Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 7: The Evil of America First

“America First” brings both political weakness and moral hazard. The last episode was about America’s new weakness in the world. This one is about how “America First” leads Americans to turn against one another.

Kushner’s immigration plan is a version of a discriminatory effort from more than a century ago

It’s a stretch to place the names of Jared Kushner and Henry Cabot Lodge in the same sentence; it’s difficult even to imagine that Lodge, the aristocratic Massachusetts senator who dominated the nation’s immigration debate from the 1890s into the 1920s, would give Kushner the time of day. But Kushner’s new immigration plan, aimed at reducing immigration from specific nations through the virtual elimination of what he and others have disparaged as “chain migration,” and the simultaneous valorization of the highly educated, is simply a version of a blatantly discriminatory effort Lodge initiated more than a century ago.

A man of uncommon refinement and even greater arrogance, Lodge was a Harvard PhD., the erudite author of more than a dozen books and, in many ways, the archetype of the Boston Brahmin of a century ago. His friend Thomas B. Reed, speaker of the House in the closing years of the 19th century, said Lodge arose from “thin soil, highly cultivated.” Lodge himself celebrated his fellow Brahmins for “their intense belief in themselves, their race, and their traditions.” His idea of the west, said another colleague, was Pittsfield, Mass. Look at John Singer Sargent’s remarkable likeness of the young Lodge that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You almost feel you are despoiling him by your very presence.

As well you might have been, if you were Italian, or Greek, or a Russian Jew or from any of the other national groups he had in mind in 1895, when he rose on the Senate floor to introduce the first restrictive immigration bill aimed at Eastern and Southern Europeans. The widening streams of emigres pouring out of the impoverished lands between the Baltic and the Mediterranean had broadened to flood stage, and Lodge determined that the best way to keep them out was to make them submit to a literacy test.

Aware of the scant educational opportunities in most of these countries, he told his fellow senators that his bill “will bear most heavily upon the Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and Asiatics, and very lightly, or not at all, upon English-speaking emigrants.” And, he argued, why should it be otherwise? “The races most affected” by his test, he explained, were those “with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and are alien to the great body of the people of the United States.”

Lodge’s talk was a hit. His closest friend, Theodore Roosevelt — at the time the New York City police commissioner — called it “an A-1 speech,” which pleased Lodge greatly. He was probably even more delighted with the reaction of the “Russian-Nihilistic Club” of Chicago, which burned him in effigy.

Eagerly endorsing the House version of the bill, Lodge’s Massachusetts colleague Rep. Elijah A. Morse declared himself delighted to see that it would exclude “undesirable immigration” from “southern Europe, from Russia, from Italy, and from Greece” — people, he said, who brought to the United States little else than “an alimentary canal and an appetite.”

Lodge’s literacy test bill passed with ease. But on President Grover Cleveland’s very last day in office, he struck it down with a veto, and there were not enough votes in the Senate to override.

Over the next 20 years, Lodge and his colleagues tried again and again, introducing a version of the literacy test into nearly every Congress. Three times it was approved by both chambers; three times it was struck down by veto. Only with anti-European fervor spiking on the brink of World War I, and new theories of “racial eugenics” shaping public debate, was it finally enacted over President Woodrow Wilson’s second veto, in 1917.

But for the anti-immigrationists, the new law was too little too late, and rendered ineffective by a shapely irony: Its two-decade presence on the congressional front burner had encouraged the education of the very people he wished to keep out. The Immigration Restriction League executive committee reported the baleful news that the Italian government was “spending millions on their schools in the last few months in view of the pending bill.” An IRL official wrote, “It is probable that primary schools will be presently established in many parts of Europe,” and consequently the newly enacted literacy test “is likely to diminish in value as a means of restriction as time goes on.”

A few years later, the xenophobes finally got what they wanted when Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which didn’t mess with half-measures: It slashed immigration by means of brutal quotas aimed at precisely those countries Lodge had singled out nearly three decades earlier. Where once more than 220,000 Italians arrived each year, the number was reduced by the new quota to fewer than 6,500. In 1921, the lands comprising most of the former Russian Empire had sent nearly 190,000 emigrants to the United States; the 1924 law accommodated exactly 7,346.

For the next 41 years, this brutally exclusionary act remained in place, shaping the composition of the nation, and dooming thousands — if not millions — to deprivation and death. When it was finally revoked by Congress in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the new law on Liberty Island, in the shadow of the great statue that had been designed to welcome the unwanted. Had he chosen to give a history of what the 1924 act had been intended to do, Johnson might have invoked the words that Cleveland used in his veto message back in 1897: The literacy test,Cleveland had said, was “the pretext for exclusion.”

I don’t think Lodge would have disagreed, nor, if he’s being honest with himself, would Kushner. A plan that sets up “educational standards” as the primary benchmark for immigration isn’t likely to certify too many people fleeing from, say, Honduras or Yemen. Reeling in the numbers of immigrants granted priority to reunite with family members already here will similarly disadvantage much of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Jared Kushner — and Stephen Miller and President Trump — likely know very little about Henry Cabot Lodge. But he would be proud of them.

The Unnamable One (Richard Rohr)

The only people that Jesus seemed to exclude were precisely those who refused to know they were ordinary sinners like everyone else. The only thing he excluded was exclusion itself.

Think about what this means for everything we sense and know about God. After the Incarnation of Jesus, we could more easily imagine a give-and-take God, a relational God, a forgiving God. Revelations of Christ—the union of matter and spirit, human and divine—were already seen and honored in the deities of Native religions, the Atman of Hinduism, the teachings of Buddhism, and the Prophets of Judaism.

Christians had a very good model and messenger in Jesus, but many non-Christians actually came to the “banquet” more easily, as Jesus often says in his parables of the resented and resisted banquet (Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:7-24), where “the wedding hall was filled with guests, both good and bad alike” (Matthew 22:10). What are we to do with such divine irresponsibility and largesse?

Why would a God worthy of the name God not care about all of the children? (Read Wisdom 11:23–12:2 for a humdinger of a Scripture in this regard.) Does God really have favorites among God’s children? What an unhappy family that would create—and indeed, it has created. The inclusion of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian canon ought to have served as a structural and definitive statement about Christianity’s movement toward radical inclusivity. How did we miss that?

Remember what God said to Moses: “I AM Who I AM” (Exodus 3:14). God is clearly not tied to a name, nor does God seem to want us to tie the Divinity to any one name. This is why, in Judaism, God’s statement to Moses became the unspeakable and unnamable God. We must practice profound humility in regard to God, who gives us not a name, but pure presence—no handle that could allow us to think we “know” who God is or have him or her as our private possession.

The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire, or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to power and arrogance. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years. His reputation has been held captive by culture, nationalism, and much of Christianity’s white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview. Up to now, we have not been carrying history too well, because “there stood among us one we did not recognize . . . one who came after me, because he existed before me” (John 1:26, 30). He came with darker skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.

Beginner’s Mind (Richard Rohr)

I’d like to offer some spiritual advice so that you can read Scripture the way that Jesus did and use it for good purposes.

Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. Pray as long as it takes to feel any certitudes loosen.

Once you have attained some degree of openness, try to move to a position of detachment from your own egoic will and its goals and desires—to be correct, to be secure, to stay with the familiar. This might take some time, but without such freedom from your own need for control, you will invariably make a text say what you need and want it to say.

Then you must listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you. If it is God’s voice, it will take away your illusions and your violence so completely and so naturally that you can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy. God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. Grace cannot easily operate under coercion, duress, shame, or guilt.

If your understanding of Scripture leads you to experience any or several of the fruits of the Spirit—

  1. love,
  2. joy,
  3. peace,
  4. patience,
  5. kindness,
  6. goodness,
  7. trustfulness,
  8. gentleness, and
  9. self-control

(Galatians 5:22-23)—I think you can trust that this interpretation is from the Spirit, from the deeper stream of wisdom.

As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like

  1. morose delight,
  2. feelings of superiority,
  3. self-satisfaction,
  4. arrogant dualistic certitude,
  5. desire for revenge,
  6. need for victory, or
  7. a spirit of dismissal or exclusion,

you must trust that this is not Jesus’ hermeneutic at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.

Remember the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3-10). Three temptations to the misuse of power are listed:

  1. economic,
  2. religious, and
  3. political.

Even Jesus must face these subtle disguises before he begins his public ministry. Only when he has found freedom from his own egoic need for power can Jesus teach with true inner authority and speak truth to the oppressive powers of his time.