Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Xenophobia's Paradox

"Immigration without assimilation is invasion."

This phrase, spoken frequently by presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, has a pleasant, familiar sound. It has the same form as the more famous American slogan "taxation without representation is tyranny"--that is, x - y = z, where x is "something kind of bad," y is "something acceptable" and z is "something really scary bad."

Jindal is privileged to be able to say such things with relative impunity. One might call him an Indian-American except that he does not like such hyphenated descriptions. His assimilation says everyone is just to be described as an American, or, if you will, a Melting-Pot American.

I heard Governor Jindal speak at what looked like a cabin near Iowa City earlier this month. The small setting reflects ominously for him, but fortuitously for political geeks like me, who get access to famous politicians without having to brandish press credentials. I asked Jindal about Christianity, the death penalty and military strength, trying to go all Pope-Francis on him, since he's a Catholic Republican. I was unable to rattle him, though. He was gracious and well-reasoned, and responded to my kind challenge with kind dignity. His answer, at least about military spending, is that the world is safer with a strong American military, because America has proven itself a gracious world player, by not, for example, taking territory from the vanquished. He answer was persuasive enough that I did not write him off as what I take to be a typical Republican pandering to Big Military. So any differences between our views are just religious, since I do not see how what he says about the military is a Christian view. (It sounds to me more like the philosophy of pagan Rome.)

I wish I had asked him about the immigration quote, though. His belief in assimilation falls into what I am calling Xenophobia's Paradox. Zeno's Paradox is a familiar philosophical mind-trip. Like the taxation-representation quote, it has relatively unimportant origins and various forms. In one form, a person is running, say, one mile, and has to by necessity travel one half of that distance before they reach the goal. Yet in order to reach that half, they have to travel half of that distance, and so on. Since we cannot just half-up space forever, the conclusion is that motion is an illusion.

Xenophobia's Paradox is this: If everyone should assimilate, then national identity is an illusion. There is no point at which an original model can be determined. This is evident from the quip found on the cartoon that has a white man pointing out the problem with illegal immigrants, and having a Native American look on. Yet as satisfying as this, one has to also appreciate how it is unsettling this is culturally. After all, what claims does the Native American have to primacy of culture? Jindal (and other politicians to be sure) seems to be talking about conforming to a culture, but we don't know where to begin in identifying an appropriate culture to which to assimilate.

Should immigrants assimilate to English, or to Algonquin, or to Proto-Algonquin? Should they wear business suits, bluejeans, or moccasins, or walk barefoot? Undoubtedly, the crowd to whom Jindal was speaking would stipulate either business suits or bluejeans, but definitely English. For his part, Jindal wore bluejeans and spoke in a southern-state American-English accent. Had he worn a headdress I would have been both appalled and impressed.

I couldn't think of a good, succinct question to ask on this topic, though. Later, it occurred to me what to say: "President Obama recently changed the name of Mount McKinley to Denali. Don't you think that is a great step toward assimilation?!"

--Tadd Ruetenik