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The Scarlet & Black

The New Brumaire: Shining Hegemony

By Jenkin Benson ’17

bensonje17@grinnell.edu

When left-leaning people reflect upon the isolationism of the United States in the years prior to the Holocaust, disbelief and disappointment are common reactions. How could the American government callously refuse to take in Jewish refugees at the onset of a genocidal World War?

These same types must similarly be appalled by our current and past administrations’ cold consideration of Syrian refugees. Of course, the passive cruelty of the USA’s meager acceptance of Syrians seems to be completely in opposition to the supposed value of the American Dream. But, a thorough reexamination of history shows that the American government has long favored the policy of rejecting over welcoming.

America is a nation born from European colonialism, Christian ascendency and slavery. The cosmopolitan civic nationalism, first proclaimed by its founders and parroted by their political descendants, is inarguably a humorless joke. While many are quick to reference the goodwill conveyed in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus” as an example of what it means to be American, I would bet a modest amount of money that no current American policy maker seriously regards poetry.

At its foundation, The United States is a bourgeois republic with a structurally-ingrained hierarchy of whiteness. While the American capitalist class has nearly always characterized the immigrant as a ruinous figure bent on degrading the life of the domestic worker, the decades preceding World War II were an especially heinous period. Immigrants, particularly Jews, were described as communists, anarchists and general derelicts who intended to dismantle the American way through crime and violence. While red scare rhetoric is now passé for most in Congress, the idea of an ominous, racialized other driven by a destructive ideology is not. The elites of the 1930’s had their Jewish communists; the elites of the 2010’s have their Arab Islamists.

Conservatives and liberals alike seek to preserve capitalist structures at all costs. While liberals often propose symbolic concessions of reform and empathy, conservatives are distinctly more apt to adopt hardline beliefs and eschew the outward American values which they typically ground their whole conception of exceptionalism upon. In the early 20th century, the many nationalist factions of the GOP were not diffident with their utter contempt for Jewish refugees, declaring them to be agents of a preposterous globalist conspiracy of communist infiltration. These unhinged, but societally accepted, accusations sound dishearteningly similar to the unfounded drivel of many contemporary ideologues like Rep. Steve King, television personality Alex Jones and our current President.

Unfortunately, this racial witch hunting is not only employed to justify the turning down of immigrants, as it also has a domestic expression. The Water Protectors of Standing Rock have spent numerous months advocating for their lands and fighting against the extractive hegemony of oil. This steadfast protest has perturbed the politicos of Washington D.C. who have recently begun to commission FBI task forces specialized in “domestic terrorism.” Donald Trump’s condemnations of Latinx immigrants as hordes of uncivilized criminals is terrifyingly reminiscent of the nativist rhetoric uttered by the skull-shape obsessed eugenicists who helped formulate social policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The American project has never meaningfully addressed the “huddled masses” of the world. When the system is more or less forced to include the foreign presence, either assimilation or repression are imposed upon those who have been forced to migrate. In 1630, America’s paramount puritan governor John Winthrop described America as a shining “City on a Hill,” a utopian depiction of The United States that has pervaded the rhetoric of many of its Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. America may posture itself as a bastion of liberal democracy, but at its core, it is a white supremacist nation, a shining city contentedly towering over the marginalized. 

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