. There are faiths, however, which are in opposition to those ideas, and that is the problem.

Great thought provoking entry. I'll probably be thinking about it on I-35 tomorrow.


John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for reading and thinking about this post.

Here's a further disclaimer that I'll be adding somewhere in the post proper: All this is a maddening hall of mirrors. This post, I recognize, cannot be a Last Word, especially seeing as it's a first attempt to try to write about something that's been on my mind for a while. As Randall points out, for example, to argue for a more liberal (in the sense of "generous") immigration policy on the grounds of keeping stuff cheap for the rest of us is indeed a coarse, even inhumane argument to make. Yet in rereading my post I can see how what I said above could be construed as at least indirectly making precisely that argument: something not intended. The intention was simply to make visible the fact of their labor . . . and, yes, I would argue, extend to them legal protections and the resulting increased pay and benefits as an acknowledgment of that labor, that too long these people have been regarded as disposable for economic or, especially these days, political gain.

Winston, I acknowledge that assimilation has its costs; I'd argue, though, that the costs of bilingual signage and staff are more than offset by the greater good of ensuring that these people have more direct access to legal protection and services that, legal or not, their sales taxes contribute to even if, for whatever reason, they or their employers don't pay income taxes. It seems patently obvious to me that that argument that immigrants of whatever status are getting "something for nothing" is demonstrably false. I would make the further argument, in fact, that they should pay more than they already do--it's only fair and proper--and that would happen if they were extended some sort of legal status: their employers would be forced to pay them higher wages AND withhold taxes on those wages. Besides: as I noted above, the parents may not speak English, but it's all but a certainty that their children will.

[Aside: It's just weird (not to mention another sign that a double-standard is at work here} that nobody bats an eye when beer companies promote, and cities like Boston and New York and Chicago pretty much shut down, every March 17th, yet many of those same people get all in a huff when those same beer companies promote and local media make splashy note of May 5th celebrations. But think on how the Irish and were once regarded in this country.]

Randall and Winston both, in their different ways, address the dangers of fundamentalism. As I think about Randall's comment, I think a reasonable argument could be made that to answer "Both" on the survey is a legitimately "Christian" response. I'd just add quickly by way of wrapping up this already-too-long comment that nativism is itself certainly a political and, in its more unpleasant manifestations, approaching a racial fundamentalism.

Thank you again, all three of you, for giving me an excuse to rethink and clarify this a bit before I go back to my usual polka dots-and-moonbeams fare.

R. Sherman said...

Actually, John, I didn't think you were making the argument we both find troubling, but many do.

I'm more concerned about the security aspects of border control you talk about than the economic impact. Our economy generates a GDP of 13 trillion dollars. That's 1.5 billion dollars every hour 24/7. We can absorb this.

As for assimilation, I really don't care who's speaking what. In Missouri, court documents and assistance is available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Serbo-Croatian. No big deal. All I ask is that immigrants acknowlege and agree that America is more than just a rich uncle. It's an idea.

Once people agree to that and agree to stand up for those principles, the rest falls into place.


Winston said...

Hmmm... I left another comment here earlier and now it is gone... Oh, well...

John B. said...

I hope you'll post it again . . .

Honey said...

thank you, good to know there are good people all over the globe fighting for equality and thank you Sherman for leading me here.