America, April 22, 1995
By Terry Golway
© America Press Inc. 1995
THE 19TH CENTURY had its Know Nothings, and now we in the 1990's have our Neo-Nothings. Historians one day will note with some bewilderment that the latter included members of the very groups demonized by the former. How could this have happened?
The Neo-Nothing Movement gained its most notable win last November, when voters in California—a state known for the scarcity of its natives—voted to ban illegal immigrants and their offspring from dipping into the public treasury for such frivolities as education and health care. It would appear from the gathering clouds that Proposition 187 was but a roll of distant thunder. Next year, when Presidential candidates take their opinion polls and respond accordingly, will come the lightning, fierce and dangerous.
This nation of immigrants gave its official approval of the Neo-Nothing movement several weeks ago, when the House of Representatives voted to ban legal—though non-citizen—immigrants from such Federal programs as food stamps, Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Those who voted for such cuts clearly put ideology ahead of historical memory, for the roll call of ayes listed names that resonated with the immigrant experience of yesteryear: Italians, Irish and Jews, prosperous enough to qualify for membership in the Republican Party and indifferent to the lessons that their grandparents might have taught them. Neo-Nothings, indeed.
Of the several travesties that so mark the current round of immigration-bashing, however, none is quite so absurd as the arguments contained in a new book entitled Alien Nation. Its attacks ought to enrage the grandsons and granddaughters of Catholic and Jewish immigrants who arrived on these shores to a welcome of scorn and contempt. Alien Nation argues that America must close its borders before it is overrun with unskilled, violent, uneducated, service-demanding and job-stealing hordes from beyond the seas.
Such immigrants, the author argues, are hauling along with their luggage all sorts of diseases, social pathologies and vaguely un-American traditions. Among the author's solutions is a proposal that the United States make fluency in English a requirement for new immigrants, in order to preserve American culture and traditions. Alas, such a measure would do nothing to protect our shores from the Rupert Murdochs of the world. The media magnate, Aussie-born but a U.S. citizen for reasons having to do with the making of money, has used his tabloids and his Fox Television Network to ensure that U.S. culture continues its spiral downward. But Alien Nation sees nothing wrong with immigrants such as the white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking Rupert Murdoch.
The new book's arguments, of course, have been marshaled before. "Tom Paine in his book Common Sense declared that America would be an asylum for mankind, but in fact the country has operated in a different way in different eras," said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University. "There has always been a racial element [to the anti-immigration movement]. In the 19th Century, Italians, Jews and Irish were considered their own races."
To be sure, the history of the American immigrant is hardly the sanitized version enshrined on the Statue of Liberty. But what so distinguishes Alien Nation is the combination of author and publisher. Peter Brimelow, who wrote the book, is an immigrant from Britain. So is Harold Evans, who published the book for Random House.
In Alien Nation Brimelow is attempting to impose his made-in-Britain values on U.S. society. This is just the sort of cultural atrocity critics have been expecting since the British began infiltrating American media outlets a decade ago. Like nearly every other European country, Britain is wary of immigrants, even (or especially) the white ones from Ireland. To suggest that America look upon Europe and do likewise is to see America as a mere extension of the Continent. Such thinking ought to be roundly condemned—especially by the Neo-Nothings who, after all, resent all things foreign.
Such thoughts are but wishful, for the Neo-Nothings no doubt will claim Brimelow as a kindred spirit and Alien Nation as a required text. None dares to contemplate the irony of an immigrant author bemoaning the awful effects of immigration, for to do so might lead a Neo-Nothing into even deeper reflection, and that would prove dangerous. If the immigrant Brimelow's argument is ironic, what is one to make of immigrant-bashing by the granddaughter of the Italian grocer, or the grandson of the Jewish peddler or the son of an Irish nurse?
"There's a famous cartoon from the 19th century showing a group of affluent-looking types trying to prevent a downtrodden immigrant from getting off a gangplank," said Ed O'Donnell, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia who conducts tours of old immigrant neighborhoods in Manhattan. "The shadows cast by the affluent men are drawn as caricatures of an Italian, an Irishman and a Jewish peddler." Imagine what fun the cartoonist would have today.
"When you take a poll of 1,000 Americans and ask them to list the top 10 things that make America great, they'll say something about the immigrant experience," O'Donnell said. "Go back and poll them a month later and ask them to list the top five threats to America in the next century. They'll mention immigration."
If we are, as O'Donnell suggests, two-faced on the question of immigration, these days we seem intent on showing our scarred and ugly side.