Immigration, citizenship and those “go home” tweets
"The Squad" are getting huge publicity for their eye-catching Left-wing agenda. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images   

Matthew Parris (Freddie Sayers writes) – gifted columnist, near-universally admired, gentle spirited, certifiable non-racist, liberal darling of the Remain establishment – is in hot water. In his weekly diary for The Times yesterday he argued that Donald Trump’s recent volley of tweets against a group of Left-wing Democratic congresswomen from immigrant families was not, after all, racist. Since last night’s Trump rally in which the crowd chanted “send her back!”, the story has become even more troubling.

The Background

There’s a group of Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad” who are getting huge publicity for their eye-catching Left-wing agenda. They are each from different ethnic backgrounds: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Puerto-Rican heritage, born in the Bronx), Ilhan Omar (arrived as a refugee from Somalia aged 10), Rashida Tlaib (Palestinian heritage, born in Detroit) and Ayanna Pressley (African American, born and raised in Ohio). A few days ago, Trump fired off this series of tweets which, even by his standards, seemed to hit a new low:

The condemnation has been so universal that they’ve even passed a resolution in Congress about it, but Matthew is not convinced that it’s racist:

I’m not sure that, in his offensive comments about the four Congresswomen of colour whom Donald Trump has been insulting in his tweets, the president was dabbling in racist politics.

I don’t like his attacks but I think they will strike a chord among millions who should not be called racists. It’s just futile to suppose that arrivals from another country, and their children, immediately and automatically assume an identity as citizens that is indistinguishable from that of the population already there. They have all the same rights, but will be seen, for a generation or two, as neither better nor worse but different.

We do still speak of “second generation immigrants” and the expression has meaning. And, yes, there is such a thing as courtesy to a host country, even if it’s now theirs too. If in earlier centuries the many Irish and Italian (white) immigrants to the US had seemed to attack too fiercely and too early the beliefs and values of the country that had taken them or their parents in,  they would have attracted irritation.

“Why did they come there, then?” is a question that, like it or not, would be asked. I think I’d ask it too: or at least think it.
– THE TIMES

There has been widespread condemnation from, among others, fellow Times columnist Caitlin Moran, writers Musa Okwonga (“for shame”) and Jolyon Rubenstein (“deeply disturbing”).

The Verdict

One of Matthew Parris’s many strengths is that he is not on Twitter; he is nearly seventy, uninterested in social media and floats loftily above the fray (or did until his self-confessed Brexit madness). On this occasion, I’m afraid to say, it seems he floated so high he snapped the moorings.

One of the great strengths of the nation state is that membership is binary. You’re either a citizen or you’re not. It’s sacred. Once you’re in, everyone has the same rights. You can’t be a half-member for a few generations, tiptoeing around being grateful and charming until you have earned the right to say what you think.

Yes, some people might think “why don’t you go home” when they see immigrants they don’t like, and by accounts people even say this out loud depressingly often: that behaviour is generally grouped under the term “racism” and is rightly considered not cool. The example Matthew gives of earlier Irish immigrants in the US isn’t great, because they were the victims of horrendous bigotry until recently (remember “No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish” signs?). Whether this historic abuse was technically racism or not is frankly not that interesting. It stinks just as much.

Trump is supposed to be all about “America First”, protecting his citizens. But when the President starts suggesting some citizens’ “home” is elsewhere just because they are immigrants he is undermining exactly the rights of the people that he’s supposed to be all about defending.

Ironically, it’s a very globalist, unTrumpian world view, in which people are all sloshing about and if they don’t like it somewhere they should simply move. Coming from Trump, it gives energy to the unspoken idea that the only true citizens are the white ones.

The best argument for nation states – something people forget amidst all the current concern about rising nationalism – is that they act as a bulwark against racism, because they provide an alternative way of grouping people that supplants ethnic/religious/language groups. Any distinctions between degrees of membership dangerously undermines this core concept.

Sorry Matthew, you got this one wrong.

Matthew Parris’s Response

I suppose where we would differ is over your assertion that “citizenship” comes in one version and shape, and one only: all or nothing; something that you do not have at all as you wait in the immigration queue, and then acquire completely in an instant, with the stamp of the immigration officer’s rubber, your own version being identical to every other citizen’s.

Certainly that’s an accurate description of the legal definition of citizenship. But when I consider what it is to be a citizen in the cultural and social context, I see something different, more malleable, even fragile, organic: something that, if “acquired” is acquired gradually by (in part) assimilation, and over time. I believe these blurred and soft and often subterranean boundaries are apparent to most ordinary people, who would not see a new arrival as “British” in the way they’d see a third-generation citizen, and who would take less kindly to mockery or attack from the former, than from the latter.

I believe these blurred boundaries are also apparent to recent citizens who – whatever “right” to attack elements of their new country they may (do) possess – would generally exercise these rights with restraint at first.

I don’t find this reasoning very different from the reasoning according to which, ever since I arrived as an outsider in Derbyshire 41 years ago, I’ve taken at first great care, and still latterly a little care, not to throw my weight around in parochial or local matters, or to mock or denigrate, as carelessly as I might feel free to do if I were Derbyshire born and bred.

When I see some of the statements some (not all) of the squad, or quad, or whatever, have made about America and about some other Americans, I do faintly feel the visceral irritation (I’d put it no higher than that) that I expect many American citizens have felt.

A president should not dabble in this – at all. Trump’s crude and nasty language is despicable, of course. This hardly needs even to be said (though I did say it) among civilised people: we reject him. But we should take care not to vilify a wider spread of citizens whose irritation he is trying to exploit – or drive them into his camp.

I particularly dislike the present fashion for creating categories of people – racists, liberals, holocaust-deniers, climate-change-deniers, feminists, misogynists, transphobes … – and then demanding that they be branded, “called out”; or challenging others to call them out or brand them. “Why won’t you say he’s a racist?” “why, if he said something antisemitic, won’t you call him an antisemite?” etc. It reminds me of the religious persecutions and witch-hunts of earlier centuries.

Your assertion that I have lost my footing rather depends on which terrain you think I want to tread. I’ll continue to write, and speak, and act, as though social media were an almost unreal planet, and one I’m not on.