It’s a funny word and not one whose definition is easily extricated in the absence of context. Nativism has never gone out of style among certain fringe quarters in America, but every generation or so, it enters into the mainstream in an aggressive manner. We have been in the midst of one of those generational recurrences of nativism since around the early years of the 21st century. Those who who embrace it now are likely not as far removed intellectually much less politically from those who embraced nativism when it was a really big deal back in the 19th century.
Nativism is the term given to a politically-inspired belief that can be rightfully applied to an astonishingly abundant group of lower-class, middle-class and upper-class Americans whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had immigrated to the New World. These nativists got together to go out and harass the latest generation of immigrants to arrive, wherever they may have arrived from: Ireland, Italy, China, Mexico…wherever. Harassment in the name of nativism can range from derogatory names and jokes to much more explicit attempts to make the immigrants outcasts. In its most extreme form, the harassment conducted by the nativists during the 1800s could tend to get much more violent and openly intimidating.
The middle of the 19 th Century saw nativism reach one of its highest points; at least in terms of acceptance and membership. It was around this time that some of the most common ethnic stereotypes began to form. The Irish were a bunch of drunks who looked for a fight around every corner. The Germans were beer-swilling antagonistic and humorless thugs. Those from Scandinavia were just plain ignorant. The Italians were at the forefront of the phalanx of Catholic immigrants arriving here with the express agenda of transforming America into a wing of the Catholic Church.
As a collective whole, all the immigrants from Europe were seen as the flotsam and jetsam of a civilization that was more than happy to see them head overseas. America was going to become the ground dumping ground for the vast unwanted from the continent. Fighting against this obvious fact resulted in the formation of a number of clubs and societies dedicated to containing American purity. The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner was one organization whose members would feel right at home stuck in the middle of a Tea Party rally. To join the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, one need only to prove he was born of Protestant parents and was not married to a Catholic. He also had to pledge that he would vote only for Protestant candidates for public office. The law of omerta was established as strongly within the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and like-minded societies as firmly as it was practiced within the Mafia. If questioned, a member was ordered to remain mute and admit nothing. Eventually, the order of the Star-Spangled Banner and similar anti-immigrant societies sought political power in the form of the Know-Nothing Party, so-named in honor of the members’ unwillingness to admit to any knowledge of the existence of such a movement.
The anti-immigration hysteria of the 1800s resembles that of the 21 st Century especially in the way that it was whipped up as a result of the belief that immigrants were taking jobs away from real Americans. Never mind that then, as now, most immigrants were capable of taking only the lowliest of jobs and even then they were paid less than their white Protestant neighbors would have been paid. As an additional enticement for hating and distrusting these immigrants, they were also believed to be part of the leftist conspiracy overwhelming much of Europe at the time. If you were an immigrant during the late 1800s, you were by definition a bomb-tossing anarchist.
Another similarity between anti-immigration hysteria then and now is the way that the press pumped up the highly questionable facts offered as evidence by the True Believers. The yellow press of the 1800s and the Fox News-inspired press of today have much in common. The media was quick to reinforce all the stereotypes of immigrants created by those who saw them as a threat to the American way of life. Newspaper reports routinely blamed immigrants for the rise in criminal activities in the cities without mentioning that much of that criminal activity was in response to the criminal activity conducted against immigrants by the upstanding American citizens. It’s not just Fox News that perpetrates the fraud that illegal immigration is one of the biggest concerns facing America today ; remember that Lou Dobbs used to pick up his paycheck with a big CNN logo on it.
Turn on any local newscast as well as the Big 3 Networks and all the 24 hour channels and you will see stories that reinforce the idea that illegal immigration is a far greater threat to your well-being than the lack of regulation among Big Business, the lack of price controls in the health care and pharmaceutical industries and the lack of environmental oversight since Pres. Bush effectively dismantled the EPA and Barack Obama did nothing to set things right. On a scale of 1 to 10, illegal immigration ranks probably around a 2 or 3 when it comes to the problems that threaten your way of life, yet it gets far more media attention than the extreme lengths the Bush administration took to allow Big Business to rewrite their industry regulations themselves. Just remember that it wasn’t the illegal immigrants that brought this country to brink of economic devastation; it was the policies of the Bush administration that stripped the financial industry of America of even the most cursory of oversights by an objective entity.
Of course, today the Irish, German, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants’ offspring are well-accepted members of the American melting pot. Turns out that the Catholics weren’t here to turn us over to the Vatican, after all. All the anti-immigrant hysteria of the 1800s passed on as assimilation of white newcomers took place.
Will the same thing happen to the dark-skinned Latinos that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs scream at us are the cause of our 21 st Century downfall?
Bet on it.