Those Who Deny Succor to the Immigrant in the Name of “The West” Are Themselves Profoundly Anti-WesternNews at Home
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where research focuses on early modern literature and religion. He has written for several academic and general publications, and can be followed at edsimon.org.
While it is only right and proper to comment on what is noxious and offensive about the new ethnic nationalism (often charitably called “populism” by the press), not enough attention is paid to how its tenets are also wrong. These writers and theorists promulgate a particular view of the world that is defined by competition between clearly delineated and defined ethnic groups who in an essentialist fashion embody certain principles, and that “western” principles must by necessity be intrinsic to only those whose genealogical origins are from Europe. Their philosophy, as such, is at best a type of social Darwinism, at worst out-and-out fascism. But in focusing on the fact that they’re offensive (and let there be no doubt that such a world-view is offensive) we can lose sight that their interpretation of history also happens to be inaccurate. Scholar of religion Samuel Loncar expresses the situation perfectly in the Marginalia Review of Books when he writes, “The battle between the global resurgence of ethnic nationalism and the American idea of a multi-ethnic society is easily mistaken for a direct conflict between ideas. It is not. It is a conflict between one of the greatest powers, untutored human prejudice, which makes all of us natural bigots, and ideas themselves. It is a choice between America as an idea and America as the mirror image of its historic ethnic majority.”
If we’re to take the broader interpretation of categories like race, class, ethnicity, religion and so forth as cultural studies do, and apply it to the history of the West (or any other culture for that matter) we can see how the absolutist definition of identity promulgated by some reactionary thinkers, and now apparently given official sanction by the White House, happens to generate an erroneous interpretation of current events when compared to an actual understanding how history and culture operate. We repeat the mantra that nationality, race, ethnicity and so on are social constructions so often that we can forget how radically true those assertions actually are. And in pointing out that the new nationalism is poisonous, we would do well to also point out that its view of the world is not supported by evidence.
Categories of race, ethnicity, and nationality have always been porous. Even liberals can take it as a given that multiculturalism or hybridized identities are only an aspect of our modern condition, but the history of humanity has always been the history of migration and the blending and birth of new peoples and new cultures. Those with a particularly retrograde understanding of Anglo-American identity promote a view of an essentially “Anglo-Saxon identity,” associated with a set of values seen as intrinsically English (and now American). These figures connect both the origin and thus the benefits of “Western civilization” with the inhabitants of the British Isles and their descendants. But values are not genes, and indeed as the best of the western tradition emphasizes cosmopolitanism, inclusion, tolerance, discourse, and liberal engagement, those who deny succor to the immigrant in the name of “the West” are themselves those whom are actually profoundly anti-western. The political philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says as much when he wrote in The Guardian in November of last year that: “Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them.”
Western culture is not defined by resistance to hybridization, rather hybridization and multiculturalism are what define Western culture.
As the history of racial inclusion in the United States involves an increasingly larger definition of who is “white,” there has been a historical broadening of who constitutes the descendents of this western tradition, but northwestern Europe has always been its locus. However, the “West,” by its very definition, has always been a mirage (as indeed any strictly defined culture must be). The West is, after all, first associated with the inhabitants of both sides of the Mediterranean, and not the British Isles. The exclusionary ideology of those defending ethnic nationalism is that western values of liberty are only accessible to those of a very particular genealogical background – and this is the bigoted view which inspired the Know Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, and those who supported the Immigration Act of 1921 (among others, of course).
If we are to define an “American” as one who is of white, Anglo-Saxon, and more-often-than not Protestant background, we immediately encounter difficulties. The believer in the strict correspondence of ethnicity and nationality, and their similarly obvious definitions, must by necessity discover that such definitions are arbitrary and ahistorical. It may seem obvious to define an Englishman in a particular way (and by proxy, for some, an American in an equivalent way). But what then is an Englishman? Those Atlantic isles buffeted by so many peoples? An Englishman is a Pict, a Celt, a Briton, a Roman, an Angle, a Saxon, a Frisian, a Jute, a Dane, a Norman, a Frenchman, a Dutchman, an Italian, a Pakistani. What then is a Frenchman? A Frenchman is a Norman, an Occitan, a Basque, and so on. For those looking for an essential nature to Englishness, one does well to consider how different a Roman is from a Pict is from a Viking. The nationalisms of the early modern era standardized and ironed out linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences, but there was never any pure, intrinsic, essential “Englishness” or “Frenchness” or “Americanness.” These cultures were never monochromatic, but always a rich and vibrant plaid. And lest my metaphor lead to me erroneously being interpreted as arguing for an essential nature to the constituent parts which led to the new identities of Englishness or Frenchness, they too were similarly complex and hybridized – same as it ever was, the only way that it can ever be. There is no Nation, only “nations,” as rich, varied, and diverse as individuals are.
The endlessly vibrant and creative nature of cultural hybridization is especially marked in the United States, whose unique history led to one of the most richly constituted of multicultural nation-states. While every nation is mixed and none is pure, the United States in bringing together such a varied collection of peoples from such disparate geographic regions led to an endlessly creative nation which severed the fallacious connection between ethnicity and nationality which defined citizenship in European nations. As every nation is hybridized, by the very nature of how culture operates, the American experiment makes that hybridization spectacularly visible. No aspect of our culture – from our music to our literature to our cuisine – doesn’t bare the marks of that hybridization. But what our example demonstrates isn’t that this hybridization is exceptional, for all cultures are hybridized in such a way, but rather it makes the existence of this process obvious.
And yet there are those who deny not just the more general existence of cultural hybridization (which is so universal that it is almost an immutable law of culture itself), but who more spectacularly deny its importance in American history. The new Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, has remarked about immigration that “Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so; it’s very unusual; it’s a radical change.” But Sessions is the one who is wrong – America has always been a pluralistic and multicultural society. This is not a sunny liberal bromide, nor am I simply making my argument based on the admittedly abstract-sounding process of cultural hybridization. The fact is that from the very earliest days of colonial America, this nation was consummately multicultural.
Even progressives have a tendency to think of American history as one long march outward from our Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins to the multicultural nation that we are in the process of becoming. But to take one example, New York City from its founding by the Dutch as New Amsterdam in 1624 has always been a polyglot city. On the crooked cow-paths which became the confusing array of streets in lower Manhattan, a visitor in the seventeenth-century would not only have heard Dutch and English, but also Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, German, Welsh, Cornish, and Norwegian. But lest you think the definition of diversity in New Amsterdam was simply an enumeration of the spectrum from pale to paler, consider that in addition to those Indo-European tongues one would have also heard African languages like Ibo and Wolof, Amerindian languages both Algonquin and Iroquoian, and Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish in the city’s synagogues (despite Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s opposition). In terms of religion the inhabitants of the city (inspired by the famed tolerance of the Dutch Republic) included not just the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church, but also Lutherans, Puritans, various religious non-conformists, and Jews. Though what would be New York City was but a few thousand people, it’s much vaunted diversity was already a fact of daily life four centuries ago.
And lest you think that New Amsterdam was an anomaly, consider the large Jewish populations in southern cities like Charleston and Savannah, or even more remarkable that in large portions of the eighteenth-century American South one of the most widely observed religions was Islam (among the African slave population). Religion scholar Peter Manseau gives us some historical perspective when he writes that “men and women with connections to Islam in the newly independent United States would have rivaled the memberships of Methodist or Roman Catholic churches.” Islam is not new to American shoes, it has always been here. Multiculturalism is not new to America, it is what has always defined it – as it has all other societies as well.
The idea of some sort of obviously delineated and clearly defined ethno-state is a pure abstraction, the cultural equivalent of absolute zero, something one can have a conception of that has no empirical validity. Actual lived experience is the Cornish speaker living in England, actual lived experience is the Basque fishermen in Spain, actual lived experience are the black, Asian, Arabic, Hispanic and Indian Americans who are as American as anyone else. Actual collective experience is messy, complicated, baroque, and glorious. Actual lived experience is multicultural because the word “culture” by definition implies that prefix. Every society, indeed every person, is a cacophony of different people, different perspectives, and different views. We contain multitudes – and we always have. The opponents of diversity are not advocating a return to some ideal past – that past didn’t exist. Not only wouldn’t you want to return to it if it did – it wasn’t even real in the first place.