The New Nativism

It’s been a half century since John F. Kennedy declared this “a nation of immigrants,” since his successor Lyndon Johnson threw open the doors to a broad parade of people from all over the world with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

That bill did away with a hundred-year history of ‘national origins’ exclusions — a long, legal attempt to keep American society mostly white and European. But it did not do away with a twisted feature of the American identity. This “nation of immigrants” has the homegrown double-standard of a nation of settlers, says our guest Aziz Rana, historian of The Two Faces of American Freedom. We have built exclusivity, and racial and nativist preference, into our idea of what’s American — even if we don’t recognize it.

First it was Protestants in, Catholics out; then it became white men in, people of color out. The first “illegal immigrants” weren’t Mexican, who were once allowed to pass seamlessly into the United States — they were Chinese first, then Jewish. Even LBJ’s liberal coup ended up cutting the legal limit for Latin American immigration by more than 90%.

The tide seemed to have turned: more people have left the U.S. for Mexico since 2009 than have entered the country. Pollsters believed that immigration wouldn’t be a big issue for voters in the 2016 election. They weren’t counting on Donald Trump whipping up a whirlwind of old-fashioned anxiety and anger at newcomers and outsiders, real and imaginary.

So as the nation of immigrants grows bigger, browner and in many ways more inclusive, the part of it that obsesses over the real America never quite goes away.

Then we’ll close out the show with a look at the special case of Mexico. Our guests Helen Marrow and Claudio Lomnitz look sympathetically at our younger, poorer neighbor to the south: at its people, who work hard, assimilate well, and seem sometimes to be victims of their own success in the United States, and at its culture — saturated with death, precariousness, and new kinds of freedom unknown north of the border.


Mexican women entering the United States, photo by: Dorothea Lange, June 1938

Guest List
Aziz Rana
political scientist at the Cornell Law School and author of The Two Faces of American Freedom.
Claudio Lomnitz
Columbia anthropologist and author of Death and the Idea of Mexico.

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  • Potter

    I wish we could see people as people, just plain people. Maybe that’s hopelessly idealistic.

    • Pete Crangle

      No. It’s hopelessly human. Never, ever give that up. Best regards.

      • Potter

        I owe you a few walnuts. Thanks!

  • what to do about self radicalization – get rid of the guns?

  • Cambridge Forecast

    “Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity”

    This ROS show was a masterpiece.

    Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) was the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard and former chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. He authored and edited more than a dozen books.

    His “Who Are We:The Challenges to America’s National Identity” from 2004 represents a kind
    of nativist narrative of A merica’s future via the dilution or disappearance of “the American Creed” (Anglo-American Protestant dominance) via swamping by hordes of
    Mexican immigrants.

    (Pat Buchanan echoes this line in his antiglobal “economic nationalism” and various books.)

    This Hubtington book takes his “clash of civilizations” vision and internalizes it to America
    with Mexicans and Hispanics replacing the Muslims.

    Thus American racial-cultural-doctrinal-purity is threatened from within and without. This is polyvalent nativism at a high-culture level.

    The ROS show also brought to mind:

    1. The 1958-ish movie “Touch of Evil” where Mexican-American borderlands are a kind of
    moral film noir. This is also a kind of negative exoticization of Mexico as a kind of narco-nughtmare.

    2. Eisenstein’s “Que Viva Mexico” classic with its sense of ritual mythologized Mexico.

    3. The masterful documentary, “El General,” about President Plutarco Calles of Mexico and the
    landscape of memory. The film shows in loving detail the November 2 “Día de los
    Muertos” (“Day of the Dead”) festivals and explains the ritual botany that goes
    with it, the plants and flowers that are used in this mass thanatology. His
    presidency in the twenties and from the hidden rear in the thirties casts long
    shadows on Mexican memory.

    One has to assert the obvious
    that Americans are eternally “neurotic” about Mexico
    and mexicanization via immigrants since annexing chunks of Mexico helped create America and is swept under the
    “manifest destiny” history carpet. Will Mexicans ask for their territory back
    and does one abet this by ever humanizing them?

    Nativist economics is called into question
    by the research published by Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri. In a paper published
    last year, they show that total, cumulative immigration to the United States
    between 1990 and 2006 had almost no net effect on the wages of American
    workers—including those with no high school degree. George Borjas of Harvard’s Kennedy School has books and papers that
    reinforce this analysis.

    The Tea Party (remember Jill Lepore discussion on ROS) is an embodiment of nativist-populist “Angst” and this is played to by Trump and the paranoia Right. The Evangelicals also have a
    nativist thrust.

    America as a national version of a “gated community” is a
    nativist vision that does not fit a globalizing world economy and is an
    emotional backlash which echoes, at its worst, “know-nothingism.”

    On the other hand, to the extent that the world and its disorder and economic threats are not a pure figment, one can readily understand why many people are frightened and aggressively escapist.

    In The “National Journal,” John B. Judis reviews the history of a group the
    sociologist Donald Warren in 1976 dubbed Middle American Radicals, or MARS. Trump’s combination of nativism and economic populism somewhat serves or addresses this
    emotional MARS tide.

    Richard Melson

    • The Mexican on our crew recently achieved permanent residency. He achieved his permanent residency by marrying a gringo and having a child.

      He said that, if he were to vote, he would vote for Trump because of polyvalent nativism.

  • Pete Crangle

    Press One for: Cultural diversity and assimilation. Press Two for: Corporate labor infusion, innovation, and exploitation. Press Three for: Corporate funding of politicized xenophobia. Press Four for: All of the above.

    Diversity, of values or anything else, does not by necessity lead to conflict. Neoliberal political-economic policy by necessity leads to conflict. Neoliberalism is not a competitive ethos. The pitting of labor against itself, as a death cage match, in a conflict driven, zero-sum arena is not a platform to build trust and cooperation. It is an arena for dehumanization. It is pure class warfare which plays upon the anxiety of uncertainty in an environment driven by manufactured scarcity. In such a dynamic, diversity drives the anxiety into loathing and violent mischief-making.

    It is the old game of misdirection played by the lord of the manor: let’s have you and them fight it out. Let’s pit the sharecropper against the slave for sport and profit. It’s anxiety based upon ‘the other’: it’s those serfs over the hill causing problems to you serfs right here. If we can essentially murder them off, or exploit them to the point of exhaustion, we’ll have peace, order, and perform our duty as God’s chosen. It will affirm our exceptionalism. It is one of the mechanisms of status quo disequilibrium. It is wrapped in patriotism. And in notorious phrases such “defending our way of life.”

    Assimilation turns out to be an activity of mutual benefit, though asymmetrical in terms of political-economic power. It is both the necessity and the contradiction of empire. Especially an empire based upon the myth of inherent, racial exceptionalism and privilege.

    Empire is the art of holding a live grenade at the end of a toothpick whilst pretending it’s a cocktail hors d’oeuvres. The parameters of race and ethnicity are one of its explosive elements.

  • Potter

    What are these “make America great again” people thinking of?

    We used to think of immigrants as enriching us.

    • Potter

      Worcester ( as in Trump in Worcester) is a very “blue” city, very multicultural. It’s the surrounding suburbs and towns even to the nearby states that drew the crowds. Also entertainment value and curiosity drew the crowds. The DCU in Worcester was a do-able and attractive venue probably. Say what you will about Trump, he knows his crowd and his draw. But this is not Worcester politically. Jim McGovern ( our US rep) is.

      I was interested in what your guest had to say about the term “illegal” as it is used as a term that acts as an intended ( consciously or un) social barrier. Also what stood out was the Reagan quote about welcoming immigrants versus actions taken during his Presidency.

      To my comment above- we also (I thought at least) welcomed immigrant because we did have something to offer them as well; we were proud that we could offer a better life for some. And we were richly rewarded.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    1. Remember the great novel (you may know the movie from 1984),
    “Under the Volcano” which takes place on November 2 1938, “The Day of the Dead.”

    “Under the Volcano is a novel by English writer Malcolm
    Lowry (1909–1957) published in 1947. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey
    Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day
    of the Dead, 2 November 1938. The book takes its name from the two volcanoes that overshadow Quauhnahuac and the characters, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.”

    “The book consists of twelve chapters, the first of which introduces the narrative proper and which is set exactly a year after the events. The following eleven chapters happen in a
    single day and follow the Consul chronologically, starting early on the morning
    of the Day of the dead with the return of his wife, Yvonne, who left him the year before, to his violent death at the end of the day.”


    2. Carlos Fuentes, the literature professor at Harvard, from Mexico, (known to ROS listeners)
    used to say that the great classic that conveys the inner life of the Mexican pychic
    “dreamscape,” is Juan Rulfo’s “Pedro Parama.”

    “PedroPáramo is a novel written by Juan Rulfo about a man named Juan Preciado who travels to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, Comala, to find his father, only to come across a literal ghost town─populated, that is, by spectral figures.”


    Lastly: Remember the violent feelings towards Mexicans and Mexican-Americans erupting in the Zoot Suit Riots in L.A. in 1943.

    One might combat ignorant nativism by delving into these points, as a start.

    Richard Melson

    • SADouglas

      Can we add Welles’s Touch of Evil to this list?