Randolph Bourne, Immigrationist

posted in: Immigration | 0
“They say we be looking for illegal immigrants can we check your car / I say you know it’s funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694.” – “Shame on You,” Indigo Girls, 1997
“The early colonists…did not come to be assimilated into an American melting-pot. They did not come to adopt the culture of the American Indian.” – Randolph Bourne, 1916 [249]
“Yes, we become stronger when men and women, young and old, gay and straight, native-born and immigrant fight together to create the kind of country we all know we can become.” – Senator Bernie Sanders, ca 2016
“Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed.” – Randolph Bourne, 1916


Cato Institute

On perhaps on no other issue does Randolph Bourne speak as loudly today as he does on subject of immigration, and this on the strength of a single essay, “Trans-national America.” What is a truism today–“We are all foreign-born or the descendants of foreign-born”–was assuredly not in 1916 when Bourne reminded his Brahmin Atlantic Monthly readers that their English ancestors were once newcomers, strangers in a strange land.

Bourne was addressing himself to an America not yet committed to war, but already embroiled in heated debate over whether she should be. The proliferation of “hyphenated Americans” in recent years had lain a backdrop of suspicion and xenophobia on of which this debate took place. Wielding his pen like a surgeon’s knife, Bourne cut through the illogic of the anti-immigrant stance and exposed its disingenuousness. He asked the nativists to consider “that no more tenacious cultural allegiance to the mother country has been shown by any alien nation than by the ruling-class of Anglo-Saxon descendants in these American States.” [251]

Perhaps more epée than scalpel: touché.

The bulk of the essay, however, is spent on the affirmative side of the debate, acclaiming the benefits of immigrants and immigration on the country. Bourne’s arguments were among the earliest and most cogent expressions of the pro-immigrant position that has only been strengthened over the ensuing decades. He was writing at a time of great change and social upheaval, like our own, but also when the nation was still adolescent and struggling with what it meant to be “American.” In attempting to answer the question, Bourne looked as much to the future as to the past and present. For, “whatever American nationalism turns out to be,” he wrote, “we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed.” [258] Was his choice of the word “color” more than metaphorical? Today’s readers would tend think so. In any case, he was using language strikingly modern. (Think: rainbow pride; Many Hues, One Humanity: diversity as an inherent good.)

Tenement Museum

Above all, Bourne rejected the melting pot metaphor popularized by Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play of the same name. His conception of the American populace was closer to a tapestry, though he never used that word. Immigrants were not “masses of aliens, waiting to be ‘assimilated,’ waiting to be melted down into the indistinguishable dough of Anglo-Saxonism.” Rather, he wrote, “They [we]re…threads of living and potent cultures, blindly striving to weave themselves into a novel international nation, the first the world has seen.” [261] Nationalism of the kind fomented in wartime was worryingly counter-productive, in Bourne’s view. It squandered the “trans-nationalism” which he believed was America’s defining feature and greatest benefit. “America is coming to be not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with other  lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.” [262]

Migration Policy Institute

We have been swept up in a second great wave of immigration for the past three decades. The particulars have changed since the first one (and the other lesser-yet-still-significant waves), but the themes have remained broadly the same. How does a nation of immigrants accommodate new arrivals in ever larger numbers? How does it turn them into Americans when that identity iis constantly changing? A significant segment of our population is backward-looking, fearful of change, and zealously guarding America as it (supposedly) was. These modern nativists don’t look back far enough. Like the Anglo-Saxon stock that Bourne railed against, they have forgotten their own immigrant heritage. Their ancestors, likely came in that first great wave. In their hyphenated Americanism, they were likely suspected of divided loyalties impugned for for impairing the “native” stock.

Fortunately, today we have another sizable, if not as outspoken, pro-immigration faction who descend from the legacy of Randolph Bourne. Like Bourne, these modern immigrationists believe the United Sates becomes stronger when “the immigrant [has] a hand in making…what America shall be.” [249] Like him, they repudiate “sentimentalizing and moralizing” our history, celebrating the supposed triumphs “of only one of our transnationalities.” [264] If we are to build “a future America…not weaker, but infinitely strong,” they say, like Bourne, it must be one “on which we can all unite.” These are lofty aims, and might be considered their own brand of “sentimentalizing.” Ultimately, though, Bourne’s position is clear-eyed and hard-nosed. If we insist on closing the door behind us, he has warned us, we will kill the goose–or carpenter or craftsman–who has made it a golden one.

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

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