I spent two weeks in the summer of 2001 in the back of an RV driving through the American west from Denver, to Yellowstone, to Mount Rushmore and back again. At the time the tone of British politics, much like it has been for a while, focused on angst over immigration from the Indian subcontinent , southern Europe and elsewhere; the main defence of Anti-Immigrants in the UK was that there simply was not enough room on the island to accommodate the apparent rabid hordes of brown people charging through the channel tunnel. As I looked out on the seemingly endless Wyoming plains I can remember thinking that Britain could simply send anyone UK on to the US; after all they had all this room. At the time this idea made perfect sense to me; the land used to be Native American land before it was Mexico, so why not throw some more people in to the U.S.? It’s big enough and seems to be based on the idea of Immigration renewing the country. This is why the growing anger over Immigration across the Rio Grande in recent years has, as an Immigrant, disappointed me.
The general argument on the face of it is that people are not against immigration so much as they are against illegal immigration; The insistence that they are only angry that people seemed to have ‘Jumped the line’ and are enjoying the American dream without having filled out the paperwork, nothing more, reveals several things about America; first and foremost is that a large number of people have no idea how the immigration system the United States works.
Just to be clear; the United states isn’t a Deli counter; you don’t take a number and wait in one big line. There are wide varieties of circumstances people enter this country under; many have children, many don’t, some are here primarily for work, others for familial ties, or education. Of those who are coming for work, some have a specific job to come to, some don’t, some are here temporally for business. All of these circumstances have different Immigration forms handled by different offices in the Department of Homeland Security. The idea of people who are already here interfering with the process of my or anyone’s paperwork process is laughable.
This wilful misunderstanding of how the immigration system works and the philosophy of immigration generally has meant that people who feel the ethic cleansing of the American south-west wasn’t quite enough the first few times can use legal immigrants like myself as shields for their racist rhetoric. In the American Right’s enduring – and at times perversely admirable in its vigour – campaign of insisting they’re not racist the word ‘illegal’ has been awkwardly wedged into the race hatred based rhetoric used by the kinds of people who thought it advisable to harass children fleeing violence in central America. Suddenly fear of a black planet is actually a sense fair play, suddenly I – the white English-speaking European – am the true victim of the current illegal immigration system. Whilst Mexicans and Guatemalans get a luxurious lifestyle living under the radar on starvation wages, almost entirely at the mercy of their employer’s whims lest they get reported to Homeland security; I unfairly have to wait a little longer for my permanent Green Card potentially.
The Anger over the idea that Obama is going to accept the facts on the ground and try to work with the people who are already in America and have been part of the economic and social life of the country instead of ejecting them by force is symptomatic of American self Identity. As previously mentioned on this blog “Americans” are hard to define as “America” is hard to define. However I think I can have a crack at it; America, in the most abstract sense is an extended utopian experiment in enlightened republican government. America is the last country left whose first function is to create perfection rather than mealy keeping the lights on and the trains running. This mentality that to be in America is a reward defiantly informs the notion that to be an illegal immigrant in the united states is to be a thief; you have stolen a piece of the American Dream from the decent and hard-working.The notion of American perfection means that stealing a part of America from someone is such an important problem that true residents of Utopia must be vigilant against any potential cheater. The problem is that this mentality lends itself to the kind of hateful isolationist rhetoric prevalent in European countries now that as an attempt at perfect government, America doesn’t get to work with.
The general argument levelled against the recent arrival of central American children is that America is not a dumping ground. This is wrong in two very important ways; The first being that those children are not trash, the second is that America is very much the world’s Dumping ground.The essence of what is good and cool about America is the notion of the melting pot; the idea that as a country we call on ancient lands to keep their storied pomp whilst we take on their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Since colonisation of this continent the M.O. of what made the U.S.A. the dominant culture in the world comes from taking in the wretched refuse of the old world’s teeming shores and utilizing this scum of the earth to outperform and dominate the countries that had sent them here, in many cases those Irish, Poles, Cantons, Germans and Jews where, in many cases, as legal as the 11 million or so people who are living here “illegally” and just as productive. Either you can get on board with the fundamental idea that America is from many too one, or you can fuck off back to where your ancestors snuck in from.
Today is Veterans day. Something that almost everyone outside of the United States assumes is just what Americans call Remembrance day, or Armistice Day. Whilst this is technically true, It is the same day and is also about remembering the experience of soldiers, specifically (though not limited too) those of the first world war.
Growing up in the U.K. meant that every November 11th is a day of mourning and reflection on the horrors of war. My memory of school around late October was filled with history lessons were teachers attempted to hammer home the absolute terror, misery and pointlessness of sitting in a damp hole whilst all your friends die of random machine gun fire. The entire day is colored in terms of remembering a human global disaster. Respect for those who have died is generally shown by donning poppies (Usually red but white is also fine) as a reference to the Belgian and French fields covered in those particular flowers.
This is why Veterans day has a strange feel to me. Whilst it’s not exactly a celebration the notion that the day is commemorating the deaths of around 40 million is not in evident. This is probably because by definition; The men and women Veterans day celebrates came back. This is probably why there isn’t a national outcry at November 11th themed Ice cream or sales events to clear inventories for the Christmas shopping season. Everywhere else that commemorates November 11th views the day as a funeral. There are processions to the Cenotaph as opposed too parades, moments of silence as opposed to musical acts, those processing are holding wreaths, not flags and the order of the day is remembering those who suffered not Honoring those who served. There is no sense of anything other than an oppressive sense of global disaster the wars of the 20th century were and continue to be.
I don’t begrudge Americans for acting like this. The Civil war was the last time Americans experienced war with more than soldiers leaving home. The attitude American culture seems to have built up is best summed up by Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men’; Living in America requires not asking too many questions of those who guards the walls of the state. The other edge to this however seems to be to regard soldiers with a kind of inhuman awe, in which suffering on behalf of the state and the subsequent gratitude expressed by citizens at parades is its own reward; therefore celebrating ‘America’s Parade‘ for the freedoms the soldiers died for, rather than a funeral march for the fallen themselves. This is probably the result of the United State’s perception of itself as nation solidly based in an Ideology and guarded by eager citizen soldiers. There is also a difference in perspective about the costs and locations of wars. War does not happen to America, there is no popular memory of anything like the Blitz or even the Somme, nor is there an American equivalent to the wreckage of Coventry Cathedral. My grandmother used to tell me about her evacuation during the second world war as a twelve-year-old, during which she watched bombs rain down on Plymouth from across the bay. The last Americans who could tell that sort of story about an American city died sometime before the Truman administration.
It’s telling to note that large number of British artists that shaped the culture the second half of the 20th century were born either during or just after the second world war, meaning they grew up in towns and cities that were wrecked by war and could, unlike their American counterparts; see what war does aside take away young men. This proximity to living memory violence and death at home, that 99% of Americans lack is almost certainly not the only reason for the dirge of remembrance day, versus the pomp and ceremony of Veterans day, it is however the most striking.
“White Man’s Grave” – (archaic) Africa, or more specifically, western Africa or Sierra Leone by extension, any other land subject to Western colonialism or missionizing that is comparably deadly.
I haven’t been following the spread of Ebola for the same reason I didn’t follow with any great interest the spread of Bird flu or Swine Flu. These things are tragic and it’s entirely reasonable for governments and organisations that have the resources, to contribute to trying to stem and eventually eradicate the diseases, and it’s good that news keeps everyone up to date on what, if anything, they need to do if there is ever a possibility of infections spreading etc. The things that have made me get interested in Ebola how weird everyone is around the fact that this diseases is happening in countries in West Africa. Unlike Bird or Swine Flu, Ebola seems to have taken on a radioactive element requiring the drawbridges to be drawn up and anyone who might have been near anyone who touched anyone who might have had Ebola needs to be expelled or imprisoned. Ebola is different because it carries with it the bestial image of Africans and the violent inhuman lives and deaths they have that have been drilled into white people – specifically Europeans and Americans – for centuries.
The first troubling aspect of this phenomena is that a lot of people don’t seem to understand that this is an environmental condition caught by people in a very specific part of the world and anyone who has extended, intimate contact with those people. This has come out in a lot of ways from a drop off in contact with established West African communities who’ve been living in the United States for years to quarantining people who have been to Kenya, despite the fact that London is Closer to the outbreak than Nairobi by nearly a thousand miles.
I could say something clever like this is the geographic equivalent of Quarantining people from London because of an outbreak in Tehran. But it isn’t is it? Whilst the idea of London and Tehran having anything but the letter ‘n’ in common is laughable; Africa and Africans inhabit a vague area in the western popular imagination, we don’t think of Kenyans or Liberians or Malawians, we don’t even think of Kanuris or Mandens or Bantus; we just think of Africans. Despite immigration from various places on that continent to Europe and America; from generic tribal warriors to starving people pop stars can save; Africans still remain interchangeable bit players in White people’s narrative
Ebola is a good example of this trend of dehumanizing Africans for our own titillation continuing into the twenty-first century. Ebola was identified nearly forty years ago, it’ not as though this is a new terrifying illness, it is possible to treat. However the fact that this disease has been exclusively African until this year adds a level of terror built up by centuries of dispatches from malarial missionaries, or movies and books depicting The continent as fundamentally untamable and unbearable for civilized human beings. Ebola is being treated like A.I.D.s for no reason other than it’s an African sickness that Africans are selfishly getting on our nice white skin, as opposed to politely staying put and quietly waiting to catch whatever variant of Jungle fever they’re likely to get anyway in the manner they are supposed to. No one is too concerned when Africans are suffering in of themselves as that is just to be expecting, and is less interesting to the developed world’s public than two comedians making a prank phone call. The fear comes from a weird disjointed reality were Africa is neither distant nor fun.
The outbreak is happening in a region with much deeper historical ties to both the United States and Europe than most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. This is also the first major outbreak in the region since that region stopped being a war zone, meaning people can leave for work or pleasure, like they’re people and not Zombies grappling to destroy the last enclave of humanity. The idea that our only responsibility is to make sure that the walls of the disease pit are well-greased for our own protection, is evident in the weird way certain outlets are grumbling about committing resources to combat a sickness in a country we have connections with as somehow motivated by white guilt as opposed to self-interest.
The apparent blind terror portrayed by the media in the developed world over Ebola has very little to do with anyone’s actual fears or the relative deadliness of Ebola. It has everything to with a long history of cultural dismissal of Africans themselves as not quite as human as we are, meaning we don’t have to worry about their diseases or suffering, as though these are the results of bad choices or just another stage of development we are immune from as long as Africans don’t get all their poverty all over our stuff. If we as a society lean anything from this latest outbreak of giving a shit about Africa, I hope that it is that we can’t keep shrinking the world with travel and technology whilst also maintaining a profound disinterest in the well-being of around a billion of our brothers, sisters and sibsters .