Monday, November 06, 2006

John Steinbeck Predicts Immigration As Campaign Issue

This week's column is a bit coded for those not following the races closely, but the Sunday before the election it's bad form to mention a candidate by name because he/she doesn't have a chance to respond. So the GOP incumbent recently cut loose by the otherwise-GOP-friendly Arizona Republic was J.D. Hayworth. If he loses, it's a wonderful day in Arizona and America, and Harry Mitchell becomes the most popular man in the House Democratic caucus. I thought "bluster" was a solid tip-off to those who needed to know the names involved. My suggested title, admittedly weak, is above but the editor didn't do all that much better. The Richard Rodriguez column I credit is well worth reading.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 5, 2006

One of the biggest surprises this election season was the other daily newspaper abandoning a long-time GOP incumbent after five consecutive endorsements and instead endorsing his opponent. The paper claimed it hadn’t changed, but the incumbent had.

Surprisingly, there’s actually something to that claim. In 2004, basically the entire Arizona GOP congressional delegation opposed Proposition 200, the so-called “Protect Arizona Now” initiative that does nothing about absentee voting fraud but makes going to the polls a painstaking exercise in document reconstruction.

This was back when Republicans thought they could compete for the Hispanic vote, which lasted until the polls closed on November 2, 2004, and Prop. 200 passed. Seeing a roiling wave of anger over immigration building on talk radio and in the usual ‘winger hangouts, Republicans soon abandoned their Hispanic outreach program to jump in front of that particular parade. You never hear about all those incumbents having opposed Prop. 200 back in 2004; it’s been drowned out by their latest bluster over immigration.

We’ll see Tuesday who and what really has changed, so instead of the political implications, let’s discuss the cultural ones.

Much of today’s immigration debate is totally anti-historical, part of a natural inclination to think that we and our problems are completely unique. But despite all we say about our openness to new ideas and people, Americans have never been completely at ease with change while it’s occurring.

Benjamin Franklin complained in the 1750’s about those German immigrants with their languages and complexions different than “real” Americans. And the CATO Institute’s Richard Rodriguez pointed out that we demonize even other Americans when sufficiently threatened, recalling the moral outrage against folks from other states in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ‘em?

The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them -- armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but they thought they did. And the clerks who drilled at night owned nothing, and the little storekeepers possessed only a drawerful of debts. But even a debt is something, even a job is something. The clerk thought, I get fifteen dollars a week. S’pose a goddamn Okie would work for twelve? And the little storekeeper thought, How could I compete with a debtless man?

Rodriguez points out one (of many) little contradictions inherent in our vision of ourselves as Americans. We live in the New World, far from “Old Europe” and we constantly denigrate all ideas not invented here. We don’t want French healthcare, Swedish socialism, or German labor unions. But children and grandchildren of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Russia are now outraged that America isn’t like some distant colony of England.

Even England isn’t like that mythical England -- and America never was. That would be the ultimate tragedy of all this misplaced anger, if Americans become more nostalgic than the British for a romanticized version of a past that never actually existed. Now that would be un-American.

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