What about Nativism?

Is nativism really mean? Is nativism really naïve? Is nativism the beginning of the end?

An editorial last month in the New York Times entitled “The Anti-Arizonans” celebrates different expressions of opposition to legislative action taken in Arizona aimed at restricting illegal immigration. Such celebrations of righteous indignation have become fairly commonplace in much of the media. The Gray Lady is no exception.

Opposition to pro-enforcement measures – whose magnitude is difficult to measure – has surfaced in different states, and can been seen in different sectors: legal, ecclesial, civil, political, and entrepreneurial. The Arizona law, and the attitudes that supposedly underlie it – which representatives from these various groups oppose – are familiarly and predictably characterized as seductively simplistic, as usurpation of federal authority or “vigilantism”, as “shouldering aside civil rights and the Constitution”, as fiscally irresponsible and harmful, as ineffective, as redundant, costly, and anti-competitive for business, as potentially criminalizing acts of charity, as spawning hatred in other states currently “pushing Arizona-style copycat laws”, as a tool to “prompt false-arrest lawsuits and frighten law-abiding immigrants”, and as logistically burdensome.

The editorial’s most interesting criticism, however, in my opinion, is the allegation of nativism: “a peculiar mix of nativism and immigration panic has pushed the immigration debate far out into the desert of extremism.” Call me naïve, but – except when I read such usage with an eye of dismay – the term “nativism” or “nativist” does not strike me as derogatory. To me it evokes a certain “cosmic simplicity” or communal harmony. The Latin term “nativus”, from which our term is derived, has different nuances, all of which interconnect and spontaneously give rise (prior to the political connotations the term “nativist” has acquired in our Western/American day and age), so to speak, to a pleasant, healthy sense of life: “that has arisen by birth”, “original”, “produced by nature”, “local”. It makes me think of the farmer’s market!

Today, “nativism” can mean “the policy or practice of preserving an indigenous culture.” If such is nativism, then what is being criticized is the desire and efforts to preserve American culture. The question we might ask is: why is the preservation and promotion of American culture considered by some to be such a hateful endeavor? Some may argue that there is no American culture – a different topic for a different day. I would simply say that every community, every nation has a culture – albeit with many facets. One may deride that of the United States, alleging superficiality, considering the grass to be much greener on the other side of the fence; regardless: apple pie and barbecue and hand-shakes and the Super Bowl and Thanksgiving and traffic habits and wedding rings and the various faces of American music, to any observer, suggest a culture.

The allegers of nativism — who claim nativism diminishes community — prefer a multi-cultural arrangement. From what I have observed, however, many multiculturalists seem to like the idea of multiculturalism, like to “dabble” in multiculturalism (e.g. when they go shopping or to dinner), but are not necessarily keen on living in a truly multicultural setting, i.e. with neighbors with whom they cannot really communicate. From what I have observed, many multiculturalists only expect multiculturalism of the United States and Western Europe; and non-Western nations, and people therefrom, whom they so gladly want to include in the multicultural experiment (all of whom are indeed welcome), are actually encouraged to be nativist. Why is this? In the end, nativism is natural – regardless of the nation. And the Western version of it is not necessarily mean-spirited. The healthy pride of a true nativist makes him or her want to share and to include in his or her indigenous culture. Such national, native hospitality does not, however, entail forfeiting that culture.

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