Illegals are to Americans (Amurikhuns) as Shellfish is to (Orthodox) Jewish People 1

Great, now I’ll get a bunch of traffic from tea-baggers who think I’m about to intellectually accomodate their Xenophobia. In a way, maybe I am, but not to justify it. You’re all still backwards bigots regardless of how ‘civilized’ you think you are. Note the derogatory North Amurikhun spelling (which is a stereotype in and of itself worth picking apart!).

Now on to the good stuff.

This post is really about understanding how the immigration debate, and more importantly the concept of ‘immigrant’ (the term ‘illegal alien’ will make much more sense to you soon!), functions in the conservative mindset. As the title alludes, I’m going to use a metaphor of Jews and Shellfish in the service of making a structural argument for why Tea Baggers and other assorted conservatives want/need immigrants and immigration policy.

I know, ew structuralism. As a person well versed in post-structuralism (which is not anti- or after- structuralism, but instead dependent on it), I get that nauseated feeling when I hear dichotomies. Especially inside/outside ones (see de Mann’s essay on semiotics and rhetoric for a great discussion of inside outside!). But, I think that we have to come to terms with it in a similar way as Lacan does with psychoanalysis. In Ecrits, he nods to the fact (as put forth explicitly by Foucault) that Freud may have been full of crap, and made up much of this stuff about the ego. Lacan’s response, however, is intriguing: while it may be completely made up, people have accepted it and epistemologically embraced it, therefore making it just as real as anything else in a world of cultural constructs. Similarly, Foucault the in-between structuralist and post-structuralist, admits to this fact for structuralism very implicitly in the order of things: because structuralism’s dichotomies have saturated society they have become real (this is why there is a necessity for a genealogy and archeology of knowledge!). Yes, ew dichotomies, and ew structuralism, but just like psychoanalysis, dichotomies are just as real as anything else in a culturally constructed world.

The dichotomy serves a specific function in the psychodynamics of a society. Charles Frake, an anthropological linguist, has suggested that cognitive systems are the systematic way people organize their world. We fit things into categories; making sense of something means knowing where to put it. This is where the famous linguistic anthropological dictum “Things for words, not words for things” comes from. It is from this position that I’d like to think through first the cultural taboo of pork and lobster for Jews (an almost fetishized example for anthropologists) and the immigration debate.

The idea of taboos, food ones for Jews in particular, represents a breakdown in the cultural categorization of a cognitive system (see Marvin Harris for a great critique of this idea, on Jews and pork). As many structural anthropologists have suggested, my favorite being Mary Douglas, those thing that violate categories make us uneasy. Douglas uses as an example a Japanese cultural category that brings together catfish and earthquakes: why are they related? Because they’re both dangerous, one being part cat and part fish (two things that don’t go together), and the other being a shaking of the unshakable world. Similarly, there is a food taboo for (many, but not all!) Jews against eating lobsters: they have fins and live underwater, but they don’t look like fish- they’re a giant underwater bug! Because it does not fit into one category- fish or insect- it is dangerous. The same is true of pigs- whose feet are part claw and part hoof. ‘Normal’ and ‘Safe’ relies on there being two contrasting categories that can dictate the existence of the Other by its absence in the first. Birds are not reptiles because they don’t have scales, reptiles are not birds because they don’t have wings. Violate this absence by having the presence of both (DINOSAURS!), thereby collapsing the dichotomy, and we’re all in trouble of being eaten by a pterodactyl.

In a similar fashion, Conservatives need immigrants as a contrast to their citizenship; we are ‘white’ (see below for thinking about the African American and Black conservatives), they are brownish, thus we can see who the Americans are and who the Others are. But, when these brown people become citizens, the whole system goes to ‘hell in a handbasket’ as my mom would say. Why? Because, citizenship ‘is’ is not really about legal citizenship, but about race, ethnicity, and selfhood for conservatives. That is why, regardless of national standing, Mexican-Americans will be the ones harassed by this bill made by angry white folks. For the closed-minded, Mexican-Americans defy the cognitive system by their virtue of breaking the cultural category. They are the ‘real’ ‘illegal aliens’ by virtue of their skin-color, penetrating the borders of a category such that the border no longer exists. And it is for this reason that I’d suggest that the anti-immigration legislation is not really aimed at ‘illegals’- we know that they are Mexicans. It is really aimed at Mexican-Americans, who sit, just as the shellfish did, on the border between us and them, white and black (not fish and bug). To the white conservative, they are both us (citizens) and not us (they don’t look like us).  The legislation is meant to continually re-affirm Mexican-Americans’ other-ness by creating and disciplining an embodied ontological reality of the race/citizen juxtaposition for non- Euro- American bodies. We must remind them who they are, or as that racist prick Joe Arpaio would say “put them in their place… south of the United States.” We label Mexican Americans as Other because they are dangerous (to our cultural categories), but they are dangerous only in so far as we label them other.

Similarly, and I’m not sure I would feel comfortable making this argument, it might be claimed that they also violate the clear cut dichotomy between black and white skin that has taken so long to come to ‘peaceful coexistence’ with… As Arjun Appadurai claims, it is only in the violence against a constructed other that communities of others can become an us (maybe that is the reason for the War on Terror/Iraq/Afghanistan?). This would force us to revamp the previous statement to: The legislation is meant to continually re-affirm Mexican-American’s other-ness by creating an ontological reality of the race/nation for non- Afro- and Euro- American bodies.

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One thought on “Illegals are to Americans (Amurikhuns) as Shellfish is to (Orthodox) Jewish People

  • Brandon St.Michael

    Well-put. Personally, I tend to believe that human nature doesn’t easily lend it self to nuance or complexity. Therefore, it is easier to blame a societal other rather than blaming a lack of conscience effort in actions like buying locally or avoiding Walmarts to keep manufacturing jobs here rather than their block of industry in Shanghai, or facing complexities like supporting unreasonable agricultural subsidies while enacting NAFTA, the result being the collapse of self-sustaining agricultural markets in Mexico. A lack of nuance and complexity seems encouraged in our primary education system by bureaucrats who also often lack nuance and complexity. (Need I bring up the Texas Board of Education?) I better understand the (incorrect but popular) mythos of American conservatives after having read “The Nervous Generation: American Thought, 1917-1930” by Roderick Nash.

    Thank you for your intelligent discourse!