The current furor over whether Syrian refugees are helpless victims fleeing murderous religious zealots or sleeper agents for a holy war on America is depressingly familiar.
America has ping-ponged between two poles for most of its existence. One pole is the belief that America is a nation built on principles -- inalienable rights, equality, freedom -- that apply to everyone, regardless of race, religion, color or gender. The other pole is that belief that America is a nation of white Christians, primarily Protestant. One pole welcomes "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," in the words of Emma Lazarus. The other believes that allowing in the wrong kind of immigrants, the ones who can never be truly American, will rot the foundation of the country.
Catholic immigrants were the sleeper agents of the 19th century. Fanatical followers of the Pope, they could never be truly American as the United States was fundamentally Protestant. More likely they'd subvert American freedom of religion and bring us under the Vatican's tyranny.
The Japanese? Long before the government interned them in WW II, it was decided they couldn't be really American -- how could they, when they weren't even white people? When their loyalty would always lie with their emperor, not the United States? They were "the enemy without our gates" in the words of one California politician. If we allowed them to keep coming here, there'd be "no more California," just a Japanese imperial colony.
Hispanics? Jokes about how Miami isn't America any more ("Will the last American out bring the flag?") have been around since the last century.
Jews? Christ-killers and rootless aliens who likewise could never be 100 percent American. Harvard imposed limits on Jewish students to keep the school "American" rather than "Jewish." Some neighborhoods had covenants to keep Jews from buying homes.
And in the 21st century it's Muslims' turn. I know many of the people calling for us to shut out Syrian immigrants, even five-year-old orphans
, say it's all about safety, but they said that about Japanese-Americans when we locked them up in internment camps. Or about German Americans in WW I when "real Americans" beat up or tarred and feathered German residents who didn't support the American war effort (evidence of non-supported included evil deeds such as speaking German in public).
I know, I know, these
immigrants are fifty zillion times scarier, this time the threat is real. But that's what they always say. And a lot of the proposals floating around seem to have more in common with the standard post-9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry than ISIS and Syria. Donald Trump's call to shut down mosques that preach the wrong things doesn't sound any different from what I've heard for years: real patriotic Americans don't want those heathens practicing their alien, un-American religion, let alone building more of their houses of worship. Trump's talk of registering Muslims in a special database is likewise interchangeable with the right-wing insistence that all law-abiding Muslims are potential terrorists and should be treated as such.
Or consider Missouri State Rep. Mike Moon, who's worrying that Syrian refugees could "Islamize" the state. That's not much different from the fears of past generations about how Catholics or Japanese immigrants would warp America in some way the white Protestant majority wouldn't like, or the post 9/11 paranoia that Muslims are plotting to impose shari'a (which is, of course, totally different from when Christian religious extremists impose their laws
It's easy to condemn the WW II Japanese-American internment, WW I violence against German Americans, discrimination against Jews or Catholics. The worst of that is comfortably in the past. Bigotry is still around, but most of us can look back and see the supposedly terrifying aliens posed no threat, brought on no apocalypse, and that America stayed America even after all those foreigners came here to live.
It's a lot harder to do when we're smack in the middle of it. It's very easy to insist that this
threat is unprecedented, this
minority is different from all the others that came before, this
time discrimination is the only sane, rational course. This time, it really is different.
Guess what? It isn't.