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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Contagion of Crowds

Posted by on April 11 at 8:49 AM

Philip Kennicott has a great essay meditating on the immigration marches and the psychology and pathology of crowds in today’s Washington Post. A piece of it:

Plenty of Americans throw themselves happily into crowds, into throngs of shoppers at Christmastime, into the subway at rush hour. We are not immune to crowd psychology. Even when utterly defended inside the metal carapace of our cars we obey the law of the pack: What else would you call those traffic jams caused by our morbid desire to see an accident up close? Even so, we don’t think of ourselves as a people that does crowds. On some primitive level, with the memory of Civil War prisons and the squalid world of New York tenements echoing inside us, the crowd makes us ask, impatiently, will we never be clean?

Very little has changed since Emma Lazarus wrote her poem, the one that welcomes immigrants to our shores even as it calls them “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” An immigrant is still something to be cleaned and scrubbed and molded into an American. That the people who have gathered in the streets in the past weeks are often the same people who clean for us, who do the so-called “dirty jobs,” only reanimates the longstanding fear that someday this country will be full up, that we will have to rub up against each other in a way that sullies us. And so the pundits ask, again and again, the big question of the political season: Does the immigration issue really touch voters?

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"with the memory of Civil War prisons and the squalid world of New York tenements echoing inside us"? COME ON...

"An immigrant is still something to be cleaned and scrubbed and molded into an American." Gross. This author thinks only of total assimilation or total exclusion, as if the immigrant is naturally some problem. Plurality represents a contagion within the body politic, the immigrant a kind of "wretched refuse." His fear of "rub[bing] up against each other in a way that sullies us" is generally NOT what I think of when I see hundreds of thousands of people denied citizenship rights asserting their power to force America to recognize their full humanity.

Man, you're misreading this. I don't think he means those as statements of objective truth, just as observations he's made on the larger culture. A lot of the anti-immigration, anti-immigrant rhetoric betrays this bias, that the kind of people who want to move here are the kind of people we don't want. The citation from the Colossus sonnet is just an example of that same sort of viewpoint.

Isn't there a middle ground, where it's possible to say that "the kind of people who want to move here" should be welcomed, but their numbers should be controlled, without being accused of "anti-immigrant rhetoric"? The conversation on this issue is too polarized, but I think the people doing the polarizing -- on the left and on the right -- are missing the point entirely.

Marching is calculated to shut off the dialog as well, but marching ALWAYS backfires against the marchers.

I heard a pundit on TV the other day say something i had never heard before in the immigration debate... That the US has the best immigration policy and system in the world. Wow, ya know, i think that may be true. It made me realize, there is only a "problem" because people are saying there is. But where's the fire? For the most part they come here and work, making our economy stronger and providing crucial, and frequently unglamorous services. At the root of this debate is racism. Fox news is overrun with angry white men claiming there is a mass movement afoot to reclaim the Southwestern US for Mexico. So much for liberals cooking up all the moronic conspiracy theories. Some cry about money spent on social services, but until those ass holes raise their voice about our next gagillion dollar aircraft carrier (instead of only complaining about spending that actually helps people) they'll continue to get the finger from me. All in all, i welcome this national debate, because it has mobilized like minded people in the streets and exposed the Republicans and conservaitves for the racist fear mongers they are. Hopefully history is going to crap on the anti-immigration folks from the same great height it has on the segregationsists.

look again at his essay. his abstract construction of a single American culture embodied in his claims of "we" do this and that rationalizes as much as it describes anti-immigrant bias, because it presumes from the beginning that immigrants are not part of that "we", they are not part of "us."

i'd support immigration control if it accompanied absolutely unqualified labor rights for any worker in this country. so long as citizenship rights are used as a tool to keep a certain class of workers from having access to labor law (workplace safety, overtime, minimum wage, health benefits, worker housing, social security, etc), their political disenfranchisement is part and parcel with their economic exploitation. Chavez's strategy of being anti-immigrant didn't work. Time to get at the heart of the problem-- which is not the presence of immigrants, but racism.

and if civil rights marches didn't help upend the culture of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, (not alone, but as a symbolic part of the struggle), then i don't know what did.

When people compare protests today to the civil rights marches of the 50s and 60s, I want to scream. I hesitate to even begin to discuss the differences, but those marches mattered; these marches don't. Those marches changed hearts and minds, these marches didn't.

Racism isn't the problem here. That's just sloganizing. Huge numbers of illegal immigrants, and an economic system that requires them to function, are the problem. We cannot afford to maintain a vast population inside us but not of us; but we can't function without that population. And we can't just continue to absorb them in infinite numbers, which is what many of the immigrant advocates are saying we must do.

The industries that rely on cheap no-rights labor demand unlimited free illegal immigration. But we can't take them all. They ARE depressing wages for the poorest Americans who need those wages the most (including other immigrants, legal and illegal). I'm not hearing anyone on the right or the left, except Paul Krugman briefly before he was drowned out, address the true issues.

I think these protests can change hearts and minds, and at the very least raise awareness. They don't seem as poetic as the Civil rights marches because they're broadcast live, un-edited, in color without dramatic music accompanyment. Unfortunately i was watching Fox local news last night cover the march and they seem hell bent on interviewing the biggest morons in the crowd. The most articulate marcher they interviewed was undermined when they showed his name on screen in BOLD - Dick Sprick. I mean, seriously, was Mike Hunt not available for an interview?

Speaking of Fox local news, i think Lowell Deo's jaw bone is one of the 8 modern wonders of the world.

The civil rights marches of the 50s and 60s did not have any musical accompaniment, besides the singing of the marchers, when they happened. Eyes On The Prize and the Kenburnsization came much later. They had a ton of impact on the nightly news. People used to watch the nightly news!

But those marches appeared in a context that is totally missing today. The marchers could be contrasted, sometimes in the same piece of footage, with the hoses and the sticks and the dogs and all the rest of it. Really, that story told itself, and the opposition lost its power to speak at the same time.

Illegal immigration is much, much more complicated.

I think we have a generation gap (or 2) between us. My recollections of the Civil rights marches are, in fact, the "Eyes On The Prize and the Kenburnsization" variety since i was born in 76. If you were a witness to them at the time they happened i'll take your word for it, they're different. The issues too, very different. But at it's core, i believe this too is a struggle for human rights and human dignity, and a potentially more vast one because the solutions to it must extend beyond our borders. This is, as you say, a very complicated issue, but the faces and voices on the news and in our streets last night remind us that there are human beings at stake, not menacing foreign hordes. So i do believe they are winning hearts and minds (except of course the grumpy grumps at the bus stop). And that is important.

When i saw the ariel view of the march in Phoenix that extended to the horizen, i was definately moved. That little lump in my throat was not a hunk of the cookie dough log i was munching on at the time.

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