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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Cultural Discomfort"

by digby

The New Republic
and The LA Times this week both feature articles about the Minutemen of Herndon, Virginia. The TNR piece is framed as a cautionary tale for liberals who think that the Minutemen are out of the mainstream:

Bill explains that he "slid into the Minutemen" because he was disturbed by the way his neighborhood was changing, and the other Minutemen standing with him nod in agreement. "Dormitory-style homes" have popped up on their streets, Bill says, and the residents come and go at strange hours. Their neighbors' children are intimidated and no longer like to play outside, in part because "we've got about 17 cars coming and going from our neighbors' houses." Matt, another Minuteman who lives in nearby Manassas, claims that the police have busted prostitution rings operating out of nearby properties. Bill doesn't want his name printed, he tells me, because he worries about retaliation from the local Hispanic gang, MS-13. Pointing to the cluster of day-laborers across the street, he explains to me that the Herndon 7-11 is "a social gathering place, too." Taplin has publicly objected to a regulated day-laborer site set to open in Herndon on December 19--proposed in order to combat the trespassing, litter, and nuisance complaints that have arisen in conjunction with the informal 7-11 site--because he worries that even a regulated locale wouldn't change "their behaviors." Even on the coldest mornings, more than 50 workers often convene at the 7-11, and Bill judges that sometimes only 10 or 20 get hired. "When," he asks me, "is it ever a good thing for 40 men to hang out together?"

These anxieties may be overblown, in some cases borderline racist; but they are not, unfortunately, outside the mainstream. In Mount Pleasant, the predominantly Hispanic, rapidly gentrifying Washington neighborhood where I live, complaints have begun to surface about the groups of men that congregate on stoops or outside of convenience stores at night. Those who have complained call it loitering, but one Hispanic resident told the Post that when the men gather outdoors, "[t]hey're having coffee; they talk about issues. ... It's part of our community." For the neighborhood's Hispanic population, this practice is a cultural tradition; for its newer batch of hip, ostensibly liberal urbanites, it is disturbing, and too closely resembles something American law designates a crime.

These are people who would never admit they share anything in common with the Herndon Minutemen. But like it or not, the Minutemen are acting on anxieties many Americans share--anxieties about the challenge of enforcing the law in towns that are swelling in size due to immigration; anxieties about the challenge of integrating and accommodating an immigrant culture. Border states like California have been grappling with these issues for years, in court battles about day-laborer sites and debates over concepts like bilingual education. Often in these conflicts those who have presented cultural, as opposed to legal, objections to uncontrolled immigration are condemned as xenophobic or racist. But as my Mount Pleasant neighbors have shown, it can be tricky to disentangle legal from cultural discomfort.

Not really. People legally assembling in public is not criminal and this "cultural discomfort" is simple xenophobia. And just as xenophobes (and their close cousins, racists) did in the past, they couch their "cultural discomfort" in narrow interpretations of the law and property rights.

Notice that the neighborhood in question is a Hispanic neighborhood being gentrified. These complaints are coming from yuppies moving into neighborhoods where their "culture" isn't dominant. Who's the immigrant, anyway?

Rick Perlstein reminded me of this passage from Thomas Geoghegan's wonderful book "The Secret Lives of Citizens:"

It was Massey, again, who pointed it out to me. "Why in Chicago," he asked, "is there no anti-immigrant movement as there is in California?"

Because the white ethnics here have their own, uh, "mexicans," to protect. White European immigrants. The Romanians, Russians ... but above all, Poles. From Poland. Many Poles. Tens of thousands. So how can the whites here complain about the latinos? We've got our own illegals to hide.

That kind of clarifies things a little, doesn't it? The eastern Europeans are often highly skilled tradesmen, not day laborers like the Mexicans, who really do take high paying jobs away from citizens. It's a major issue in Europe and would be here too except for the fact that in the cities where large numbers of Poles and Russians overstay their visas and live here illegally, they are in the bosom of their well assimilated ethnic group. "Illegal immigration" is a much more complicated issue than it seems in our multi-ethnic culture.

The LA Times tells a similar story of Herndon and the Minutemen but had the added feature of the residents complaining about their property values being lowered while George Bush and the Republicans are catering to the Hispanic vote at their expense.

The retired social studies teacher said she got involved because houses in her neighborhood had become packed immigrant dormitories. She suspects that most tenants in the rooming houses, including the one next door, are illegal. She deals with roosters crowing and men urinating in the yard, loud parties and empty beer cans dumped outside. She fears it's driving down the value of her house.

"I'm angry," said the 60-year-old widow. She said the fight against illegal immigration was deeply personal and broadly political.

"George Bush is in it for the Hispanic vote, and we're on the receiving end," she said. "That's not fair. Before, everybody looked out for everybody else; no one locked doors," she said of her neighborhood. "Now we all have security systems."

Jeff Talley, 45, an airplane maintenance worker who lives across the street from Bonieskie, also joined the Minuteman chapter. "When you start messing with the value of people's houses, people get really upset," he said.

As Talley sees it, illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans  whom it would cost companies more to employ and that will have long-term effects on American society.

"There's a disappearing middle class," said Talley, a Republican. "George Bush is a huge disappointment to this country. The Republican Party used to be for ordinary people, but no more."

This is an old, old populist rant. The Republican moneyed elites are against the little guy --- and it's because of the immigrants.

The TNR article goes on to explain:

Our national debate on immigration tends to focus on economic issues, namely job loss, and scrupulously to avoid the kind of cultural anxieties that the Herndon Minutemen, the residents of Mount Pleasant, and Bill O'Reilly are bringing to the fore. After all, anxieties about how immigration will affect national culture seem like more of a European thing, springing from a deep-seated and distinctly un-American nativism and yielding byproducts like the headscarf dispute and Jean-Marie Le Pen. But on this side of the Atlantic, little Le Pens are beginning to flourish.


Only a few years ago, the European political establishment largely ignored concerns about an immigration wave overwhelmingly originating from one region--only to be stunned as fanatics rose to prominence by championing an issue that mainstream politicians had refused to touch. To prevent the same thing from happening here, liberals will have to recognize that immigration, often considered a "conservative" topic, is now a potent political issue. Concern is no longer confined to California, Arizona, and Texas; nor is it confined to Republicans. Liberals will need to make an affirmative case for immigration as a concept--but also concede that our current system is deeply flawed. They will have to acknowledge that many Americans have legitimate worries about immigration--but that there are better ways to approach the issue than skulking around day laborer sites with a camera. Wherever they come down on the issue, and whatever they propose, liberals will have to acknowledge that immigration is not a fringe concern. And telling the Minutemen to "go home" isn't going to make it go away.

Ok. But let's not bullshit ourselves while we are making our political argument about how to deal with this issue. This is not a uniquely European problem, for crying out loud. It's as American as McDonald's apple pie. We've been doing this shit for centuries --- and we do it to Mexicans pretty regularly because we share a border and there are always handy illegals to kick around when necessary. This is not new. It's a symptom of economic insecurity.

And the problem for these Minutemen and those liberal hipsters is not "cultural discomfort." There's are other, older, better words. Xenophobia. Nativism. Racism. The dark underbelly of populism.

I agree that this is a potent issue right now for reasons I set forth earlier. But please, no soft-peddling the reasons, at least in our own minds. No creating nice little code words for confused working class whites who are looking for easy scapegoats or narrow-minded urbanites to excuse their "discomfort" with law abiding people who are doing nothing more than legally assembling in public. Let's call a Mexican a Mexican and go from there.

I wrote a post some time back called Populism Tango, wherein I discussed the dangers in jumping into populism. It's a perfectly good, and often correct, political philosophy. But it does have this ugly tendency to scapegoat immigrants, blacks and ethnic minorities. In that post I quoted Democratic strategist Mudcat Saunders who has a lot of advice about how to attract those elusive white males:

"Bubba doesn'?t call them illegal immigrants. He calls them illegal aliens. If the Democrats put illegal aliens in their bait can, we're going to come home with a bunch of white males in the boat."

Why would that work?

[W]hat he is suggesting is a tried and true method to get rural white males to sign on to a political party. Bashing immigrants and elites at the same time has a long pedigree and it is the most efficient way to bag some of those pick-up truck guys who are voting against their economic self-interest....And that's because what you are really doing is playing to their prejudices and validating their tribal instinct that the reason for their economic problems is really the same reason for the cultural problems they already believe they have --- Aliens taking over Real America --- whether liberals, immigrants, blacks, commies, whoever.

That's a problem for us because no matter how tempting it might be to go and grab those Virginians who are so disenchanted with George Bush and promise to close the borders and solve their problems: nobody has yet figured out how (short of an economic catastrophe so huge that people will disregard everything else) we can keep a coalition of liberals, workers, urbanites, racial minorities and nativist immigrant bashers in the same tent.

Blaming the "culturally discomfitting" Mexicans during one of these periods of economic insecurity is a temptation for political strategists, I have no doubt. But today, it's playing with fire. There is a reason why Karl Rove has been handling this issue with kid gloves. It's not just the agriculture lobby, which could be persuaded to keep its powder dry for a period of time until the frenzy dies down (as it always does.) No, this time, there is a huge voter block at stake. They saw what happened in California when Pete Wilson let his id run free in an earlier period of economic insecurity and he ran ads saying "they just keep coming." He destroyed the Republican party in this state.

Demographics show that the Hispanic vote is essential for future majorities. Ruy Teixiera reported last August:

As two recent reports document, the Hispanic population of the United States continues to increase rapidly, especially in areas that we now think of as "solid red." The Pew Hispanic Center report describes and analyzes the extraordinary growth of the Hispanic population in six southern states, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, down to the county level. The Census report shows that Texas has now become a majority-minority state (joining New Mexico, California and Hawaii), primarily due to its burgeoning Hispanic population.


In this survey just completed, Hispanics had swung back to the Democrats with a vengeance, giving them a 32-point margin in a generic race for Congress (61 to 29 percent). The Republican vote today is 10 points below what Bush achieved just six months earlier. These voters are deeply dissatisfied with the Bush economy and Iraq war; they are socially tolerant and internationalist; they align with a Democratic Party that respects Hispanics and diversity, that uses government to help families, reduce poverty and create opportunity, and that will bring major change in education and health care. This is even truer for the growing younger population under 30, including Gen Y voters, who support the Democrats by a remarkable 46 points (70 to 24 percent).

The country is experiencing economic and social insecurity and as has always happened in the past at such times, the focus turns to immigration (illegal and legal) as a cause. But this time that same immigrant group (that has always been here, by the way) is a huge, growing voting block and a big prize for the political party that recognizes and respects it. People like Mudcat Saunders think that you can scapegoat the "illegal aliens" without any spillover into the large legal Hispanic community. But as we saw in that gentrifying neighborhood in Virginia, it isn't really about illegals per se. And California proved that if you go too far with the "illegal alien" business you lose the Hispanic population altogether.

Democrats can look to the future and find a populist message that doesn't cater to white fear and tendencies to scapegoat minorities. And we can add the Hispanic community permanently into our coalition, denying Karl Rove his most coveted goal. Or we can take the easy way out and catch a few Bubbas until the economy turns around, at which point they'll go right back home to the party that really knows how to feed their worst instincts on regular basis --- the Republicans.

And then of course, there's this: if we succumb to the temptation to re-marry the twin pillars of populism for the umpteenth time, economic resentment and nativism, we will not only continue to lose elections we will lose our souls as well.

Update: Alice in the comments points out that Herndon, the home of the militiamen in the two articles quoted above, voted decisively for Tim Kaine in the last election. It's not a mainstream as the authors would have people believe.

Update II: Greg at The Talent Show offers up some thoughtful advice on how to handle this.