Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vague impressions: "Saving" America from "Socialism" for sixty years

I've been reading over the giant folder of pdf scans I took home from my winter research trip to the American Legion Headquarters this week as I start on a new book chapter. I came across a speech by National Commander George Craig in 1950 to the Chicago Accident and Health Association. Craig would later be elected governor of Indiana. In the speech, Craig criticizes Harry Truman's health care reform proposal, noting the Legion's opposition to "socialized" medicine, in part because socializing it for everyone would diminish the quality of the socialized care veterans were receiving. "If some of the crack-pot do-gooders should have their way ... God forbid," Craig told the audience, "socializing this and socializing that ... they eventually would communize America. They tell us in honeyed words that more concentrated government control of everything will do something for us. They don't tell us what it would do to us."

Craig's words were resonating in my head as I read a recent interview with Newt Gingrich on Asked to explain the subtitle of his latest book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine," Gingrich said:

by any reasonable standard Obama is committed to socialism. I mean socialism in the broad sense. I’m not talking about a particular platform adopted by the International Socialist Movement in the late 19th century. I’m talking about a government-dominated, bureaucratically-controlled, politician-dicatated way of life. Not only have we taken over GM, Chrysler and AIG, but there’s a czar in the White House who believes he can establish the pay scale for 30 companies he’s never been in, for hundreds of people he’s never met. They just nationalized the student loan program. They designed Obamacare so there’s a backdoor road to socialized medicine because it creates an incentive for companies to drop their employees. There’s evidence that hundreds of companies may drop millions of employees from their health insurance and have them go buy individual insurance. So there’s a lot of different practices that would lead us to believe this is socialist operation.

And socialism is inherently secular because it believes the center of authority is not god, the center of authority is not your rights as an individual—the center of authority is the state, and the state gets to decide what you’re allowed to keep and what you’re allowed to do.
Criticizing Obama for being a "socialist" is not something that's novel in Gingrich's book, of course. And Gingrich is forthcoming enough at least to admit when he says "socialism" he doesn't really mean an set of economic policies, or even the historical Socialist Party, but an autocratic political system like the old Eastern Bloc or Communist China. That's the socialism Jim DeMint has in mind, too, in his book, the cover of which suggests freedom-loving Americans are destined for the gulag. It's the socialism of "death panels."

Casting liberal reform as creeping totalitarianism, while not rising anywhere near the bar of plausible, as least made some sense in the context of the early Cold War era. Conservatives thought history was pointing in two directions and the nation had to either continue on its exceptionalist path or slouch toward Marxism. As Roland Reagan put in his "A Time for Choosing" speech in 1964, "You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down—[up] man's old—old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course."

But for those like Gingrich and DeMint and the majority of Tea Party members who came of age during the Goldwater campaign Reagan spoke for, that time for choosing is still with us. It is not enough to disagree on policy ground with the Democratic Party; rather, the very essence of the nation must be "saved" from the scheming of technocrats. Taken to the extreme, even criticizing a multinational oil company that just destroyed a major ecosystem of the North American continent is "un-American." 

Obviously, on something as big as saving the auto industry from bankruptcy or the structure of the nation's health care system, there's enormous room for substantive policy debate. What fascinates me is this nationalist-inspired defense by the Right of America's inherent identity, which to me seems like something encased in amber from a previous historical epoch. Are those born of the politics of the 50s and 60s simply incapable of escaping it? The Soviet other against which we had to constantly steer away from has been dead for 20 years. Even China has chosen not to follow elements of the totalitarian model. When can we finally say the time for America's choosing has come and gone? Why does this need to "save" America from foreign "isms" persist? Too much to break off for today, so I'll leave that for you loyal readers to ponder. 

I don't think it's merely a discursive strategy, like the phrase "take back America" has become. I found this piece, in which Republican members of Congress more or less admit they're stealing a line from the Tea Party for convenience's sake, pretty illuminating. Why waste the time on a book if you don't sincerely believe it?

Following up on a previous post, I thought it was interesting that 46 percent of adults surveyed by NBC this week on immigration issues thought that children of illegal immigrants born in the US should not be granted American citizenship. A net +11 thought that thought immigrants had a positive impact on the "culture and character of the community," while a net -25 thought immigrants had a negative impact on crime. Cultural chauvinism seems to be waning - we'll see how long race takes to follow suit.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Integration

After being distracted by state-level shenanigans these past weeks, I finally got around to reading the actual text of the Democratic proposal on immigration reform. Like it or hate it, it really is the quintessential American solution to a problem -- throw some technology at it. The proposal is also has a very long and stilted title that creates the pithy acronym REPAIR. It took me about 8 years to figure out the PATRIOT Act was actually an acronym, too, so I guess that's the way Congress is just going to roll now.

"Immigration reform" is also a misnomer. The REPAIR proposal is really is all about "illegal immigration reform," except for the part that fast-tracks the immigration of foreign math and science nerds. That's not exactly news, but I read the summary curious if I could find any mention of what in the historical period I study would be called "Americanization," but it today referred to more pleasantly as "immigrant integration," or the effort to provide educational assistance and language instruction to immigrants. There it was, tacked on to the end of a sentence in the last paragraph of the last page of the summary.

The Homeland Security Act created an Office of Citizenship in the US Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the new Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Its task is "to promote instruction and training on citizenship rights and responsibilities and to provide federal leadership, tools, and resources to proactively foster immigrant integration," according to its website. President Obama's budget, as the Center for American Progress pointed out, provided $10 million for immigrant integration programs to the Office of Citizenship. Most of this money it dispensed in the form of $100,000 grants to communities and non-profits. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Mike Honda had introduced a bill providing more robust support for immigrant education through the Department of Education and other grant programs, but the bill failed to clear the 110th Congress.

The system in place to provide immigrants with the education they need to transition into life in the United States is essentially identical to the same one that existed in the 1910s and 20s. One of USCIS's grants even went to the YMCA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a group that literally did the same work 90 years ago. A patchwork of uncoordinated, poorly funded, and volunteer-staffed initiatives is what immigrants have to rely on, short of the municipal ESL classes in night school that perpetually cannot meet demand. Even the educational materials available to immigrant integration programs on the USCIS website have been produced by other volunteer groups -- mirroring similar guides written in the early 20th century by the likes of the American Bar Association and the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Since naturalization exams haven't changed much since the end of the Progressive Era either, USCIS focuses on the areas immigrants must master to pass their examinations -- US History, Civics, and English.

Americanization in the early 20th century focused on breaking immigrants of their Old World ways to ensure they became good democratic citizens. In an era dominated by pseudoscientific views on race, immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations were viewed as needing Americanization to overcome innate racial inferiority (Immigrants from any farther weren't even eligible for naturalization). Democracy, the argument, was an Anglo-Saxon invention, and immigrants from non-Anglo nations had to be caught up to speed rapidly so as to avoid an underclass of low skill, insular, corrupt, and potentially revolutionary ghetto dwellers. Then, as now, national security concerns seeped into immigration politics -- with the outbreak of World War I Americanization efforts were redoubled to ensure the loyalty of foreign-born populations to the US government.

It was an insurmountable task for Americanizers, made all the more insurmountable by the fact that many preferred to focus on acculturating immigrant women to the bland American palate and the standards of modern child-rearing rather than language skills or who to harass to get the trash picked up. Assimilation was a one-way street socially and culturally, made all the more so by the demands of wartime. After the war, a bill to create a robust Americanization office within the Bureau of Education failed. Instead, Congress gave up altogether on assimilation and passed restrictive immigration laws.

Elements of this pattern seem to be repeating themselves as the legislative momentum to "crack down" on undocumented immigrants builds on the state level. Obviously, a return to the culturally chauvinistic (if not outright racist) approach of Americanization in the early 20th century is worth avoiding. But a robustly-funded, nationally-coordinated, and professionally-run immigrant integration system should be more than a throw-away clause at the end of a legislative proposal. Perhaps, too, we need to reconsider the utility of having immigrants memorize minutiae about the US Constitution and History to prove they are "American" (it's disturbing to ponder how many Tea Party activists would pass the naturalization test). Learning English, basic legal rights, and some economic literacy will do immeasurable good to make immigrant communities less vulnerable to exploitation and economic hardship. From a political perspective, massively funding immigrant integration also attacks head-on the knee-jerk cultural and social resentment immigration opponents feel toward newcomers, which they vent whenever they have to press #1 for English or see bus ads in Spanish.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A "New Culture War"?

Writing my new introduction for by book took precedent today over blogging, so I'm going to be light today. I was struck, though, by the headline "America's New Culture War" on the Washington Post's PostPolitics section. The piece, by American Enterprise Institute president and former Syracuse University business professor Arthur C. Brooks, proclaims that we struggling:

between two competing visions of the country's future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise -- limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.
Bailing out GM and not taxing the poor, apparently, are harbingers of European-styled socialism.


Brooks claims that most (70 percent) of the nation supports the "free enterprise" America in this fight, but the dogged minority of statist autocrats have been calling the tune since, um, the Bush Administration.

The term "free enterprise" dates back to the 1930s, when it overtook the phrase "laissez-faire" in the conservative lexicon. According to historian Wendy Wall, the term "free enterprise" was an invention of corporate opponents of the New Deal to explain to the American public how their interests were truly represented by American business and not FDR. They, too, compared liberal governance with the socialist (or even fascist) regimes of Europe.

There aren't any fascists left for Brooks to kick around any more, but there's plenty of corporate excess to defend. For instance, his assertion that "Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success." The salaries of AIG and Lehman Brothers executives is just Free Enterprise America's way of saying, "you're welcome, everybody."

Ok, so it's not so shocking that the president of AEI likes unfettered capitalism and doesn't like taxes or federal regulation. But this rhetorical strategy of proclaiming two Americas at "war" with each other is very interesting. Maybe it's only interesting to me because it's a strategy that's so old, as Wall helps to elucidate. It also creates the classic, patriotic-tinged false choice that has been a favorite of conservatives since the 30s -- either the nation continues on as corporate heads would want, or it turns into a decrepit, foreign-styled autocracy that rots the human soul with welfare benefits. It's 2010. Is this the best the president of the leading conservative think tank can do?

Brooks' effusive praise for the Tea Party Movement is also curious. It's hard to see how people who decry the federal reserve system and show up to rallies with signs that proclaim "government hands off my Medicare" have much in common with the heroic entrepreneurs Brooks lauds. Only they, as the vanguard of a majority that is curiously, despite a democratic system at its disposal, is unrepresented, can save the nation from change that will "transform our great nation forever."

If this were truly a "culture war" for the fate of America, and both sides knew it, why is only one side fighting?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Odds and ends: Progressives and Texas Textbooks, plus, is Rand Paul racist?

Think Progress interviewed two progressive candidates for the Texas state school board in the fall and plumbs their opinions on the current controversy. They seem eager to reverse conservatives' attacks on expertise, which I discussed yesterday:

– BELL-METEREAU: It’s turned into a battle against teachers, scholars, and experts in the field, which is just absurd. We should let the experts do the curriculum formation, and the board should have oversight and be looking at some broad general goals, rather than doing hundreds of line-by-line educations.
– JENNINGS: I have a PhD in education, and I know I shouldn’t be writing curriculum for 4.7 million children. So why, people who aren’t even educators, think that they’re qualified to write curriculum is beyond me.  (bold in original)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lesson from Texas Textbook Debacle: Stop Teaching American History in Public Schools

The Texas Board of Education has attracted considerable attention this spring as it rewrites its American History textbook standards in a starkly conservative direction. The vote on these changes is approaching shortly. The alterations, as many media outlets have covered, include the explicit assertion that the United States was founded upon biblical principles, that the Confederacy wasn't all that bad, and that the UN is evil. You can read the full list of the proposed changes here (hat tip TPM).

It doesn't take a PhD in history to know these changes are dumb, or to be disturbed by their radically conservative political intent. Even as curriculum "reform," they're a joke. The board, led by profoundly unqualified individuals, basically is asking school teachers and textbook publishers to teach what they like instead of stuff they don't like. Board member Cynthia Dunbar, a decorated graduate of Pat Robertson's law school, would just throw the whole state public education system out and homeschools her own children.

Dunbar told the Guardian:
"We are fighting for our children's education and our nation's future," Dunbar said. "In Texas we have certain statutory obligations to promote patriotism and to promote the free enterprise system. There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections." 
The obligation to make history a vehicle for "patriotic ideology" is really the core of the issue here, not whether or not Ronald Reagan gets more ink than Caesar Chavez. If you have ever taught the American History survey course at the collegiate level, you know that the likelihood of students comprehending and retaining more than a fraction of any course material - revisionist or not - is low. For their part, those few liberals on the Texas school board understand what's really at stake. To quote from the fine Guardian piece once more:
"There is a battle for the soul of education," said Mavis Knight, a liberal member of the Texas education board. "They're trying to indoctrinate with American exceptionalism, the Christian founding of this country, the free enterprise system. There are strands where the free enterprise system fits appropriately but they have stretched the concept of the free enterprise system back to medieval times. The president of the Texas historical association could not find any documentation to support the stretching of the free enterprise system to ancient times but it made no difference."
The only reason to learn American History in school, conservatives are essentially arguing, is to imbibe patriotism. Conservatives have argued this for as long as there have been history textbooks. The Union veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic monitored texts for overly sympathetic portrayals of the American South and "pro-British" bias in describing the American Revolution. Charles Beard's economic interpretation of founding of the American republic, which found its way into high school textbooks in the early 20th century, came under fire for not being patriotic enough. My guys in the American Legion claimed the popular texts of Columbia Teachers' College professor Harold Rugg were pro-Communist for emphasizing social and economic factors in American historical development. They also complained in the 1950s, in ways Texas board member (and dentist) Don McLeroy echoes, that the UN was spreading the ideology of one-world government through lessons developed by UNESCO. Lynne Cheney made almost identical complaints about history standards when she was the chair of the NEH in the 1990s.

The reason that these controversies bubble up ad nauseum is not that the left and right cannot agree on the importance of particular historical detail, but that conservatives have no respect for the historical profession. Rather than uncovering the story of American greatness for all to celebrate, historians try to recreate as best they can the worlds of the past and to understand them in their own right. We want to capture fleeting human experience through the passage of time because to do so is a profoundly humane endeavor. Conservatives would prefer we erect heroic idols and, especially in this case, contribute to the institution of a Judeo-Christian version of sharia.

As a historian, the most depressing part of this most recent textbook battle is that all of the wonderful methodological advances of the last half-century within the historical profession are not even remotely part of this "reform" conversation. History in the minds of the conservative school board members is still nothing more than the story of battles and leaders, and maybe a great organization like the National Rifle Association. All the efforts by historians to delve into the experiences of those left behind by such a narrative -- women, workers, racial minorities -- are irrelevant to the secondary school classroom. Methodological innovation has revolutionized the way professors teach the survey at the collegiate level, I would strongly argue for the better. But they have not made a dent in the way school boards or even the public in general thinks about what history is.

 No other academic discipline receives less professional respect in American schools than history. Efforts like the one in Texas explicitly claim to be defending the vulnerable minds of students from the "un-patriotic" intellectual "elite" of American universities. There is plenty to be patriotic about in the tale of American history told straight. But this insistence that history classes merely serve as vehicles for "patriotic ideology," however narrowly defined that ideology should be, throws into question the usefulness of the entire exercise.

So perhaps, until history as a profession gets the respect it deserves, we should just stop teaching American history at all in public schools. Conservatives will cry that the nation will fly apart because children will lack patriotic spirit, as they have been warning since the Gilded Age. The nation's JV basketball coaches will have to find some other subject matter to butcher. The average student might know slightly less about the nation's history than she or he would have before -- which isn't much anyway. And at the end of the process we will have learned whether it is the present or the past that most informs our feelings for our country. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NYT Immigration poll follow-up: What's the Matter with Baby Boomers

Sorry for my hiatus -- I was in New Orleans this weekend for a (very, very fun) bachelor party. Monday was a recovery day for my brain. Now, on with the show.

Damien Cave at the Times this morning gave an interesting parsing of the newspaper's latest poll on immigration. One of the poll's central findings was that older Americans were much more supportive of the Arizona "Show Me Your Papers" law than were younger ones. The article makes a strong historical connection between the experiences of Baby Boomers growing up and those born after 1965 that's worth considering as this policy debate moves forward -- that Boomers grew up during the period of immigration restriction, when the percentage of foreign-born Americans fell to 4.7 percent (in 1970). Most of those immigrants, moreover, were Boomers' European-born grandparents.

Demography, though, starts to lead the article off the rails about here:
Boomers and their parents also spent their formative years away from the cities, where newer immigrants tended to gather — unlike today’s young people who have become more involved with immigrants, through college, or by moving to urban areas.
“It’s hard for them to share each others’ views on what’s going on,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “These older people grew up in largely white suburbs or largely segregated neighborhoods. Young people have grown up in an interracial culture.”
Please forgive me for using the personal and anecdotal here, but when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey I lived in pretty much what Frey was describing. When we started dating in college my wife was shocked that I'd never eaten Indian food. My only defense was that we only had Italian restaurants and diners in my part of Jersey. The immigrants I encountered growing up were very much like those my parents did - Italians, Greeks, Poles. 

What I didn't grow up in was a political culture thoroughly enmeshed by racism. The critical aspect that distinguishes modern-day "interracial culture" from that in which Boomers were raised is not merely the experience of living among those from non-European family backgrounds; it is that race is no longer an acceptable concept for categorizing, analyzing, and predicting the behavior and character of people. Belief that race was a real, biologically-supported, and stable fact created the demographic (not to mention political) landscape that Boomers grew up in. It drove not only white flight to the suburbs but had shaped the nation's immigration policies since the 1880s. The America of the the 1950s and 60s was intellectually closer in many ways to the 1910s and 20s, or even the 1880s and 90s, than it was to the first two decades of this century. The America of Boomer Youth was racist, not only because of segregation and other forms of racial discrimination but because race formulated the way people thought about the whole of society -- even its white members. The assimilation of their immigrant grandparents to "American" social and cultural norms hid from Boomer children the fact that racism had informed the way the nation had thought about their "white" ancestors, too. It was precisely why there were not more immigrants from anywhere hanging around their block. 

To expect that old ideas easily evaporate with the passage of time is naive and lazy historical analysis. 
Growing up amidst the Civil Rights Movement may have soured many Boomers to the idea of racial discrimination, but not of the significance of race to understanding groups of people. While this crazy, modern, multicultural world in which they now live makes them feel like Cirrocs, we should keep in mind the mental boxes many Boomers use to make sense of this change.

Race is elephant in the room for older Americans as they weigh in on the immigration policy debate. Those that support measures like the Arizona law understand that to be racist is about the worst thing you can be in contemporary society. They generally feel that discrimination is wrong. But they are still racist in the sense they think that racial difference is real and significant. They perceive Latino immigration through that frame of mind, a frame of mind in which they were raised. They can't say they disapprove of "new" immigrants because of their racial difference because that makes it sound like they're white supremacists. So they focus on the outcomes of that racial difference -- immigrating explicitly to break laws, sucking up "welfare," educating their children without paying for it, dealing drugs, spreading disease, messing up the parking lot of Home Depot, etc... The irony, of course, is that immigration restrictionists said the exact same things about their immigrant grandparents -- but at least were explicit in their racism when they did. [I have reminded my own family members when they complain that Latino immigrants do not want to learn English that my Lithuanian great-grandfather never learned to read English himself.] It's not just a fear of change, but a fear of the obliteration of whiteness, a concept that has been central to American national identity from its founding. 

Old ideas die a slow death. Just one more reason to be depressed about the political dominance of the Baby Boomer generation right now.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Newz this blog can Uze

Limited time today, so none of my typical long-winded approach. Here are some headlines of note:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Some more thoughts on Ethnic Studies in Arizona

In 1853 the United States government purchased the area of Arizona from Mexico that contains the city of Tucson. Less than a decade later, Tuscon and the rest of southern Arizona and New Mexico tried to join the Confederacy.

It is doubtful that Tom Horne had that history in mind when he was quoted by the Associated Press today about the Tuscon school system's Ethnic Studies program, "It's just like the old South, and it's long past time that we prohibited."

Nor did he or any other proponent of the law forbidding such programs from Arizona schools feel it relevant to mention that the Tuscon curriculum is part of a court-ordered school desegregation settlement. The original lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tuscon's Mexican-American students in 1974. The school district was still in violation of a 1978 desegregation ruling a few years ago.

Old South, indeed. But, again, the problem is teaching anyone in Arizona about the importance of race in a state that has been rife with racial tension since its admission into the union.

This kind of law is so frustrating not because of what it affects in the classrooms of Arizona, but because it reflects how impossible any meaningful consideration of the relationship between race and citizenship is in many parts of this country. That conversation literally shut down tonight when Horne canceled a meeting with the Tuscon Unified School District because he'd have to face student protests. Why even bother with that meeting? This law is simply red meat thrown to those in Arizona who believe there is no reason to strike a balance in teaching the history of a state that until recently (by historical standards) was part of a foreign country and was largely acquired from that foreign country by force of arms.

To teach Ethnic Studies is not to create some Serbian-styled grudge against others in Arizona. It is, however, political in that it argues that some people are just as interesting and important as others. Having other people learn that, and fearing they will resent you in the end, must be a difficult way to live.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Other stuff to read: The Tea Party Jacobins | The New York Review of Books

The Tea Party Jacobins | The New York Review of Books

I like this takeaway:

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

"Certified Patriotic"

If you're looking for something to do this week, warm up the pipes and enter the "Let My Voice Be Heard" on-line karaoke competition. A panel of thoroughly marginal music industry-types will judge your youtube-submitted singing, as will, eventually, a "fan vote." Sing two songs for your entry. But here's the catch: one has to be a patriotic song.

Still interested? Before you start practicing your banjo and refreshing your kindergarten-era memories of the lyrics to "This Land is Our Land," know that you may select only from one of seven pre-approved "Certified Patriotic" songs. They include the karaoke favorite, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and four country songs: "Only in America," "American Soldier" (even though Toby Keith flipped on supporting the Iraq War), "Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly," and, of course, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" Unlike the Reagan '84 campaign, at least the organizers of the competition actually listened to the lyrics of the Boss's "Born in the USA."

"God Bless America" -- ok. "God Bless my Underwear" -- not ok.

The competition is pretty innocuous, of course, particularly because this blog may be the best pub it gets. It seems to be tapping into an undercurrent our in the broader political culture, though, that is asserting that some "voices" in Obama's America are being stifled. Its press release states: 
Americans have always used music as a positive force when things get tough. Every generation has its music and today’s America needs its voice. Karaoke is all about the performance and singing a patriotic song just makes you feel good!
The first point is true: Americans have used singing historically to get through tough times. Public performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" first caught on during the First World War (and even then, people complained it was too hard to sing.) Social workers organized "community sings" among soldiers and civilians alike. The singing continued through World War II and one can draw a straight line all the way to the recent invention of having someone sing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch after 9/11. [although I strongly suspect the Yankees continued this trend not out of patriotism but to give their relievers a few more warm-up throws in the pen.] But the point of earlier patriotic feel-good sing-alongs was to sing together, to build up a sense of being in the tough time together. In this way, they weren't much different than singing in unison that other karaoke fav, "Sweet Caroline."

The country songs selected are also worth considering as part of the missing "voice" of Americans. They all celebrate American exceptionalism. They also assert that the experiences and virtues of ordinary people are all the nation really needs to remain on the sunny side of Providence. These songs do not celebrate the vast potential of the nation but the way things are right now and the people we are.

The last time I sang what I'd consider a "patriotic song" in public, it was "We Shall Overcome," the culminating moment of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis. The crowd sang it to re-dedicate itself to the causes of civil rights and social justice. I believe the song is patriotic because it was the anthem I see as true patriots -- those willing to put their lives at risk to have their nation live up to its ideals. The song speaks of that moment coming "someday." I think that's the central - and perhaps irreconcilable - divide between Left and Right patriotism. Roughly put, the Left sees the nation as perfectable; the Right as perfected.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

More from Arizona: Ethnic Studies under fire

Thanks to Pete Rock for pointing this news out to me -- somehow I'd missed this item, although it is getting difficult to keep up with the flow of bloggable material from Arizona. The state legislature last week passed a bill written by state school superintendent Tom Horne that forbid public school systems from teaching courses that:
• Promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.
• Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
• Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
• Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.

Horne targeted the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic studies program specifically with this law. While the program offers courses on African-American, Asian, Native-American, and Latino studies that are open to all students, regardless of their own background, Horne is really only going after the the Latino program -- which, in fairness, provocatively echoes the Chicano Studies movement of the 1960s and 70s by calling itself "La Raza." As Horne explained to one Arizona newspaper, his bill "would ban La Raza studies because it's a course that's aimed primarily at members of one race, and we have testimony that this has promoted resentment toward one race."

For Horne and other conservatives, this bill is all about stamping out what they see as a left-wing separatist agenda among some of the Latino faculty in Arizona school systems. The part of the bill about teaching revolutionary doctrines in public school sounded to me at first to be an incongruous lifting of the exact same language in education law of the 1940s and 50s (designed to remove Communist teachers), but it actually is just a swipe at some Tuscon faculty who have allegedly placed portraits of Che, Fidel Castro, and Pancho Villa in their classrooms. Although his position oversees the curriculum of the state's public school system, Horne seems particularly concerned about indoctrination taking place under his nose -- he spoke out on Arizona television against President Obama's recorded talk to the nation's school children last year. (You know, the one that turned the nation's children into Red Guards for Obama's Cultural Revolution. Or kick-started his version of Hitler Youth. Or whatever.)

The sinister plot to implant the children of America's immigrants with race hate and Fidel-ism started in, of all places, the Nixon Administration. With the passage of the Ethnic Studies Heritage Programs Act in 1972, the federal government provided funds and curriculum suggestions for exactly the kinds of courses under fire in Arizona. Horne, who is running for state attorney general as a Republican, may be surprised to learn that back then, the GOP actually tried to court ethnics (ok, white ethnics) to eat into the Democratic voting base.   

Clearly, that kind of Republican is not indigenous to the deserts of the Southwest. But Horne's no yokel. He has a B.A. and J.D. from Harvard. I'm sure that in calling the Tuscon program racist he doesn't think he is one, too. Rather, he reflects conservatives' embrace of the fractured logic of "color blindness," a topic I should probably tackle in its own right with its separate post later. This logic, too, has its roots in Nixon's America, when whites tried to find a more comfortable explanations for their resistance to desegregation initiatives like busing and affirmative action. It argues that while racism may exist, racial consciousness by a minority to address greater injustice that happened in the past only exacerbates racial tension in the present. In other words, blame the victim for decrying their victimhood. If only minorities accept the fact that in the here and now race doesn't matter then, well, race won't matter. Furthermore, in this conservative frame of mind, learning one's race mattered quite a bit in Arizona's (and the nation's) past can't help but radicalize the students of particular races because it offers but two outcomes of the lesson: renewed racial identification, and/or resentment of white oppressors past and present.

As the rest of the Arizona legislature's output this term indicates, this line of argument is nonsense. All the same, Tom Horne's bill highlights how limited the conceptual progress for integrating non-Europeans into the national community has been since the start of last century. We are much less likely to see race as determinant in individual lives than we were in past decades (unless, maybe, you're David Brooks). But we're no better at seeing race as something artificially and historically imposed upon groups of people, with boundaries of categorization that shift over time. I'm not even sure something like the Tuscon plan is the best approach. But I'm certain the "color-blind" alternative only offers an opportunity for whites to cynically walk away from any responsibility to consider race at all -- past, present, or future.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Duncan Hunter echoes California's nativist past

I wanted to give something I saw this week a bit of historical context: Rep. Duncan Hunter's comment that he supported the deportation of native-born American citizens who are the children of illegal immigrants. The comment came during a Q&A and you can view it here:

I'll get back to this issue being American reflecting "what's in our souls" later. His call for American citizens to be deported (and children no less) obviously runs smack into the 14th Amendment, which must be left out of the copies of the Constitution Hunter's Tea Party crowd carry around with them. That such a proposed law would engender some debate at all is rather shocking to me. I'm no Con-Law scholar, but "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" sounds like a description of American territories in the 1860s.

Anyway, anti-immigration leaders in the 1920s at least knew their constitutional precedent better than Hunter and his lot. At that time, California Senator James Phelan and Sacramento Bee editor V.S. McClatchy supported the proposal of a constitutional amendment that would strip the right of citizenship from native-born children of Japanese immigrants. The initiative went nowhere in Congress but in 1924 the National Origins Act did outlaw the further immigration of Japanese or any other Asians. And states in the West passed a swath of laws that restricted Japanese land ownership and rights of commerce. Supporters of these measures, like Hunter, focused on the supposed negative economic impact that Japanese immigrants had on state and local economies. They argued that Japanese farmers and businesses routinely undercut the price of their "American" competition.

Of course, that wasn't the whole story. Racism seeped into the seams of these arguments. Japanese farmers were able to reduce their prices so aggressively because they held much lower standards of living. They weren't concerned about their impact on their native-born neighbors because Japanese immigrants were loyal to a foreign land and an inferior religion. I have read Congressional testimony by demographic experts of the era that claimed that because of the high birthrates of Japanese immigrant families, which were reflective of their racial difference from whites, California would be majority Japanese by 2000.

The terminus of this logic was the World War II internment camp. While we will almost certainly avoid anything resembling that blight on the nation's "soul," if you will, elected representatives need to take a bit more pause before playing to the nativist rabble and calling for the expunging of people's citizenship rights.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Immigration narrative in fragments

I'm not a huge fan of polling, mostly because I'm a writer and I don't like the way questions are written most of the time. Of course, that didn't stop me from looking the results of the latest NYT/CBS poll, mostly on immigration.

I'm very interested in the kind of narrative Americans are cobbling together about the issue of illegal immigration and about Latino immigration generally. Most Americans probably start by thinking about it through the popular historical narrative that's been written into the story of the nation: of European immigrants who came to escape repression or seize better opportunity, worked incredibly hard, assimilated fully (but maybe keep their food), and rose in status. But the echoes of other historical narratives survive as well: the ignorant and unskilled who come merely to soak up the low-wage demands of American industrialists; the inherent racial difference of newcomers, which propels political corruption, crime, urban filth, disease, and all sort of other vices.

That positive narrative is a product of post-World War II America. Even it was not enough to overcome resistance to (legal) immigration reform until the Civil Rights Era. In time for the Bicentennial, it morphed into the rediscovery and celebration of Ethnic America, captured in all its whitewashing grandeur by the song that served as the theme for Neil Diamond's remake of The Jazz Singer, (complete with its own blackface scene, no less): "America." This seems by far to be the preferred narrative when Americans consider the immigrants in their own familial histories.

Other people's families may be another story. Only a third of the poll's respondents believed that the US should "always welcome all immigrants." Twenty-seven percent said the US shouldn't allow any new immigration at all. And the headline of the poll was that a majority of those polled supported Arizona's "show me your papers" law.

It's clear from all the hand-wringing about the meaning of the Arizona law that we know those other immigration narratives less worthy of a sing-along moment are out there. Progressives have (I think very justifiably) pointed to the similarities between the law and older regimes of racially-based immigration restriction. Conservatives have defended the law as a necessary enforcement act standing in the place of an absentee federal government, an argument that's not merely about race but about controlling an inexhaustible flow of desperate and very cheap labor. But I still don't think we really know what's actually happening in the broader public on this issue.

Take, for example, the poll's question on whether or not the nation should keep legal legislation at its current level. How many Americans know what that level is? I had to google it: 1.13 million persons became legal residents in 2009.

The rest of the poll is simply too polite. It asks whether or not respondents believed racial profiling would follow in the wake of the law (majorities say yes) but didn't ask them if they thought this was a bad thing. Almost all of the rest of the poll asked about the economic and government services impact of illegal immigration. The only question that even hints at the potential underlying racial aspects of support for the bill came in a question about the bill's impact on crime, and only as one part of the vague (and untrue) social ills unchecked illegal immigration may cause.

While it's proper to connect the sentiment behind the Arizona law to the broader swirl of racial and xenophobic ideas at play in the Birther and Tea Party Movements, this contemporaneity is not a sufficient explanation for the law's passage or its popular support. Belief that the United States is an Anglo-Saxon nation, or a white nation stretches back to the our very first naturalization law in 1790. In a post-Civil Rights Era America, however, this kind of opinion is, to put it mildly, passe. While its easy to cherry pick examples of when conservative immigration opponents tap into it, we need a more systematic plumbing of its depths. Instead, the current debate emerging is largely one about legal and governmental process, of how to distinguish between law breakers and law abiders and of a failure to enforce what in reality is unenforcable short of Soviet-styled construction solutions.

Let's set the issue of immigrants' legality in entering the country aside for one moment and discuss more important and uncomfortable issues. How many Americans believe still that race is a critical factor in American national identity and that immigration from non-European nations undermines its "culture," "values," or "traditions" -- words, I believe, are merely code for "whiteness." Americans at the turn of the twentieth century struggled mightily to reconcile the desire to integrate immigrants into the nation with those immigrants' perceived racial difference. What are the contours of that struggle today, now that race-based theories of social organization are discredited? The only hint we get from this poll is that 32 percent of respondents believe illegal immigrants should be summarily deported -- a solution as impractical as it is inhumane.

In light of the coming demographic change for the country in this century, when "minorities" will become its plurality of residents, these questions are of vital importance. If we are to overcome those more sinister narratives about immigration in our national experience -- and all sing along with Neil -- we need a more honest and open examination of the strata of American public opinion.

Americanisms reboot

It was a long (and in many ways discouraging) fall and winter but I've decided to re-start this blog, mostly for reasons of my own personal development and/or sanity. Like Stringer Bell changing the colors of the caps, I've changed the layout just so you know this is real and I'm back in the game.

Same content format as before: explorations of political culture. I'm going to write more about relevant pieces of pop culture and the media's relationship to citizenship, too. And I'm going to focus a bit more concretely on actual policy debates like on immigration, civil liberties, civil rights, and social justice. So let's do this.