Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Murfreesboro Mosque

The resistance to the expansion of a Islamic community center in Murfreesboro is turning more sinister and has gained more national attention accordingly. During the weekend someone set fire to construction equipment outside the center and fired shots in its vicinity. Last night, members of the community held a candlelight vigil in response, which, too was challenged by anti-mosque protesters.

Mosque opponents have reached a particular critical mass in our culture: Daily Show interviews.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Tennessee No Evil
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Skip to about half-way for the Murfreesboro part (although the rest is funny enough to watch, too-- but it's about the NYC controversy). The comments of the anti-mosque leader are obviously disturbing, even just for the simple reason that reveals there are adults out there who don't know what I used to tell my students every semester: you can't trust everything you google. It's easy to laugh at these kinds of folks. At the level of serious commentary, it's also easy to dismiss them a part of an anxiety-ridden majority that is slowly seeing its dominance melt away and is digging in its heels.

I don't think either is particularly useful in getting at the heart of the matter, or in answering the question of "why middle Tennessee?" Having lived in the Volunteer State for a time and having thought about this kind of activity as a historian, here are my impressions.

As a preamble: I spent a weekend in Murfreesboro when UVa played at Middle Tennessee State for some strange reason several football seasons ago (and a game we really should have lost...but anway...). It's not worth a return trip.

With that out of the way, the fire at the mosque was not terrorism: it was vigilantism. By that, I mean it was an example of extra-legal enforcement of the community's cultural norms where the rule of law traditionally failed. The board that approved the expansion would have no constitutional leg to stand on to oppose it, so the arsonists are defending the community through alternative means. This kind of stuff used to happen quite a lot and for a variety of reasons in the early 20th century. The gunfire is terrorism, in that it is designed to cow the Muslim community into submission.

I raise this distinction because how people think about their local community are the most useful way to understand these incidents. This perspective is important because this episode is not as cut-and-dried as reactionary yokels vs. new immigrants with a strange faith. For example, I had assumed myself that Murfreesboro was in Marsha Blackburn's Congressional district. It's not. It's in Al Gore's old district and hasn't had a Republican represent it in Congress since 1983. But it does have lots and lots of churches.

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When I lived in Memphis one of the first things people would ask in a dinner party situation was where I went to church. It was usually the second question, right after where in town we lived, and was only asked if the conversation survived the revelation that we resided in the middle of downtown -- a concept so alien and undesirable to most native Memphians that it usually halted any desire for further interaction. The religion question, of course, was no less awkward because I haven't been a church attendant since middle school. People would often then invite us to attend their church, assuming that we just hadn't found one we liked. While for me that was true in a way, the invitation was a way to be neighborly and not nosy. More than half of Tennesseans are evangelical Christians, and more than 7 out of 10 told the Pew Research Center's survey efforts that religion was "very important" in their lives. What this meant was less about religious dogma and more about community. Church was the center of most people's social lives and most of the lives of the friends I made there. Every year "in church" finished first in the free newspaper's best-of poll for best place for singles to meet.

Memphis at least is a pretty big city with other stuff to do. In Murfreesboro, church is probably all that more central as a social outlet a center of community life. Church membership is also socially isolating. So people who oppose the Muslim community center's expansion understand one part of its desires -- to continue to have the faith community be central to its members' lives. But they have no idea what actually goes on within that community. While they probably have an idea what the Episcopalians down the street are up to, they have to use the google machine to understand anything at all about Islam. Understanding their own church as an insular community with shared beliefs they see the Muslim community in the same way, but believe it subscribes to a single, radical form of Islam that dominates the entire religion.

This kind of scenario is exactly why those of us who rejected the language of a "global war on terror" did so: it leveled differences within an enormously complicated faith tradition and makes the local struggle the equivalent of the worldwide one. People in Murfreesboro think they're fighting jihadis like the Marines in Kandahar. Of course, those not actively resisting mosques see it another way: as a debate between the tolerant and the intolerant. But the protesters in Tennessee or elsewhere do not think they are fighting for intolerance, and elevating the conversation to the level of civil liberties is really a waste of time.

Link: Pregnant Devil at the Beck Rally? Yep.

Sorry, blog fans, for the posting delay. I was cranking out the last of my book manuscript edits this month and can gladly say I've put that behind me (until the series editors get a hold of it at least).

I did not get to the Beck god-a-thon last weekend. But these guys did. Bravo.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Douthat Part Deux

Ross Douthat, did you read my blog? Your recent blog entry offered the kind of nuanced and more historically-accurate account of the history of Americans' assimilationist impulses I wanted from your column Monday. What you write there is so much more interesting and better formed I wonder why you didn't just go with it in the first place instead of the two Americas "conceit." The Catholic-Muslim parallel is a much more interesting (and appropriate) conceit if Times columnists feel the need to employ one.

Bravo for this recovery:

It would be nice, obviously, if you could draw a bright line between benighted exclusionists and enlightened assimilationists in American history. But the record doesn’t really support that kind of line-drawing. The two tendencies can be separated, and sometimes were. But they just as often coexisted in the same movements and institutions — and in the same human hearts.
But this is exactly why modern-day progressives are nervous when conservatives speak of assimilation. For starters, the assimilationist ethos -- even among the "enlightened -- was saturated in the now-outmoded racial theories of the past. One very well could be a racist in the sense that one believed racial categories were real and classifiable and explained differences between social groups and be an assimilationist, or even reject immigration restriction on nativist grounds. Forgive contemporary progressives for their skepticism over whether elements of American conservatism have moved beyond such perspectives.

Second, assimilation was and remains an idea imposed upon immigrant groups. As such, it was inherently coercive. In explaining to newcomers how to become "American," the Americanizers worked their political and social values into their lessons. While the worry that new immigrants will join the Wobblies has passed, concern that they will become terrorists obviously has not. But lest we forget the McVeighs and Rudolphs of the nation's recent past, demanding that some immigrants demonstrate their loyalty fully before receiving full acceptance into the nation has limited bearing on our safety. With that in mind, what should modern-day Americanizers ask of immigrants? To abandon emotional, cultural, and political connections to their homeland, which was the original meaning of the metaphor of the Melting Pot? To resist the urge of bringing foreign perspectives on global affairs with them, or at least those that are not convenient for confronting our enemies and supporting our allies as in the Cold War? To shed the political and class solidarity found in their working-class ethnic communities? To refrain from joining any movement that advocates expanding the American social safety net, or else risk having one's ethnic group being ostracized as welfare hounds? 

Progressives' discomfort with the inherent chauvinism of assimilation has led then to develop no answer at all to what immigrants should be required to do to Americanize. They have essentially punted the question back to ethnic and religious organizations -- like the one under attack in lower Manhattan, or the Latino groups under fire from Arizona conservatives I've discussed before. As a result, the only consensus Americans have formed on the issue of assimilation is that immigrants should learn English, they can keep their hard-to-pronounce names, and they can keep their food (hooray for number three!). Progressives need to work harder on their end of the debate and explain, as Randolph Bourne tried in his "Trans-National America" essay so long ago, how immigrants can transform America for the better, rather than merely be transformed themselves. 

Finally, to champion Americanization is to ignore the ways in which immigrants themselves have chosen to assimilate to American life. Beginning with Oscar Handlin, the entire field of immigration history has been built on this exact narrative. The problem the Vatican had with democracy that Douthat cites is exactly this kind of story -- members of the clergy in the United States argued for the adaptation of some Church doctrines (including the superiority of the Catholic Church over Protestant sects) to fit the pluralistic and democratic American political culture of the late 19th century. Pope Leo XIII, in turn, condemned what was being called "Americanism" within the Church. It would seem that the same accommodation is taking place in most American mosques without Americanizers or nativists pounding on the door - and irrespective of the opinions of foreign imams.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Douthat's Two Americas

Good for Joan Walsh for cleaning Ross Douthat's clock on Salon today. His column in this morning's Times was Washington Post opinion page-quality stupid.

Walsh points out his most disturbing and glaring historical inaccuracy, and outright logical fallacy, in recalling the violent nativist/Know Nothing response to Catholic immigration in the 1800s. Let me pile on by pointing out that the "the two Americas" Douthat is writing about in terms of the nation's history of immigrant assimilation were really one America until the middle of the 20th century. By our modern standards, with the occasional exception of an individual like Horace Kallen, intolerance prevailed up to that point. The difference between camps was merely in degree. And there has been, in fact, very little tension between the "constitutional" and the "cultural" Americas he cites -- culture drove the constitutional conversation.

Or, to be more historically accurate, a cultural understanding derived from racism drove the constitutional. 1920s immigration laws weren't "draconian." They were racist. They were written from the perspective that race created culture and that Anglo Saxons, having the best genes, had the best culture and therefore were the most desirable potential Americans. Everyone else had to overcome the handicap of their racial identity demonstrably. I simply do not understand what Douthat sees that is usable in that past.

I think what he and other conservatives are calling for is not assimilation but the old spirit of "100 percent Americanism:" a demonstration of unquestioned loyalty according to the terms they set. These terms have to do with more than just bringing Islam up to speed with Western standards of individual rights -- a project, I must admit, I support (mainly because I believe such standards are truly secular in nature, unlike the Christian fanatics now so eager to bash Islam and ignore their own religion's sordid history on the matter). Conservatives also demand a forfeiture by Muslim immigrants of any political conception of the world that does not meet the demands of the post-9/11 national security state. They are simply not allowed to bring the perspectives of the nations they have left to bear on a conversation about the American projection of power in the world. This demand is just as damaging to the principles of American democracy as any interruption of the right to free exercise of religious faith. Douthat would be right to remember, too the America that threw German Americans into detention camps for not supporting a war against their homeland enough, or that beat them for not buying enough Liberty Bonds. Or the more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans whose disloyalty was perceived to be too great a risk not to strip of their rights, liberty, and property -- a position another commentator on that side of the aisle astoundingly has defended.

In our own time, to describe the United States as "an accessory to the crime" of 9/11 is wrong and offensive. But it is not the same as endorsing the act. But that doesn't matter to the America Douthat really wants us to live in, which would rather the person making that comment never participate in the conversation at all.

Making Sense of the "Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy: Religion, Assimilation, Countersubversion

Rather than wading into the question of whether or not the Cordoba House should get its building permit, I want to take a poke at understanding the reaction of those most stridently against its establishment. (Readers can gather from my previous scribblings about mosque construction that I would vote to approve the lower Manhattan project, although - for those who care about my personal opinions - my reaction to the controversy itself is more or less Hitchensesque.)

The most startling part of the Cordoba House controversy is the disproportional quality of conservative opponents' responses. These reactions, of course, were ginned up by the ultra-Right blogosphere and the Murdoch media empire in willful denial of the plain facts that, first, the building will not be a mosque, and second, that there is already a mosque four blocks from the World Trade Center site. Unfortunately, the controversy - now grown to the level of presidential comment - has also distracted from the fact that what's happening in Manhattan is going on all across the country

Some of the over-reaction has to do with conservatives' own view of Christianity. They are the driving force behind the 62 percent of Americans who view the United States as a "Christian Nation." Figures like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have been just as explicit in their opinions that national identity is wrapped up in Christianity, even if the latter feels no need to live up to his own religiosity in his personal life. While they may accept the principle of tolerance that allows those "peace-loving" muslims that Palin has tweeted about to practice their religion, this religiousized nationalism will always leave the Islamic community at the margins.

But conservatives' perception of Islam itself is much of the problem. The issue runs deeper than their mere ignorance of a major world faith. The understanding of Islam that conservatives are operating from fundamentally denies the possibility of its assimilation into American society. They have assumed this position because they are even more ignorant of the politics and history of Muslim nations than they are of the tenets of the faith. The religion and its affect on politics in many Middle Eastern nations have become inseparable to these conservatives. This is why Gingrich thinks it's relevant to insist that no mosque be built near Ground Zero before Saudi Arabia allows the construction of Christian churches. Islam to him and his conservative supporters is the House of Saud (or Hamas, or Hezbollah.) Despite the counterexamples offered by places like Indonesia, Turkey, and even Syria, Islam is shariah. As one mosque protester told the New York Times, “I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.”

This view of a monolithic and oppressive ideological enemy of Liberal democratic values is strikingly similar to the way conservatives thought about Communism during the Cold War. The conservative approach to radical Islam broadly, from a declaration of war on the totalitarian ideology of "Islamofascism" to the opposition of cultural centers, is a lingering hangover of this era. Then, conservatives claimed the nation faced subversion by a dedicated minority that was loyal only to an international conspiracy. They argued that Communists simply used American civil liberties to shield their true destructive intent, and therefore deserved no Constitutional protection. Their key to securing the nation at home and abroad was constant exposure of Communists "true intentions" as a monolithic international conspiracy and unending confrontation with its proponents. Rejecting a mosque is to claim its parishioners cannot entirely be trusted and the threat of subversion or terrorism is too great to tolerate. An opponent of a mosque in Murfreesboro told the same Times reporter “A mosque is not just a place for worship. It’s a place where war is started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It’s a place where ammunition was stored.”

Clearly, the exotic nature of Muslim immigrants to what Republicans euphemistically call "Mainstream Americans" exacerbates this overactive countersubversive imagination. The California grandmother the Times quoted worried that the nation will be overtaken by Muslims in the future because of immigrants' high birth rates, an interesting extrapolation because there are more Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhists in America than Muslims (0.6 percent of the population). And one could argue that Catholics faced a similar conspiratorial barrier in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when more ignorant varieties of Protestants believed Catholic practitioners were loyal only to the Pope.

For those raised at the height of the Cold War, though, the conservative countersubversive imagination is ingrained in a political world view. We simply argue past them when we argue for tolerance. They would rather have the targets of their suspicion "refudiate" on the terms they set and claim represent the rest of us.

Mike Blake/Reuters, via New York Times

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Birthrates and Immigration

In 1921, a professor from Stanford University testified to a Congressional committee that by the year 2000 a majority of the population of California would be of Japanese heritage. He extrapolated this stunning conclusion from birthrate data, which showed a tremendously higher fertility rate among Japanese than the general population.

Perhaps standards for faculty hiring at Stanford University in its early years were shockingly low. What's more likely is this professor was simply lying with math to reach a preordained conclusion -- that he didn't like Japanese immigration. Obviously, old people don't typically embark on transoceanic emigration voyages, and the birthrate he cited was simply a product of the Japanese population being much younger than the rest.

Demographers at Pew, in releasing their findings that 8% of births in 2008 were by illegal immigrant mothers, dutifully made this point up front. But let's start the clock on how fast immigration opponents start spinning these figures to claim some demographic cataclysm is coming, or to prove that the 14th Amendment really does need revising.

Like internal migration within a country, immigration/emigration is about a search for resources and employment. Sure, some percentage of immigrants in the nation's past were fleeing oppressive regimes in their homelands -- my great-grandfather left Lithuania because the Russians were going to conscript him to fight the Japanese. Especially since the end of the Cold War, however, immigration policy has had little to do with a flight to freedom, which remains the domain of national refugee policy (and vice-versa, when it comes to the differences between Haitian and Cuban refugees, for example.) What we are essentially talking about when we talk about immigration is what to do with a particular, transnational labor pool.

Law professor Bill Ong Hing was totally right last week writing for Slate that the real solution to keeping the largest (Mexican) portion of this labor home is economic development in their home countries. It's what richer EU countries did, he notes, to stem emigration from nations like Greece and Portugal when they joined in the 1990s. And NAFTA's been a disaster for many working and farming Mexicans.

The reason we're still talking about birthrates and the 14th Amendment, though, is the same reason the professor's proposal has not a snowball's chance in hell of going anywhere. If conservatives have a problem giving WIC cards or even public school education to the children of illegal immigrants on the grounds that it's redistributing resources to people who don't deserve it, how are they going to feel about giving away the billions it would take to boost the Mexican economy?

An issue like immigrant birthrate is illuminating because it's fundamentally a visceral one. Those squeamish about the racial diversification of the country imagine "they are making more of them." How far the Republican leadership at the national, state, and local level will want to run with this issue will be telling because of all the angles of attack on the illegal immigration problem, this is the one that closest to outright white supremacy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On UN Plots

I, like 99.9% of historians, am not one of those "history repeats itself" people. But literally last night I was writing about how members of the American Legion in the 1950s declared educational materials from UNESCO to be a one-world government and/or Communist plot. One of the main proponents of this stance thought the Girl Scouts were passing out subversive literature because it said something vaguely internationalist. And he got the Illinois Department to pass a resolution saying so.

So then today I read that Tea Party/GOP candidate for governor in Colorado thinks a Denver bike share program is a UN plot to subvert the US Constitution and our freedom. (Well, the bikes are RED.)

Please, just stop.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Links: Crushing It

From the "stuff I think is awesome and blog-related" category...

This guy is my new hero for his idea of "Burn a Confederate Flag Day" to coincide with the Tea Party/Glen Beck 9/12 shenanigans. Simply put, cojones.

You might have read this already, but if you haven't William Saletan absolutely crushes GOP opposition to the "Ground Zero" mosque.

Hey Republicans, On Immigration, Why Stop at the 14th Amendment?

The so-called "anchor baby" issue in Arizona state politics has metastasized, entering the halls of the Senate. Republicans Jon Kyl and Lindsey Graham have called for a repeal of the 14 Amendment's provision that automatically grants US citizenship to anyone born in the country. As TalkingPointsMemo lays out, they have plenty of company within GOP ranks in supporting this idea. Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signed on as well to at least examining the proposal.

As I've mentioned here before, the idea of revoking the automatic citizenship portion of the 14th Amendment is not new. Conservatives in the 1920s argued for doing the same to deny the Japanese "anchor babies" of the day their citizenship. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor they also pushed for the deportation of those same citizens of Japanese heritage along with their "alien" parents at the conclusion of World War II. Their arguments weren't much different then as now. Japanese immigrants and their "alien citizen" progeny unfairly sucked up American resources (in this case, land and agricultural markets, not welfare) and they were a potential security risk (one GOP Congressman has suggested that Islamic terrorists may use "anchor babies" as 20-year sleeper agents. Really.)

Given this, long (if not, in its own way, proud) heritage, why not push beyond repealing part of the 14th Amendment? The GOP should consider repealing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave Japanese-Americans reparations (reparations!) for property lost during their internment in World War II. If Japanese immigrants had those kids simply to stay in the country, which was necessary because after early-1920s Supreme Court decisions they themselves were not eligible for naturalization, then why reward those anchor babies with taxpayer money? Repealing the Civil Liberties Act would also take back the nation's apology for racial profiling on the grandest and most grotesque scale, which, of course by superior logic of Arizona politicians, wasn't really racial profiling at all.

The GOP could also add a plank to its national platform commemorating the deportation of 400,000 Mexicans from the Southwest during the Great Depression to give their jobs to hard-working Okies. That half of those deported were US citizens is immaterial: the larger point is the federal government acted to secure the border for Americans' economic opportunity.

The Republican Party could call for a federal investigation of anyone whose ancestors immigrated to the United States after 1924, the first time actual paper documentation was required of Europeans to enter the country as an immigrant legally, to ensure generations of anchor babies have not unfairly received citizenship because of their ancestors' fraud.

With enforcement of the 14th Amendment out of the way, the Republican Party could advocate a return to the jurisprudence of the Ozawa (1922) and Thind (1923) cases, which restored the Founding Fathers' vision of immigration and citizenship to something of their original intent and forbade naturalization of any non-whites. If we should be so concerned with the original intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment, why not go all the way back with originalism and restore the Naturalization Act of 1790? That will certainly play to the Tea Party crowd in more ways than one.