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What American Values are We Talking About?

“Great numbers of people, strangers to our language and Constitutions. . .” are arriving “without producing any certificates from whence they came or what they were.”  This is not Donald Trump, but the governor of Pennsylvania in 1710, worrying about the “dangerous consequences” of too many Germans coming to the predominantly English colony.  Security was also on the mind of a successor who, in 1725 suggested that it

would be highly necessary to concert proper measures for the peace and security of the province which may be endangered by such numbers of Strangers daily poured in, who being ignorant of our Language and Laws and settling in a body together, make as it were, a distinct people from His Majesties’ subjects.

Far from being “un-American,” Trump and numerous political fellow travelers are, rather perversely, quite “American” in their views, reflecting long held and sometimes very dominant views of new immigrants by those immigrants who preceded them.  While it is convenient to portray them as aberrant outliers, they have, more often than we’d like to admit, represented the mainstream.

Anxiety over Muslim Syrians fleeing massive violence in their homeland has historical resonance.  In 1939 a poll of Americans found that only 10% believed we should be allowing a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany into the United States.  This was after the persecution of Jews was well known.  Anti-Semitism lay at the heart of much of this attitude, but so, too, was the fear that these refugees would include a goodly number of socialists and communists.  In other words:  Security threats.

At a panel presentation of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs this week, Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago argued that security concerns should be at the center of our debate over admitting Syrian and Muslim immigrants, but for very different reasons than Trump proposes.  An expert on security and terrorism, Pape views radical Islamic websites regularly.  American attitudes toward Muslims are primary recruiting tools in the radicalization of young Muslims.  The rhetoric of Trump and others is on those sites and plays directly into their agenda.  Further, the demonization of Muslims undermines a key element of counter-terrorism in the US, which is the important cooperation between law enforcement and members of the Muslim community itself.  Most of the terrorist plots averted by police or the FBI in recent years were, according to Pape, discovered through tips from within the community itself.  Alienate the community and that critical source of information will dry up.

Humanitarian and security concerns ought to drive our policy toward welcoming Syrian refugees and engaging more aggressively and generously in assisting the millions of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and internally displaced in Syria.  Fascist voices demonizing entire populations don’t make us safer; quite the contrary.  They fuel extremism and estrange moderate voices.  And leaving an entire generation of Syrian refugees displaced from homes, education, and employment is abandonment to despair, surely the seedbed of terrorist.  Attending to the unprecedented refugee crisis in and around Syria is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing as well.

But let’s not be naïve about so-called American values.  The response to fear mongering is anything but exceptional.  Trump knows his audience.  Between September and November following the attacks in Paris, support among Americans for welcoming “refugees fleeing war or oppression in their home countries” dropped from 52% to 38%.  Among Republicans alone it plummeted from 39% to 17%.  It may be that reaffirming “American values” is not really the issue.  Perhaps we need to completely reconceive values that have been frightfully xenophobic for three hundred years.

                          John H. Thomas

                          December 10, 2015



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