Plunging Jacboson’s Barbarian Virtues

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.

Tracking the years of new immigration, from 1876 to 1917, Jacobson offers another insightful look at how immigrants were racialized, yet unlike his previous work, this time Jacobson seeks to discover how developments on the frontier zones—the Battle of wounded Knee ending the continental zone and the hegemony of Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines beginning the transnational one—as well as modern military and the administrative state began to map the foreigner as a figure locked in an ideology of global labor and export markets (7). One reason for looking at this period in this way, is not because any of these themes have solidified into a single era, but that “the reformation of American nationalism in this cauldron of immigration and imperialism is worth looking at so closely precisely because neither the processes nor their results are safely fossilized in a bygone epoch” (8), and that it challenged to ponder how “dominant notions of national destiny and of proper Americanism draw upon charged encounters with disparaged peoples whose presence is as reviled in the political sphere as it is inevitable in the economic” (9).

Foreigners in this period were cast as both consumers abroad and producers at home, as “auxiliary consumers in a vast, worldwide export market, and as auxiliary workers in an ever-expanding domestic labor market” (13). As markets, the foreigner would not just be convinced to buy new amenities, but would transformed entirely in the way they live in a transformation “both spiritual and material,” where commerce very often followed the missionary (17). Jacobson provides convincing figures of the mid-1880s for how this occurred: “Standard Oil shipped over 90 percent of its kerosene abroad (70 percent to Europe and another 21 percent to Asia). U.S. exports overall climbed…from $526 million in 1876 to over $1 billion per year by the late 1890s” (20). Due to these staggering figures, it soon became obvious that “the nation’s economic survival itself would require an aggressive conquest of foreign markets” (21).

If markets abroad made for fantastic opportunities of consumerist potential, China was perhaps the most exotic locale of new consumerism that came into the imaginations of the American public sphere. “China occupied a central place in American economic fantasies throughout this period” Jacobson explains, “although it never did become an actual outlet for U.S. goods on the scale suggested by its enormous population” (25). China, as well as much of South America, became reduced to a “series of ‘wants’” and its population of immigrants to the United States became examples of what the Chinese nation might eventually become if properly annexed to the imperial ambitions of the Western frontier (26). All of this would have had great potential, especially following the colonization of the Philippines in 1898, if not for the Boxer Uprising in 1900, where foreign missionaries, railroads and telephone were identified in China as unwanted foreigners and cast out in a wave of antiforeignism (33).

While Chinese markets were exoticized as a mountain of potential wealth and new desires, attitudes of Latin American countries as potential buyers arose from convictions that “Latin Americans were mostly savages” on the one hand, and that “destiny had provided lands south of the border as a mere extension of the North American ‘frontier’” on the other (38). The Monroe Doctrine in 1823 had declared Latin America as a region off-limits to Europe but up for grabs to the United States. Unlike the Chinese problem, however, America faced Latin America mainly with its armed forces and used military coercion to dominate new markets. As savages, “’backwardness’ seemed to cry out for U.S. goods, and they provided justification for whatever action or intervention the United States deemed necessary to exert its will outside its own borders” (49). Such backwardness was convincingly told by the evolutionary hierarchies of Darwin’s Descent of Man, as well as the very value judgments within the notion of ‘civilization’ and the ‘savage,’ which often justified “total extermination on one end of the spectrum to paternalistic assimilation on the other” (50-1). The shoeless barbarians then, must be introduced not only to the concept of shoes, but to the U.S. produced shoes that happen to be over-produced. For Latin America, unfortunately, the stability of these global markets—as well as the reassurance that they got our shoes and not someone else’s or their own—was often “defined on U.S. terms and secured, increasingly, by U.S. military might” (55).

At home, foreigners were seen in the context of markets for labor rather than consumption, which meant ongoing competition to the “powerful strains of nativist thinking” (61). The New Immigration was often seen as oncoming groups of unskilled, illiterate, non-English speaking, leftist, poor, job-seeking migrants, who, after the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 was signed, forbidding the importation of “contract laborers,” often arrived on U.S. soil by drawing on “existing, informal ethnic networks and family ties” (67). The racial typing of these new arrivals—done through both news papers and scholars like Peter Roberts—often came down to “general questions of workforce management—their inherent tractability, for instance—and the specific kinds of labor, the precise task, for which various groups were suited because of their particular ‘racial’ make-up” (70). Such racial “types” like an “inborn docility” made low wages and low ceilings on skilled work seem like natural limitations on the abilities of immigrants, and thus the immigrant, while typed by capital interests, had often “come to symbolize the ugliest features of corporate capitalism amid rapid industrialization—its exploitative wages, its inhuman hours, its physical dangers, its degradations—and, ironically, so did the immigrant become a scapegoat for those very excesses of capital” (73). In other words, rather than being seen as filling in the lowest of jobs, they were seen as the very reasons for lowly jobs, as if they had brought the work with them upon arrival rather than sought it within the United States.

In many cases where capital and labor seemed at odds, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the immigrant question and the labor question were conflated so forcefully that unruly strikers were almost synonymous with “unruly immigrants” (90). In these and events like the Haymarket Riot, “threats posed by immigration were threats to national sovereignty, and therefore the state held the same rights and duties to curb this foreign menace as it did to protect its citizens in times of war” (93). This outlook culminated in the creation of the Immigration Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where immigrants were repressed by “speech codes, unforgiving alien laws, and ever-vigilant government bureaucracies” (95).

On the cultural end of these historical events, was the travelogues of writers like Mark Twain and the exotic fiction led by the Tarzan series, which

now provided myriad fables on the backwardness of distant lands, on the field of opportunity they presented, and on their peculiar inhabitants, whose evolutionary shortfalls and whose lives ostensibly outside of history seemed to recommend either extinction, removal, or reformation under the stewardship of the West. (107)

Theordore Roosevelt’s idea of the world of the savage as “waste spaces” that could be put to better use by the West soon caught on, presenting a timelessness in the barbarians—a static ethnic—presented upon “a hierarchic scale of human development. It is one thing to say that two cultures are vastly different, quite another to say that one is grossly behind the other” (118). By debasing the foreigner in the form of bemused condensation or suggestive ways of inheriting the land, this ideology of progress became an important lead in the imperial project “in the era of rapidly internationalizing markets” (121). The lack of the foreigner could be easily remedied through the participation within new markets.

The ways of seeing the foreigner abroad naturally occurred alongside similar ways of seeing the immigrant at home, one still determined within an ideological regime of progress. As figured through journalist such as Jacob Riis, Jacobson finds that these immigrants were seen not as fellow citizens in need of a helping hand, but were exoticized and became examples of a “lack” just as the foreigners abroad. “Yet,” Jacobson says,

The lingering attention to the denizens’ foreignness rather than to their economic circumstances and their levels of exploitation tacitly suggest a contrat conclusion: these pockets of poverty in the modern industrial city are explained, not by the ravages of capitalism, but by the innate racial character of their inhabitants. (127)

The theories of man as a myriad of separately evolved races promulgated by intellectuals like Darwin and Herbert Spencer eventually solidified three main value-assumptions in American racial thought: first, that “natural growth is from simplicity to complexity,” meaning that the less evolved other was simpler, second, that “human control over nature is the primary criterion for measuring development,” so that scientific progress and technological innovation became the primary indicators of advancement, and third, that “objective science pointed the way to frank assessments of relative human worth,” and since natives had no say in objective science due to a lack of language and instruments, they were in a sense of human history, remnants of a lost time, and wasting the space (145). While this scientific racism was prevalent on all racial formations at this time, Jacobson finds it interesting that “much of the research ensured that the differences within the white race would actually receive more attention” (155). This was perhaps due to the fact that “the case was so thoroughly closed on nonwhite races,” and yet this attention on white difference during an era of mass immigration from Eastern Europe may have had some part in the creation of nativist organizations such as the Immigration Restriction League founded in 1894, which very often “assumed without question that the new immigrant races disproportionately carried undesirable unit characters like feeble-mindedness” and that “even for those whose mental capacities were normal, migration to a more complex society could pose some real challenges” (167).

If the “old stock” of Americans needed to be preserved as the very constitution of the proper American, then new ways of seeing the immigrant as directly antagonistic towards American values—specifically that of democracy—needed to be established. For this, “Machine politics” “burst upon the national consciousness in the 1860s and ‘70s” (182). At first identified through English-speaking immigrants like the Irish, machine politics was a way “of using the ballet box as a weapon of the weak…once they had the right to vote and hold office, the Catholic working class and poor relied on their sheer numbers to wage a campaign to wrest a modicum of political power from their wealthier neighbors” (183). Though naturally the immigrations in office worked in the interests of immigrants on the street, often machine politics became villianized as an anti-democratic practice because it was a vote based on the last name of the politician running. For Jacobson, however,

machines gave a human face to the abstract relationship between citizens and state…bosses did funnel important goods and services to the populations who most needed them before the birth of the modern welfare state; and they ushered unskilled workers into suitable positions in the public sector in the era before public works programs. (189)

By utilizing the vote as a weapon of the poor, machine politics in fact allowed the immigrant to participate in an estranged political system, and was perhaps the very means by which the immigrant could become a republican citizen. For Asian immigrants, however, the Chinese restriction of 1882, the naturalization clause that permitted only “free white men” to become U.S. citizens, the many literacy and other voting bills that sought to limit enfranchisement, and finally the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone by the 1917 immigration act, “was a dramatic sign of just how powerfully and overtly race thinking was shaping the public debate” (201). However,  by this time the labor competition and emergence of new markets abroad seemed to be eclipsed somewhat by the “racial lexicon of ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ citizenship” (218). The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885, Jacobson sees as perhaps the last instance of an economically rather than civically minded immigration law.

For American imperial interests abroad, the search for new markets of course never grew irrelevant, and ideologies of empire were sustained in a regime of American stewardship, which sought that “inferior peoples ought to be brought under American influence, but, emphatically, they ought not to be brought close enough to influence America” (247). Naturally it was “the nation’s racialized minorities—African Americans and immigrants—who tended to articulate the sharpest, most egalitarian, and most democratically animated critiques of empire” (248).


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