July 9, 2018

The "nation of immigrants" narrative after Reagan's sanctification of cheap labor

Part 1 reviewed the lack of July 4th speeches devoted to the "nation of immigrants" creation myth, for presidents of the New Deal and Great Society era. Part 2 examined how the "nation of immigrants" narrative served to sanctify the cheap labor policies that the ruling elites were shifting toward, as they dismantled the New Deal. Part 3 reviewed the birth of the "nation of immigrants" propaganda campaign during the neoliberal era, beginning in 1976, but really taking off into outer space under Reagan, who was already preaching it in 1980.

And yet, not all presidents of the Reaganite era have evangelized with the same fervor about the unbounded wonders of mass immigration. They hyped it up the most at first, giving the policy shift a good oomph to get it moving. Reagan had to go so over-the-top because he was the trailblazer of the post-New Deal order. Once the new system had scored its first major scalp on the issue -- the 1986 amnesty of illegal immigrants -- the newly dominant Reaganites figured that when they sold the narrative going forward, they didn't have to do so with such gusto as the pioneer.

George H.W. Bush did not mention immigration in his July 4th speeches, a notable exception for the era. He always had a problem with "the vision thing," so perhaps he simply felt out of his element trying to rationalize the major shift away from the closed borders of the New Deal and Great Society period, and toward the open borders of the cheap labor system he was overseeing. In his July 4th addresses, he stuck to banal concrete images like backyard cook-outs and fireworks, along with hyping up the military bubble, especially after the Gulf War.

Clinton made two immigration-boosting speeches for July 4th, at the start and end of his eight years. The first address, from 1993, was short on schmaltz compared to Reagan's storytelling:

Here, people from every continent and every country come, believing that they can build a new life for themselves and a better future for their children. America embodies the idea that a nation can be built by the people of every other nation and still be a beacon of hope and inspiration to the world and still prove that out of all that diversity can become a deeper strength and unity founded on the ideals that we celebrate on the Fourth of July.

His final July 4th speech, in 2000, was just as sentimental and overwrought as a typical Reagan address on immigration, but with one New Democrat flourish -- that Ellis Islanders were not only coming here for reasons of greed and ambition, but that they were pushed out by intolerance in their home country.

At least that's a legitimate push-factor, which Reagan never pretended to point to, since everyone knows that the Ellis Islanders were not fleeing persecution or tyranny, just severing all social and cultural ties in order to make more money in America. I'm guessing Clinton is referring to intolerance toward Jews, part of his constituency but not of Reagan's. I mean that in the sense of the sectors of society that control the Democrats (finance, info-tech, media), rather than Jews as a voter demographic.

Just behind me on Ellis Island, the ancestors of more than 100 million United States citizens took their first steps on America's soil. They're the forebears of the immigrants who took the oath of citizenship today. Pulled by the vision of liberty and opportunity, often pushed by forces of intolerance and hopelessness, they came and brought with them their skills, their knowledge, and their hearts.

George W. Bush made frequent reference in his July 4th speeches to the idea that America is a melting pot of races and cultures that makes us stronger, but he didn't hammer on immigration and open borders per se as the mechanism that delivered such outcomes. Again with the Bushes and the vision thing. Like his father, most of his July 4th addresses were about cook-outs and pointless wars in Iraq (and now including Afghanistan).

But by 2008, one of his neo-con speech writers finally got him to tell a historical tale about immigration being our nation's foundation, so that's why we need to keep our borders open today. He echoes Clinton's message about ethnic persecution being a push-factor, although now focusing not on Jews from 19th-century Eastern Europe, but minorities within third-world countries. Delivered at Monticello for naturalization ceremonies of recent immigrants, his address was larded up with Reagan-level sentimentality:

We also honor Jefferson's legacy by welcoming newcomers to our land. And that is what we're here to celebrate today.

Throughout our history, the words of the Declaration have inspired immigrants from around the world to set sail to our shores. These immigrants have helped transform 13 small Colonies into a great and growing nation of more than 300 [million] people. They've made America a melting pot of cultures from all across the world. They've made diversity one of the great strengths of our democracy. And all of us here today are here to honor and pay tribute to that great notion of America.

Those of you taking the oath of citizenship at this ceremony hail from 30 different nations. You represent many different ethnicities and races and religions. But you all have one thing in common, and that is a shared love of freedom. This love of liberty is what binds our Nation together, and this is the love that makes us all Americans.

One man with special appreciation for liberty is Mya Soe from Burma. As a member of the Shan ethnic group, Mya faced discrimination and oppression at the hands of Burma's military junta. When he tried to reach local villagers—when he tried to teach local villagers how to read and write the Shan language, the regime interrogated him and harassed him. In 2000, he left a life of fear for a life of freedom. He now works as a painter in the Charlottesville community. Today we welcome this brave immigrant as a citizen-to-be of the United States of America.

I'm sure there are other stories like Mya's among you. But we must remember that the desire for freedom burns inside every man and woman and child. More than two centuries ago, this desire of freedom was—had inspired the subjects of a mighty empire to declare themselves free and independent citizens of a new nation. Today that same desire for freedom has inspired 72 immigrants from around the world to become citizens of the greatest nation on Earth, the United States of America.

He gave similar remarks in his radio address.

Obama's July 4th speeches were usually generic and not focused on our national creation or immigration. They all boiled down to: yay troops, cook-outs amirite folks, and now for some live music by indie pop homosexuals or aspirational capitalist rappers.

He did, however, give two immigration-cheerleading speeches around the time of Gang of Eight amnesty bill, similar to Reagan ramping up his Ellis Island worship around July 4th of 1986, ahead of a massive amnesty. Obama's addition to the narrative is to make a meta- comment about how we've told this story so many times, we don't even know what we're talking about anymore. And of course a shout-out to Silicon Valley's Tech Bubble 2.0, brought to you by immigrants or their children.

From his 2012 address:

With this ceremony today and ceremonies like it across our country, we affirm another truth: Our American journey, our success, would simply not be possible without the generations of immigrants who have come to our shores from every corner of the globe. We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means: We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else, whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande.

Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence. Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand. Immigrants took up arms to preserve our Union, to defeat fascism, and to win a cold war. Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone. So the story of immigrants in America isn't a story of "them," it's a story of "us." It's who we are. And now all of you get to write the next chapter.

He said much the same thing in his 2014 address, only now using Independence Day to overtly call for more cheap foreigners to replace our own creative-class professionals:

And that's why, if we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest from beyond our shores, we're going to have to fix our immigration system, which is broken, and pass commonsense immigration reform.

Trump hasn't made such a July 4th speech yet, and let's hope he never does.

* * *

The "nation of immigrants" narrative has abated in intensity since the Reagan years proper, as the major policy change has been achieved. It's no longer the New Deal era when immigration was falling. By now the labor-intensive sectors that control the GOP have gotten their hordes of cheap labor, at home and abroad, so why bother continuing to invest so much pomp and circumstance into the revision of the national creation myth?

Plus, the feel-good tone of immigrants coming to our country to take part in the American dream no longer resonates with a population that believes the American dream is dead, at least for now, and has been for some time. We're back to Dickensian levels of inequality, crowdedness, rootlessness, and families that are broken, delayed, or never formed.

If the audience were to dwell on it, they'd realize that all this has happened after the New Deal got dismantled, not when it was still strong. People remember the 1960s directly or from The Wonder Years. They would blame the neoliberal Reagan system for destroying their country, and then where would the Establishment be with their feel-good narrative about the American dream?

The people would also connect the dots between soaring levels of immigration and the stagnating or deteriorating standard of living -- more workers and tenants to compete against in the labor and housing markets -- in addition to the palpable sense of alienation anytime they tried to go out in public in what no longer feels like their own country.

As a disjunctive president, Trump tries to have the national creation myth both ways. He does not sermonize about "a nation of immigrants," but he does repeatedly say we need boatloads of cheap labor foreigners to come in and do the factory and farm work that you American citizens are just too lazy to do, or for which you're demanding too high of a wage. Foxconn and farmers only hire immigrants.

The trailblazer of the next era will have to come out directly against the exploitation of foreigners as cheap labor, whether through off-shoring or hauling them in here. That's the crucial first step toward ending this ridiculous "nation of immigrants" creation myth -- de-sanctifying it by pointing out how it's just a self-serving story to boost the material interests of the ruling class.

It would not be like pissing on a crucifix -- by now we all sense that the American dream is dead, for now, and we don't feel reverence upon thinking about the billions of foreigners who might join us in our economic stagnation and communal deterioration. Seething ethnic tensions, not just with the majority group but between all the minority groups, would only worsen our collapse.

The message should be that we just can't afford to take in any more -- there's no healthy American dream for them to take part in right now anyway, and even if there were, hauling in millions of cheap laborers is part of what destroyed the American dream in the first place, along with the rest of the cost-cutting Reaganite program.

Struggling Americans need higher wages and benefits, and lower housing prices, which means less competition from billions of other would-be workers and tenants in this country. We need to pit the elite sectors against each other for our benefit, not allow ourselves to accept ever greater competition with the workers and tenants of the entire world.

Restoring the American dream means closing the borders to those who would only intensify the race to the bottom in our labor and housing markets. We must reverse the open-borders policy of Reaganism, and return to the closed-borders order of the New Deal.

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