By Kathleen Brewer
Freak Out & Carry One (6/29/17)
This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson speak with Morris Vogel, president of the Tenement Museum, about the Supreme Court’s partial reinstatement of President Trump’s travel ban and the history of xenophobia in the United States, from the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s to Japanese internment during World War II.
Ron Suskind: My thoughts are many. First, I think of the phrase “a nation of immigrants.” I grew up with that. It was a thing of pride. For Cornelia, my wife, it was an Irish émigré during some potato famine or other. For me, it was a little man from Russia with a funny hat who slept on two chairs in the Lower East Side. These are heroes in our families, but suddenly people like that are seen as a threat.
Heather Cox Richardson: I’m not at all surprised that the Supreme Court took up this case. It was a really clever thing to do, in a sense, because what it did is it bought time for tempers for cool. But the real question it seems to me that rises from the Supreme Court, from Donald Trump, from the push-back against it, is the very central question of: Who is welcome in America? It’s the central question of: What is this nation? Is it a nation of immigrants or is it a nation where we pick and choose the people that we want to have participate in our society? And that’s very much on the table right now.
Morris Vogel: The 1924 act, the National Origins Act, was directed at Jews, as well as at Italian Catholics, as well as Polish Catholics. So there’s a religious feature to those laws, but what we’re seeing today — the proposals today — are much more blatantly religious in their construction.
Suskind: Morris, looking back at the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, you got the National Origins Act of 1924 — is there a common thread that links up with today that you can discern?
Vogel: Not entirely, but close enough. It’s the circumstances here that one has to look at. In each of those moments there is something going on on this side of the water that makes Americans anxious, that makes them confused about their future, that makes them lose confidence that they’ve got a place in a world that’s changing — and this is a moment that looks as uncertain as the run-up to the Civil War, that looks as uncertain as the rise of industrialization.
Suskind: Let’s get to present tense. Certainly in the last 15 years presidents have pushed for immigration reform. George W. Bush wanted this to work, and he was a Republican. It didn’t work. Then, you have Barack Obama, who represents in his presentation a citizen of the world who’s elected to our highest office. There was great hope under Obama that he’d lead immigration reform. He fails, too. In some ways, what you see is structural issues of inequality, of so many Americans feeling left behind. They’ve been growing for decades, and it’s creating a push-back. It’s creating fear. Some Americans are asking who is my enemy, who’s here to take my job? They say, I can’t afford, in a way, the large narrative that I was maybe taught in eighth-grade civics. Yeah, that’s fine for then. My life is different.
Richardson: The place where national security and immigration comes together is usually in wartime, and you see this dramatically in World War I and in World War II. In World War I, you’ve got all sorts of laws against German-Americans. This is when Americans really turn quite viciously against German-Americans. At least one is lynched. This is when we rename frankfurters and stop teaching German in schools. For a while you’re not even supposed to listen to German orchestras. And then again you see it in World War II with the internment of the Japanese on the West Coast, in the western segment of America. And what’s interesting is in terms of the Japanese internment, for example, or attacks on the Germans in World War I, those were extraordinarily popular at-large. People were quite happy to intern the Japanese and quite happy to turn on the Germans. That’s not to say there weren’t a few people who disagreed, but those were generally very popular at the time. We’ve sort of, I hope, learned from that, from later decisions that said Japanese interment was unconstitutional, but maybe we haven’t.