The New American Xenophobia


Xenophobe n. One who fears or hates strangers or foreigners or anything that is foreign. (Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, 1988, p. 1332)

At the beginning of the 20th Century American immigration laws were few. An immigrant had to have on his person $50, a named sponsor to take him in, be free of disease or mental defect, and have no criminal record. Americans today view all immigrants of that time coming through Ellis Island New York. But in truth, the ports of Boston and Baltimore were also quite alive with immigrants.

Europe during the period 1900 to 1915 was fraught with civil wars, unrest, and an Ottoman Empire which was at war with Great Britain. As can be seen by the map below, the Ottoman Empire covered most of the Baltic countries and large portions of the middle east. It is also worthy of mention that this was a Moslem Empire which Christian Europe feared. In Eastern Europe, Russia was flexing its influence as it held onto much of the territory it controlled when it became the USSR. In particular, it controlled most of Poland as we know it today. In 1905 the Czar ordered that all Polish men of a certain age be drafted into the Russian Army. Those who refused realized harsh consequences.

Muslim_population_Ottoman_Empire_vilayets_provinces_1906_1907_census

Ottoman Empire 1905

 

1_Russian-growth-1801-1914

Russian Czarist Empire

 

In the case of Italy, the country’s industrial north did not offer enough employment for Italy’s labor force. The Italian tendency towards large families made for an excess labor force. The excess labor force could find work neither on the farm nor in Italy’s factories, hence they looked towards America where, they heard, there existed a need for more labor. They also heard, falsely of course, that such labor, even though unskilled, was well-paid.

The social, economic and political unrest of much of Europe lead to its radicalization. Some were of the new socialism as outlined by Karl Marx and practiced by Trotsky and Lenin prior to the revolution. Conversely, Fascism arose out of Europe’s aristocracy against the growing socialist ideals. The common man found himself caught between the two groups in Europe with no place to run, except America.

The overwhelming majority of immigrants to America in the early 20th century were people coming from extreme poverty. They were indeed a cross-section of Europe embracing every type of religious, political and social belief. And as with any cross-section, among them were the anarchists and others who would prove troublesome to the established American public.

The epicenter of American radicalism in those days was in the small boarding house rooms of Greenwich Village. They were a small but vocal group who advocated the overthrow of the wealthy, the industrialists, and the powerful politicians by any means possible. Names like Emma Goldman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Sanger, and John Reed seemed to most Americans to be the ones originating most of America’s radical troubles, but as with many things, the truth was something quite different.

When Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Emma Goldman was extremely vocal in her opposition to violence as a tool of the anarchists. Margaret Sanger attended many anarchists meetings in Greenwich Village, but her purpose was to gain support for her settlement house in the lower east side and in getting aid for single mothers. John Reed was a journalist who was more interested in reporting on the anarchists, though he did agree with their views, the partaking in their political actions. Big Bill Haywood was an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist union whose prime member was the unskilled laborer. But in 1907 Haywood had been tried for murder in Idaho. Haywood was innocent of the charge, a charge that had been trumped up simply because local politicians hated him, and found innocent after his trial. But he could not shake being labeled as a murder and his presence always brought trepidation to any community he visited.

People like Haywood and Sanger took on the cause of the immigrant and were closely associated with the various new immigrant groups. When a strike broke out in Lawrence Massachusetts in 1912, Big Bill visited the city and both city and state leadership felt certain that riots and all sorts of violence were sure to follow. Again, the truth is far different. Haywood spent very little time in Lawrence and focused his energies on raising funds for the strikers in other parts of New England. He actually had no interest in being a part of the strike save the role of fund-raiser. But then dynamite was found at a house in North Lawrence and everyone was certain that the IWW and Big Bill were somehow behind it. A few days later it was discovered that William Wood, a mill owner, had planted the dynamite in an effort to discredit the efforts of the IWW to win the strike.

What in common between the events of the early 20th Century and those of this presidential campaign, is Donald Trump’s use of fear and xenophobia to activate an American public. Fear is common to all human beings and has been used to exploit people throughout the ages. Because we are in the middle of Trump’s plotting it can be hard to gain perspective, but it is perspective that will save us from foolish beliefs and even more foolish moves.

The immigrant is the life blood of America and their introduction into our country makes us stronger. And while it is true that there are elements in those immigrants who would do America harm, we are more than strong enough to survive their worst. Unlike much of the world, our country thrives upon its diversity. Our Constitution guarantees that diversity cannot be used against us.   And the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty bear remembering, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Amen!

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