Wednesday, April 29, 2009


There is no such thing as the literal: our communications are a grammatical assemblage of symbols, heavy with connotation. The current far-right "analysis" of the swine flu epidemic, linking it to Mexican immigration and Islamism, offers a substantial illustration.

"Illegal aliens are bringing in a deadly new flu strain. Make no mistake about it," says Michael Savage. He believes--"make no mistake about it"--that Islamists seeded the virus in Mexico, with illegal Mexican immigrants making the "perfect mules for bringing the strain into America."

"I've blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the US as a result of uncontrolled immigration, says Michelle Malkin. "What happens if there's a rash of deaths in Mexico... and if you're a family in Mexico and people are dying and Americans are not, why wouldn't you flood this border?" asks Glenn Beck. And then the Islamist Plot once again, this time from Neal Boortz: "What better way to sneak a virus into this country than to give it to Mexicans....then spread a rumor there there are construction jobs here, and there they come."

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her classic work Purity and Danger, argues that dirt--famously defined as "matter out of place"--represents an existential threat to the notion of order. Although she has more recently retracted her idea that kosher food rules are based upon the maintenance of clear categories (so, for example, fish with scales are clearly associated with the water realm and may be eaten; amphibians crossing the land-water boundary may not), the purity of categories in general remains a key component of what is orderly and right.

Taking his cue,
legal scholar Stephen Lee notes*:

[T]he line separating "immigrants" and "dirt" is a flimsy one. As a majoritarian institution, Congress's treatment of immigrants fluctuates from warm acceptance to punishing expulsion; citizens and voters casually accept the linkages between immigrants and dirt and use them as common sense points of reference. All sides of the immigration debate share common ground on at least one point: immigrants take on the "dirty and dangerous jobs" that citizens will not. There is a growing, if dim, awareness that "[i]llegal immigrant workers are America's dirty little secret," and increasingly it seems that the United States is not alone in this sentiment. Paradoxically, despite this strain of divisiveness, "dirty" immigrants also have the effect of unifying the American citizenry. America's self- image clings to a success-story heritage, in which "dirt-poor immigrants" have traditionally overcome difficult odds to forge new lives." Immigrants, like dirt, carry shifting meanings. Today, during this moment of prolonged national crisis [9/11 and its aftermath], the ground has once again shifted; the federal immigration regime has identified the "pollutants" among us as "matter out of place."

It is not difficult to see that the anti-immigration hysteria indicated above is not founded upon rational socioeconomic considerations. It expresses instead an elemental fear of pollution, for which sacred purification rituals are required: regulations, fences, patrols, expulsions. So long as the cultural categories remain unchanged, non-American Others, rather than being perceived as human beings and as equals, will continue to represent defilement, evoking fear and hatred, lovingly stoked by the high priests of American nativism.

Nothing less than a transformation of those categories, it seems--a different order of things--will reduce these terrifying metaphysical forces to mere flesh and blood. Are we seeing the specter of that transformation at the moment?
*"Citizen Standing and Immigration Reform: Commentary and Criticisms." California Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 5 (Oct., 2005), pp. 1479-1508

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