Friday, 6 February 2009

Immigration: then, there, here, now, nothing much changes

The book I am currently reading is America in the Twenties by Geoffrey Perrett (1). I bought it last year at the Palmerston North library book sale, along with a pile of other tiltes. This was before the Credit Crunch. As the world banking system fell apart in the final months of 2008, I was decided to look back on the Great Depression of the 20s and 30s, so I could knowledgeably hold forth on the similarities and differences between then and now, even if becoming wise after the even is rather futile.

So far, what has struck me most is not the economic culture, but the social side of the twenties. Perrett suggests, in his introduction, that the twenties seem familiar to us because they are, essentially, the first decade of the Twentieth century (the book was written in 1982) and the years up to 1918 had been a long - and very literal , given the Great War and the 1918 influenza epidemic - death rattle for the Nineteenth century.

The USA, after the war, was a nation absorbing a million immigrants a year, many of which were looked on as alien and dangerous by the 'native born' Americans - that is to say, of course, the White, Anglo-Saxons. These immigrants were racially different, being central Europeans and Slavs, practiced different religions and held to sinister political beliefs. This generated xenophobia and hostility in the host communitiy - the twenties saw the re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership peaked at 4 million in the first half of the decade. It also resulted in a clannish, isolationist attitude in the immigrant communities, which in turn fed the suspicions of the 'native' population. Perret is worth quoting at length here:
Soem immigrant leaders began to resist, telling the Americanizers what they could do with their unsolicited and parochial opinions. There were immigrant communities that became more, not less, chauvanistic. They boldly flaunted their native costumes, food, dress and speech. The Americanization drive at this juncture turned ugly. It merged with the deportations delirium and the Red Scare.

The hatred of all things foreign reached a pitch of viciousness hard at this distance to credit. But in the coalfields of "Egypt" [the coal mining area of Southern Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky], on the night of August 5, 1920, and all the next day, "hundreds of people laden with clothing and household goods filled the roads leading out of West Frankfort ... Back in town their homes were burning. Mobs bent on driving out every foreigner surged through the streets ... The Italian population was the chief objective." Italians were dragged from their homes, beaten with fists and clubs, stoned and kicked, while their homes were set on fire. The mob raged for three days. Two children were missing and were later found dead. A rumour went around that the Italians had kidnapped them for some sinister, foreign purpose. (2)
Several things are striking about this. First of all,fast forward a few years and transpose the action to Germany and substitute Jews for Italians, and you have Kristalnacht. And, as an aside isn't it startling to see the old anti-Semetic myths about children being sacrificed in hideous rituals being repeated, aimed at Italians, in the 1920s? Viciousness and xenophobia are everywhere. The British novellist, William Golding, remarked:
I know why the thing rose in Germany. I know it could happen in any country. It could happen here ... these elements, some horrible, some merely funny, but all significant ... they are a failure of human sympathy, ignorance of facts, the objectivizing of our own inadequacies to make a scapegoat. (3)
America in the 1920s, like Britain in the 1920s and every other country in the 1920s, wasn't very different from Germany in the 1920s. Perhaps we were a little luckier than the Germans, in that we hadn't the misery of a humiliating defeat to add to the dislocation and unemployment that defined the decade, and that no demagogue arose to direct the disatisfaction and resentment. But, as Golding said, it could easily have been different.

The other point is somewhat more hopeful. Perrett remarks that the xenophobia "reached a pitch of viciousness hard at this distance to credit." Well, perhaps in the 1980s, but after the 11th of September, 2001, it isn't hard to see other similarities, particularly in Britain, where Muslim enclaves and non-integration are an increasing obssession. Perhaps things will get worse, but perhaps the American example offers some grounds for hope.

In the 1920s, the Italian immigrants were hated and feared, representatives of an alien culture, a threat to stability, American values and (perhaps most importantly) American jobs. Now Italians are simply another distinctive sub-culture in the USA, having given their new home pizza, Joe DiMaggio, Rudi Gulliani and Martin Scorcese. The paranoia of the 1920s is forgotten and Perrett is right when he says it is hard to imagine it being levelled against Italians, only a few decades ago. It was, however, virulent and real. Perrett describes it thus:
There was, for example, another rumour that went back to the Know Nothings of the 1850s, according to which the the birth of a Catholic baby was celebrated by burying a gun and fifty rounds of ammunition beneath the local Catholic Church. When the time was ripe and all the little Catholics had grown up and learned to shoot straight, the guns would be dug up. Catholic revolutionaries would seize power and give the United States up to the Pope.

Robert Coughlan, a Catholic teenager growning up in Kokomo, Indiana, took an interest in the Klan propoganda circulating around town. "The Borgias were an endless mine of material, and their exploits came to be as familiar to readers of the Klan press as the lives of soap opera characters are to modern housewives. Constant readers must have begun to think of them as the Typical Catholic Family of the Renaissance." Half of Kokomo seemed convinced that at any moment the Pope would arrive to claim the United States. And then it happened. Word suddenly spread that "the Pope was finally pulling into town on the south-bound from Chicago to take over. A mob formed and stoned the train." (4)
That's one of Golding's "merely funny" elements, but it pathetic stupidity arise out of nothing. people have to be made that dumb, suspicious and hate-filled.

We don't need to look far to see this sort of thinking manifesting itself, with Muslims substituted for Italians. The paranoid and xenophobic are worried about the high birth rate of Muslims. They are breeding, it seems, ten times faster than the British population (5). There is, supposedly, a Muslim population timebomb about to go off, with This has lead to feverish speculation about Britain being taken over by a '21st Century Moor invasion' (6). While Perrett does not mention it, it seems likely that the Catholic propensity for large families caused similar concerns in America in the 1920s. According to the report described in The Times, "the biggest Christian population is among over-70s bracket, for Muslims it is the under-4s" (7). The implication being that in a few years time, these little Mohammeds and Iqbals will be working and voting, where-as the Matthrew, Marks, Lukes and Johns will be long gone.

Perhaps, but to me the fact that so many of the Muslim immigrants are so young is a cause for optimism. As they grow up, western practices and mores will form a part of their character. Their birth rate will be lower than that of their parents, as they perceive the advantages of delaying having children, just as westerners have. Yes, their presence will change British and EUropean culture, just as the presence of Italian immigrants changed American culture, and the presence of Asian immigrants is changing New Zealand's culture, but it doesn't follow that this change has to be dramatic or destructive.
1 - America in the Twenties by Geoffrey Perrett, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1982. Unless otherwise stated, statistics and points of fact are drawn from this book.
2 - ibid, page 81.
3 - From the essay "Fable," which can be found in the collection of Golding's writing called The Hot Gates, published by Faber& Faber, 1965.
4 - Perrett, op. cit., page 77. The embedded quotations are from The Aspirin Age, edited by Ishbel Leighton, published by Garden City, New York, 1949, pages 113-114.
5 - "Muslim population 'rising 10 times faster than rest of society'," by (
6 - "
Report: UK Muslim population grows 10 TIMES FASTER," discussion topic started on the 2nd of February, 2009, by a poster calling himself Charles Martel, on the News General discussion forum. (
7 - Kerbaj, op. cit.

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