An array of non-problems

With all the actual problems facing us as a nation right now – our involvement in two stupid wars (that we’re losing), our stalled climb out of a recession, persistent and significant unemployment, a rapidly shrinking middle-class, our dependence upon toxic energy sources – it’s a little surprising that what animates the voting populace is not the problems that actually exist, but the non-problems that don’t.  By non-problems, I mean the puffed-up issues that make people angry, but which aren’t real problems in the sense that they will produce any bad consequences in the near future.   Right now, the pressing non-problems are illegal immigration (which is no different now than it was over the past decade), the national deficit (similarly, no different today in any real way), gay marriage, and mosque building.   And, of course, the perennial non-problem: drugs.

Not so surprising, I suppose.  US History is chock full of non problems, and the various populist firestorms that follow.  Miscegenation has probably been the most significant and long-standing non-problem to grip the citizenry in our history, spanning the centuries.  For those not up on their racism, miscegenation is the problematic mixing of the races in general; though in our history, the angst has centered around the mixing of black and white.  Makes a nice point of reference, too, since miscegenation is so obviously a non-problem today that even the people who cling to their racism like cheerleaders for the 19th century have abandoned it as a rationale.  Or maybe it’s just that the issue has worn out its political relevance.  Or maybe it’s just become too difficult to spell for the sort of people who would still champion the idea.

If Fox News were around in the 19th century, this is the sort of thing they'd be selling.

You’d think opposing slavery would have been a no-brainer for the citizens of a nation established with liberty and equality as its organizing principles, but sometimes its the no-brainers that make up the majority.  Despite its obvious appeal to slaveowners, slavery as a regional institution should have been something of a hard sell, especially since it only enriched a very small segment of the white voting population during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it probably lowered wages and limited jobs for the vast majority of southern whites.   So, how did those who benefited from the system get poor southern whites to vote against their own interests?  Same way we do it today, by puffing up some non-problem; specifically, by getting them all riled up about the imaginary problem of race-mixing and exploiting their fears of the imagined consequences.  Miscegenation was the non-problem cynically dreamed up and sold to the easily-persuadable as the political rationale for preserving our peculiar institution.

Unlike real problems, the genius of the non-problem is that a non-problem can’t ever be solved.  Because it doesn’t really exist.  So it never goes away.  It’s like the imaginary gift that keeps on giving.  Long after the institution of slavery met its well-deserved end, the fears of miscegenation that had been dredged up by those selling slavery to the masses remained.    And since it would be a shame to let good fears go to waste, the industrious people of the time found a way to put those fears to work again.  Thomas Dixon was one of those industrious people, a writer who made a career marketing fears of miscegenation to a welcoming audience.   But it was really D.W. Griffith who made Dixon’s vision of miscegenation a star.

A classic American film, unfortunately.

The film promoted shockingly simplistic views on racial difference, using white actors in blackface to portray black people as some kind of demonic sub-species of human with an uncontrollable hunger for white women.  The truly shocking part is not that the film was so faithful to Thomas Dixon’s racist imagination in portraying black people as something other than people, but that his vision was so tremendous appealing to the large crowds who flocked to see the film at the time of its release, a full fifty years after the end of slavery.  Woodrow Wilson’s defense of the Klan was quoted in the film, and though he might not have actually responded to the screening with the oft-quoted comment –  “it is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” – it’s really not so hard to believe that he would have said something like that.   Things have changed in lots of ways, but given the sort of mass hysteria on display since Obama took office, I’d bet you could still find enough of an audience to support a remake.  Hell, the RNC website already leaked the promotional posters:

What, me racist?

The yellow peril was another non-problem, similar in scope and purpose, though a little later. No surprise about the link, and no surprise that many of the Chinese workers who were recruited and brought to the US in droves (in part because they could be paid low wages for hard work, and in part to deprive newly-freed black people of paying jobs) wanted to stay.  And why did the Chinese so quickly transition from the good minority to the same old threat in the political theater of the period?  It’s the economy, stupid.  Or, it was.  Cheap Chinese labor is a good thing when there are railroads to build, but not so much once they’re done.  And how do you manage to convince the masses who had no actual knowledge of Chinese people as people to mobilize against them?  Unfortunately, it’s a no-brainer.  In fact, it’s the same no-brainer as the last one.

Mmmmmm....White Women!

Poor underclass, racist stereotypes, white women.  Once established, I guess it’s hard to resist tapping into that manufactured anger.  Rather than focusing on the real structural problems in the economy, it was just easier to hold up a racist caricature of the poorest and most vulnerable population among us to distract those struggling with the real problems in the economy.  Make the Chinese immigrants into the national scapegoat, and distract the voting population.   So legislators sprang into action, enacting our first immigration laws – fundamentally unAmerican legislation like the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Scott Act of 1888, all of which singled out Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American citizens for “special” treatment under the law.

And just as with the previous example, the fears dredged up by the invention of those non-problems don’t dissipate with the non-problem, because there never really was a problem to begin with.

The complexities of the US geopolitical involvement in the Pacific during  the 1920s and 1930s probably escaped most US citizens back in 1941, but an attack is an attack, so I understand the reflexive anger that followed the destruction of Pearl Harbor.  But to understand the power behind the imagery used to mobilize the US citizenry in the wake of that attack, you need to look a little further back than the 1920s or the 1930s, and certainly further back than the attack itself.  Otherwise, how to explain this:

So, okay, the Germans wanted our white women, too.  Maybe the populations mobilized by these images didn’t realize they already had their own?

Anyway, here’s to the current US legal system for undoing at least one of the non-problems that has been plaguing the nation for the past few decades – the threat posed to the institution of marriage by gay people wanting some for themselves.   In fact, the recent decision on Prop 8 is worth celebrating not only because it so persuasively put down the notion that gay marriage is a problem, but because it has unmasked the fact that it’s the overreaction to gay marriage that is the real problem.  In the words of Vaughn Walker, “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights.”  Seems like a no-brainer, right?

I guess it helps that gay men aren’t interested in our women.  Watch out, though; if history is any guide, we might just develop a lesbian problem.

Marijuana use is obviously another non-problem, though one that looks likely to be solved by the voters rather than the courts.  I wish that were an indication of their intellectual development, but I’d wager that a significant proportion of those same voters would elect to expel the 10-20 million poor Latin American workers currently propping up our economy. There sure seems to be an unusual amount of support for the proposed repeal of the 14th amendment, and for the equally dumb Tancredo/Dobbs idea of deporting the 10-20 million people who have been quietly working away at the jobs that we wanted them to do for us a few minutes ago.

Just because it’s a dumb idea, though,  doesn’t mean it’s impossible.   It’s worth remembering that we did it once before, and it’s especially worth remembering because we’ve tried so hard to forget it.    Back in the 1930s, when things were tough all over, they were toughest on Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants.  We sent over a million people of Mexican ancestry back to Mexico.  Including US citizens.  Native English speakers, born here.  Because when the problems are unreal, real principles cease to matter.  Of course, things are different now.  We can’t just deport US citizens these days.

If only there were some way to retroactively take away US citizenship…that would solve our non-problem.


3 Responses to “An array of non-problems”

  1. 1 Mr. Nice
    August 8, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    We can’t just deport US citizens these days.

    But we do. Look at what Clinton’s administration did with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

    So legislators sprang into action, enacting our first immigration laws – fundamentally unAmerican legislation like the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Scott Act of 1888, all of which singled out Chinese immigrants and residents for “special” treatment under the law.

    Should add that California marriage law used the term “Mongolian” and later bolstered to include “Malay.” This was to meant exclude all Asian macks from having kids with white girls. That didn’t work out so well for the white boys so they had to repeal their racist law… in 1948.

    • August 9, 2010 at 11:18 am

      It’s sad, but we do seem to keep re-treading the same territory. The use of the specific terms you mention is interesting, especially when you consider how quickly imagined characteristics shift from one target group to the next. There’s more that I know of, and I’m sure even more that I don’t. I didn’t mention the anti-Filipino miscegenation laws enacted in California during the 1930s or the practice of “redlining” w/r to home sales in California that existed right into the 70s, either. Unfortunately, there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to documenting racism. Maybe it’s just because I’m a witness to the behavior on display right now, but it seems like there’s something particularly crazy about the fundamentally unamerican sentiments coming from the people who are so loudly and simultaneously proclaiming themselves the champions of the constitution.

  2. August 9, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Good read. I enjoyed it.

    You hit the nail on the head with your premise.

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